Pope Francis and social movements

Rome, under Pope Francis’ watch, never ceases to amaze the world. Coming on the heels of an extraordinary Synod on the family, a “World Meeting of Popular Movements” is being convened this week by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This fascinating gathering aims to tackle the causes of worldwide inequality and social exclusion, to propose concrete solutions to the chronic problems of landlessness, homelessness, and joblessness, and to discuss what is to be done in the long term to create a more just world.

The meeting’s lead organizers are Cardinal Peter Turkson, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, and Juan Grabois. Turkson is the president of the Justice and Peace Pontifical Council, Sorondo is the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences, and Grabois, an Argentinean, is the founder of the Movement of Excluded Workers and is a close friend of Pope Francis. Turkson is a familiar name to Vatican watchers. If Rome had been ready for a black pope, Turkson might have become pope after Benedict XVI’s unprecedented resignation. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2003. Benedict appointed him president of justice and peace in 2009, and a member of the formidable Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010.

The subject of this world meeting, which brings together leaders of marginalized sectors and communities from the “peripheries” of five continents, is right up this 66-year-old Ghanaian cardinal’s alley. Turkson is a vocal critic of neoliberal thinking and of what he calls the “idolatry of the market.” Two years ago, he captured world attention by proposing the establishment of a “global public authority” that would tax and regulate global financial transactions. He and Francis are today restoring to public consciousness the core themes of structural injustice and emancipation that were at the top of the Church’s agenda in the Third World during the revolutionary decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

That period of radical political ferment made Christianity the epicenter of the explosive mixture of faith and politics—precisely where Islam finds itself today.

John Paul II had to grapple with the complex realities of a Church that, instead of just catalyzing the quest for justice, found itself leading social revolutions against imperialism and oppressive regimes throughout the underdeveloped world. While giving his blessings to Poland’s workers in their struggle against Soviet domination, he publicly chided the Nicaraguan priests who had joined the Sandinistas’ war against the Somoza dictatorship and its American sponsors. This seeming contradiction confused many.

It was a problem that very much haunted Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, when he was the young provincial superior of Argentina’s Jesuits (1973-1979). He was accused of complicity in the kidnapping and torture of two of his brother Jesuits who had been organizing in the slums. One of them, Orlando Yorio, accused Bergoglio of abandoning them by refusing to endorse their work with the poor. Refusing to defend himself at the time, Bergoglio instead quietly worked for the two priests’ release by pleading with the dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla. People who had known him said he was critical of the dictatorship but failed to speak out against it when it was important to do so.

The trauma of those years anguished the future pope so much that he felt a need to make penance. In 2000, when he was already archbishop of Buenos Aires, he called on the Argentinean Catholic Church “to put on garments of public penance for the sins committed during the years of the dictatorship.” As head of the Argentinean Catholic Bishops Conference, he issued a “collective apology” for the Church’s failure to protect the people from the atrocities of the military junta during the years of the Dirty War. This distressing experience appears to have radicalized Bergoglio. He became critical of state power, and his relations with the post-dictatorship Argentinean government under the Kirchner presidential couple were strained.

The issue seems to me inescapable: So long as the Church actively bears witness to the oppression and marginalization of the poor, so long will it find itself playing a prophetic role in the public sphere. It is not easy to speak out against any form of social injustice and exclusion without, at some point, feeling compelled to lead the struggle of the oppressed. At the press conference on the eve of the world meeting of popular movements, Juan Grabois declared: “Francis summons us again today…; he calls to the poor, organized in thousands of popular movements, to fight, without arrogance but with courage, without violence but with tenacity, for this dignity that has been taken from us, and for social justice.” This is a political statement that draws heavily from the resources of religious faith.

One wonders how it would square with Benedict XVI’s May 13, 2007, message to the 5th General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean: “The political task is not the immediate competence of the Church. Respect for healthy secularity, including the pluralism of political opinions, is essential in the authentic Christian tradition.”

In careful language, Benedict defines the “fundamental vocation” of the Church in politics to be: “To form consciences, to be the advocate of justice and truth, to educate in individual and political virtues.” He places the onus of the actual day-to-day struggle against injustice on the lay faithful. Does Francis, who has been a pastor in the Third World, have a different view?

* * *