The “People’s Pope” and the Church’s Emerging Contradictions

Pope Francis has radically changed the image of the Catholic Church. He has been called a progressive, the “people’s pope” and even a radical pope who is attempting to shift the global image of Catholic conservatism. It is impossible to deny the importance of the pope’s current discourse as he pushes global political leaders to address climate change and economic inequality, inviting them to refocus their energy toward a “revolution of tenderness.”

How should we situate the current pope in the context of a historically conservative institution and an evolving narrative about social change? While some attempt to categorize him as a progressive or even a feminist due to his discourse on women and the poor, others understand him to be a political actor who represents a highly hierarchical and patriarchal organization that affects nearly 1.2 billion people. Regardless of our personal feelings toward the pope, we must analyze his actions in the context of his position and the institution he represents.

An Apology to Native Peoples

During his tour of South America, his first foreign trip after unveiling his encyclical – a document produced to urge climate action worldwide – Pope Francis spoke at the World Meeting of Popular Movements. The meeting was hosted in Bolivia and organized by the Pontifical Council “Justice and Peace,” the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences and movement leaders from around the world. This was the second of a series of encounters organized to discuss global issues such as climate change and economic inequality. It was in this meeting that the pope apologized to indigenous peoples for the role of the Church in facilitating the genocide and conquest of native peoples. “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God,” Pope Francis said. “Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church ‘kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.'” He also reminded the crowd that many priests have also defended indigenous people, “often standing alongside the native peoples or accompanying their popular movements even to the point of martyrdom.”

In Bolivia, Truthout spoke to Justino Peralta, a staff member of the Vice Ministry of Decolonization, which works on programs aimed at decolonizing institutions throughout Bolivia. “We have suffered a strong process of colonization,” Peralta said. “When colonizers came [to the Americas], they imposed a new language that had nothing to do with our reality … This was accompanied by an imposition of social practices that have been internalized.”

The work of the vice ministry is to propose alternatives to current organizational practices and ways of thinking – alternatives based on the cosmovision of the country’s indigenous peoples. When asked why the Bolivian government would want to host the pope, Peralta told Truthout, “First, he is showing signs that he wants to transform the church. Second is that he has shown interest in the excluded and marginalized, interest in topics around Mother Earth. This is something unheard of with other popes, though it is something that was common with movements around liberation theology, which were very strong in Latin America.”

Peralta said the pope’s apology in Bolivia for the Church’s historical role in the Spanish conquest and the colonization of Latin America “was very strong,” adding that “to apologize is to close a cycle, and begin to look forward. It is a stage that was very painful, but now it is important to look forward … we must close that part of the past, and accept the apology and move forward.”

The pope’s apology, however, has been criticized as hypocritical because of his decision to canonize 18th century Franciscan friar Junípero Serra, who founded nine of California’s 21 Spanish missions. Serra was no saint, and he has been documented as an “extreme and unapologetic abuser of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Coast.” According to Native American scholars, Serra is often referred to as the Christopher Columbus of California for his role in kidnapping Native Americans, holding them captive in the missions and overseeing the systematic subjugation and rape of indigenous women. To understand Serra, it is necessary to situate his individual actions in the system that allowed the violence against indigenous peoples to exist, and to this day continues to justify those same actions. The canonization of Serra was met with protests that highlight the contradictions and hypocrisies that continue to glorify the actions that individuals like Serra took in the name of the Church and Christianity.

Bolivian Feminists’ Critique of the Church

During the pope’s tour in Bolivia, several women from Mujeres Creando, a feminist organization based in La Paz, Bolivia, coordinated a mobilization to protest the arrival of the pope, colonialism, patriarchy and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. On July 6, days before the arrival of Pope Francis, the women from Mujeres Creando – which focuses on anti-poverty work and reproductive rights – dressed as pregnant nuns and sat in front of the Cathedral in Plaza Murillo at the center of La Paz. The intervention was organized as an attempt to highlight the history of patriarchy and violence directed at women via the Church hierarchy. During the protest, women stated that they were there to denounce the “reactionary character of the pope’s visit” and its effects on “the rights of women.” They charged that “the sisters [nuns] cook and wash, while priests pray, give orders and fornicate,” adding that they had come to denounce the “servitude and the devaluation of women in the Catholic Church.”

