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A Portrait of a Progressive Pope - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In a curious coincidence, the list of candidates for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize included two religious leaders. The Argentinian parliament nominated Pope Francis for his “efforts to bring peace in Syria.” Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of most of Iraq’s Shi’ites, was nominated by a group of intellectuals for his role in preventing full-scale sectarian war in Iraq. The two nominations indicated that the boundary between religion and politics, always thin, may have become even paler in our times. In the end it was Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl campaigning for education for Muslim girls that was chosen. Again, the relationship between politics and religion was a factor.

[inset_left] Pope Francis: Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words
By Francesca Ambrogetti and Sergio Rubin
Penguin, 304 pages
New York, 2013[/inset_left]

Thus, readers of Pope Francis should not be surprised to find this a political rather than theological tome. Based on long conversations between the new Pope and two journalists—one Argentinian, the other Italian—the book provides a biographical sketch of Francis, along with an expose of his political views. Francis emerges as a modern, center-left, political figure committed to the usual “good things” such as peace, sharing and caring, solidarity and progress.

Because Francis is the first Jesuit priest to become Pope, it is not surprising that, true to his evangelist mission as a “soldier for Christ,” his emphasis is on securing the largest possible audience for the Catholic Church rather than defending doctrine in an age of cultural relativism.

He has learned a great deal from the experience of his most recent predecessors: Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The former emphasized the political dimension of his mission, especially in the struggle to help central and Eastern Europe bring down the Iron Curtain. When the Cold War ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, John Paul II was among history’s victors, his doctrinal conservatism conveniently pushed aside. In contrast, Benedict XVI, a theologian by training and temperament, put the emphasis on doctrinal issues in a brave attempt to save the Catholic Church from the ravages of political correctness and multiculturalism. As a result, many Catholics did not warm up to him while non-Catholics found him anachronistic.

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Francis appears to have decided to look to John Paul II rather than Benedict XVI as a model. The difference is that John Paul II was a political Pope on the right of the center while Francis intends to be left of center.

That has encouraged some of Francis’s critics on the right to portray him as a fellow traveler or even a communist. Francis admits that he was attracted to communist themes, if not actual policies. In fact, the only political book he cites is Our Word and Proposals by the Argentinian communist writer Leonidas Barletta. “It helped my political education,” Francis says.

Francis deepens his “progressive ” profile with a list of his favorite authors, including German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Belgian mystic Joseph Maréchal, and, last but not least, Argentina’s own literary icon, Jorge Luis Borges. Interestingly, with the exception of Maréchal, a Thomist priest, all of Francis’s favorite writers were either agnostic or atheists.

Francis’ “progressive” profile is deepened with reference to his taste in cinema; he loved Italian neo-realism and made sure to see all films with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi. He also cites the film Babette’s Feast, a critique of religion as an oppressive ideology, in which a French “fallen woman” played by Stéphane Audran injects some life into a Danish community of Calvinists.

Francis regards “liberal capitalism” as immoral and finds some sympathy for the “liberation theology” of the Latin American guerrilla-priests of the 1960s, while insisting that he was “never a communist.” In fact, he includes communism, along with unbridled capitalism, Nazism and liberalism in his list of totalitarian ideologies. And, yet, he points at secularism as the principal enemy of faith. “There is a denial of God due to secularism, the selfish egoism of humanity,” he asserts.

The trouble is that Francis confuses secularism with atheism, which is the outright denial of the transcendental. However, secularism simply means keeping the public space open to all religions, protecting the weak against repression by the strong.

Regarding religion as a matter of individual belief, secularism does not deny God in whatever metaphysical form people wish to promote; all it does is to oppose the use of the resources of the state in favor of one religion against others. There are countless examples of secular writers and political figures who were sincere believers at the same time.

A fascinating part of the book deals with the “social issues” that have dominated the public debate in the West in recent decades, among them abortion, birth control, divorce, gay and lesbian marriages, and celibacy for priests.

Here, Francis faces a real difficulty. If he simply reaffirms the traditional positions of his Church—as Benedict XVI did, for example—he would weaken his claim of being a “progressive.” If, on the other hand, he adopts the “progressive” position, he would antagonize many, perhaps a majority, in his flock.

Francis deals with this dilemma in the classical Jesuit style of seizing the bull by both horns. He asserts that what really matters is the core narrative of Christianity, the technical term for which is kerygma. Beyond that we have what Francis calls “catechism,” which, in the sense he deals with it, concerns behavior and social organization. Interestingly, he does not mention dogma, the bridge between kerygma and catechism. Thus, issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the Eucharist for divorced individuals, do not affect the kerygma. As for celibacy for priests, it is “a discipline, not a matter of doctrine,” he asserts, and thus could be abandoned in the future.

In addition to being a “progressive,” Francis is also an optimist. “The moral conscience of different cultures progresses,” he asserts, reminding us how such “evils” as incest, slavery, exploitation, for example, were once, in different phases of human history, tolerated by all cultures and even religions but are now rejected with revulsion by all.

But is human “moral progress,” if it exists at all, as linear as the Pope seems to believe? Francis himself reminds us that slavery continues to exist in different forms. In fact, the United Nations’ estimates put the number of slaves today at over 27 million, and that does not include human trafficking for sexual exploitation. As for incest, right now, Germany is debating a law to decriminalize incest between consenting adult sisters and brothers. If slavery was banned in the 19th century it was not due to “moral progress.” The Industrial Revolution had made slave labor largely uneconomical.

Francis’ intellectual landscape is dominated by ideas that could be traced back to ancient Athens rather than Jerusalem. He is more comfortable in the company of Aristotle than the Church Fathers. The only one he quotes is the quasi-Aristotelian St. Augustine, ignoring the contrasting positions of Jerome and Tertullian, among others.

Is the church, indeed any formal religious organization, necessary for salvation? Francis cannot but answer with a resounding “yes.” However, he weakens that “yes” by recalling that, as a young man, he dreamed of becoming a missionary to Japan, where Christianity had managed to survive and to some extent even prosper without any priests and no organization for over two centuries.

I don’t know whether the Pope has read Japanese novelist Shūsaku Endo’s fascinating novel Silence, which deals precisely with that subject. Endo shows that, even under the worst conditions of torture and despair, human beings look to religious faith for a measure of certainty about right and wrong, good and evil.

Today, the problem is that religion, in most its forms, is trying to imitate philosophy, which is the realm of doubt, or replace ideology as a means of organizing political action.

Francis repeats the assertion by André Malraux, that the 21st century will be “religious or it will not at all.” The question is: religion in which of its many forms? There are those who see kerygma as poetic conceit, focusing on catechism, or its Islamic version the Shari’a, as a means of social and political control and domination. Then there are those who, having asserted the kerygma, allow the elastic to be pulled in opposite directions as far as possible.

The problem is that, at some point, the elastic might snap.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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