On Heaven and Earth by Pope Francis and Abraham Skorka: Will the Church become just another charity?

Vatican watchers will find strong clues about the direction of Pope Francis in On Heaven and Earth: a series of conversations Bergoglio held with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires.

Pope Francis.
Without using the phrase “liberation theology”, Bergoglio proceeds to comment on those Catholics, lay and clerical, who were not satisfied with being “shoulder to shoulder with the needy”. Photograph: Getty.

On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family and the Church in the 21st Century
Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £14.99

In June 1973 Juan Perón, the 77-year-old former Argentinian president, came home to Buenos Aires from exile in Franco’s Spain after an absence of 18 years. That same year Father Jorge Bergoglio of the Society of Jesus became the head of Argentina’s Jesuits at the age of 36. One day he would become pope.

Perón died in 1974 and within two years the country descended into another military dictatorship and a cruel “dirty war”. Guerrilla groups sprang up, specialising in bombings, kidnappings and assassinations; the military waged firefights with them and arrested thousands of innocent people suspected of fellow-travelling. The military death squads imprisoned, tortured and killed an estimated 30,000 people. Under the leadership of General Leopoldo Galtieri, the junta eventually fell apart only after the Falklands debacle, signalling Argentina’s return to a uneasy form of populist, corporatist-style “democracy”.

Meanwhile, Father Bergoglio climbed the Catholic hierarchy steadily. Known for his “option for the poor” (he ate in soup kitchens and took the bus), he nevertheless distanced himself from the liberation theology movements associated with left-wing Jesuits elsewhere in Latin America. Had he not done so, he would never have risen to the episcopate under John Paul II’s papacy; and he might well have been found dead in a ditch – just one more clerical victim of the dirty war.

There are tales that as a senior Jesuit priest he failed to intercede with the junta to free two slum-worker priests from prison and torture. One family that lost a daughter and granddaughter accuses him of lying when he told a tribunal that he had no knowledge of the “stealing” of children from suspected dissidents. The allegations are unsafe, but no one can doubt that he came safely through those dark years by weighing every word and action with consummate care.

Now he is the first pope from the Americas and Catholics throughout the world are asking what kind of pontificate he will bring. Will he support the progressive Catholic constituency that bemoans the reversal of the ideals of the Second Vatican Council? Or will he encourage the traditionalists, who yearn for the return of the citadel Church of the great Piuses of the 20th century? With Catholic social teaching a source of economic and political ideas among thinkers in many parts of the world (including the exponents of Red Toryism and Blue Labour in Britain), will he exert an influence beyond his church?

Vatican watchers will find strong clues in On Heaven and Earth, which contains a series of conversations Bergoglio held in recent years with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires –utterances that need to be read against the complex background of Argentina’s repressive political history over the past four decades. One needs a trusted guide.

In April 1973 I had supper in the port district of Buenos Aires with Manuel Puig, the author of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) and Heartbreak Tango (1969). He chose for us to share a locro, a traditional dish of maize, beans, offal, blood sausage, chorizo, bacon, chillies and many other unidentifiable ingredients: it exemplified, he said, the stew that was the populace and politics of Argentina. Puig described Perón and his political party, which had ruled from 1943 to 1955, as a mixture of evanescent dreams and nostalgias – Spanish, Italian, German, Russian, Polish, French, English – distorted and dislocated by the tyranny of time and distance from their homelands of origin.

Argentina’s tragedy, according to Puig, was its failure to become a country of opportunity. For all its vast tracts of rich soil, the land remained in the hands of the estancia owners; industry and services were largely nationalised. Most workers were pen-pushers and hired hands; agriculture, the largest industry, was highly mechanised. The gauchos were a myth. The absence of the indigenous peoples of the pampas, ethnically cleansed in the late 19th century, still haunted the conscience of the older generations. A military dictatorship had emerged to fill the vacuum created by the coup d’état that had toppled Perón in 1955, leaving Argentina in a slough of stagflation by the early 1970s. In 1973 in - flation was running at nearly 100 per cent while employment and standards of living were plummeting.

The Peronists, Puig went on, thought of themselves as socialists, but their policies had more in common with the fascism of Mussolini, or Franco’s Spain. They favoured single-party rule, selection over election, the cult of personality and clear dictatorship. They were idealistic rather than ideological. The broader movement had spawned rival forms of dissident Peronism which ranged from the extreme right to the extreme left.

The Montoneros and other guerrilla groups were a potpourri of Castroism, Guevaraism, Maoism and Argentinian versions of Cath - olic social teaching, all claiming to be inspired by the “authentic” Peronism and Argentinian nationalism. They harked back to a pre-industrial society, denigrating the pursuit of growth. The enemies of Argentina were the military, US imperialism in the form of inward investment, the British pirates (who had appropriated the “Malvinas”), oligarchies and “the rich”.

The terrorist Montoneros, Puig said, were supported by two Catholic priests, one of whom, Carlos Mugica, lived and worked in the slums of Buenos Aires not far from where we ate that night. This priest, born into a comfortably middle-class family, visited Perón in Madrid, attempted to retrieve the remains of Che Guevara from Bolivia in 1967 and travelled to Paris to study and to participate in the “events” of May 1968. Sin, in Father Mugica’s view, was the work not of Satan but of oppressive economic and social structures.

