Second Thoughts about Pope Bergoglio: A Liberation Pope or Just More Blah, Blah?


I’m still trying to figure out the new pope, Francis I. Initially, I was very skeptical and even negative about his election. After all he was carrying all that baggage from Argentina’s “dirty war.” And some incidents there made me see Francis as just another right-winger in the tradition of his immediate predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II. Tongue partly planted in cheek, I called for his resignation.

Gradually however, I’ve come to question my rush to judgment. True, the new pope faltered with early missteps regarding women. He seemed to reiterate Benedict XVI’s admonition to U.S. women religious to focus more on the issues of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage, rather than on social justice for the poor and electoral politics. He even warned a group of sisters against becoming “spinsters” or “old maids” (depending on the translation) rather than fruitful celibates.

But then he went to that women’s prison on Holy Thursday and drew fire from conservatives for including women among those whose feet he washed that day. I concluded that the jury is still out concerning Francis and women. Like most of us males, he clearly has room to grow.

As I wait for the jury’s verdict, two recent incidents have led me towards a more positive evaluation in the court of my own mind. To begin with, Leonardo Boff, a leading liberation theologian who had been silenced by the Ratzinger-Wojtyla team, surprised me by his own positive assessment. He even identified the new pope as a “field” liberation theologian as opposed to a “desk” theologian. Despite his reservations in the past about liberation theology, Bergoglio, Boff said, was truly committed to the poor. Boff was hopeful that the Argentinian might change the direction of the Vatican policy of suspicion and rejection over the last 30 years towards the “preferential option for the poor” so central in the thought of activists committed to the welfare of the world’s poor majority.

Then a couple of weeks ago, a second occurrence made me think Boff might have a point. The pontiff made some surprisingly critical remarks about capitalism and ethics to a group of new ambassadors to the Vatican.

Here are some excerpts. They are worth quoting at length:

“. . . We must also acknowledge that the majority of the men and women of our time continue to live daily in situations of insecurity, with dire consequences. . . The financial crisis which we are experiencing makes us forget that its ultimate origin is to be found in . . . the denial of the primacy of human beings! We have created new idols. The worship of the golden calf of old (cf. Ex 32:15-34) has found a new and heartless image in the cult of money and the dictatorship of an economy which is faceless and lacking any truly humane goal.

The worldwide financial and economic crisis seems to highlight . . the gravely deficient human perspective, which reduces man to one of his needs alone, namely, consumption. Worse yet, human beings themselves are nowadays considered as consumer goods which can be used and thrown away. We have started a throw-away culture.

This tendency is . . . being promoted! In circumstances like these, solidarity, which is the treasure of the poor, is often considered counterproductive, opposed to the logic of finance and the economy. While the income of a minority is increasing exponentially, that of the majority is crumbling. This imbalance results from ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good. A new, invisible and at times virtual, tyranny is established, one which unilaterally and irremediably imposes its own laws and rules . . . The will to power and of possession has become limitless.

Concealed behind this attitude is a rejection of ethics, a rejection of God. Ethics, like solidarity, is a nuisance! It is regarded as counterproductive: as something too human, because it relativizes money and power; as a threat, because it rejects manipulation and subjection of people: because ethics leads to God, who is situated outside the categories of the market. God is thought to be unmanageable by these financiers, economists and politicians, God is unmanageable, even dangerous, because he calls man to his full realization and to independence from any kind of slavery. . . I encourage the financial experts and the political leaders of your countries to consider the words of Saint John Chrysostom: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them and to deprive them of life. It is not our goods that we possess, but theirs” (Homily on Lazarus, 1:6 – PG 48, 992D).

. . . There is a need for financial reform along ethical lines that would produce in its turn an economic reform to benefit everyone. . . Money has to serve, not to rule! The Pope . . . has the duty, in Christ’s name, to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them. . . .

