The election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as head of the Roman Catholic Church marks a watershed, since this is the first time that a prelate from a third world or developing country has become Pope.
Bergoglio is also strongly identified with Catholic social doctrine, which has traditionally stressed a preferential option in favor of the needs of the poor, rather than a concern with the privileges of the rich, combined with a rejection of laissez-faire, neoliberal, or monetarist economics in favor of social solidarity. Francis has set his first official day in office on the March 19 festival of St. Joseph the carpenter, the patron saint of workers.
This papal election was also remarkable for what did not occur. Elements of the US Catholic hierarchy, evidently backed by forces within the State Department and the Obama White House, had made no secret of their desire to take control of the Vatican and employ it henceforth as an abject tool of US imperial policy. The New York Times
and Washington Post
contributed articles seeking to highlight the many advantages which they claimed would derive from electing the first American pope. The delegation of US cardinals, second in numbers only to the Italians, attempted to act as a political machine in Rome on the eve of the conclave, giving daily press conferences in an attempt to stampede the 115 members of the College of Cardinals into electing an American.
According to insider reports, the manager of this effort to elect an American pope was New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who focused on the effort to install Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley as the new pontiff. Italian newspaper accounts revealed that O’Malley’s main advisor was the clergyman Terrence Donilon, the brother of Tom Donilon, the political operative who currently serves as the director of the National Security Council in the Obama White House. The danger was thus clear enough that, if O’Malley had prevailed, the next pope would get his inspiration from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
To pose this danger in slightly different terms: Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland is currently a quite serious candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. If Sean O’Malley were to become pope, the potential might then exist to have within a few years President O’Malley in Washington and Pope O’Malley in Rome. As the great Italian poet Dante argued 700 years ago in his Divine Comedy, it is essential for the spiritual and religious power of the papacy to be kept separate from the political and military power of the empire. The virtual absorption of the Vatican by Washington could well have spelled the final collapse of the Catholic Church.
Since the 1943 Anglo-American invasion of Italy during the time of Pius XII, the Vatican has continuously found itself under pressure to toe the London-Washington imperial line. Some popes were able to assert a significant degree of independence, notably Paul VI Montini, whose reign marked the high point of influence within the church by veterans of the wartime European resistance against fascism. More recently, the Polish Pope John Paul II sought to condemn the aggression committed by the Bush administration, but was always pulled in the other direction by the Polish tendency to look to Washington as a counterweight against Russia. Benedict XVI turned out to be far weaker, reflecting the postwar subordination of Germany to the United States. He was always on the defensive because he had taken part in German air defense during World War II.
The anti-imperialist tradition is strong in Argentina
But now we have a pope whose national origin will tend to impel him towards independence from Washington. Among all the nations in Latin America, Argentina is surely second to none in its tradition of national sovereignty and resistance to imperialism, a tradition which has persisted through many changes of political regime. According to some reports, 10 Downing Street in London has already witnessed apoplectic scenes by Prime Minister David Cameron due to the fact that Pope Francis I Bergoglio, as the Argentinean that he is, regards the Malvinas (or Falkland) Islands as an integral part of Argentina, regardless of any referendum staged there by the British among their colonizers.
On the day after his election, Francis went personally to the guesthouse where he had been staying in Via della Scrofa in downtown Rome to pay his bill and pick up his baggage. As part of this gesture of humility, he had no elaborate security and no disruptive motorcade, but rode in a single automobile of the papal gendarmes. Under Benedict XVI, the Vatican had appeared under siege, doubtless as a result of the pope’s gullible acceptance of the Anglo-American phantom of a global war on terror. The Vatican remains haunted by the mysterious death of John Paul I in 1978, and by the 1981 attack carried out by Ali Agca, a co-worker of Frank Terpil of the CIA. But Francis is signaling that he is not afraid, and is not willing to hunker down behind the Vatican walls.
