Commentary Religion

Contradictions and Conservatism Muddle Hopes for Change Under Jesuit Pope

Bridgette Dunlap

Bergoglio's past statements show a lack of understanding of how fundamental reproductive autonomy is to economic justice.

In the social circles I run in, progressive, moderate, and former Catholics alike were taken aback yesterday by the news that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio will be pope. This is primarily because … he’s a Jesuit! The Jesuits are an order with a reputation for being intellectuals, committed to the poor, suspicious of hierarchy, and regularly in trouble with the Vatican. They are known for founding some of the world’s premiere Catholic-affiliated educational institutions and not generally found in high positions at the Vatican. I do not follow papal politics and didn’t think I had a horse in this race, but I was swept up in the moment of glee, thinking that maybe, somehow, they’d installed one of those rebellious-type Jesuits.

A cursory Google search brought me back to reality. Cardinal Bergoglio, who will be known as Pope Francis, is a vociferous opponent of marriage equality (“a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God”), has claimed permitting gay couples to adopt is discrimination against children, and believes the law should force a rape survivor to carry a pregnancy to term against her will (limited access to abortion in Argentina is “the death penalty”). He is credited with neutralizing the threat of Jesuit liberalism, while praised for maintaining an austere lifestyle associated with the order. He either turned two fellow Jesuit priests over to the Argentine junta or saved them from execution through behind-the-scenes dealing. Or maybe both.

His silence during Argentina’s dictatorship of the late seventies and early eighties, known as the Dirty War, and his alleged assistance to the murderous regime, caused some commentators to decry as a shame upon the Church his nearly successful candidacy for pope the last time around. In 2012, his bishops issued an apology for the failures to protect the people; some saw it as equivocal, but it was still an apology—acknowledgments of guilt are not what Catholic clerics are known for.

There is little cause for optimism in his record on reproductive justice or the rights of sexual minorities.  He is a hardliner on contraception, but has said the use of condoms can be permissible in some circumstances to prevent infection. It’s unclear to me whether his position differs from  Pope Benedict XVI’s, who made a comment to the press suggesting a possible deviation from the accepted orthodoxy, but did nothing in the way of changing course on the church’s influential work to block access to condoms globally.

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Though belied by his position on marriage equality, Bergoglio attests to the dignity of gay people. It is possible he isn’t as extreme as the U.S. bishops who claim to hold the same belief, yet the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently opposed the Violence Against Women Act because it includes explicit protections for people regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. And yet, the position that LGBTQ persons should not even be mentioned in the legislation is a symptom of the kind of hatred that makes people targets of violence. Perhaps Bergoglio believes it is permissible for the democratic state to recognize that people of various gender identities and sexual orientations exist and protect them. More basically, one can hope that he will refrain from legitimizing supporters of the death penalty for gay people as Benedict did.

Bergoglio hails from the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage. So far as I can tell, he was an outspoken critic of the bill, but has not claimed, á la the American bishops, that the adoption of a policy he disagrees with through the political process constitutes a violation of his own religious freedom.

Cardinal Bergoglio endorsed the view that those opposed to the criminalization of abortion should not take communion. He has been more forgiving regarding other sacraments, however. In criticizing priests who refuse to baptize the children of single mothers conceived outside “the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio said:

These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized.

Though problematic, this statement contains an unusual recognition of a woman’s autonomy. It acknowledges that a woman chooses whether or to not carry a pregnancy to term. I hope this is because he recognizes a woman’s moral agency and bodily autonomy; at the very least it exhibits an acceptance that a woman has some rights under the law.

On the whole though, Bergoglio’s views on issues of sexuality and reproduction are orthodox and oppressive. I can only hope that in keeping with Jesuit tradition, he will tolerate disagreement and dissent. This would be a major reversal from what observers have called an inquisition under the rule of Joseph Ratzinger as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog and then pope.

I hope Bergogolio is a man of the people rejecting the trappings of power and dedicated to the poor as portrayed. Still, there is no indication he understands that reproductive autonomy is fundamental to economic justice, but perhaps his stated commitment to alleviating poverty, which is radical by U.S. standards, is genuine and will leave too little time for undermining access to reproductive health care. It takes real work, for instance, to deprive low-income women of contraception as successfully as the Church in the Philippines did. Perhaps Pope Francis will be too busy giving the assets of the Vatican to the poor in the style of his papal namesake St. Francis of Assisi and lobbying for wealth redistribution worldwide for such efforts.