The common good should not be simply an extra, simply a conceptual scheme of inferior quality tacked onto political programs. . . . In this way, a new political and economic mindset would arise that would help to transform the absolute dichotomy between the economic and social spheres into a healthy symbiosis. . . .Are you surprised by those words? Here the pope is saying that:

1. The wealth gap between the rich and poor is completely unacceptable.
2. It is caused by unfettered markets which reduce people to consumers subordinate to material production.
3. Free markets are heartless, inhumane and idolatrous.
4. Remedying that problem necessitates government interference in the marketplace.
5. . . . based on an ethics of solidarity taking its lead from the poor and prioritizing human welfare and the common good over untargeted economic growth.
6. Solidarity ethics find their origin in God who calls all humans to liberation from slaveries and idolatries of all kinds.
7. So governments must overcome their reluctance to correct the wealth-concentrating tendencies of free markets,
8. . . . and the attitude which sees ethical and theological concerns as counter-productive when they
prioritize the needs of the poor over the profits of financiers and the moneyed classes.
9. Avoidance of these responsibilities makes governments complicit with the crimes of robbery from the poor who (rather than the rich) are the true owners of the resources of God’s creation.
10. Economics and social justice should not be understood as standing in opposition to one another, but as mutually nourishing.

I find the pope’s words encouraging and quite promising. True, most popes (even J.P.II and Ratzinger) made isolated statements in tune with the comments just quoted. And taken as a body, the social teachings of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) to Vatican II’s “Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes, 1965) are progressive enough though they remain the church’s “best kept secret.”

Yet, the words I’ve quoted come from a new pope who (as Boff notes) has demonstrated his concern for the poor in practical ways, and has embodied a preference for simple living, And that might be sufficient reason for hope the pope’s words will define his papacy rather than simply being more papal “blah, blah.”

The jury’s still out.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

9 thoughts on “Second Thoughts about Pope Bergoglio: A Liberation Pope or Just More Blah, Blah?”

  1. Regarding your blog on the new pope Francis I have some comments:
    1) He washed the feet of women prisoners, you say. But does he equally respect the rights of women to contraception, to become priests/bishops/pope, to make their own decisions on their own bodies –the answer is a resounding NO. So this washing of feet is just so much more hypocritical theatre. Similar to your putting a photo of Bergoglio washing feet at the head of another recent blog. Because he washed feet, you say, “the jury is still out concerning Francis and women.” You seem too impressed by the washing of feet by conservatives: a little more critical thinking is in order.
    2) While I have great respect for Leonardo Boff and his statements that Bergoglio has preferential
    option for the poor, he failed to say that Bergoglio denies the right to women and gay people of basic human rights, such as contraception, gay marriage and many others. So he will wash their feet and, as I said above, still deny them their basic rights. What good is an option for the poor when it becomes fetishistic and not connected to their other rights. In this he is the prisoner of his own conservative, discriminatory mindset.
    3)Similar remarks about capitalism, capital punishment were made by John Paul I. So I see no advance here in Bergoglio’s comments. Consortium News claims Francis has a traditional, limited approach to helping poor people and is uneasy about Liberation theology. “It is possible to speak on behalf of the poor without supporting the real fundamental changes that are present with Liberation theology” and that “Bergoglio’s approach fits with the Church’s attitude for centuries, to give ‘charity’
    to the poor while doing little to change their cruel circumstances …” And, as an aside, did he actually change their cruel circumstances in Argentina while preaching these homilies on poverty.
    Writing in the Jewish progressive “Tikkun” magazine, liberation theologian Matthew Fox claims that Bergoglio “fought liberation theology tooth and nail….and he was an effective instigator of papal attitudes in this regard (the CIA under Reagan linked up with John Paul II to kill liberation theology.” )This is the same Matthew Fox, whose views on revolution from below, you (Mike) only recently
    strongly espoused. A sea change now: apparently to espouse reform from above, and a romanticization of Bergoglio. And it should be emphasized that many women and LGTBQ people are in poverty: give ’em some bread and deny their human rights?
    Bergoglio strongly opposes same-sex marriage. When Argentina was considering legalizing it in
    2010, Bergoglio opposed the legislation, calling it “a real and dire anthropological throwback” —
    whatever that means!
    Cardinal Bergoglio, in a letter to cloistered Argentinean nuns in 2010, wrote regarding gay marriage: “This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan….This is a move by the father of lies [the devil] that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God…Let’s look to St.. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment…May they support, defend and accompany us in this war on God.” What utter and complete balderdash.
    [Source for many of the points in no. 3: http://en.

