There is little doubt that the Catholic Church is in crisis as a result of deep internal problems.
Alongside revelations that child abuse has been widespread within the Church, and that high ranking Church figures were involved in covering up these crimes, it has also been revealed that the Institute for Religious Work (IOR), better known as the “Vatican Bank”, was used for money laundering.
There are also problems associated with its traditional elitist structure, connections with repressive, oligarchic and anti-popular regimes, and its support for recent coups against elected governments, like those in Honduras in 2009 and Paraguay in 2012.
Then there is the Church’s opposition to socially progressive measures in the name of the family, tradition and the state ― whether it be the provision of contraceptives in poor countries, the right to abortion, divorce, anti-homophobia laws or legalisation of equal marriage rights.
All this has helped create a growing disconnect between the Church and its followers ― and dwindling congregations the world over.
In the 1960s, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, the Church sought to adapt to the changing world around it. Evidence of this was the Second Vatican Council, the spread of the Church’s influence in the Third World, the emergence of Liberation Theology (which supported the struggles of the oppressed), and the development of Christian democratic parties.
Yet the defeat of important progressive movements towards the end of the '70s, the rise of neoliberalism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union had an impact on the Church.
Increasingly, reactionary forces grew stronger in the Church, leading to the election of conservative hardliner Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
Bid to reestablish legitimacy
The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to become Pope Francis last year, after Pope Benedict's shock resignation, represents a bid by Catholicism to restore its declining moral and political legitimacy.
It seeks to defend its ability to act as a guarantor of order and mediator capable of pacifying and controlling popular movements.
Bergoglio was promoted by some of the most reactionary ― and at the same time lucid ― sectors of the gang running the Vatican. He was always an outsider, but it was this characteristic that allowed him to rise to the top. He is the first Latin American pope and the first Jesuit pope.
Pope Francis began his life in the Church after the Medellin Conference of 1968, out of which emerged Liberation Theology. He opposed the more radical elements of Liberation Theology, but sought to balance this by also opposing the influence of arch-conservative grouping Opus Dei.
Instead, he promoted Popular Theology, which spoke of an “option for the poor”, in opposition to the defence of the “oppressed class” that was at the heart of Liberation Theology.
The defeats of the social movements of the '60s and '70s was a strong factor in the disappearance (in many cases physically) of representatives of Liberation Theology. This made Pope John Paul II’s task of re-positioning the Church in its traditional role of instrument for containing the masses much easier.
Bergoglio’s influence began to grow with the Fifth Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) held in 2007. He played a central role in drafting the final document adopted by the meeting, one which put forward a progressive perspective that rested on a conservative foundation.
Bergoglio continued to maintain a line that was both independent in terms of his pastoral work but conservative in nature. Some commentators have described him as the champion of tactical flexibility and strategic intransigence.
That is why at the same time as he spoke with the poor and excluded, Bergoglio maintained his hostility to same sex marriage rights and ferocious opposition to abortion.
Bergoglio role during the 1976-1983 Argentine military dictatorship, when he was a “provincial” delegate of the Jesuit Order, continues to generate controversy.
Much of the discussion has centered on the case of two Jesuits priests who were arrested and tortured by the regime ― and Bergoglio’s alleged role in their detention.
In his recent biography of Bergoglio, Marcelo Larraquy puts forward the case that Bergoglio “donated” the two priests in the face of persecution by their captors.
However, focusing on whether Bergoglio acted wrongly in this case, or correctly in others, can draw attention away from the bigger picture of the strategy of complicity undertaken by the Church hierarchy in the face of a political genocide.
No testimonies have been provided that confirm Bergoglio was one of the collaborating priests that blessed the instruments of torture and helped drag confessions out of detainees. Yet he knew of the massacres that were taking part at the time he held a leading post in a collaborationist institution.
He helped people in certain cases and left others who were in more exposed situations to their own devices. More importantly, he remained silent in the face of genocide.
Two social movements stand out among those that Bergoglio has supported in Argentina: the La Alameda Foundation and the Movement of Excluded Workers (MTE).
Led by Juan Grabois, son of the one of the leaders of the “Iron Guard”, an ultra-right Peronist group in the '70s, the MTE unites “cartoneros” who make a living by collecting cardboard cartons and other recyclable materials from the streets.
The philosophy of this group in many ways epitomises that of the “option for the poor”. The alliance with these social groups was based on pointing out that the poor are victims and proposed a policy for “rescuing” them.
In doing so, it blocks the processes of self-organisation and participation that emerge out of collective struggle.
The clientalist and paternalist rescuing of the poor, and the containment of the workers' movement by trade unions under a semi-totalitarian system of control, are key elements of Bergoglio’s strategic objective of guaranteeing order.
Bergoglio continues to maintain relations with leading political figures in Argentina. These include Jorge Capitanich, the current government’s chief of cabinet with ties to Opus Dei, and Julio Barbaro and Guillermo Moreno, with whom he has maintained a relationship since the time of the Iron Guard.
More recently, he has “reconciled” with President Cristina Fernandez. In a clear bid to set the agenda, his first gift to the president was a copy of the final document approved in the CELAM meeting of 2007.
Bergoglio, in his guise of Pope Francis, hopes to restore the Church’s moral and political legitimacy in order to better carry out its function: guaranteeing order. Gestures and discourse aside, this is the strategic aim of his actions.
This is evident in his support for the “option of the poor” (in opposition to Liberation Theology), his position during the Argentine military dictatorship, his participation in CELAM, his political ties in Argentina, and now in his role as pope.