Console Tleane
Console Tleane

Pope of the poor?

Many have welcomed the election of a non-European cardinal as a Roman Catholic pope. Prior to the election of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, there seemed to be general consensus that a pope from either Latin America or Africa would be a welcome break with the dominance of Europeans over the leadership of the Catholic community.

Using the pre-conclave debates around the preferred region from which the pope should come from and his nationality, or should we say race, let us examine how issues of race and region have come to influence and interface with both national politics and international relations.

For starters, the election of a non-European seemed to be a logical thing to do for the conclave. It is a known fact that the whole of Europe has seen a major slump in religiosity. Church attendance and belief in the super-natural has taken a dive and has been replaced by liberalism, or what others term a godless humanism.

Some may view the situation there as representing the classical tension between modernity and tradition, with the church unable to adapt to modernism and therefore unable to reconcile itself with the advances made by humanity in the areas of science and consciousness.

With their strong base in numerical terms and continued adherence to traditional value systems, the Latin American and African churches remain the hope for the Catholic Church.

On the other hand the push for a Latin American or African pope exposes the pitfalls of an essentialist approach to change, equating the necessary changes that must happen within and about the Catholic Church as requiring change in the region of origin or even the race of a leader. These have been advanced in simplistic, if not shallow, terms.

While no one can argue against the strong symbolism of changing the leadership of an organisation to replace a block, in this case white and European, that used to dominate and dictate terms to the other, it is equally important to ensure that whoever emerges as a replacement of the former ruling block does so with a new ideological and political make-up different from that of the former ruling group.

Failure to effect fundamental, and not just symbolic, changes has the danger of in fact entrenching old ruling patterns by giving legitimacy to and retaining the status quo, having clothed it only in acceptable garments, in this case regionalism and race.

By simply choosing a Latin American or African pope would not and will not mean that the Catholic Church will take a quantum leap and start addressing the fundamental problems that many on the two continents may have felt as alienating points from the way the church is governed and has failed to respond to their material conditions of poverty, dictatorships and wars.

To illustrate this point let us take a few examples in the world of politics. Very few people can dispute the fact that the election of Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s former prime minister did not lead to marked improvements in the lives and status of women in Britain. Instead, many working-class women had the gains of their century-long struggles being reversed by Thatcher’s austerity programmes and her spirited offence in advancing and entrenching capitalism with her now infamous slogan “There is no alternative (to capitalism)”.

Similarly, the successive leadership of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan as general secretaries of the United Nations did not lead to the improvement of the conditions of live of African people, nor the alteration of the power structures of the UN, which continue to exclude Africa from influential positions. Instead Africa’s plight got worse under the burden of policies advanced by the UN affiliate body, the World Bank.

As many critical scholars and activists have noted, apart from its symbolic meaning, Barack Obama’s current reign as US president has not led to fundamental and positive changes to the condition of life for African-Americans. Nor has it brought any distinct benefits to black people in general; the world over.

Does it therefore mean that race and region are not important in the world of politics?

While important, it is critical that the essentialism of race and region are countered and corrected by an insertion of a correct ideological examination of changes in leadership. We therefore need to ask ourselves what the change of leadership of the Catholic Church should mean, or be like. What outlook should be adopted by Pope Francis that will assure some of us that the change is not just symbolic, but that it will indeed lead to meaningful changes?

Already, Pope Francis has been modelled as the “pope of the poor”, hence even his choice of name after Francis of Assisi, a monk who dedicated his life to helping the poor. Yet, the real test will not just be in being seen to be helping the poor, but in posing uncomfortable questions to the ruling classes across continents about the source of poverty and hunger when all figures show that the world has enough food to feed everyone and yet there are many who go bed with empty stomachs. While others throw away excess food daily.

The pope will have to reflect on the words of his late fellow Latin American, the Archbishop Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara of Brazil, who once commented: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Yes, the Catholic Church gave the world the late Mother Theresa, who is still venerated. But did she pose the difficult questions on why they are poor?

If he was indeed to position himself as the “pope of the poor” Francis would do well to revisit the teachings of some of his fellow Latin American priests, who were unfortunately suppressed by the church during the 1980s. These are the liberation theologians, some of whom were themselves Jesuit priests like him, who did not just work with the poor, but also asked uncomfortable questions against repressive regimes and supported working-class struggles.

Names like Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru, Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino and Óscar Romero, both from of El Salvador, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay come to mind when one thinks of Catholic priests who stood firmly against capitalist oppression and exploitation of the poor.

With so much poverty in Africa caused by the looting of its resources by imperialist forces and their local agents, the looting of oil resources in the Middle East and perpetuation of wars there, the destruction and looting of the rain forests in Latin America, the exploitation of working people in North America, the exploitation of workers in Asia and the rampant looting of national treasuries by banks in Europe; will Francis turn like Romero from his initial conservative views?

Commenting on the assassination of his close friend and progressive Jesuit friend in 1977, Rutilio Grande, who had created self-reliance groups among the poor in El Salvador, Romero is quoted as having said the following: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought: ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'”

It should be the choices that a leader makes and how he chooses to define his reign, whether as a real champion for the poor who will ask and advance difficult questions, not simply his race or nationality that will define whether such a leader is a force of real change.

Will Francis have his Romero moment?

Tags: ,

  • SA conclave to elect leaders
  • Give Francis a chance
    • Hobo Harry

      I am not Catholic nor Christian nor religious. I admire many Catholic clergy including the new Pope. I think he is a good man.

      This article in my opinion is a lot of waffle though. Mainstream churches are neither scientific nor high in spiritual consciousness. Some members (very few) of those churches are.