    4) As a former priest and very progressive queer activist for 40 years (and no, no monkeying around with the altar boys), I reject these inhumane attitudes towards LGBTQ people and women. I will not do a dance as so many liberals did with Obama: he needs, more time, he needs more time….when any person of intelligence could see that the man is a total sell out to corporate interests and that was obvious from his establishment choices for his first cabinet.. Bergoglio has positive qualities, that is certain. But when he seems headed for milkwarm reform, then it’s business as usual for the Roman Church. And how can there be a reformist Vatican III (pace Mike) when all bishops and cardinals are either extremists or regular conservatives — a few with a human conscience regarding human rights.
    Those liberals who put their trust for major reform (as opposed to tinkering here and there; and even if they sell the Vatican gold, I would still want to see a sea-change in its opposition to the rights of women and LGBTQ people in particular) in Bergoglio will be as severely disappointed as they were with Obama, who is even worse than Bush. Thomas Jefferson must really be turning in his grave.
    The bottom line, in my opinion, is that the Roman Catholic Church is incapable of reforming itself
    because of the way it is structured. Yes, there will be minor reforms to assuage the ferocity of those who are baying for Church blood because of sexual scandals. But the structure, with its cardinals and bishops in full ecclesiastical drag, will not go down without a major fight, and I don’t see enough people energized to bring revolution from below, just as I don’t see it in the Corporate States of America.


    1. Thanks for this extended comment, Winston. It’s hard to deny the truth of what you say here. Nonetheless, people change. We’re still waiting for Bergoglio’s defining move and document. Until then I suppose we’re still allowed to say the jury is out and hope that you’re wrong.


      1. If it’s hard to deny the truth of what I say here, Mike, then you shouldn’t be waiting around for Bergoglio’s “defining move and document.” The jury is certainly NOT out: the facts are just as evident as they were for Obama in 2009, but many liberals were paralyzed waiting for Obama’s own defining move and document. What they got instead was the undermining of the Constitution, and a move towards complete authoritarianism. Thanks goodness, there are still people like journalist Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” and print journalists such as Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi. With the new assaults on freedom of the press, who knows how long even they will last?
        Yes, Francis I will throw a few crumbs of reform so that high-minded but wishy-washy Catholic liberals can feel relieved and have their consciences assuaged. If you look at his background, he is no Cardinal Martini of Milan, who would have tried to bring about major change. Change from above is a chimera. Would you care to explain why you have changed your stance of approving liberation theologian Matthew Fox’s revolution from below though that can probably only be attained at the local level? Will you consider anything less than married priests, approval of LGBT and all human rights, women’s rights to be priests etc to be acceptable? If you say yes, then you will be advocating a Galileo wait of 300 years for justice. And would you care to defend Cardinal Bergoglio’s ugly, bigoted, reactionary views on LGBTQ human rights which I mentioned in my original comments?

        From your words, it seems that you will.


  2. Bergoglio fulfilled his role as a Bishop vis-a-vis the Vatican’s talking points. At the same time, his feet told a different story, in terms of living simply, and encouraging his staff (priests) to go out among the people. He had to do the former (it was an agreement in taking the job), and chose to do the latter.

    As Pope, the job description is quite different. He gets to create the talking points. And last Thursday’s homily when he said the atheists who do good and he will find a meeting place after life if over, was a theological bombshell, belatedly walked-back by a Vatican apparatchik. If that apparatchik is (metaphorically) in a closet counting indulgences a year from now, we’ll know that Bergoglio is for real, and has taken control. Both questions are still up in the air.

    Hank Fay


  3. Bergoglio’s austere life is quite admirable. But it does not excuse his antediluvian tirades against the human rights of LGBTQ people (see my comments above) and unwillingness to change the Church’s sexist attitudes towards women The Church seems to thrive on demonization of the brave and the good.. As a man of 74 with one lung, he will not have the 15-20 years necessary to clean the Church’s Augean stables nor tame the Curia which has had 1000 years to get entrenched. Nor does his past history give any assurances that he will make the major changes needed. I see some reforms aimed at the sexual scandals and some ecclesiastical matters. This is a situation like that of Obama where well meaning liberals kept hoping year after year that he would live up to his promises. He instead apprenticed himself to corporations and the big banks. The bottom line is that Bergoglio is just not a progressive. If he were, he would not allow a Vatican apparatchik to walk back his remarks on atheists. Keep in mind, too, that popes who begin to show initiatives end up quickly deceased –John Paul I. Out of the many hundreds of popes there seem to have been only two true progressives, the scientist Pope Sylvester II (1099-1103) and John XXIII.