Gary Wills has explained that popes are monarchs in an age of democratic values. The pope is selected by cardinals who were appointed precisely because of their loyalty to orthodoxies long rejected by the laity, particularly regarding the equality of women. In the modern era, Church officials cannot impose their will through force of law as they once did. This allows moderate U.S. Catholics to think of the pope as largely irrelevant and the bishops as out of touch but harmless. That, however, is a luxury of the privileged.

A North American “cafeteria Catholic,” especially an affluent one, is free to disregard the Catholic teachings she finds archaic or unjust and continue to enjoy and support the Church for the value she finds in it. Others, however, who lack resources or the protections of a government that separates church from state can’t just look away. The Catholic Church is an extremely powerful influence on the policies and conditions that determine whether a person who is marginalized can access reproductive healthcare, afford contraception, enjoy legal equality, or seek redress for sexual abuse.

My fear is that the good will moderate and liberal Catholics feel towards Jesuits, and Bergoglio’s forceful advocacy for the poor will put a pleasing face on an institution that must be held accountable by its members. Catholics legitimize and fund the Church and they have some responsibility to those it harms.  It is not enough for cafeteria Catholics to say they don’t agree with everything the Church does.

As critics are regularly told, the Church is not a democracy. I accept that and have exercised my right of exit, but I admire the internal dissenters who stay and seek to reform the church, both for their commitment to their own beliefs and the importance of reform to those who cannot exit as easily as I did. I believe more cafeteria Catholics need to join the Catholic reformers. One thing we can all learn from the accusations against Cardinal Bergoglio regarding his conduct during the Dirty War is that the silence of the privileged can look a lot like complicity.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Kaine Calls for Congress to End Recess to Combat Zika

Ally Boguhn

Meanwhile, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump punted when asked about his own plan to combat Zika if he was in office today.

This week on the campaign trail, both Democrats and Republicans at the top of the ticket weighed in on combatting Zika, and the Donald Trump campaign released a list of economic advisors that failed to include a single woman.

Kaine Calls for Congress to End Recess to Combat Zika

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, said that “Congress should not be in recess when Zika is advancing,” during a speech in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Tuesday.

The Virginia senator reportedly went on to urge Congress to “pass a $1.1 billion bill to combat Zika without what he called the ‘poison pill’ of anti-abortion language added by House Republicans,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

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Kaine had previously voiced support for ensuring that Zika funding could go to Planned Parenthood—something that the version of the Zika bill blocked by Democrats would have prevented. He was one of more than 40 Senate Democrats to add his name to a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) this week urging “both the Senate and the House back into session to pass a real and serious response to the burgeoning Zika crisis.”

Republicans criticized Kaine for not voting through that bill, accusing him of playing politics with the vote. “With new cases of the Zika virus being reported in Florida every day it is becoming clear that with his party-line vote to block crucial Zika funding Tim Kaine put his loyalty to the Democrat Party over the health of Sunshine State residents,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Natalie Strom in a statement to the Miami Herald. “He owes the hardworking people of Florida an explanation for his playing politics at their expense.”

Meanwhile, Republican presidential nominee Trump punted when asked by West Palm Beach’s CBS 12 about what his own plan to combat Zika would be if he was in office today.

“You have a great governor who’s doing a fantastic job, Rick Scott, on the Zika,” said Trump. “And it’s a problem. It’s a big problem. But I watch and I see. And I see what they’re doing with the spraying and everything else.” 

“And I think he’s doing a fantastic job, and he’s letting everyone know exactly what the problem is and how to get rid of it. He’s going to have it under control, he probably already does,” added Trump.

When the reporter pressed Trump to discuss whether a special session should be held by Congress to review a bill to help combat Zika, Trump again said he would leave it up to the Florida governor. “I would say that it’s up to Rick Scott. It depends on what he’s looking to do because he really seems to have it under control in Florida,” said Trump.

No Women Made Trump’s List of Economic Advisors

Trump’s campaign released a list of economic advisors Friday who had one noticeable trait in common: they were all men.

“I am pleased that we have such a formidable group of experienced and talented individuals that will work with me to implement real solutions for the economic issues facing our country,” said Trump in a press release announcing the list. “I am going to be the greatest jobs President our country has ever seen. We will do more for the hardworking people of our country and Make America Great Again.” 