When I returned to Argentina in 1975, Puig had departed into permanent exile after receiving death threats for being politically outspoken and openly homosexual. In May 1974, Father Mugica had been shot dead at church by a “right-wing” activist. Even in a country where 90 per cent of the population professed Catholicism, being a priest was no guarantee of immunity from attack, yet the dirty war had hardly begun.

In his conversation with Skorka, Bergoglio shows himself to be a defensive Peronist of the old school and he commends Eva Perón for her welfare societies. In those days, he says, “the Church did not confront Perón, who was close to certain members of the clergy”. Perón, he continues, drew on the “social Doctrine of the Church”, incorporating many of its ideas into his proposals. Perón built a seminary, he notes with gratitude, and was especially close to Bishop Nicolás de Carlo of Resistencia. The tension between the Church and the Perón regime began, he says, after the death of Evita.

The fault, Bergoglio implies, was as much the Catholic Church’s as Perón’s: “Perhaps the hierarchy did not know how to handle the circumstances well.” The comment displays his tendency to generalise; there are no names, dates or examples.

Without using the phrase “liberation theology”, he proceeds to comment on those Catholics, lay and clerical, who were not satisfied with being “shoulder to shoulder with the needy” but “fell into the trap of becoming ideological”. They became “estranged from the Church’s healthy development and suffered repression”, he says. There were rebellious priests in the cities of Rosario and Mendoza whose “discipline, the religious and social, were all mixed up”.

Bergoglio castigates the priests involved in social work who “had conflicts with the religious structure, with ways of living religiously where some believers – instead of being a bridge – become a wall. They become an impediment to their own faith because they used it for their own advantage, for their own ideology . . .”

Considering the Church at large, he expresses the conviction that “hedonistic, consumerist and narcissistic cultures have infiltrated Catholicism”. The Church must become a “small flock”, must get back to a “serious religious search”, a “purification of commitment”, rejecting temporal power and the “watering down of religion”. On first hearing, his call for a purer, smaller church seems to be in conflict with the ideals of the Second Vatican Council, which advocated engagement with society. He argues that “it is necessary to engage the world, but always from the religious experience . . . [T]he problem is serious when the spiritual is reduced to the ideological, and religious experience loses strength and leaves an emptiness, turning to the world of ideas to fill itself.”

Bergoglio worries that the Church might become just another charity. By the same token he criticises Catholic aid agencies for being too secular. “There are religious communities that run the risk of sliding unconsciously into an NGO,” he says. He expands: “It is not only a question of doing such and such a thing to assist a neighbour. How will you pray? How will you help your community enter into the experience of God? Those are essential questions.”

His spirituality is Franciscan. “Francis of Assisi contributed an entire concept about poverty to Christianity,” he says, “in the face of the wealth and pride and vanity of the civil and ecclesial powers of the time.” There are heated disagreements within the Catholic Church over solutions to poverty. Is the aim to distribute wealth more justly? Or is it to promote generation of wealth? Pope Francis advocates poverty of spirit and of lifestyle as a spiritual good in itself. In his view, relief of poverty has true value only if it is done in the consciousness that “the Lord wants me to be there in the flesh, alongside those in need, in poverty, in pain”. The poor must be drawn, nevertheless, “towards integration in the community”.

Giving a rare concrete example, he urges a return to provision of schools for the destitute in the 19th-century mould of Saint John Bosco. “Don Bosco thought it made no sense to send them to public high school because it would not have helped them to get ahead in life, so he created technical schools.” He praises similar schemes run by priests in the shanty towns of Buenos Aires.

Those seeking words of encouragement about the importance of alleviating poverty through wealth creation will find little comfort in this book. Nor is there any acknowledgment that globalisation, despite its manifest drawbacks, has helped to raise countless millions out of poverty. For Bergoglio, globalisation, in its tendency towards uniformity, “is essentially imperialist and instrumentally liberal, but is not human. In the end it is a way to enslave nations.”

It looks as if Catholic social teaching, in the official guise of papal social teaching, will be expressed from the perspective of Bergoglio’s peculiar experience as an Argentinian priest and prelate. There will be a rhetorical emphasis on the Church’s identity and fellowship with the poor, on the need for the laity and the clergy, including the Pope, to live more simple lives. The call for poverty of spirit may unite the antagonistic factions in the Catholic Church today, yet there is little of substance in this dialogue between Francis and Rabbi Skorka on the systemic causes of, and solutions to, poverty.

Moreover, the new pope is sceptical to the point of cynicism about the secular sphere’s ability to relieve poverty without religion; and he is ominously silent on the strengths of social democracy. On the other hand, his austerity and emphasis on discipline within the Catholic Church may be crucial in his attempts to clean up a dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy, as well as in defusing the clerical sexual abuse scandals. In their collective wisdom, the cardinals may well have chosen the best of all possible popes for a church in crisis. The Catholic Church, in the view of those who seek renewal and reform, needs a pope who will tackle the problems in its own domain, rather than strive to solve the problems of the world at large.

John Cornwell’s most recent book is “Newman’s Unquiet Grave: the Reluctant Discipline: Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis Saint” (Continuum, £10.99)