Another danger which has been avoided is the election of an oligarch camouflaged as a modernizer or reformer. This was the role sought by the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan, who did not live to see this year’s conclave. This year’s plausible oligarch-reformer might have been Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, a representative of the feudal aristocracy of the Holy Roman Empire. And there were others seeking to play this role. Instead, Bergoglio brings with him the concerns of the global South, starting with the imperative of economic development and the eradication of poverty.
Bergoglio’s track record in this regard is instructive. The Argentine military junta of 1976-1983 and the neoliberal economic policies it started wrecked the nation’s economy during the 1990s. By the end of the military government, unemployment was at 18% officially, and there were bouts of hyperinflation at the end of the 1980s. Under the pro-IMF economics Minister Domingo Cavallo, Argentina established a fixed rate of exchange to the US dollar. The propertied classes indulged in massive tax evasion and sent flight capital to foreign banks. Taking power in the midst of this crisis, President de la Rua imposed seven rounds of brutal austerity, driving unemployment up to 20% in December 2001. When the IMF cut off further loans to Argentina, there was a panic run on the banks. Strikes and riots forced de la Rua to resign and flee on December 21, 2001.
During the latter months of 2001, Bergoglio did not hesitate to lecture President de la Rua to his face Sunday after Sunday about the bankruptcy of neoliberal economics and the terrible social consequences, as Rua sat in his pew of the cathedral in Buenos Aires. During this time, Bergoglio commented that extreme poverty and the “unjust economic structures that give rise to great inequalities” constituted violations of human rights and that social debt was “immoral, unjust and illegitimate.” During a strike by public employees in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio noted the differences between, “poor people who are persecuted for demanding work, and rich people who are applauded for fleeing from justice.” (“Argentines protest against pay cuts,” BBC, August 8, 2001)
A subsequent president, the Peronist Adolfo Rodriguez Saà, declared a debt moratorium, causing Argentina to default on $132 billion in foreign debt, one of the biggest burdens of any developing country in the world. The link between the peso and the dollar was severed, and the resulting devaluation lowered the standard of living - just as in Iceland over the last few years. After an 11% fall in GDP during 2002, Argentina stabilized and recovered under Presidents Duhalde and Kirchner. Although the debt moratorium policy substantially reduced foreign debt, the International Monetary Fund demanded full payment of every penny, with no discounts and no haircuts.
Bergoglio opposed “anonymous and perverse mechanisms of speculative economy”
These were the conditions in which Bergoglio operated around the time that he was named Cardinal in February 2001. Bergoglio organized soup kitchens and food banks in the favelas (slums) of Buenos Aires and other cities for the relief of the poor. He condemned the policies that were leaving the Argentine people “strangled by the anonymous and perverse mechanisms of a speculative economy.”
In an interview with the magazine Trenta Dias of the Communion and Liberation movement, Bergoglio declared: “the current imperialism of money also shows an idolatrous face. Where there is idolatry, God is canceled, and human dignity is canceled.” For this he blamed “left-wing ideologies just as much as the imperialism of money.” Bergoglio can thus be considered a principled opponent of both neoliberal economic doctrine, and of the ultra-left liberation theology. (Geninazzi and Rizzi, Avvenire, March 13, 2013)
An article by Dylan Matthews posted on March 13 on the Washington Post blog points out that the Argentine bishops, with Bergoglio chief among them, were sharp critics of the laissez-faire or neoliberal economic policies of Argentine President Carlos Menem, who was in office from 1989 to 1999. Citing the essay “Argentina, the Church, and Debt” by Thomas Trebat, Mathews argues that, at the height of the debt crisis in 2002, Bergoglio was a leading voice in calling for a debt restructuring in which social programs would be considered more important than repaying and servicing existing financial debt. Statements by the Argentine bishops at that time diagnosed the main problems of the Argentine economy as “social exclusion, a growing gap between rich and poor, insecurity, corruption, social and family violence, serious deficiencies in the educational system and in public health, the negative consequences of globalization, and the tyranny of markets.” These were technically joint statements of all the Argentine bishops, but there is every reason to believe that these were above all Bergoglio’s own views.
In 2001-2004 Argentine crisis, bergoglio supported debt reduction, rejected austerity
In one of his own later speeches, Cardinal Bergoglio commented: “We live, apparently, in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” where “the unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.” (National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2013) Plutocratic ideologues intent on shredding the social safety net will get no comfort from Francis.
According to Carlos Burgueno of the Argentine business newspaper Ambito Financiero, Bergoglio is “Anti-liberal. A tough critic of the IMF and the policies of adjustment. A defender of the process of debt restructuring.” “Anti-liberal” can be understood as a rejection of economic policies designed to benefit a narrow financier oligarchy. In IMF jargon, “adjustment” and “structural adjustment” are euphemisms for genocidal austerity and killer cuts targeting the poor, the sick, the old, the very young, and the underprivileged. “Debt restructuring” means debt moratoriums, debt freezes, defaults, haircuts, write-downs and other means of reducing the illegitimate debt burden which is now crushing so many of the world’s people.
A major statement on the economic crisis was issued by the conference of Argentine bishops under Bergoglio’s leadership in August 2001. This landmark statement pointed out that “some of the most serious social ills we suffer in economic and political affairs are a direct reflection of the crudest liberalism.” The state was defined as “an instrument created to serve the common good, and to be the guarantor of equity and solidarity of the social fabric." The Argentine bishops with Bergoglio at their head condemned the lack of a “social safety net” to care for those cast out by the existing economic model. They targeted in particular “two diseases, tax evasion and squandering of state funds, which are funds sweated by the people.” Organized labor was advised to exercise moderation in using the right to strike.
But the bishops saw the foreign financial debt of Argentina as the biggest negative factor, taking care to condemn the “external debt that increases every day and makes it difficult for us to grow.” (Ambito Financiero, March 14, 2013; Buenos Aires Herald, March 14, 2013)
In 2005, the Argentine government offered foreign creditors a reimbursement of thirty cents on the dollar. Many of the most rapacious hedge fund hyenas rejected this offer, instead launching lawsuits and unsuccessful attempts to seize Argentine assets held abroad, including Argentine airliners, ships, and the Argentine central bank deposits at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Bergoglio intervened in these conflicts several times, supporting the ability of the Argentine government to reduce and restructure the foreign debt. (Ambito Financiero, March 14, 2013; Buenos Aires Herald, March 14, 2013)
In October 2009, Cardinal Bergoglio again sought to call attention to the unsolved problems of poverty in Argentina under the presidency of Nestor Kirchner. According to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, “Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio harshly criticized the government and society for failing to prevent the rise of poverty in the country, a situation he called ‘immoral, unjust and illegitimate’ because it occurs in a nation that has the capacity to avoid or correct the damage. ‘Instead, it seems that it has chosen to exacerbate the inequalities,’ said the head of the Catholic Church in Argentina, for whom ‘human rights are violated not only by terrorism, repression and murder, but also by unjust economic structures that cause great inequalities.’” He added that the position of the Catholic Church was “very clear” as it had “warned for some time about the social deficit of Argentines.”
Bergoglio supported justice and peace October 2011 call for Wall Street sales tax
As the world economic depression was felt more and more in Argentina, Bergoglio sharpened his confrontation the plutocrats, telling them in May 2010: “You avoid taking the poor into account.” In the following year, Bergoglio spoke out against the terrible wages and working conditions prevailing in the Argentine capital, which he compared to a form of modern slavery: “In this city, slavery is the order of the day in various forms. In this city, workers are exploited in sweatshops and, if they are immigrants, are deprived of the opportunity to get out. In this city, there are kids who have been on the streets for years. The city has failed and continues to fail in the attempt to free them from this structural slavery that is homelessness.” (La Nacion, September 24, 2011)
The main Vatican response to the European financial crisis which broke out in early 2010 was the document entitled Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority, issued by the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace in late October 2011. Although Bergoglio was apparently not formally a member of Justice and Peace, press accounts from Buenos Aires indicate that in the eyes of Argentine public opinion he was closely associated with this initiative and the reforms it recommended. The Argentine journalist Carlos Burgue?o writes: “As worldwide recognized church representative and leader of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, [Bergoglio] signed along with his Ghanian fellow cardinal Peter Turkson in October 2011 the Vatican’s harsh document against adjustment policies that were beginning to be applied in the European countries in crisis.” (“Ya como referente mundial de la Iglesia y conductor, junto con el tamién papable ghanés Peter Turkson, del Pontificio Consejo para Justicia y Paz, firmo en octubre de 2011 una dura cr?tica del Vaticano contra las politicas de ajuste que se comenzaban a aplicar en los paises europeos en crisis.” Ambito Financiero, March 14, 2013; Buenos Aires Herald, March 14, 2013.)
