Many of us are aware of the current divisions among Catholics regarding the papacy of Pope Francis. On the one hand there are orthodox Catholics who tend almost to sedevacantism, viewing the Pope as a diabolical influence, dismantling the Church stealthily in the last five years; on the other side, there are faithful followers, trying to parse and defend statements and positions of the Pope that defy parsing, even by experts in Canon Law.
It is important to avoid something like the “Trump Derangement Syndrome” current in politics. All criticisms of the Pope should be based on a clear understanding of “where he is coming from.”
Pope Francis is a Latin-American
One factor in understanding this is geographical – since he is the first Latin-American pope, who lived in times when the theories and movements of “Liberation Theology,” which had some Marxist elements, were rife in Latin America. Pope Francis in his formative years in the Jesuits and various bishoprics in Argentina, like the liberation theologians, found some salvageable nuggets in Marxism. This can help us understand a number of his moves that have caused confusion.
Many have been surprised by the choices he has made: Marxist leftist Dr. Margaret Archer as president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, conferences and workshops featuring pro-abortion and pro-contraceptive speakers like Paul Ehrlich, John Bongaarts, Gretchen Daily, and other members of what the Lepanto Institute calls the “Pope Francis’ Population-Control Lobby”; and not only this but contacts and collaboration with Marxist-leaning proponents of liberation theology such as Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutiérrez – not to mention, hobnobbing with atheist journalist Eugenio Scalfari.
“Is the Pope Catholic” used to be a pleasantry and an argument clincher, but now it has prompted serious questions: What indeed is going on?
The Pope is Catholic But…
I have no doubts that the Pope is indeed Catholic. But the developments mentioned above remind me of Mao Zedong’s campaign in 1956 to “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.” Many China-watchers took this as a sign of ideological change, even democratization. But that was not Mao’s motivation. Mao, a follower of Karl Marx and Friedrick Engels, was thinking of socialist statecraft as a science, and the “hundred flowers” campaign was a “scientific” procedure, sampling the variations in socialist viewpoints.
Unexpectedly, Mao’s Hundred Flowers campaign led to multiple caustic criticisms of communism, the government, and Mao himself. In 1957 Mao dealt it a coup de grace by means of an Anti-Rightist campaign – featuring the riddance and even extermination of dissidents who had “come out.” Mao himself finally justified the Hundred Flowers campaign as his deliberate strategic “enticement of snakes out of their caves.”
An Embrace of Diversity
Pope Francis’ present embrace of sharp diversity of experts and clerics seems somewhat similar – maybe to discover extreme “fundamentalists” standing in the way of a truly “pastoral” church, but maybe also to reintroduce elements of a much-debated ecclesiastical movement, Conciliarism. At Vatican II, progressives, still smarting from the Vatican I declaration of papal prerogatives and infallibility, and interested in a reunion with “Separated Brethren,” supported modernization of the Church with an emphasis on episcopal collegiality – supreme authority being manifested only if and when the Pope is speaking in unison with an Ecumenical council. Pope Paul VI at one point during Vatican II saw where such discussions were drifting, and finally reasserted Papal primacy on a day that progressive bishops and theologians called “black Thursday.”
Recently, my thoughts again went to Mao Zedong when Pope Francis announced that he was seeking a bold “cultural revolution” at ecclesiastical universities and faculties. He urged them to “strike out on new paths and offer the “decisive contribution of leaven, salt, and light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the living Tradition of the Church.” A step towards this “true cultural revolution” would be an admission by the Church of her past “delays and shortcomings.”
In China, Mao Zedong’s famous Cultural Revolution began in 1966, with the intention of creating a massive new torrent of support for Communism from all classes, especially youth who would call out deviations from Marxist ideology, even reporting and vilifying parents, families, and friends. This purging of “impure elements” continued with massive casualties until Mao’s death in 1976.
As I began teaching at Marquette University in the late 60s, amid ongoing student uprisings on our campus and many others, I caught a glimpse of the widespread effects of Maoism. As a specialist in German philosophy, I taught a course on Marxism, and vividly recall the first day of class, when members of a Maoist commune rose in the rear of class to invite all present to join them in the revolutionary changes they contemplated.
Elements of Liberation Theology
We see in Francis’ remodeled Cultural Revolution elements of Liberation Theology. Liberation theology arose in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, as an often well-intentioned attempt to “baptize” Marxism, using Marxist methodologies (purified from atheism) to free the poor from oppression, following the lead of Pope Paul VI’s “call to action” in Octogesima Adveniens, as well as the “preferential option for the poor” described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2448.
Pope Francis recently commented in an interview with the leftist Spanish daily El Pais, “Liberation Theology was a good thing for Latin America,” although it had “deviations” that needed to be corrected. When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he found similarities to Liberation Theology in Christian traditions: “If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist.”
Just as Marx and Engels boasted that they had “borrowed” the scientific method of “dialectic” from the metaphysical/conceptual Hegelian philosophy (purified from religion), and utilized it to analyze materialistic social relations, so also the Liberation theologians claimed that they were “borrowing” effective Marxist methods while eliminating their strictly materialistic, anti-religious factors.
A Christianized “Cultural Revolution”
Can one be surprised that a Pope from Latin America, having experienced some of the worst effects of unleashed economic chaos in his own country, would look to a worldwide Christianized “Cultural Revolution” to implement the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”? In Latin America bishops, priests and theologians accented what they thought to be the economic corollaries of the Gospel, by organizing ecclesial “base communities,” in which the rejuvenation of the Church would come in a bottom-up rather than a top-down way.
Pope Francis seems to be expanding this approach to bring about a groundswell, creating a new vibrant Catholicism. Certainly, he would like to bring about globally the Aggiornamento (“updating” of the Church) envisioned by Pope John XXIII in convening Vatican II.
His “base communities” for accomplishing this might include not just the poor and youth, but environmentalists, ecumenists, social scientists, and globalists of every stripe.
If somehow this strategy results in the reunion of Christians, restoration of healthy family relations, social justice and peace among nations, most would applaud. But we may need the optimism of revised and purified liberation theology to bolster such hopes.