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Vol. 77/No. 12      April 1, 2013

With new pope, church seeks greater
political influence in world
(front page)
The March 13 election of Buenos Aires Cardinal José Mario Bergoglio, 76, as new Pope Francis reflects the Catholic hierarchy’s increasing focus on Latin America and Africa—which together comprise a little over half the world’s followers of the faith—and efforts to gain a greater hearing among toilers of the globe bearing the brunt of the worldwide crisis of capitalism.

The selection is also geared to advance the clergy’s battle—under the false banner of “freedom of religion”—to increase the church’s political clout and influence in the affairs of government wherever it can.

Francis is the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years. Today the largest bulk of Catholics are in Latin America. In Africa their ranks are rapidly growing. Meanwhile, in Europe, with a quarter of the world’s Catholics, adherents are declining.

With the social changes spurred by the massive incorporation of women into the workforce after World War II, observance by Catholics of official church doctrine on sexuality, family and the place of women in society has eroded, particularly in the most developed nations. This trend among others opened the door in recent years to exposure of widespread sex abuse by clergy in Europe and North America that has further diminished clerics’ moral authority.

‘A pope of the poor’

Francis is projected as a “pope of the poor.” He chose his name from Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), a well-known Christian saint who relinquished all his wealth and vowed a monastic life of humility and charity.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio lived in a modest apartment, rode public transportation, cooked his own meals and sponsored all sorts of social programs in the city’s slums.

During the 1999-2002 economic crisis in Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio denounced measures implemented by the government of President Fernando de la Rúa. In response to the country’s massive debt default and under the pressure of the International Monetary Fund, the measures reimbursed holders of Argentine debt on the backs of the country’s working people through currency devaluation and cuts to social expenditures, which led to rising unemployment and ruinous inflation.

“Some of the most serious social ills we suffer in economic and political affairs are a direct reflection of the crudest liberalism,” Bergoglio pointed out in August 2001, criticizing growing inequalities and lack of a “social safety net.”

Bergoglio has also clashed with Argentine’s last two presidents, husband Nestór Kirchner and later wife Cristina Fernández, over economic policies that fueled widening economic disparities. Kirchner and Fernández are Peronists, a “leftist” bourgeois current that has traditionally draped itself in nationalist and anti-imperialist rhetoric and presented itself as a champion of working people.

“Slavery is the order of the day in various forms,” Bergoglio said in September 2011. “In this city, workers are exploited in sweatshops and, if they are immigrants, are deprived of the opportunity to get out.”

Pope Francis is also the first pope from the Jesuit order. Jesuits take a vow of poverty and traditionally shun the spotlight, focusing on education and social services.

The selection of the pope also demonstrates the hierarchy’s intention to vigorously fight any challenge to Catholic orthodoxy in the form of liberation theology, of which Bergoglio has always been an ardent opponent. Liberation theology took shape in the late 1960s under the impact of revolutionary struggles of the toilers in Latin America and receded as these struggles subsided over ensuing decades. In its support for struggles against exploitation and oppression, it introduces a secular view that the future can be shaped by the actions of human beings. A major component of its adherents were to be found among members of the Jesuit order.

In counterposition to self-acting, self-confident struggles by workers and farmers, orthodox Catholic doctrine offers charity, the mainstay of its support among toiling classes over hundreds of years. The Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest charitable organizations. The role of charity as a buffer against the grinding impact of capitalism on working people will become more, not less important as a buttress of capitalist rule as the world crisis deepens.

Many opponents of Francis among the current government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and middle-class radicals across Latin America have stressed his rejection of liberation theology and acquiescence to the bloody dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976-83.

At the same time, these bourgeois critics have nothing to offer in face of mounting social and economic problems of working people—something Pope Francis can be expected to continue hammering away at.

Fighting for church’s interests

The choice of Bergoglio is also significant from the point of view of the church hierarchy’s struggle against liberal, social policies promoted by the current government of Argentina and those of other countries, particularly in Europe and North America, under the impact of changing attitudes among working people. In 2010, for example, Bergoglio sharply denounced legislation to legalize marriage and adoption by same-sex couples as “a war against God.”

This stance lines up with similar political battles recently waged in other countries by the Catholic Church in attempts to impose its views—through the state—on the place of women in society and other social issues of concern to the unity and self-confidence of working people, such as access to contraception and women’s right to abortion.

In the U.S., for example, sections of the Catholic Church have sued the Barack Obama administration over its decision last year that Church-owned businesses cannot exclude contraception from workers’ health insurance.

“The lawsuit is about an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America’s most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one’s religion without government interference,” said Bishop Thomas Paprocki from Springfield, Ill., at the time.

At issue is whether bosses, based on their religious convictions, have the right to deny workers civil rights and medical needs.

Pope Francis comes on the scene in the context of a sharpening political struggle between so-called freedom of religion—freedom to impose church doctrine in public life—and freedom of worship, the right of individuals to worship as they choose, free from government interference. The latter is crucial to carving out the political space workers need to organize and forge unity across all religions against our common exploiters.  
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