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Argentine Jesuit scholar shares insider view of Pope Francis

11.13.13

gustavo morelloPope Francis is leading a "common sense revolution" in the Catholic Church, says the Rev. Gustavo Morello, SJ, one of the pope's fellow Jesuits from Argentina. Morello, who spoke twice at Saint Michael's College on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, examined the theology, history and personality behind potential sea-changes for the church under his countryman, the former Argentine Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio.

"But be clear - he's not Che Guevera," said Morello, referencing Latin America's iconic countercultural political revolutionary of the 1950s and 60s who was a Marxist from Argentina. Rather, Francis - is "an institutional kind of guy" whose "austerity is authentic" though "he's not naïve about power," said the sociologist/priest, speaking in the new Dion Family Student Center the evening of October 31. Hosts for his visit were the Center for Faith and Culture and the Department of Sociology/Anthropology.

The roily complexity of Argentina's political and social history through the 20th century is hard to cut through and understand well, but Morello said through it all, competing outlooks from places of power have focused on the problem of the poor either with a "liberationist" or "paternalistic" agenda. Francis, however, "is neither liberationist or paternalistic," he said, but simply (though insistently) "acknowledging the fact of the poor" through the Gospel lens of a "classical theology." Argentina has developed a "theology of culture" built on a notion of "the people" - their common history and values - rather than "the poor," thereby stressing what souls across society have to offer instead of what they lack.

In his Thursday talk, Morello described political instability under which Bergoglio joined the Society of Jesus, first with revolution in the air across Latin America in the early 1960s on the heels of Castro's Cuban revolution, then under a reactionary anti-communist "national security state' that arose in Argentina in the late 1960s. The general who seized power in 1966 looked to the church for support, naming church leaders to his cabinet and trying to impose Catholicism all over the country. "The bishops at the time loved it," Morello said (Bergoglio was not yet a bishop then). But in the same era, Catholicism began purposely engaging the poor in Latin America as never before, creating a paradox in Argentina: just as the Church opened to dialogue about those poor, the government closed the conversations out of fear of communists. Posters that Morello showed from the period via PowerPoint depicted Christ carrying a gun as a guerrilla fighter.

He noted that Bergoglio became a provincial novice master in this period at age 33 in 1969. The following years, up to 1985, were difficult for the country with "state terrorists" killing roughly 13,000 people at least - comparable to U.S. losses in Vietnam. Morello also described persecution of the La Salette order of priests including kidnappings and torture. Driving the government perpetrators was this notion of themselves as "anti-secular Catholics" fighting "communism" - "which was a label for everything that was against them," Morello said. Priests advocating for the poor like the La Salettes were seen as communist infiltrators. The official church response, Morello said, seemed to be "that we, the church, as mother, cannot take sides" because both groups in this dichotomy called themselves Catholics.

Morello said Francis' early writings echo Juan Peron, whose government (1946-1955) shared with the church a doctrine of "social justice" and the idea of a state that mediates in class conflicts and evens out social inequalities. But the deadly coup ousting Peron was done in the name of Catholicism too. Morello said against this backdrop, Pope Francis "has a problem with anti-secular Catholics." The speaker said that while he's a sociologist, he's also a believer so he feels Francis "got a call." And "the press loves him - the press has changed its attitude toward the church based on this new pope," he said. "But the cardinals elected him, not the Jesuits, so he leads a group of cardinals trying to take the church in a different direction."

Challenges for the pope, Morello said, include the fact that Asia and Africa are virtually unknown cultures to Argentinians, and yet so critical in the church's present and future; another challenge is that Francis doesn't speak English, and "his record shows a lack of awareness on gender issues - he comes from a machismo culture." Finally, "he will get so many requests from so many and will disappoint someone, since he can't make everyone happy." But "clearly he's inspiring a lot of people who were previously disappointed with the church," said Morello, who personally takes it as a good sign that certain hardline factions in the church seem unsettled by Francis. "The way he explains the faith makes a lot of sense to people, which hadn't always been the case with his predecessors," he said.

Morello also spoke to students and faculty on Nov. 1, All Saints Day, at noon in the Farrell Room, about "Secularization and the transformation of Latin American Catholicism." Though secularizing a lot compared to the past, he said, in Latin America, "the state needs church resources" - for education, for helping migrants and in other areas. "They can't get rid of the church because they need it," he said, noting widespread popular religious feeling even in laicized countries, with Pentecostalism and atheism on the rise too as emerging political forces. Media, he said, have been "huge in changing how people engage religion, but pluralization didn't mean liberalization" - Catholics and evangelicals have become allies on conservative social causes. "Latin America remains a Catholic continent - half the Catholics in the world live there," he said, but with ever fewer priests to serve so many, "there's a new way of living popular Catholicism. Going to a shrine you don't need a priest," he said. "It's Catholicism on your own" that seems to prevail today, a "cafeteria Catholicism where we choose and decide, and it's not just progressives, it's conservatives too. We're witnessing a different way of viewing authority - you must be persuasive and more inviting now. We can't go back to imposing."

He told a questioner that Liberation Theology, so controversial and widespread in the 1970s across Latin America, is now "more a theology than a social practice." The Jesuit view, he said, is that "We should be engaged in culture. God is there in the world," so whatever the cultural landscape, "we should be able to discover the work of God."

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