Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Pope, left and right… and that tropical island

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

There are several ways in which Pope Francis is upending the outward ways of the church without messing much with the doctrinal essence. Shouldn't his chosen name, after the poor loving, pacifist Saint Francis de Assisi have been a hint?
Damas de Blanco/Ladies in White, Havana, Cuba
He seems a real follower of Christ, at least of the Christ that warned in Mathews 10:34: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
While his approval ratings among American Catholics and the general public are at an enviable 85 and 70 percent, respectively, everyone has found something to dislike.
After my orthodox atheism, I myself found solace in the service oriented call of Jesus Christ. I thought there was something there, and, when I told my mother, she showed me something I had written as a child about a vocation of service. I was convinced that’s what socialism was.
The immense disappointment and betrayal I felt when the intricacies of the Cuban calamity became apparent to me – something inevitable if you study journalism there – sent me into the Catholic Church with the same passion and conviction. I switched masters. After leaving Cuba, however, I realized the church was only “liberating” in socialist or leftist regimes, everywhere else, it was a purveyor of the worst capitalism has to offer, particularly by reaffirming the silencing propaganda; and a force to keep the poor and disposed in their place. My brain, a bit recovered from the previous ulcer, began to see clearly and my orthodox atheism returned just in time.
Then comes Pope Francis and tries to upend things.
I praise him for following through with his own beliefs and opinions, conflicting as they may be at times. I applaud that, as certainties are no common in my own thinking.  
He goes to the root of the problem of poverty and denounces the ills of capitalism. His concern for the environment, as a man of science, are in the same vein, since he understands how worsening environmental conditions would further harm the poorest individuals and countries. These criticisms open him to severe attacks from the right and applause from the left.
He has also shown compassion for whom his religion considers sinners, with a non-condemnatory tone towards LGBT people and a year of forgiveness for women who have had abortion – I don’t find that particularly compassionate as it is premised on women feeling contrite and repentant for having taken care of their health in the way they needed. But these are, no doubt, considered very liberal positions in some quarters.
And, in the midst of all of these revolutionary stances, this Pope goes to Cuba and does the same thing the left does. All of the sudden, the fight for equality, justice, fairness, freedom is put on hold and we begin to worship a 56 year old dictatorship. I wonder if he is atoning for his silence before the right wing Argentinian dictatorship, by going way out on a limb to the other side.
Why meeting with Fidel Castro? I can concede to meeting with the current dictator, as he is the head of the government. But why go out of his way to meet with the other one? Why not meeting with the opposition? The justification that this was an “informal meeting” is not just ridiculous but utterly hypocritical.  
According to the Washington Post:
“Francis pleaded ignorance about the Cuban dissidents who say they were arrested by security agents when they tried to see him at Havana’s cathedral.
“The pope said he had no information about what came of the Vatican embassy’s invitation for some dissidents to come to the cathedral to be among those who could greet the pope on Sunday. He stressed that no private meeting was ever planned but that he would have been happy to greet them in the crowd.”
He is trying to subvert the status quo everywhere, but falls for it completely in Cuba.
It reminded me of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, “The church has always been on the side of power.”
For political expediency, there are a couple of harmful contradictions in the Pope’s actions. As he is criticizing the ills of capitalism, the focus on consumption and its detrimental effects on the environment and on the poorest among us, his visit to Cuba, his guarded message that leaves intact the tenants of the repressive regime – which echoes the apologist ways of many leaders of the church in Cuba, and brings to mind the role of the church in the previous dictatorships in the island – and, finally, his completely unnecessary visit to Fidel Castro make for a very dubious backdrop for his anti-capitalism message. Cuba is the symbol of the worst versions of socialism and communism, and the man taking a principled position against the worst of capitalism decides to shake a conciliatory hand not just with the Head of State, Raul Castro, which protocol demands, but goes out of his way to shake the bloody hand of Fidel Castro, the unrepentant despot who destroyed the island and oppressed its people.
In the U.S., Senator Bernie Sanders is going around explaining what socialism is and, most importantly, what those of us who want to make the United States a better, fairer place mean by social democracy – health care and education as rights not privilege; a real, dignifying safety net that would help those who lose a job or fall ill; a justice system that honors its name; racial justice; less war; more cooperation around the world.
The old right goes around trying to tie Sanders’s message to the Soviet Gulags and the like, but young people saddled with debt and with expectations of individualistic and cutthroat success have no memory of a Soviet era and no intention of ignoring a potentially good idea just because the name may be associated with past wrongs in some places.
Could you imagine what would happen if Sanders were to praise Cuba’s regime? That would be all the fodder Republicans would need. Sanders has said he was leery of running not because he was afraid of losing, but because he was fearful a rebuke of him would be damaging to the ideas and ideals he espouses, which he believes are really good and important for the betterment of our nation.
The Pope puts us just in that predicament: he was already being criticized for being a leftist, a progressive, and that worse of all things, a Democrat. Now, his position – or lack there of – regarding Cuba, as he supposedly advocates for reconciliation, as if the opposition and the regime were in anything like equal footing, gives credence to those who believe the left is willing to be silent in the face of oppression as long as a nice “equality and anti-imperialism” speech is given.
At the end, it was all public relations for Pope Francis. It’s a shame he found the way to the homeless in Washington, D.C., but couldn’t “informally” bump into the repressed and oppressed in Havana.


DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.
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