According to the release, “Additional members of the Advisory Council will be added at later dates.” Many in the media have noted that in addition to the lack of women on the council, there are also very few actual economists.

The gender disparity in Trump’s current list of economic advisors mirrors a similar lack of representation of women discussing the topic in the media. According to a recent study conducted by media watchdog Media Matters for America, in the second quarter of 2016 women appeared as guests in less than 25 percent of analyzed evening and prime-time television discussions focused on the economy.

Though there is a gender gap in economics, 32.9 percent of those earning doctorates in the field are women, according to a 2014 report from the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession. 

As the Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley and Jose A. DelReal reported, in contrast, Clinton’s “economic advisers include several longtime Democratic policy hands … and several women, including Ann O’Leary, Maya Harris, Neera Tanden, Heather Boushey and Laura D’Andrea Tyson.”

The lack of women on Trump’s list, however, isn’t surprising given that the Republican nominee was also unable to name a single woman he would consider appointing to his cabinet if elected, other than his daughter, when asked about it this week.

“Well, we have so many different ones to choose,” said Trump when asked which women he would name to his cabinet. “I can tell you everybody would say, ‘Put Ivanka in, put Ivanka in,’ you know that, right? She’s very popular, she’s done very well.”

“But there really are so many that are really talented people,” he continued without offering any serious candidates.

What Else We’re Reading

Though both House Speaker Ryan and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have both already offered Trump their endorsements, the Republican nominee said that he is “not quite there yet” on endorsing them.  

During a CNN town hall event on Tuesday, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson admitted that his head has “been in the sand” when it comes to law enforcement “discriminating” against people of color.

Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti reported that Kaine “is expected to play a major behind-the-scenes role on the money circuit, in addition to his public campaigning.”

Roll Call’s Simone Pathé asked whether Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ (R-TN) “abortion hypocrisy” will haunt his primary race.

The State of Texas has agreed to modify its voter identification law ahead of the November election.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler fact-checkedDonald Trump’s revisionist history of mocking a disabled reporter.”

Culture & Conversation Race

‘I Burn, and I Hope’: Today’s Writers Revisit ‘The Fire Next Time’

Shonte Daniels

It’s 2016, but the world James Baldwin described in the early 1960s seems no different from the world we live in now.

The first essay in James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time is a letter to his young nephew regarding the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the racial discrimination Baldwin’s nephew will face. Baldwin details the hate his nephew will encounter, and the people who will only see him, a young Black boy, as an animal. But Baldwin’s warning is not used as a fear tactic; rather, Baldwin pleads for his nephew, and for Black youth as a whole, to live with compassion, to survive “for the sake of your children and your children’s children.”

He ends the book by demanding everyone—everyone meaning Black and white people who are conscious of U.S. race relations—change the minds of hateful people. “If we do not dare everything,” he writes, “the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by the slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / No more water, the fire next time!”

Now Jesmyn Wardan English professor at Tulane University and a recipient of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction with her second novel, Salvage the Bones—has compiled a collection of 15 essays and three poems (ten of which were written specifically for the book) that arrives 53 years later, at the time of the fire Baldwin forewarned. Not every person has pushed to bring an end to racial injustice, and so everyone is burning. But so long as there are activists, philosophers, and artists, there is always hope we will one day pull ourselves out of the flames: That is the message I took away from Ward’s The Fire This Time. The collection acknowledges the pain and brings the reader a sense of hope that the fire this time is not permanent.

Featuring great contemporary Black writers like Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, and Kevin Young, The Fire This Time uses Baldwin’s thoughts on race to discuss current struggles and Black people’s dogged determination to love each other amid centuries of hate.

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Released today on what would have been Baldwin’s 92nd birthday, the book is grounded in the country’s history to help readers better understand the context of our present moment. As Ward states in her introduction, “We must acknowledge the plantation, must unfold white sheets, must recall the black diaspora to understand what is happening now.”

Slavery may have been abolished more than 150 years ago, but, as the book suggests, the world has not overcome its racist roots, nor has it granted Black people any new means of safety.

