Weissman: 'Francis has said that he wants to move beyond an 'obsession' with hot-button social issues, but his modernist bent loses out to long-standing doctrine on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage.' (photo: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
23 February 14
ope Francis is the only man of the left still in Italian political life,” laughs Stephen Sartarelli, the English-language translator of the Inspector Montalbano mysteries and a leading authority on the filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. Sartarelli kept hearing this view of the pope while on a recent trip to visit family in Rome, where the weakness of the left is a running joke. Who but the pontiff is speaking out against the ravages of capitalism in Italy and the neo-liberal economics of enforced austerity?
Sartarelli lives just down the road here in the French Dordogne, and we share a growing concern with the resurgence of the ultra-right, not only in France, but throughout much of the continent. He and I tend to differ on Pope Francis, whom I see as I believe he sees himself – not “a man of the left,” but a modern-day follower of the Catholic social thinking in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum with a touch of Argentinian Peronism.
Either way, the big question will not go away. Will Pope Francis stand up against the growing threat of a new European fascism? Or will the Catholic Church under his leadership aid and abet the “fachos” as the controversial Pope Pius XII and so much of his Church has been accused – rightly or wrongly – of doing in the 1930s?
Most people writing about Pope Francis never discuss this, but how he answers the Fascist question could become historically more important than what he does about the Curia, Vatican Bank, child-abusing priests, or the dozen or so other issues now on the papal plate.
A possible tell may be his decision to slow down any canonization of Pius until scholars can fully study the Vatican’s secret wartime archives. The Sunday Times of London reported this in January, citing Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a friend of the pope from Buenos Aires who visited him in Rome in September and will accompany him on his visit to Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank in May.
In 2010, the two men published a book called “On Heaven and Earth,” in which the future pope offered his view on the role of Church leaders toward the plight of European Jews during World War II. “Opening the archives of the Shoah [Holocaust] seems reasonable,” wrote the then Cardinal Bergoglio. “Let them be opened up and let everything be cleared up. Let it be seen if they could have done something [to help] and until what point they could have helped.
“If they made a mistake in any aspect of this we would have to say, ‘We have erred.’ We don’t have to be scared of this – the truth has to be the goal.”
According to Rabbi Skorka, rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, this continues to guide the pope’s thinking. Sterner voices in the Church pushed Francis to make Pius a saint at the April 24th ceremony in which John Paul II and John XXIII will be canonized. But Francis has so far stood by his wonderfully open, anti-authoritarian sentiments, much to the approval of Jewish leaders and respected Catholic historians.
Whether or how soon Pius XII gains sainthood is only symbolic, I know, but juggling symbols from their bully pulpit is what popes do, all while riding herd on a global juggernaut of fractious hierarchs with their own favored symbols to promote. It’s a high-wire balancing act, and Francis appears to have paired his go-slow on Pius with giving a go-ahead to the beatification of “522 martyrs of the faith,” Catholic priests, monks, nuns, and laymen who were killed while supporting Francisco Franco and his Fascist allies in the Spanish Civil War. This has not become a major issue outside Spain, but could come back to haunt the pontiff and show him to be other than a stand-up guy in the ongoing fight against European Fascism.
A bigger threat comes from how the Church thinks. Francis has said that he wants to move beyond an “obsession” with hot-button social issues, but his modernist bent loses out to long-standing doctrine on abortion, contraception, and gay marriage – and to the Church’s unshaken faith in “natural law.” The Catholic hierarchy continues to believe it can deduce what is “natural” and therefore “God’s law” for all men and women, whatever their individual situation or sense of themselves, and regardless of the constantly changing state of social and scientific knowledge.
Claims of timeless and universal certainty have their appeal, no doubt, especially to those educated in Catholic schools (as well as to Bible-quoting Evangelicals in the United States and Latin America). But, to unsaved skeptics like me, “natural law” is not at all a celebration of human reason. It is a dubious philosophic conceit that has enabled Church moralists, living and dead, to rationalize the ignorance and prejudices of their own time, place, class, culture, institutional setting, and patriarchal disposition. While this has always been self-deluding, it has now become self-destructive, dragging the Catholic Church into massive, at times violent protests against gays, same sex marriage and adoption, abortion, medically assisted procreation for lesbian couples, gender-neutral education, taxes, socialists, immigrants, Moslems, Jews, and what a leading Catholic traditionalist calls “the lethal virus of the modern world.”
Nowhere is the Church playing into the hands of neo-fascists more than here in France, where the most reactionary groups are using protests against whatever they consider “unnatural” to bring hundreds of thousands of supporters into the streets. These highly colorful marches and rallies began in October 2012, after the Socialist government of Francois Hollande proposed to legalize “Marriage pour Tous” (Marriage for All), and they have continued into this month. A wide array of far-right groups and coalitions – including “Manif pour Tous” (Demonstration for All) and “Printemps français” (French Spring) – have organized the demonstrations to “safeguard our civilization,” while participants have included followers of the anti-Semitic comic Dieudonné doing his reverse Nazi salute, the quenelle, and full-fledged neo-Nazis yelling “Jews Out of France.” Catholic associations have played a leading role in calling the marches and rallies, and Church leaders like the Cardinal Archbishop of Lyon Philippe Barbarin have taken a prominent part.
To be fair, Church leaders have tried to distance themselves from the open hate, as well as from some – though by no means all – ultra-traditionalist Catholics in groups like Civitas, who see Catholic identity as integral to being French. These intégrists carry on the anti-Republican tradition of Action Française, which collaborated closely with the Nazis, and have worked closely over the years with Jean-Marie Le Pen and his neo-Fascist Front National.
The problem is fundamental. The Church lends its name and patina of “natural law” to the demonstrations, but lacks the power to determine their course or discipline their ranks. Though as many 88% of the French identify themselves as Catholic, no more than 5% attend mass regularly, creating what some have called “a Zombie church.” In this severely weakened state, the French hierarchs see no alternative but to collaborate with French Spring’s leader, Beatrice Bourges, who offers the classic excuse for joining with so many anti-Semitic and anti-republican elements. “When the house is on fire,” she says, “you don’t ask for the firefighter’s resumé.”
For the Church, and especially for Pope Francis, this stance is completely self-destructive, and its immediate beneficiary will be Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter Marine and her effort to make the Front National appear more mainstream. She has pointedly not led any of the marches and rallies and, like the Church, has even expressed concern about their excesses. But she has carefully not attacked their ultra-right organizers and most of the participants, whom she expects to vote overwhelmingly for the Front National in municipal elections in mid-March and European parliamentary elections at the end of May. If she does well, as expected, she will breach one of the main firewalls of Republican France since World War II, and the Church of Pope Francis will share in the blame.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, "Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold."