14 March 2013

Who Does This Pope Represent, Anyway?

I know this question has been asked before.  But I'll ask it anyway:  How can someone talk about the love of Jesus Christ and discriminate against people in the same breath?

I know it's done every day, inside and outside the Catholic Church.  Hey, I've known atheists and agnostics who talked about peace and cooperation with all --except for those they disliked, for whatever reasons, or with whom they disagreed.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this new pope--who calls himself Francis, after the patron saint of animals and the environment--should do the same.  To be fair, he has done a lot of work with the poor in his home country of Argentina, and he has eschewed many of the trappings of the offices he's held.  Plus, he seems to have a more democratic, if not demagogic, style.  The people gathered in St. Peter's square talked about feeling a "connection" and were happy that he addressed them in Italian instead of the Latin Benedict used in his initial address eight years ago.  

Although I'm far from being a practicing Catholic, I am glad to see that someone who is so dedicated to working with the poor, and who takes the vows of poverty seriously, has ascended to the Papacy.  On the other hand, I'm not so sure that he's a representative of Latin America, per se.  Yes, he was born and raised in Argentina.  However, many other Latin Americans will tell you that Argentinians do not really see themselves as Latin Americans; rather, they feel more like Europeans who just happen to live at the end of the South American continent.  Many people--including some Argentinians themselves--will argue that they are just that.  After all, of all South and Central American countries, Argentina is probably the one in which the European immigrants and their descendants--who come from Italy, Germany, France, Spain and other European countries--have mingled the least with the native peoples.  It is also the Latin American country whose culture probably most resembles those of European societies.  Reading the country's most famous writer, Jorge Luis Borges, and contrasting him with, say, Mario Vargas Llosa--let alone poets such as Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and Silvina Ocampo--could lead you to a similar conclusion.

Anyway, what I find most striking about the elevation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the throne of St. Peter is that he comes from a country that is noteworthy for three events in its recent history.  One is the economic crisis of about a decade ago, which impoverished many formerly middle-class and even affluent Argentinians and kept the now-Pope Francis very busy, to say the least.  

That episode of Argentina's recent history is sandwiched between two seemingly-opposing events.  The first is the brutal military dictatorship that carried out a "dirty war" of murders and kidnappings between 1976 and 1983.  Jacobo Timerman, the author of Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number, as well as other journalists, scholars and everyday citizens, have documented the collaboration between Catholic Church authorities and the ruling junta of that time.  That, of course, has to lead one to wonder what, exactly, Father Bergoglio's role (if indeed he had any) was during that time.

The other side of recent Argentine history is playing out now.  Some now argue that Argentine LGBT people are the freest in the world. Same-sex sexual activity, in private, has been legal in Argentina since 1887; the age of consent is fifteen, as it is for heterosexuals. Still, it took about another century to pass laws that protected the rights of LGBT people.  The country legalized same-sex marriage in 2010; two years later, it passed a law that says, in essence, any person over the age of 18 can choose his or her gender, and mandates that state-funded hospitals perform gender-reassignment surgery free of charge.  The country has also done a lot to make counseling, psychotherapy and hormones available to poor transgender Argentinians. 

Pope Francis, like most other Catholic priests, is on record as opposing gay marriage.  I'm guessing that he wasn't too happy when the gender identity law was passed.  Not surprisingly, he has been a very outspoken critic of  President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and her predecessor (and late husband) Nestor Kirchner.  In spite of opposition from Cardinal Bergoglio and other Catholic officials, polls show that most Argentines support gay marriage and the majority favor the gender-identity laws.

Given his opposition to LGBT equality and his possible collaboration with (or having done nothing against) a regime that most people are glad to be rid of, one has to--or, at least I have to--wonder just how much he actually "represents" the people of his country. And, because of what I've said about Argentina, I have to question how representative he is of Latin America, his work with the region's poor notwithstanding.

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