Quite a lot of fuss was made because an elderly Argentinean caught a bus last week. It was a symbol of new times, of change, of a new humility in the Catholic church.
So the latest representative of god, Pope Francis, said, “I would like a poor church for the poor”.
It is of course impossible to calculate the wealth of the Catholic church. Its investments and spending are kept secret. The church’s priceless art, land and investments make it one of the wealthiest institutions on the planet.
At the same time the church argues that the “excessive accumulation of wealth by a few” is a mortal sin. These are the contradictions at the heart of all religion.
But it is no wonder people take refuge in belief in supernatural forces in the storm that is class society.
Religious ideas, like all other ideas, are social and historical products. The Roman Catholic Church, like all religions, has produced both support for dictators and those who have struggled against them.
And here lies a real tension in the new pope’s appointment.
Francis is the first Jesuit to be made a pope. Jesuits are the shock troops of the Catholic church founded in 1534 to rebuild Catholicism after the Reformation.
They are orthodox but their commitment to building the church often put them close to the poor.
In the 1970s Jesuits were in the forefront of the movement known as liberation theology, which encouraged the oppressed to seek change.
This was a dangerous idea for the church. The last two popes were at the centre of an ideological war to crush it. The ideological stances of those at the top of the Catholic church were shaped in the battles against liberation theology.
The new pope may have engaged in more earthly ways than some others.
Liberation theology was particularly influential in Latin America. In Argentina, the military seized power in 1976.
Soldiers and pro-military death squads rounded up tens of thousands of real and imagined leftists who were then held in concentration camps. They were tortured, raped, murdered, and “disappeared” forever.
Jorge Bergoglio, as the pope was known until last week, was on a fast track in the church hierarchy. He’d been made the Jesuit Provincial in Argentina, the head of the entire order there, in 1973 when he was 36.
He was in contact with the military authorities about the insubordination of two of his priests and rumours that they had contact with left wing guerrilla groups.
They refused Bergoglio’s order to leave the slum where they were working.
A foreign ministry memo from 1979 suggests Bergoglio had passed on suspicions to the authorities, and connived behind the backs of the priests. He denies it.
Father Orlando Yorio and Father Francisco Jalics were tortured and kept in a concentration camp for nearly six months in 1976.
This matters in more ways than one.
Over a billion people will hope the new pope can put the scandals and schisms of recent years away. It is unlikely. The ongoing child abuse cover ups, for instance, will not simply disappear.
In among the arcane pomp of a new pope there are long term tensions—of faith, bigotry and power. Latin America is an important base of the church as its membership declines in Europe. But crimes of the recent past and what the pope did or didn’t do won’t go away.
In an ongoing court case in Argentina a woman gave evidence on Thursday of last week. She had been tortured and raped.
She looked at the 44 men in the dock and named those she remembered— for instance the one who liked to burn her breasts with cigarettes—pointing her finger as she spoke.
Every one of the 44 was wearing a badge, white and yellow ribbons, the colours of the Vatican.
This was to honour the Cardinal Bergoglio who had been named Pope Francis I the night before.
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