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A New World Pope

(Some National and Social Context)

Timothy J. Cullen POSTED: 3/19/13

Editor's Note: Many thanks to Remnant columnist Timothy J. Cullen, for this first of several reports on Pope Francis--the man and the country from which he comes. We here at The Remnant are determined to enter into this new pontificate with prudence, prayer and hopeful expectations. 

We've seen the many reports about Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio's penchant for off-putting ecumenical jamborees,  as well as a reportedly less than enthusiastic attitude towards the Traditional Latin Mass. Those reports are not encouraging.  We get it!   We also believe in the grace of office and the power of the Holy Ghost, and feel obligated before God not to become a conduit of discouragement and despair for the many millions of Catholics who still believe, rightfully so, that the best chance our world has of coming out of this nightmare of apostasy rests on a strong successor of St. Peter and the restoration of the Catholic Church.  We encourage our readers to continue to pray for Francis rather than setting ourselves up as the crafty whistle-blowers who have it all figured out.

I was at the last conclave in 2005, and I remember the same whistles shrilly announcing to the blogosphere how that rank "modernist and evil doer" Joseph Ratzinger would surely run the Church into the ground in a matter of months. They mocked The Remnant for taking a wait-and-see attitude which they lambasted as naive and myopic.  

And then what happened?  Over the next few years the old Mass was liberated, "pro multis" was corrected, the excommunications of the SSPX bishops were lifted, the "closed case" of Fatima was reopened, and Communion in the hand became a practice clearly at odds with the wishes of the Holy Father.  But because our critics could not envision anything good coming from a onetime peritus at Vatican II with a modernist record a mile wide, they chastised those of us who in 2005 said simply: "Let's wait and see."

If Pope Francis's resume leaves us concerned today let us recall that the resume of Cardinal Ratzinger--the tie-wearing modernist friend of Rahner and Kung-- was no less troubling.  But the ways of Holy Ghost are mysterious indeed. And regardless of what we think of Cardinal Bergoglio's track record, a smug attitude on our part for having found dirt on the face of our father is abhorrent to the Catholic heart and is precisely the sort of thing the enemies of Tradition point to when seeking to discredit the Traditionalist position. 

If Pope Francis seems to us to be disoriented; if it seems to us that he may not be a friend of Tradition or the strong shepherd the Church needs so desperately right not--then our Catholic hearts should be breaking at this, and we should fall to our knees and weep through our prayers for him and for our children.  Vindictive shouting from the housetops that our father is bad, bad, bad does not seem to be the attitude of loyal sons and daughters of the Church.

Traditional Catholics must have the good grace to wait for our new Holy Father to demonstrate where he is going and what shape his pontificate will take, while resolving to pray for him and encourage our children to do the same in the meantime.

For its part, The Remnant will present articles such as the following which seek to present an unbiased appraisal of the man, the country from which he comes, and the actions and words of Pope Francis as they unfold from this point forward. MJM

ARGENTINA--The whole world now knows that the Catholic Church has its first ever pope from the New World, H.H. Francis I of Argentina. The world also knows the essential biographical details of the new Holy Father, likely knows that he is allegedly no friend of Tradition, but that notwithstanding, it is almost certainly in the best interests of the Church that a pope has been elected who is known to place significant emphasis on social justice issues.

A pope from what is called the “developing” world cannot help but recognize the importance of social justice issues, and Francis I is known throughout Latin America as an advocate for the poor. South America, birthplace of “Liberation Theology,” is a hotbed of populist governments—Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina and to a lesser extent Brazil— that are decidedly socialist in character if not entirely in practice. The Church condemned Liberation Theology, but in South America it has far from disappeared, as a 2007 New York Times article made clear: “Today some 80,000 ‘base communities,’ as the grass-roots building blocks of liberation theology are called, operate in Brazil, the world’s most populous Roman Catholic nation, and nearly one million ‘Bible circles’ meet regularly to read and discuss scripture from the viewpoint of the theology of liberation.”[1]

This writer has lived in South America for nine years now, and began spending “non-tourism” time on the continent more than twenty years ago. Persons unfamiliar with South America—regardless of how many films they have seen that are set in it—cannot easily grasp the social conditions in even the more prosperous nations, let alone in those marked by a very high degree of social inequality. The Church—Her hierarchy in particular—has long been perceived by the poor as allied with the wealthy and powerful families that have dominated the region for centuries but have now lost political power to the “resuscitated” revolutionaries of the Sixties and Seventies who to a certain extent have put the promises of Liberation Theology into practice. Traditional Catholicism in particular is often viewed as “elitist” and out of touch with the masses if not with the Mass. The SSPX, largest of the Traditional Catholic priestly fraternities, has no presence in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the three South American nations with the most left-leaning governments, and precious little presence outside of the major cities of the others. In my own rural village, to go no further, outside of one family, there is no interest in the old Mass and nearly no one has heard of the SSPX or has any interest in it, dismissing it as either “the rich people’s Church,” or worse, “the oppressors’ Church”. A goodly number of the villagers reject the Church entirely for this same reason, although they claim nearly to a man to be Catholics.