When I initially sat down to write this review, the Freddie Gray case had just concluded with zero convictions against the Baltimore, Maryland, officers involved in the death of the 25-year-old Black man. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke had addressed the acquittal to a resounding applause at the Republican National Convention. Meanwhile, Black parents still live in fear for their children playing in the park, street, or pool. Despite claims of a “post-race” society—one in which people are not discriminated against or murdered because of the color of their skin—the targeting by law enforcement of some racial groups over others remains rampant. It feels as if, especially for those with power, the Black body is still another beast to be tamed. It’s 2016, but the world Baldwin described in the early 1960s seems no different from the world we live in now.

This connection between the past and present is the central focus of Claudia Rankine’s essay “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” when she talks about how shortly after she was born four Black girls were killed at an Alabama Baptist church on September 15, 1963, and how 52 years later, “for African-American families, this living in a state of mourning and fear remains commonplace.” Shortly before her essay originally appeared in the New York Times, on June 17, 2015, nine parishioners were shot and killed at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Dylann Storm Roof [the shooting suspect] did not create himself from nothing,” she writes. “Every racist statement he has made he could have heard all his life. He, along with the rest of us, has been living with slain black bodies.”

This association is also made in Clint Smith’s poem, “Queries of Unrest,” in which the author writes, “Maybe I come from a place where people / are always afraid of dying.”

Despite the dark nature of the topics addressed in the book, a thread of hope is weaved throughout the entire collection. As Ward writes in her introduction,“I burn, and I hope.”

The Fire This Time isn’t interested in creating plans on moving forward as much as it is about discussing the humanity of Black people.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers questions historians’ portrayal of Phillis Wheatley and her husband John Peters, asserting that their relationship could have been loving rather than tumultuous; Kiese Laymon thanks OutKast and his grandmama for letting him find his “funky” voice; and Emily Raboteau writes on the importance of murals in urban communities that she photographed around New York, which teach civilians about their rights when engaging with the police.

Amid loss and fury, love binds Black communities together. Our love for each other is what keeps the fire burning as we are shouting for our lives to matter.

However, The Fire This Time is not just a book for those inside the diaspora; Ward urges those who don’t identify as Black or consider themselves part of the diaspora, and those who lack understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement, to read this book and educate themselves on the ways in which Black people are unequivocally human. The collection could change the minds of those who see the Black community, and especially the Black Lives Matter movement, as menacing. It’s an educational and emotional read that shows Black people are hurting and loving simultaneously. Kiese Laymon says it best in his essay “Da Art of Storytellin’ (A Prequel)” when he writes, “I’m going to tell Grandmama that her belief is the only reason I’m still alive, that belief in black Southern love is why we work.”

The Fire This Time develops a kinship with non-Black folks through the use of the collective “we.” For example, Isabel Wilkerson speaks to Black people about the continuation of trauma against us and in “Where Do We Go From Here?” (which originally appeared in Essence magazine’s special Black Lives Matter issue). Or Carol Anderson’s “White Rage,” where she takes a historic look at white supremacy in the wake of Black death: “When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Missouri … it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male.” Instead, Anderson argues that what we’ve seen is an example of white rage, a backlash from white people who have “access to the courts, police, legislatures, and governors,” and can hurt Black communities through means of law and order.

The diversity of perspectives in The Fire This Time is necessary, as the collection seeks to show its readers that Black life, like Black art, can never be extinguished.

In fact, The Fire This Time places a strong emphasis on the difference between life and Black life to ensure the reader understands it, and never forgets the way race alters everyone’s living. The difference between life and Black life is that the latter is always questioned, threatened, or destroyed, due to racism. Whether attending a funeral, walking at night, or even listening to music, a Black body gives ordinary life new context.

The authors of the pieces that fill The Fire This Time have come together, under Ward’s direction, like a family sharing their fears, their rage, and their happiness. Reading through the collection felt like sitting through a discussion with aunties and grandparents. The reader must hear her elder’s stories, which are honest and analytical, comical and devastating.

As Edwidge Danticat writes in the final essay of the book, “Message to My Daughters,” Black people want a future where our children “have the power to at least try to change things, even in a world that resists change with more strength than they have.”

The Fire This Time will not leave you feeling completely hopeful of the future—it is not naïve in its optimism—but it does suggest that there is always room for societal change, so long as we continue fighting for it. Like The Fire Next Time, this book still hopes for when the fire will bring peace. “When that day of jubilee finally arrives,” Danticat writes, “all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”


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