After the protest, Truthout spoke to Julieta Ojeda, one of the organizers and coordinators of Mujeres Creando. Ojeda said that Mujeres Creando is highly “critical of the political alliances that the government [of Bolivia] has been participating in with the Catholic Church” adding that “the Church has a lot of power and influence over the government,” which has a largely negative effect on women. Ojeda said that even though people claim that the pope “stands beside poor people in Latin America, what he is really trying to do is placate a movement, fundamentally [setting back] movements of women who have had significant advances” in the struggle for reproductive rights such as access to birth control, the morning-after pill and abortion.

“As we began to discuss the topic of abortion, for example, his presence brings us back to a discussion about the morning-after pill … something discussed long ago,” Ojeda said.

She added that “the Catholic Church has a historical debt owed to women because it has been one of the institutions that has consolidated and prolonged the situation of oppression for women around the world.”

Regarding the same topic, when Truthout spoke to Justino Peralta of the Vice Ministry of Decolonization, he stated that “just like I don’t believe in a universal feminism that is valid for every historical, cultural context, we must acknowledge [how] the Catholic institution manages the problems of submission and silencing of women.” Only members of that institution “will know how to transform that situation, such as the fact that women are not allowed to participate in the hierarchy,” he added.

Peralta’s views of organizational and social change are rooted in indigenous knowledge and ways of being – what he describes as “Andean cosmovision.” This worldview holds that one must be active in a community or organization in order to be able to participate and struggle to change the relations within it. Change “is something that has to be built and can only be achieved through daily struggle,” he said.

The Pope in the United States

Pope Francis’ highly anticipated arrival to the United States has been met with a mix of emotions from Catholics all across the country. Jennicet Gutiérrez, the undocumented transgender woman who interrupted President Barack Obama in June 2015 to give voice to the plight of LGBT immigrants detained by immigration enforcement, told Truthout that “there are progressives who get behind the pope, who get behind politicians, but yet we have a sector of the most marginalized that are suffering in many different levels, yet [these same people] don’t seem to speak up about those injustices.”

As a trans Latina activist in the #Not1More campaign, Gutiérrez works on the rights of trans women of color and trans immigrants. “Transgender immigrants make up one out of every 500 people in detention, but we account for one out of five confirmed sexual abuse cases in ICE custody,” she said.

“The role of the Catholic Church is very important” for Latinos and specifically for Latino immigrants, Gutiérrez said. “It plays a very significant role in how we start to understand the world, how we associate behavior. Religion is a key influence on how Latinos and people coming from Latin America form their views on homosexuality and the transgender community.”

While the Catholic Church under Pope Francis has shown efforts to include members of the LGBT community, its stance on gay marriage has not changed, and the pope has also taken a stand against gender theory and non-binary approaches to gender.

Gutiérrez said this stance is unfair because “there is a group of people that are naturally born as intersex, yet are forced to conform [to one gender],” adding that “as trans people and gender non-conforming people, we [also] challenge that gender binary.”

“My priority is to survive; it is to be seen as a human being,” Gutiérrez said. “Just because I am transgender and undocumented, many people want to shut me down … the transgender community are facing so many issues in our attempt to survive, to meet our basic needs.”

Pope Francis poses a series of challenges to the world. As the head of the Catholic Church, he addressed a joint meeting of Congress asking US representatives and senators to show more compassion for immigrants, to abolish the death penalty and give mercy to criminals or those that have broken the law, to take care of the poor and address cycles of poverty, to protect the climate, to encourage youth to seek new opportunities and to end the global arms trade. These are historic interventions that challenge the stagnation in global politics. However, his progressive and moral discourse in the current moment must be understood in the context of an institution that for hundreds of years has been complicit with and often active in the marginalization of women and indigenous people.