John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (1999) has been subject to criticism since its publication, especially from representatives of the Catholic Church. I’ve long thought that many of the criticisms, focused on particular questions about a direct relationship between Pius XII and Hitler or whether Pacelli was personally anti-Semitic, distracted from a central argument of the book, one with both historical and sociological importance.
It’s been about a decade since I read it and I don’t have a copy at hand, but as I recall a key theme in the book was the hierarchical, authoritarian relations Pius established in the Catholic Church and promoted in wider society. As Cornwell argued, “More than any other Vatican official of the century, [Pacelli] promoted the modern ideology of autocratic papal control, the highly centralized, dictatorial authority...”. This ideology paralleled fascist visions of social order and gave support to authoritarian movements during and after the war. It formed part of and gave voice to a longer rightwing tradition in the Church – beyond the conservative, authoritarian nature of Catholicism itself – and had powerful repercussions for Catholic leftwing movements like liberation theology and their work in local communities.
It’s a pivotal moment for Latin America. In Venezuela and Honduras in particular, popular social justice movements and politicians allying with them contend with rightwing oligarchical powers backed by the US government. So much depends on the outcome of these struggles: democracy and popular sovereignty, military power, corporate power, poverty, inequality, human health, education, the environment, women’s rights, indigenous rights, LGBT rights, the rights of other animals,… Millions of lives and futures are at stake.
In this ongoing struggle, the political Right has long been able to rely on the collaboration and support of the established church and its newspapers for their authoritarian and neoliberal projects. And over the past few weeks, they’ve continued to demonstrate their obedience, implicitly and explicitly appealing to the religious powers. Rightwing Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost Venezuela’s presidential elections in April to Nicolas Maduro,* flew to the Vatican just a few weeks ago to meet with the pope and ask for his intervention in Venezuela:
“‘This is a government that feeds off fear, hatred and lies, and aims to make all Venezuelans live in darkness and division’, Capriles said in an open letter he left with the pontiff on Wednesday, urging his mediation.”He was hopeful and even confident that the pope, like the US, would be an ally in his continuing campaign to destabilize Venezuelan democracy and return power to the wealthy few.*
Conservative political candidates in Honduras have similarly acted on the assumption that the Church would be supportive of their projects. A campaign leaflet for military candidate General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez listed one of his qualifications for presidential office as a “great fear of God,” illustrating a politics of fear and hierarchy. Supporters of National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández produced and distributed a fake LIBRE flier featuring their caricature of the party’s plans for governance in order to scare voters. The program points range from those projecting the conservatives’ own existing authoritarian actions and fantasies onto the opposition to articles that are reasonable and just. The section on “Freedom of Expression and Religion,” for example, reads:
“Given that we the socialists don’t believe in the existence of any God, we will create a Law in which we will have the freedom to believe in the God the sovereign wishes, and we will completely Eliminate any relation between the church and the Government, since the church should not have any relation to the state due to its links to coupism and the bourgeoisie of this country ….”This is actually quite fascinating (beyond the tactic of using the prospect of secular government to stoke fear), as it seems a clear admission of the reality of the collaboration of the Honduran church with the coup and the larger neoliberal and authoritarian projects of the oligarchy. Again, we see the Right confident in the unwavering support of the church. In the days before the election, Orlando Hernández pledged (like the police chief in Montgomery, Alabama) to give churches political power in enforcing obedience to the social order:
Involving the Churches as part of a plan to prevent young people from becoming involved in criminal activities is one of the key parts of the security plan of the National Party presidential candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández.Declaring his victory in the recent elections, Orlando Hernández and his supporters launched into a public prayer session so repetitive and prolonged that the reporters on teleSUR cut away from the video.
The candidate asserted that these groups dedicated to inculcating moral and Christian values in people must strengthen and lead programs that distance boys, girls, adolescents, and young people from the clutches of criminality.
‘The Catholic and Evangelical churches are fulfilling a very important role in prevention programs in very many of the country’s neighborhoods and districts. For me it’s critical that community leaders create a link with the priests and pastors in these prevention programs’.
He emphasized that if young people are raised with a base of Christian principles, it becomes more difficult for them to decide to join criminal groups.
All of these efforts are as much about appealing to the church as about demonstrating their rightist aims – identified with church authority - to one another and to the population. On the other side, there’s a long tradition of leftwing Catholic activists, and the movements and parties of the Left in the region are largely Catholic. Francis’ previous public remarks about capitalism and the recent apostolic exhortation enter the scene at this crucial moment.
The Vatican had no public comment about Capriles’ request for Francis’ “mediation via the church.” But even if there are efforts behind the scenes that work with Capriles’ agenda, and even if the Honduran church hierarchy continues to side with the Right, the pope’s explicit condemnation of capitalism and neoliberal and authoritarian ideology and his calls for political leaders to work against its depredations and on behalf of the poor leave no doubt that he stands publicly against their political and economic projects.
I’ve argued elsewhere that for the Left, including atheists and secularists, this publicly stated position should be welcomed as a political opportunity. That doesn’t require a celebration of the church. It doesn’t mean an end to criticism of the pope, Christianity, religion, or faith. It doesn’t necessitate allying ourselves with the Vatican or with Catholicism, whatever that would even mean in practice. It doesn’t mean abandoning skepticism about his motives or nonpublic actions. It simply means appreciating that this statement changes the situation fundamentally for the better.
What’s more, since these aren’t religious ideas, we don’t need to engage in the sort of condescending sophistry used by atheists who champion theistic evolution. What’s remarkable is that these are secular arguments about well being, ethics, and compassion (and even economic reality) that have been given only the thinnest religious gloss. We can remove or ignore that gloss and find basic agreement about the principles themselves.
Francis’ moves toward decentralization in the church itself and his statements about capitalism will empower leftwing Catholics within the church to organize and mobilize and to keep pushing for further change. Because oppressions are linked, an invigoration of poor people’s movements, especially to the extent that it’s accompanied by real reductions in poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism and an increase in social security (and we know where that leads…), can strengthen the position of currently marginalized groups in the church and beyond, even when their goals go against church doctrine.
In any event, the key possibilities the statement offers relate to the breakup of elite alliances. It’s not that the Left has gained an ally, but that the Right has, in an important sense, lost one. It’s an explicit rejection of the ideology and politics of people like Capriles, Vásquez Velásquez, and Orlando Hernández and the movements they represent. The “Christian principles” and “good Christian morals” advocated by Francis are worlds from those Orlando Hernández wants to see at the center of anti-crime programs. In fact, the exhortation specifically addresses so-called security efforts based on authoritarian principles, rejecting them in favor of the compassionate programs to reduce poverty, inequality, and marginalization championed by the Left. The Right in the Americas can continue to push their agenda, but they can’t continue to claim publicly that they’re acting in the name or with the approval of the church.
It would be a shame if the Left, in the face of the (for once) rational fear of conservative authoritarians, lost this valuable political opportunity.
*Capriles still hasn’t recognized the results of the April presidential election. His destabilization campaign receives continuing support from the US government and its media lackeys.