The Council for Justice and Peace blamed the 2008 world panic triggered by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy on “a liberalist approach, unsympathetic towards public intervention in the markets” which “chose to allow an important international financial institution to fall into bankruptcy, on the assumption that this would contain the crisis and its effects.” According to this document, a central threat to the world economy and to world peace comes from “an economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls.”
The Council for Justice and Peace criticized in particular the International Monetary Fund for being an institution now totally inadequate for the needs of world economic development, citing “…the gradual decline in efficacy of the Bretton Woods institutions beginning in the early 1970s. In particular, the International Monetary Fund has lost an essential element for stabilizing world finance, that of regulating the overall money supply and vigilance over the amount of credit risk taken on by the system. To sum it up, stabilizing the world monetary system is no longer a ‘universal public good’ within its reach.”
A key aspect of the Vatican’s October 2011 recommendation for dealing with the new world economic depression was the enactment of a financial transaction tax, also known as a Tobin tax, and in the United States increasingly referred to as a Wall Street Sales Tax. The document states: “… it seems advisable to reflect, for example, on taxation measures on financial transactions through fair but modulated rates with changes proportionate to the complexity of the operations, especially those made on the ‘secondary’ market. Such taxation would be very useful in promoting global development and sustainability according to the principles of social justice and solidarity.” Bergoglio has thus endorsed the approach of Pope Paul VI as seen in the famous encyclical letter Populorum Progressio of 1967, which “clearly and prophetically denounced the dangers of an economic development conceived in liberalist terms because of its harmful consequences for world equilibrium and peace.” (Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority, Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, October 24, 2011)
Were the new pope’s first words a veiled opening to China?
Another significant novelty is doubtless the fact that Bergoglio is the first member of the Jesuit order to become pope. The Jesuits have a well-earned reputation for using intrigue to seek political power. As some commentators have pointed out, Jesuits are traditionally associated with elite education, which grew out of their desire to serve as tutors of the children of kings and princes with a view to shaping the opinions of future rulers. Even today, the Jesuits are considered one of the most cohesive and powerful of the Catholic orders. Should this situation be seen in negative terms? Maybe not, as a glance at history might suggest.
The Jesuits were founded under Venetian auspices in 1534, but, gravitating towards a greater power, soon entered into a close alliance with the Spanish Empire. The Spanish-Jesuit alliance lasted until about 1767, the year when the Jesuit order was banned by the Portuguese Empire, France, the Spanish Empire, and some Italian states. This was followed by the suppression of the Jesuit order by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. The Jesuits survived only by fleeing to the non-Catholic states of Prussia and Russia.
The response of the Jesuits to their suppression took the form of a de facto alliance with the British Empire. This meant specifically that the Jesuits threw their considerable influence on the side of the movements for independence that arose during the Napoleonic wars throughout the Spanish and Portuguese possessions in Latin America. When Lisbon and Madrid lost most of their possessions in Latin America, the revenge of the Jesuits was complete, and many of these states passed under predominantly British influence. After the British had eliminated Napoleon as a competitor for world domination, the Jesuit order was restored in 1814 by Pope Pius VII.
We can thus say, simplifying somewhat, that the Jesuit order has been in uneasy alliance with the British and later Anglo-American world system since about 1770. The election of Pope Francis I may mark a real departure from this arrangement. And the reason for the change may well have to do with the Vatican’s policy towards China.
