Since the beginning of his pontificate nine years ago, Pope Francis has been receiving furious attacks from traditionalist Christians and white supremacists almost all from the North of the world, the United States and Europe. They even made a plot, involving millions of dollars, to depose him, as if the Church were a company and the Pope its CEO. All in vain. He continues on his way in the spirit of the evangelical beatitudes of the persecuted.
The reasons for this persecution are various: geopolitical reasons, power disputes, another vision of the Church and the care of the Common Home.
I raise my voice in defense of Pope Francis from the periphery of the world, from the Great South. Let us compare the numbers: only 21.5% of Catholics live in Europe, 82% live outside it, 48% in America. We are, therefore, the vast majority. Until the middle of the last century the Catholic Church was a first world Church. Now it is a third and fourth world Church, which, one day, originated in the first world. A geopolitical question arises here. European conservatives, with the exception of notable Catholic organizations of solidarity cooperation, nurture a sovereign disdain for the South, especially for Latin America.
The Church as a great institution was an ally of colonization, an accomplice of indigenous genocide and a participant in slavery. A colonial Church was implanted here, a mirror of the European Church. But for more than 500 years, despite the persistence of the mirror Church, there has been an ecclesiogenesis, the genesis of another way of being church, a church, no longer mirror but source:
it was incarnated in the local indigenous-black-mestizo and immigrant culture of peoples from 60 different countries. From this amalgam, its style of worshipping God and celebrating, of organizing its social pastoral care alongside the oppressed struggling for their liberation, was born. It projected a theology appropriate to its liberating and popular practice. It has its prophets, confessors, theologians, saints, and many martyrs, among them the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
This type of Church is fundamentally composed of basic ecclesial communities, where the dimension of communion of equals is lived, all brothers and sisters, with their lay coordinators, men and women, with priests inserted among the people and bishops, never with their backs to the people as ecclesiastical authorities, but as shepherds at their side, with the “smell of sheep”, with the mission of being the “defenders et advocati pauperum” as it was said in the primitive Church. Popes and doctrinal authorities of the Vatican tried to curtail and even condemn such a way of being Church, not infrequently with the argument that they are not Church because they do not see in them the hierarchical character and the Roman style.
This threat lasted for many years until, finally, the figure of Pope Francis burst in. He came from the soup of this new ecclesial culture, well expressed by the non-exclusive preferential option for the poor and by the various strands of liberation theology that accompany it. He gave legitimacy to this way of living the Christian faith, especially in situations of great oppression.
But what is most scandalizing to traditionalist Christians is his style of exercising the ministry of unity in the Church. He no longer presents himself as the classic pontiff, dressed in pagan symbols borrowed from the Roman emperors, especially the famous “mozzeta”, that little banking cap full of symbols of the absolute power of the emperor and the pope. Francis quickly got rid of it and wore a simple white “mozzeta”, like that of the great prophet of Brazil, dom Helder Câmara, and his iron cross without any jewels.
He refused to live in a pontifical palace, which would have made St. Francis rise from the grave to take him where he chose: in a simple guest house, Santa Marta. There he enters the line to be served and eats together with everyone else. With humor we can say that this way it is more difficult to poison him. He does not wear Prada, but his old and worn-out shoes. In the pontifical yearbook in which a whole page is used with the honorific titles of the Popes, he simply renounced them all and wrote only Franciscus, pontifex.
In one of his first pronouncements he clearly stated that he was not going to preside over the Church with canon law but with love and tenderness. Countless times he repeated that he wanted a poor Church and a Church of the poor.
The whole great problem of the Church-great-institution lies, since the emperors Constantine and Theodosius, in the assumption of political power, transformed into sacred power (sacra potestas). This process reached its culmination with Pope Gregory VII (1075) with his bull Dictatus Papae, which well translated is the “Dictatorship of the Pope“. As the great ecclesiologist Jean-Yves Congar says,, this Pope consolidated the most decisive change in the Church that created so many problems and from which it has never been freed: the centralized, authoritarian and even despotic exercise of power. In the 27 propositions of the Bull, the Pope is considered the absolute lord of the Church, the sole and supreme lord of the world, becoming the supreme authority in the spiritual and temporal realms. This has never been denied.
It is enough to read Canon 331 in which it is said that “the Pastor of the universal Church has ordinary, supreme, full, immediate and universal power”. This is unheard of: if we cross out the term Pastor of the universal Church and put in God, it works perfectly. Who among humans, if not God, can attribute to himself such a concentration of power? It is significant that in the history of the Popes there has been a crescendo in the pharaohism of power: from successor of Peter, the Popes came to consider themselves representatives of Christ. And as if that were not enough, representatives of God, being even called deus minor in terra.
Here the Greek hybris is realized and what Thomas Hobbes states in his Leviathan: “I point out, as a general tendency of all men, a perpetual and restless desire for power and more power, which only ceases with death. The reason for this lies in the fact that power cannot be secured except by seeking still more power.” This, then, has been the trajectory of the Catholic Church in relation to power, which persists to this day, a source of polemics with the other Christian Churches and of extreme difficulty in assuming the humanistic values of modernity.
It is light years away from the vision of Jesus who wanted a power-service (hierodulia) and not a power-hierarchy (hierarchy).
