Pope Francis As Unifier
Soon after Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, I wrote several pieces exploring the idea that the new pope might be striving to effectively transcend the liberal/conservative civil warthat’s dominated Catholic life in the West since the Second Vatican Council, and find a new synthesis or center for the church somewhere beyond that post-1960s conflict. I have not written as much on that theme in the last year, mostly because of what’s been happening with the debate around divorce and communion: There the pope’s choices have at least temporarily added fuel to Catholicism’s internal conflict, rather than cooling it, in ways that threaten to overshadow other elements of his agenda, other possibilities for his time as Peter.
But even with that polarizing debate percolating in the background, the last few weeks have offered a pair of case studies of what I had in mind when I envisioned this pope as a unifying figure (to the extent that’s possible) for the post-John Paul/Benedict church.
The first is the recent beatification of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop gunned down on the altar in 1980 by right-wing paramilitaries. Romero has long been an icon of the Catholic left, to whom he’s seen as the embodiment of a prophetic approach to Latin American politics that many felt was betrayed by Rome’s opposition to liberation theology, and there’s been a fair amount of superficial coverage suggesting that this beatification is simply a case of a liberal pope reversing his conservative predecessors, etc. But as The Economist’s pseudonymous columnist Erasmus points out, the reality is less polarized, and more interesting:
… First, Romero was not the only slain cleric who was proclaimed a martyr yesterday. A similar status was accorded to three priests (two Poles and an Italian) who were killed in Peru in 1991 by the ultra-leftist guerrillas known as Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path. This was a time when huge courage was needed to work as a priest in the highland areas where the guerrillas were running amok, pressing local villagers into their service and assassinating anybody, including members of rival Marxist factions, who stood in their way. You could say there was a certain symmetry about yesterday’s announcements: Romero died while protecting people who were at risk mainly (but not only) from right-wing forces; the victims in Peru were trying to shield people from murderous leftists.
Second, Romero wasn’t a liberation theologian of the Marxist kind.
Like many Latin American clerics of his generation, he was much influenced by a bishops’ conference in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 that pledged to give priority to the poor. But as Austen Ivereigh shows in hisbiography of Pope Francis, some clergy (like Jorge Bergoglio, the future pontiff) took the message of Medellín in a spirit that was suspicious of the colonial “north” and in a good sense populist but eschewed class war; others veered towards dogmatic Marxism. Romero certainly wasn’t in the latter camp. He criticised left-wing guerrillas as well as right-wing ones.
Moreover, Romero took spiritual direction from Father Josemaría Escrivá, the Spanish founder of Opus Dei, a deeply conservative order of priests and lay-people. After his mentor’s death in 1975, Romero was among those who argued for his elevation to sainthood. Nor is it true to say that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were hostile to Romero’s cause; both spoke warmly of him and the Polish pope prayed twice at his grave. There was indeed opposition, but it came more from conservative Latin American prelates who feared that honouring Romero would be too big a gift to the political left.
One shorthand way of describing things is this: Romero was a figure beloved of the Catholic left who didn’t always get the admiration (or even the fair hearing) he deserved among some conservative Catholics because of Reagan-era alliances, political and cultural polarization, and the church’s general state of civil war. And so his beatification allows Rome to heal certain Cold War wounds, to honor the best in what 1980s-era “social justice” Catholicism represented, and to invite skeptics of that strand within the church to set aside some of their biases and preconceptions — read Father Dwight Longenecker, a theological conservative priest-blogger, on his own reassessment of Romero — all without endorsing the specific ideological-theological currents that John Paul II specifically condemned.
This is a bit reductive, because I’m bracketing the interesting debate around definitions of martyrdom, where skeptics of Romero’s swift beatification had a theological rather than political argument. But I think it’s fair to look at the progress of the slain archbishop’s cause — which was originally unblocked, not by Francis, but by Benedict — as a case study in how Catholicism often unpolarizes itself after an era of division … by including and sifting, you might say, recognizing sanctity in once-controversial figures without blessing every idea that those figures’ various admirers and partisans have embraced.
Then the second case study comes from the sex abuse commission appointed by Francis, which has just raised the key outstanding issue in the church’s reckoning with sexual misconduct — the need to have a mechanism of accountability for bishops who ignore or cover up allegations against priests. The failure to establish such a mechanism was the signal omission in Benedict’s otherwise laudable efforts in this area, and when Francis was elected I opined that the shadow of scandal and media suspicion couldn’t be lifted from the church without one. Subsequent events have suggested that I wasn’t completely correct, since the press, enthused and fascinated on other fronts, hasn’t exactly held the pope’s feet to the fire on this issue … but I think the basic point is still sound, and that the issue has the potential to return and return and return without some formal process for dealing with the episcopal disasters thatcontinue to surface.
Francis has established some potential precedents in this area, removing a Paraguayan bishop for protecting an accused abuser and ordering an investigation of Kansas City’s bishop for his handling of a pedophile priest. But those remain ad hoc exercises, and since both bishops are on the traditional end of the Catholic spectrum those cases have been read by some as cases of theological score-settling rather than just disinterested discipline. I think/hope that reading is mistaken, but either way it highlights the need for a more formal and transparent process. And since sex abuse has been an issue that’s cut across every theological divide within the church, such a reform has the potential to unify and satisfy Catholics of differing views … while at the same (hopefully) turning the page, at last, on one of the defining crises of the post-conciliar church.
When I embarked on my run of alarmist pieces and conversationsabout Catholicism last fall, I made a point of stressing that nothingyet had happened that would prevent Francis from continuing to unify Catholics of differing views “in admiration for his ministry,” or from ultimately bequeathing a less polarized church to his successor. My alarm has not abated since (though I’ve deliberately taken some time off from expressing it), but that more optimistic analysis stands, and I think both Blessed Oscar Romero and the possibility of stronger episcopal accountability around sex abuse offer two examples (among many, including on issues of greater immediate controversy) of how that kind of unifying legacy might be forged. As for whether it will be, the next year will tell us a great deal.