Francis I and a possible Vatican opening to China
At a time when church membership is declining in Europe, and when American Catholics are becoming increasingly secular, the Vatican is looking to Africa as any area of future growth. But China may offer even greater possibilities for expansion, and the Vatican may consider an opening to the Middle Kingdom as more valuable than an alliance with the declining US empire. There are today an estimated 12 million Roman Catholics in China, but the actual number may be far higher. The Chinese government sponsors a national Catholic Church, styled the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which does not recognize the Roman papacy and which claims some 5.3 million members. Rome claims the sole ability to appoint bishops, and this is rejected by the Beijing government. Because of this conflict, the Vatican has failed in its attempts to establish full diplomatic relations with Beijing. The Vatican very much wants a concordat or treaty which would resolve these outstanding issues.
One of the most sensational elements in the so-called Vatileaks document dump engineered by Anglo-American intelligence in 2012 was a report of a conversation allegedly held between Cardinal Paolo Romeo, a Jesuit-trained Vatican diplomat serving as the Archbishop of Palermo, Sicily and (apparently) Chinese officials in Beijing in the autumn of 2011. According to this account as reported in the pro-US Italian newspaper Il Fatto, Romeo told the Chinese that Benedict XVI Ratzinger would no longer be Pope a year later, or in other words by about November 2012. As it turned out, this prediction was off by just a few months. But, perhaps as part of the doctoring of Vatileaks documents by the CIA or by MI-6, this prediction morphed into the exposure of a supposed plot to assassinate Ratzinger. However, Romeo may have only intended to inform the Chinese government that the diplomatically inept Benedict XIV, considered incapable of defying Washington and London by re-orienting the Vatican towards China, was about to be eased out in favor of a new pope more open to an accommodation with Beijing. (Marco Lillo, “Complotto contro Benedetto XVI entro 12 mesi morirà,” Il Fatto Quotidiano, February 10, 2012) The first events of Francis’ papacy would seem to lend credence to this view.
When Bergoglio appeared for the first time as Pope on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the second sentence of his speech noted that the conclave had chosen a new bishop of Rome “from almost the end of the world.” According to Professor Filippo Mignini, an expert in the history of philosophy from the University of Macerata quoted by Il Giornale of Milan, these words are a quotation from the Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci, a missionary sent to Imperial Chinese court of the Ming dynasty in 1601. Ricci and his fellow Jesuits were able to interest the Chinese emperor and many of the leading nobles in exhibits of European technology, including steam engines but also chronometers, telescopes, and other precision instruments. The successes of Ricci and other Jesuits were envied by the competing Dominicans and Franciscans, and this issue was still alive at the time the Jesuits were dissolved in 1773. But by 1958 the Vatican had endorsed Ricci. Does the Vatican now believe that the developing sector and China are more important for its future growth than Europe and America? The coming months will tell.
Anglo-American propaganda has already turned hostile against Pope Francis, attempting to dredge up discredited old charges that he was somehow in collusion with the 1976-1983 Argentine military junta. The murderous excesses of that regime were in fact encouraged by US Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, as revealed by secret State Department documents released in September 2002. As for Bergoglio, one Jesuit he is accused of betraying has come forward to deny the charges. The Argentine human rights activist and leading opponent of the military junta, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, has formally stated that Bergoglio was not one of the churchmen who collaborated with the dictatorship.
Finally, there remains the question of where this project might go wrong. Bergoglio has taken the name of Francis, after a saint who is celebrated for his humility and simple lifestyle. But there is also the more recent attempt to recast St. Francis as the patron saint of environmental fanaticism, radical ecology, and even green fascism. The rich elitists who fund the main environmental groups will try to influence the new pope in the direction of Agenda 21 and its anti-human doctrines. One example is the Italian demagogue Beppe Grillo, who greeted the new pope with the claim that his Five Star Movement -- largely devoted to implementing Agenda 21 -- represents the true followers of St. Francis today. The new pope would do well to avoid such false friends.