Pope Francis is moving away from all this, which causes indignation to conservatives and reactionaries, clearly expressed in the book of 45 authors of October 2021: From Benedict’s Peace to Francis’s War organized by Peter A. Kwasniewski. We would turn it around like this: From Benedict’s Peace of Pedophiles (covered up by him) to Francis’ War on Pedophiles (condemned by him). It is known that a Munich court found evidence to incriminate Pope Benedict XVI for his leniency with pedophile priests.
There is a problem of ecclesiastical geopolitics: the traditionalists reject a Pope who comes “from the end of the world”, who brings to the center of power of the Vatican another style, closer to the grotto of Bethlehem than to the palaces of the emperors. If Jesus appeared to the Pope on his walk through the Vatican gardens, he would surely say to him: “Peter, on these palatial stones I would never build my Church”. This contradiction is lived by Pope Francis, because he renounced the palatial and imperial style.
There is, in fact, a clash of religious geopolitics, between the Center, which has lost hegemony in number and influence but retains the habits of authoritarian exercise of power, and the Periphery, with a numerical majority of Catholics, with new churches, with new styles of living the faith and in permanent dialogue with the world, especially with the condemned of the Earth, which always has a word to say about the wounds that bleed in the body of the Crucified One, present in the impoverished and oppressed.
Perhaps what most bothers Christians anchored in the past is the Pope’s vision of the Church. Not a castle Church, closed in on herself, in her values and doctrines, but a “field hospital” Church always “going out to the existential peripheries”. She welcomes everyone without asking about their creed or their moral situation. It is enough that they are human beings in search of meaning in life and suffering from the adversities of this globalized, unjust, cruel and merciless world. He directly condemns the system that gives centrality to money at the cost of human lives and at the cost of nature.
He has held several world meetings with popular movements. In the last one, the fourth, he explicitly said: “This system (capitalist), with its implacable logic, escapes human domination; it is necessary to work for more justice and to cancel this system of death”. In Fratelli tutti he condemns it forcefully.
He is guided by what is one of the great contributions of Latin American theology: the centrality of the historical Jesus, poor, full of tenderness for those who suffer, always at the side of the poor and marginalized. The Pope respects dogmas and doctrines, but it is not through them that he reaches the hearts of the people.
For him, Jesus came to teach how to live: total trust in God-Abba, to live unconditional love, solidarity, compassion for the fallen on the roads, care for the Created, goods that constitute the content of the central message of Jesus: the Kingdom of God. He tirelessly preaches the boundless mercy by which God saves his children and the Kingdom of God. He tirelessly preaches the boundless mercy by which God saves his sons and daughters, for he cannot lose any of them, the fruits of his love, “for he is the passionate lover of life” (Wis 11:26).
That is why he affirms that “no matter how much someone is wounded by evil, he is never condemned on this earth to remain forever separated from God”. In other words: condemnation is only for this time.
He calls on all pastors to exercise the pastoral care of tenderness and unconditional love, as summarized by a popular leader of a grassroots community: “the soul has no border, no life is foreign”. Like few others in the world, he has committed himself to the migrants coming from Africa and the Middle East and now from Ukraine. He regrets that we moderns have lost the ability to cry, to feel the pain of others and, as a Good Samaritan, to help them in their abandonment.
His most important work shows concern for the future of Mother Earth’s life. Laudato Sì expresses its true meaning in its subtitle: “On Care for the Common Home”. It elaborates not a green ecology, but an integral ecology that embraces the environment, society, politics, culture, daily life and the world of the spirit. It assumes the most reliable contributions of the Earth and life sciences, especially quantum physics and the new cosmology, the fact that “everything is related to everything and unites us with affection to Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother River and Mother Earth” as it poetically says in Laudato Sì.
The category of care and collective co-responsibility acquire complete centrality to the point of saying in Fratelli tutti that “we are in the same boat: either we all save ourselves or no one is saved”.
We Latin Americans are deeply grateful to him for having convoked the Dear Amazon Synod to defend this immense biome of interest for the whole Earth and how the Church is incarnated in that vast region that covers nine countries.
Great names in world ecology affirmed: with this contribution Pope Francis puts himself at the forefront of the contemporary ecological discussion.
Almost in despair, but still full of hope, he proposes a way of salvation: universal fraternity and social love as the structuring axes of a biosociety in function of which politics, economy and all human efforts are based. We do not have much time nor enough accumulated wisdom, but this is the dream and the real alternative to avoid a path of no return.
The Pope walking alone through St. Peter’s Square in the pouring rain, in times of pandemic, will remain an indelible image and a symbol of his mission as a Pastor who cares and prays for the destiny of humanity.
Perhaps one of the final phrases of Laudato Sì reveals all his optimism and hope against all hope: “Let us walk singing. May our struggles and our concern for this planet not rob us of the joy of hope.”
They must be enemies of their own humanity who mercilessly condemn the very humanitarian attitudes of Pope Francis, in the name of a sterile Christianity, turned into a fossil of the past, a vessel of dead waters. The fierce attacks on him can be anything but Christian and evangelical.
They, especially the cardinals and bishops who participated in the aforementioned book, are schismatic and in the ancient sense, heretical, for lacerating the fabric of the ecclesial community. Pope Francis bears it imbued with the humility of St. Francis of Assisi and the values of the historical Jesus. For this reason he well deserves the title of “righteous among the nations”.
*Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian and has written Francis of Assisi and Francis of Rome, Rio de Janeiro 2015.