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I really should get back to real-life work, or at least BMEM, but before I do, I want to talk about one news story I’ve been following quite a bit. It seems that a lot of journalists, particularly at mainstream American papers and magazines, initially described the new pope as progressive or even a liberation theologist before correcting themselves.


I’m not against the correcting where it’s needed, of course, but it puzzles me that so many papers made the mistake in the first place. Emily Chertoff has a good run-down of this issue over at The Atlantic, for those who want to read a little more. She points out that on the culture war issues like abortion and gay marriage, the pope sounds exactly like you’d expect a Catholic priest in his late seventies to sound. And he’s already famous (infamous?) for the way he didn’t take a strong enough stand in favor of the revolution in Argentina. He also, as Chertoff’s piece points out, tried to keep priests under his control from getting too involved with community activism, because of the fear this was too leftist.


So why the rush to call him a progressive pope? As best I can see, it comes down his humble style and his emphasis on helping poor people. He’s probably not a liberation theologian, as a lot of people claimed at first (again Ms. Chertoff does a good job explaining why), but he did live in comparative poverty for a bishop – he rode the subway rather than getting driven around, and he lived in an apartment rather than the original residence, for instance. More than that, he had the audacity to work in some very poor neighborhoods, in a part of the world where people across the political spectrum accept the idea that fighting poverty requires more than just individual virtue.


In America, conservatives resist big government projects like Medicare and food stamps, partly because they don’t like big government (the programs are too expensive, they’re more effective at a local level, it gives too much power to the feds, etc.) but also partly because of how they view poverty. Poor people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, or because they have made bad decisions (had more kids than they could afford, didn’t get a good enough education, use drugs, don’t have the requisite entrepreneurial spirit, etc.). Now, of course some poor people have these vices just like some upper- and middle-class people do. But to American ears, if you suggest that huge groups of poor people are poor, not because they deserve it but because of unjust economic systems, corporations taking advantage of them, and other things? That sounds almost Marxist. Certainly it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from those big-government, blame-someone-else, high-spending liberals. Not from honest, hard-working conservatives. So a pope who thinks the poor may not be poor because of anything they did, but that their poverty requires social reform on a broad level seems progressive, even when he clearly isn’t by local standards. And even when he clearly doesn’t take this to mean we need to go the Marxist or the liberation theology route.


If you ever needed an indictment of American politics on economic justice, I think you have it. Half of America believes poor people are poor because they’ve done something to deserve it – and suggesting that any kind of reform of bad corporate or other societal policy is necessary to fight poverty is enough to qualify you as a progressive. This makes me very sad.




Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
dwimordene_2011
Mar. 18th, 2013 10:29 pm (UTC)
Piety does not justice make...
And don't forget the identity politics. Being at a Jesuit institution is so damn depressing right now, because you get the news asking 20 year old Catholics who don't know a damn thing whether they're happy about the Pope being a Jesuit. This, apparently, counts as a serious interview. And then they got a priest to say similar things. The president is ecstatic in print.

And of course, he's a "non-European." Um, he's from Argentina, whose population is a combination of folks who largely come from Europe, and who colonized the region. So... yeah.

Paul Jay's interview on the topic of the new Pope and Vatican politics is worth watching, although I think the particular priest he interviews and I don't share views on what it means to be a Catholic leadership, interreligiously open, and part of the world. But that part I can deal with.

Edited at 2013-03-18 10:41 pm (UTC)
marta_bee
Mar. 19th, 2013 03:39 am (UTC)
Re: Piety does not justice make...
I was going to ask about the distinction between Hispanic and Caucasian, until I remembered it doesn't really matter - Francis is first-generation Italian-Argentinian. As in, both his parents were born in Italy. He was also educated in Germany IIRC. None of those things are wrong per se, but they hardly make him an outsider from an ethnic perspective.

This is one of the few times this year I'm glad I'm not teaching. I know enough about Catholicism and the Jesuits to have an informed opinion on some things, and I am reading responses from actual Jesuits and folks who are devoutly Catholic (if not always in the orthodox sense). I am not being exposed to the "every idiot who took first communion is suddenly an expert" thing. So I am getting a sense that it's vaguely neat that he's a Catholic, but hardly earth-shattering. Most Jesuits and Catholics I know are more interested in holding his views to the light. Or getting on with other things.

I'll have to check out Paul Jay. I do find this interesting, because it is a decidedly international event that forces Americans to make sense of the fact that the whole world is not like them. Plus religious news is always interesting to me. But I don't think I'm getting exposed to the frustrations you are.
dwimordene_2011
Mar. 19th, 2013 04:26 am (UTC)
Re: Piety does not justice make...
Most Jesuits probably do care more about his views, which is great. It's just not what made selection day news.

I know I think my Church's powers that be totally and unequivocally sold out liberation and the uplift of the poor and oppressed a long time ago, and have been trying ever since to present a sincere, concerned, vaguely liberal, paternalistic face to the world while it pulls back on any progressive gains made during Vatican II. And largely, that backlash has won the day; so they can say anything they like about how sad they are about the state of the world, but it's their own damn bed they soiled and are sleeping in, imo, so my sympathy levels for Catholic policy at the top is probably in the negative numbers. For lay people and more honest clergy, I feel bad, because I don't think anyone has figured out how you say "no" on substantial theological-political positions to the hierarchy without also being forced out of the church or sidelined.

Anyhow... This isn't TRNN's best interview, but I still think it's worth a look.



Edited at 2013-03-19 04:27 am (UTC)
labourslamp
Mar. 21st, 2013 10:45 pm (UTC)
Careful how you do that "identity politics" thing--not all conservatives believe what you put in that paragraph about the poor. We all have an obligation to help them. I just don't think that the coercive, inefficient power of the state should be the one to do it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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