Thursday, April 4, 2013

After the Hype: Taking Stock of Pope Francis in Light of Argentine Catholic History

Watching reactions to the papal election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, I have been knocked over, even awed, by their far-flung and contradictory range, by their passion, and by the fiercely polemical attitudes that have constellated in discussions about him. Mapping these responses tells much about the crossroads Roman Catholicism straddles today.
The most striking responses attending Francis’ ascent in the United States have been the adulation and plaudits from white liberal Catholics and progressive Latinos, each for different reasons. On the one hand are white liberals, who perceive that Francis—with his reputation for humility, simplicity, and personal poverty, and his specially charismatic connection with poor communities—might be the reformer for whom they’ve been waiting. If he does not change fundamental doctrine, he will probably reform the aspects of the church today that are most obviously disordered and dysfunctional. Those would include a Vatican curia believed—after a series of scandalous “Vati-leaks” from Pope Benedict’s personal assistant to the press—to be addled in corruption and power-gaming. They would also include more insightful and far-reaching responses to the problems of clergy sexual misconduct.
Latinos/as, on the other hand, have been excited by a figure they identify as a “Latino pope” and/or a “Third World pope”—though both signifiers leave much to be desired. The word “Latino” overstates the commonality between the experience of an Argentine prelate such as Cardinal Bergoglio, and the diverse Latin@s populations of the United States. It is striking how little most U.S. Latin@s seem to know about the context and history of a prelate who has excited them so visibly. In discussions among Latin@ Catholic theologians and clerics one sometimes finds an attitude of defensive protectiveness toward Francis—whether for his Franciscan-Jesuit posture, or for his perceived citizenship in “La Patria Grande” (the great fatherland) as imagined by some Latin@s in the United States.
Both groups speak with raves of their first impressions of Francis as a pastoral pontiff: his affable and open humility, the simplicity and poverty of his personal lifestyle, his ordinary private apartment, his penchant for getting about Buenos Aires on public transithis bachelor cooking, and his impatience with people who fuss about his personal attire or comfort. Bergoglio is even perceived to be practicing a 21st-century incarnation of liberation theology’s opción preferencial por los pobres—the preferential option for the poor—because of his famous pastoral outreach to the marginal communities of Buenos Aires. Progressives sense in him the possibility of a charismatic opening in world Catholicism, one that harnesses the particular cultural charisms of Latin American Catholics, and those from other churches in the Global South.
I would exercise caution with all these perspectives, considering the life of the Church in long-historical, decolonial perspective. The designation of this pope as a potential reformer, or as a “Third World” or “Latino” pope, arise from a mesh of misunderstandings about Pope Francis, and about Argentina in a larger stream of Latin American history, that belie Francis’s real location in today’s order of global Roman Catholicism. By “order,” I mean the secular order of historical Roman Catholicism, constituted originally in the Roman legalization and imperialization of fourth-century Christianity. The Roman order evolves into the late medieval Hispanic Christendom that takes root in the Américas as an instrument of the conquest, with Cristóbal Colón and Hernán Cortés—but which is also contested by men like Bartolomé de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos. This originary historical dialectic—between greedy conquerors and prophetic Christian evangelists—evolved into conflicts, throughout the second half of the 20th century, between Latin America’s Church-sanctioned national security states and the theology of liberation. This is one perspective from which to think the larger import of Bergoglio’s accession.
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