      Pure consciousness and science are one, in tune with the cosmic order of natural law and the universe. Unfortunately most modern scientists are as dogmatic in their ignorance as the clergy of mainstream religion.

    • Richard

      You seem to like the word “looting”.

    • The Creator

      “Looting” is the right word in this context.

      Incidentally, from what I’ve heard, Pope Francisco has named himself not after St Francis of Assisi, but after St Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuit Order. Francisco is of course a Jesuit himself.

    • Tess Fairweather

      Let’s face it, a new Pope is as likely to change anything ( and I mean ANYthing) as a new Queen or King on any throne. The Churches have a lot to set right, starting with their own misdemeanours, but will they? Not likely.

    • nguni

      What a load of hogwash. The new pope is as 3rd world as his predecessor, in fact his Italian is better so he’ll fit in well in the Vatican (both parents Italian).
      Only 3rd world dreamers imagine that because a ruler has a darker teint, his reign will benefit the ‘darkies’. It’s this racist concept that has kept the useless ANC in power for 20 years.

    • Zalon

      I agree that changing the leadership is not a guarantee for real change, South Africa two decades after release of Mandela is still fundamentally unchanged – the people who make the real decisions, especially economically, are the old guard. The very top are Black but the technocrats are white, they still hold the power and being in business or working in these institutions, like Eskom for example, is a humiliating experience and an exclusionary one for many people of colour

    • Nail on the Head

      “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. “It is the opium of the people.”

      Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1843)


      Your comment please Console Tleane PhD.

    • Honkie Tonk

      Religion is the opium of the masses, well it used to be until the Republican/Tea Party came along in the USA, and the ANC decided to drop the masses and instead reward loyal cadres that would then feather their own nests.

      Yet nearly 50% of the US electorate vote Republican and about 67% vote ANC in South Africa. Political party lies have replaced those of the church, and the masses fall for it every time. Dumb ignorant fools, they deserve what they get.

      Despite all this I beleive the new Pope is pro-poor, if we could find a leader like him for South Africa we would be home and dry.

      This country would then be Heaven on Earth.

    • Console Tleane

      And say what exactly? Well, except to say Marx only wrote the Introduction to ‘A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’, between December 1843 and January 1844. He never got to publish the work. Only that Introduction exists. And, i am not yet a PhD; aspiring to be one someday. God willing.

    • Console Tleane

      Apologies, meant to say Marx never completed or published the work. It was only published later after his death, out of notes; and not by Engels, who would have had better insight like he did with other of Marx’s works that he published after Marx’s death. Hence there are many missing pages in the ‘published’ work; almost like his other work, Grundisse, which was published later from his rough notes

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Male Only Priesthood and Prohibitions on Homosexuality which Paul took to Rome and are taught by the Vatican are from Judaism not from the Teachings of Christ.

      How would Paul, or his teacher Ananias, have known or heard the private teaching sessions of Jesus Christ with his disciples, like on marriage, divorce and homosexuality(Matthew 19)? Jesus Christ did not teach these in an open sermon to the people. The Gospels and Holy Books were not yet written, and the rest of the Disciples would have nothing to do with Paul (Acts Chapter 9)

      Which is why the early Christian Church of the Disciples, not of the Roman Covert Paul, had male and female priests and a marriage sermon for homosexuals.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      WHERE does this idea come from that any of the last 3 popes are Non- European?

      Pope Francis is Spanish, descended from the Spanish Colonisers of Argentine, whiter in skin colour than me, and speaks the Colonial Spanish language as his Mother Tongue.

      Pope Benedict was German, and Pope John Paul was Polish, with German as their Mother Tongues.

      All 3 of them are Non- Italian, but NOT Non- European.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Roman Church did NOT spread the whole message of Jesus Christ around the World, but left out all His Teachings which conflicted with Roman Culture, and substituted them with the teachings of the Roman Apostle and convert Paul.

      The Apostle Paul was a Roman by birth and nationality (Acts 22.28) whose family were Jewish Pharisees by religion( Acts 23.6), who originally persecuted the followers of Jesus Christ as following a false messiah, and was present and assisted in the stoning of Stephen (22.20).

      Only 7 years after the Crucifiction, Resurrection and Pentacost did Paul convert on the Road to Damascus, so he was not present at Pentacost either. The Disciples would have nothing to do with him (Acts 9:26,27).

      There is no way, therefore, that Paul could have known about the teachings of Jesus Christ to his disciples on Gender Equity, anti-slavery, and homosexuality – which are in the Gospels of the Disciples but were left out of the Bible by the Romans 300 years later. Over 200 written works were submitted to the Council for inclusion in the Bible and left out of the New Testament, which only has 27 books and only 4 are gospels of apostles, not of disciples. The books of the Disciples were left out as “non- Canonical” meaning “Conflicting with Roman Culture”.

      And the Arabs did the same – over-riding the Koran with Haddiths.

      They are the SAME messages from the SAME God.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      I was horrified when my Muslim friends in Cape Town told me in the early 1990s that “New Priests from Saudi Arabia” had arrived in their mosques teaching that their monogamous and tolerant interpretation of Islam, which had existed for 350 years, was wrong and polygamy, many children, and Jihad was compulsory for Muslims.

      Of course none of us knew where they had come from, but we are older and wiser now.

      The First Muslims were slaves who arrived with Van Riebeeck, at the same time as the Whites, and had had freedom of Religion for 350 years. They were not slaves from the Protestant Dutch colonies, which allowed no slavery, but had been bought from the Portugese and British Colonies.

      They not only had Freedom of Religion, but Rules about Free Time to earn money for their own account, and Laws of Protection – which is why and how so many of them were able to buy their freedom.