Among those who practice the Faith and could be considered devout is family friend, a young woman of 24 who teaches the catechism class to the even younger, among whom are children whose parents do not go to Mass save for Easter and Christmas. It is to me telling that when this young woman says grace before meals, the prayer she recites ends as follows (in translation): “Give bread to those who are hungry, hunger and thirst for justice for the poor, amen.” That is the prayer her students will learn if they don’t already know it, and it is to the best of my knowledge the most common form of saying grace throughout the country, particularly among the poor and those of non-exclusively-European origin, a near-majority in all of South America.

South America is the continent with the largest concentration of Catholics in the world per capita and Brazil the country with the world’s largest Catholic population. Brazil has also emerged as an economic powerhouse, but its fertility rate has declined: the world’s highest fertility rates are found in Africa. Nevertheless, the importance of Brazil and South America to the Church’s future cannot be overestimated. A South American pope could become an evangelical rallying point with respect to the multitude of lapsed Catholics and recent converts to the variety of charismatic Protestant populist sects that abound. If, however, it is perceived that the new pope is not showing solidarity with the poor, teeming masses of South America’s mega-metropolises, then the Church in South America could be threatened not merely with indifference. It will not prove easy navigating the Barque of Peter with the siren song of Liberation Theology still being sung in the shantytowns of South America’s—and much of the rest of the world’s—cities, but further course changes to port (as in leftward) are probable.

Democracy, as one learns with time, has its dangers and its drawbacks, not the least of which is its degeneration into ochlocracy: the oppression of the minority, however populous, by a majority, or, in its crudest form, “mob rule.” The new pope will be confronted by civil societies that are headed by persons unlike the national leaders of the past, whose notion of the value of tradition, if any, is of traditions that existed before the arrival of Catholicism on their respective continents. The millennial eurocentrism of the papacy and even of geopolitics may be drawing to a close; even Europe itself has become an increasingly hostile host, and the conditions of the 1930s could begin to arise anew.

Liberation Theology may also come forth from the shadows once again. The movement could be said to have begun in South America with the 1971 publication of the Jesuit Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation. In fact, all the principal theorists of the movement have been almost entirely Latin American, understandable given the social conditions of that continent as compared with those of Europe and North America.

H.H. Francis could be said to be following the Vatican “party line” as drawn in 1983 by then-cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, in which strong criticism and in some cases condemnation are blunted by praise for the movement’s condemnation of colonialism, its ideal of justice and the emphasis placed on “the responsibility which Christians necessarily bear for the poor and oppressed,”[2] a responsibility this pope will have to emphasize if further “democratization” of the Church is to be avoided; an ochlocracy would favor the Church even less than civil societies, something of which Francis I is almost certainly well aware, given his pastoral, ecclesiastical and national background.

The new pope is known to be unsympathetic to neoliberal economics, which should not be equated with sympathy for the sort of “populist” economics now being experimented with by various South American nations, notably his own, in which the results have been mixed, to say the least. To the best of this writer’s knowledge, Francis has not put forth any sort of statement defining his own economic ideas, but it is difficult to imagine that he will not do so within the near future.

There is no question that the Church has been and continues to be seen by many Latin American populists—who now make up the political majority in a large part of the continent and the developing world as a whole—as a supporter of the conservative authoritarian governments of the past—already there are those who claim the new Holy Father was a supporter of Argentina’s reviled military dictatorship of 1976-1983) and of the present “status quo” in terms of the established order in the Church and in the world. The Second Vatican Council is seen by some to have been the Church’s attempt to “open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air,” as Pope John XXIII picturesquely put it.[3] What blew in along with the “fresh air” is seen by Traditional Catholics as in many ways an ill wind that blew nobody good, but it must be acknowledged that the prevailing sentiment in the Church is otherwise; the election Francis I reflects this.

Will Francis put the lie to Catalan/Spanish singer Joan Manuel Serrat’s 1986 populist anthem (lyrics by the late Uruguyan communist poet Mario Benedetti) El Sur También Existe, a song many Latin Americans know by heart?

“Here down under, under/ever-ready hunger/gathers the bitter fruit/of what’s decided by others/while time passes/and the parades pass/and other things are done/that the north does not forbid/With its tough and hardboiled hope/the south exists as well,”[4] goes one verse which can serve as a synecdoche.

Here down under (not Australia!) in 2013 in tiny rural villages and in the vast megalopolises there is rejoicing that a pope has been chosen who is of the New World, but more specifically their world, a world many of them perceive as being seen by their northern neighbors as producing public figures like soccer stars, glamour girls and bearded revolutionaries, not a world from which the Vicar of Christ could ever be chosen. They hope for a pope who will fulfill the promise of the final verse of Serrat’s embittered anthem: “That the whole world know/The South Exists as Well.”


[2] Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (2007). "Liberation Theology: Preliminary Notes", in The Ratzinger Report,  Reprinted in: J.F. Thornton and S.B. Varenne, eds., The Essential Pope Benedict XVI. Online version: Harper Collins, 2007.

[3] Sullivan, Maureen, 101 Questions and Answers on Vatican II, Paulist Press, NY, 2002, p. 17.

[4] My translation of the original Spanish: “pero aquí abajo, abajo/ el hambre disponible/ recurre al fruto amargo/ de lo que otros deciden/ mientras el tiempo pasa/ y pasan los desfiles/ y se hacen otras cosas/ que el norte no prohíbe/ con su esperanza dura/ el sur también existe”.

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