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

by Armando Carmona, Truthout | News Analysis –

Pope Francis

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.”

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Reprinted with permission from Truthout