    I remain so happy that long ago I jettisoned my ties to this corrupt church and took refuge in the real spirituality of the Buddha’s Dharma. I make my comments as someone who wants the outcasts of this world to find some hope in a spiritual Catholic Church. But, despite the admirable work of so many good people still in the Church, their hope is in a chimera.


  4. Hi Winston,

    re: Bergoglio allowing an apparatchik to contradict him — that’s the nature of entrenched interests in a bureaucracy. It’s what happens in any organization (including Buddhist monasteries) when power is at the top. And that issue is one of the two I mentioned were still in question.

    I too have taken refuge, or more accurately found a spiritual home that encompasses where I was and am — in the Quakers (where power, and leadings from the spirit, are from the bottom, only).

    I think he’s doing the right thing for the moment: putting his heart out there, and seeing who reacts which way. We’ll see what he does with that information.


    PS: I, too, worry about his longevity, in a Dan Brown-ish conspiratorial way. I find this sort of embarrassing to experience, never mind admit. And the entrenched interests there have already demonstrated their allegiance to false gods, so anything seems possible, and therefore worrisome.


  5. Hello Hank, Well there’s no proof but it seems a high probability that John Paul I was “offed”. The Vatican refused to permit his body to be autopsied. There have been various documentaries on the shenanigans of Vatican Bank honchos, not much different from what happened with U.S. Banks. The head of one Catholic religious Order was regularly laundering money for Mafia types (doubtless with a high cut of the money for his own use).
    I have high admiration for the Quakers where, as you say, power comes from the bottom up. Perhaps you could help steer Mike in that direction (lol).
    Bergoglio has not taken back his horrific words on LGBTQ people and will he ever? And that when at least 50-60% of the Church cardinals/bishops/priests were born with homosexual orientation, but most are filled with internalized homophobia.It is easy for oligarchs, secular or ecclesiastical, to gang up on gay people. If he authorized gay priests to be heterosexually married, the liberals on these pages would throw their hat in the air and say “liberation is here.” What about marriage for LGBTQ people. When are we going to see a gay married couple when one of them is a priest or bishop (as has already happened in the Episcopalian Church)? How about an openly lesbian pope? The people who hold power in today’s RC Church are not going to surrender it; the theology has been skewed towards authoritarian positions.
    Best that progressives stop beating their heads against a wall and join the Quakers or take refuge in the Dharma. (Did you hear that, Mike?)


  6. Instead of wanting and wishing to change the church that Jesus established through His choice of twelve MEN as His co-workers (“in persona Christi”), during His three years before His Sacrifice of Suffering on His Cross, and then 40 days of, no doubt, detailed directives about what He wanted for His Church in liturgy etc. the manner of Sacraments, all the while if He wanted He would have put in place any of the women at that time. He didn’t. It was not His Will. He seems to have had different plans and decisions about His Church than you do. Also, I’m sure He wouldn’t want anyone to choose to go to Hell for “sins against the flesh”–the Sixth Commandment is inclusive of ANYTHING regarding sexual acts or even thoughts, that is in conflict with God’s Law, which is the Natural Law, from the begining of time with Adam and Eve. That God’s creation of man and woman intended their sexuality to be reproductive in forming the human race. It is Satan’s lies and deception than has introduced the error of thinking that views sex as an expression of “love” and as a “human right.” Sodomy must be selfishly pleasurable. It has no other productive purpose. As also felatio. If you don’t accept Jesus’s Church, go off with Satan and start your own Church of Sodomy; and then be prepared to try to enjoy the consequence of spending a bit of time where it’s a bit warm!!! For a long, long time!!!!


    1. Thanks, Rita. This is a nice clear expression of what I used to believe as well. But it no longer rings true for me. Jesus didn’t say much about things like this. He did not at all seem preoccupied with sex. Also, he didn’t seem concerned with founding a church or new religion. He was a Jewish prophet concerned with reformation of Judaism. Concern about “sacraments” and sexual repression came much, much later and would be quite surprising, I think, to Jesus. But thanks for the reminder of pre-Vatican II thinking.


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