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What Is the Deal With Pope Francis?

I just don’t get this pope. From the full text of his in flight interview today:

Fr. Federico Lombardi: Now we give the floor to Aura Miguel from the Portuguese, whom you know well.

Aura Vistas Miguel, (Radio Renascenca): Well, there’s no group. It’s just me from Portugal. (laughing) Holiness, what did you think when you saw the hammer and sickle with Christ on it? And where did this object end up? What did you think when you saw the hammer and sickle with the Christ on it, given to you by Evo Morales? And where did this object end up?

Pope Francis: Ah, yes, truly. I heard ‘mantello’ (editor’s note: mantle, cloak: ‘mantello’ is similar to ‘martello,’ the Italian for hammer, that’s why the Pope needed the question repeated), and I didn’t understand. It’s curious, I didn’t know this, nor did I know that Fr. Espinal was a sculptor and also a poet. I learned this in these days. I saw it and for me it was a surprise. Secondly, you can qualify it in the genre of “protest art” – for example in Buenos Aires, some years ago, there was an exhibit of a good sculptor, creative, Argentine, who is now dead. It was protest art, and I recall one, it was a crucified Christ on a bomber that was falling down, no? It’s Christianity, but a criticism that, let’s say, Christianity allied with imperialism, which is the bomber. The genre that first I didn’t know, and secondly, I would qualify it as protest art, which in some cases can be offensive, in some cases. Thirdly, in this concrete case, Fr Espinal was killed in 1980. It was a time when liberation theology had many different branches. One of the branches was with Marxist analysis of reality. Fr Espinal belonged to this, this. Yes, I knew because I was in those years rector of the theology faculty and we talked a lot about it, about the different branches and who were the representatives, no? In the same year, the general of the Society (of Jesus), Fr. Arrupe, wrote a letter to the whole Society on the Marxist analysis of reality in theology. Stopping on this point saying, “it’s no good, these are different things, it’s not right, it’s not correct.” And, four years later in 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the first small volume, the first declaration on liberation theology that criticizes this. Then comes the second, which opens to a more Christian perspective. I’m simplifying, no? Let’s do the hermeneutic of that time: Espinal was an enthusiast of this Marxist analysis of the reality, but also of theology using Marxism. From this, he came up with this work. Also the poetry of Espinal was of this kind of protest. But, it was his life, it was his thought. He was a special man, with so much human geniality, who fought in good faith, no? Making a hermeneutic like this, I understand this work. For me it wasn’t an offense, but I had to do this hermeneutic, and I say it to you so that there aren’t any wrong opinions.

Vistas: Did you leave it there?

Pope Francis: No, it’s traveling with me. Maybe you heard that President Morales wished to give me two honors, the most important of Bolivia (editor’s note: the Condor of Andes) and the other of the Order of Fr. Espinal, a new order (editor’s note: the Senate of Bolivia approved it June 30). If I … first, I’ve never accepted honors. I don’t do it. But, he did it with so much good will and with so much pleasure to please me. And, I thought that this comes from the people of Bolivia. So I prayed about it, what I should do. (I thought,) If I bring it to the Vatican it’ll go to the museum and end up there and no one … I thought about leaving it with Our Lady of Copacabana, the Mother of Bolivia, which will go to the sanctuary. The two honors will be in the Shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana, the Madonna, while the Christ is coming with me. Thanks.

That evil, evil symbol, under which millions of Christians and others were murdered — he considers the appropriation of it for a Christian-Marxist synthesis to be creative and not offensive.

I don’t get it. I’ll leave it at that. But I really don’t get it. If John Paul could see this now…

UPDATE: A Jesuit reader writes:

Here’s the key, at least, to the pope’s remarks on the airplane, and probably to much of what he says.

St. Ignatius says in the Spiritual Excercises: “That both the giver and the maker of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.” (#22).

The historical context apparently was Ignatius’ difficullties in Spain directly after his conversion with the Inquisition. He developed an allergy for those who seek out heresy around every corner. More directly in the context of giving the Exercises, it’s an invitation to try and understand the other’s mindset and affirm whatever in it might be good and true, in order to lead the person forward.

Among Jesuits, one occasionally hears somebody say that they’re giving somebody the “plus sign.” That would be a reference to interpreting what somebody says in the best possible light.

What you hear in the Pope’s comments on the airplane is his thinking out loud about how he was able to interpret the hammer-and-sickle crucifix positively: what were the motivations of the person who made it, what was the historical context, at what time in the development of liberation theology did one find it, etc.

Another factor is that the sculpture was done by another Jesuit. Therefore, he’s not going to criticize it. Jesuits NEVER criticize each other in public. It’s one of the worst things you can do.

This way of thinking permeates Francis’ way of dealing with people and issues. Take the sexual morality and marriage stuff. He’s always looking for something positive to say. E.g., “of course we have to accentuate the positive, human, aspects of a long-term gay relationship.”

The idea is that beginning with and accentuating the positive is the best way to help people.

Of course, the problem with this approach is that you never get the heart of the issue at stake. You’re so busy engaging in dialogue and affirming that you never get to point where you say: “hey, what about all the people who were murdered in the name of this symbol?”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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