Blessed Are the Persecutors?
By Nick Cooper
Illustration by Shelby Hohl
Once again, an old white conservative man has been chosen pope. It is not just relevant to Catholics when a world leader opposes women’s rights (not just abortion, but even contraception), opposes gay rights (not just marriage, but even gay adoption), fails to adequately protect children under their charge from molestation, and fails to speak out for the victims of injustice.
While it is important to respect the religious beliefs of others, that shouldn’t keep us from speaking out about injustices. In addition to being religious figures, popes sit at the top of a hierarchical, patriarchal, multinational, political organization that has direct impacts on the lives of the poor all over the world.
The Vatican Collaborates with Fascists?
Pius XII became pope on the eve of WWII. Though he was willing to make strong anti-communist statements and rules for Catholics against participating in communist activities, he avoided similar decrees about rising fascism. He spoke against ‘anti-Semitism,’ in general, and made some efforts to save Jews, but, for the most part, wouldn’t condemn discriminatory laws. Even when Catholics were being killed by Nazis, Pius XII said little.
After WWII, Nazis escaped war crimes trials by migrating to Latin America and elsewhere around the world. Alois Hudal, an openly pro-Nazi German bishop in Rome, with help from Argentinian President Perón and his famous wife Eva, helped Nazis escape to Argentina. The legacy of this Nazi collaboration was devastating for Argentina and the Americas. Twenty years later, a right-wing military coup in Argentina banned political parties, student unions, and most worker unions. 10,000 were killed in one of Latin America’s dirty wars. Argentina also exported their fascism, helping the CIA train Contra death squads in Nicaragua.
In 1978, John Paul II was named pope, and though he remains extremely popular to this day, his extreme anti-communist, pro-dictatorship stances had significant impact on the lives and well-being of Latin Americans. He condemned left-Catholicism, known as liberation theology, even refusing Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and official in the Nicaraguan leftist Sandinista government, the privilege of kissing the papal ring. John Paul II is accused of encouraging the Catholic Church in Nicaragua to help the Contras.
While he was denouncing the leftist Catholics, John Paul II gave his backing to clerics like Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who were known for speaking out against communists while remaining silent on right-wing dictatorships. Though many other Catholic leaders were willing to speak out against Latin America’s dirty wars, in 1980, their most powerful voice, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, was assassinated by right-wing paramilitaries. Bergoglio did not stand up for the leftist priests and Catholics who were tortured and killed by the Argentinian dictatorship. He “withdrew his support” for two priests who were soon after kidnapped and tortured.
Gay People Are the Devil?
As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio led the fight against the legalization of gay marriage in Argentina. His position on gay marriage didn’t surprise anyone but he abandoned all decency, calling gay marriage “a dire anthropological throwback,” and saying, “Let’s not be naïve. We’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
He also warned against gay adoption, “At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God.”
Gay rights groups have pointed out in response that Jesus never said a word against homosexuality.
He Is a Humble Leader
It is hard to reconcile the riches and majesty of the Catholic Church with Jesus’ teachings. The affirmation among Christians of personal wealth accumulation, or fancy churches, seems to be directly contradicted by their savior who said, “Blessed are you poor: for yours is the kingdom of God,” and “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
It was welcome news for the poor Catholics of the world that the pope strives to be humble. He has already chosen to wear considerably less bling than his predecessors. Sister Ceil of the Dominican Sisters in Houston finds hope in this, saying, “From what I understand he has lived a simple life; I hope we see that played out in his papacy.”
A Mass Exodus
Since WWII, more than 10 million Latin Americans have left Catholicism to become Protestants. For them and others, the contradictions in the Vatican are insurmountable: The Church values riches, while Jesus eschewed them. The Church has collaborated with oppressive dictatorships, while Jesus took the side of those who are persecuted.
One explanation is that all institutions become corrupt with time, and the Catholic Church is the ultimate institution. Another possible answer is that in addition to inheriting a legacy of Jesus, the Catholic Church also inherited the legacy of the Roman Empire. Pontius Pilate, who authorized Jesus’ crucifixion, did so to defend the interests of an oppressive government.
There is always hope that a new pope may more closely emulate Jesus, but when collaborating with governments that arrest, torture, and kill civilians, popes more closely resemble Pilate.