April 21, 2020

Pope Francis: the Latin American model as a way out of the coronavirus crisis

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Francis smiles as he walks by a crowd at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on July 9, 2015 -  credit Alan Holdren / ACI Group
Pope Francis smiles as he walks by a crowd at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on July 9, 2015 - credit Alan Holdren / ACI Group

Pope Francis’s Letter to Popular Movements on Easter Sunday epitomizes his social thought, which is deeply rooted in the Latin American mentality and culture. Pope Francis’s responses to social problems are born out of the experiences of the Latin American peoples. The question that lies beneath is whether those experiences might be applied globally.

The Latin American angle is often underestimated when it comes to interpreting Pope Francis’s moves. It is a crucial key, however, to understanding the Pontificate. Pope Francis is Jesuit, Argentinian and Latin American. We cannot separate these three identities.

The outcomes of the Special Synod on the Amazon made Pope Francis’s identity evident. As a Jesuit, Pope Francis did not promote doctrinal changes. He believes in the Church as a holy hierarchical mother. As an Argentinian, he is not anti-Roman, as one might think. At the same time, he is proud of his origins and his people. For this reason, Pope Francis instinctively distrusts every form of colonialism.

Finally, as a Latin American, Pope Francis believes in the people and their just claims. The Latin American peoples feel oppressed and colonized, and still hold to Simon Bolivar's dream of becoming a united continent.

The popular movements are the expression of the pueblo (people) that keeps working, though oppressed and at the margin of the history. To Pope Francis, the people is the real soul of society. For this reason, every Pope Francis’s action leans toward the people.

The notion of the pueblo contrasts with the idea of a cold government, detached from the people and careless of poverty and social imbalances. Pope Francis calls this way of governing “technocracy” – that is , a government that does not put the human being at the center, but technical know-how apt to achieve goals determined by a calculus that discounts the people both individually and corporately.

Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in veritate also spoke about the risks of technocracy. Pope Francis focuses almost exclusively on one single part of technocracy: the socio-economic aspect. The Social Teaching of the Church has a broader view of technocracy. According to the Social Teaching of the Church, technocracy begins with a de-humanization that leads to the manipulation of the human being. The socio-economic paradigm is part of this vision.

All of these details are keys to understanding why Pope Francis thought to write to the popular movement at Easter. In the end, Pope Francis wanted to indicate a pattern for a social renaissance for the world after the COVID 19 pandemic.

On Apr. 3, Pope Francis dedicated his daily Mass to those who are “already working for after.” Pope Francis said: “There are people who are now thinking about [what comes] after the pandemic, about all the troubles to follow. There will be issues of poverty, unemployment, of hunger. Let us pray for all those who are helping now but are thinking about tomorrow, to help all of us.” 

Those words have probably been the first clue to Pope Francis’s reflection. To Pope Francis, the current crisis is also an occasion to reshape the economic system. Since the beginning of the Pontificate, he made several references to the “economic system that kills.” The attacks on the financial system were later developed in his encyclical Laudato si’, and in the three speeches that he delivered during his meetings with the Popular Movements: two in Rome and one in Santa Cruz (Bolivia). 

One can also speculate there is a fundamental rationale.

Pope Francis read his election as the vindication of Latin America, even as he reads the current crisis as making room for the social vindication Latin America has been  so long expecting. Pope Francis wants to extend this social vindication to the whole world, since he considers the world imbalances and inequalities a global issue. 

This is the background behind Pope Francis’s decision to address a letter to popular movements. The message was published, translated in several languages, on the websites of the popular movements. It bears all Pope Francis’s sympathy for a world of thought and action that has always been there, beneath the surface, and that has always been on the side of the poor. 

The Latin American Church is, in the end, a political Church.

It lives in a social context different from the European or generally Western one. In Latin America, institutions are considered oppressors, and the people are the oppressed. The claim of the right of the three Ts: (Tierra, Techo, Trabajo: land, shelter, work) is a response to oppression. Equal dignity for everyone is based on something very concrete; it cannot be ideal or based on abstract principles.  

According to this perspective, the State must take care of the people, and the people must claim their rights. The market marginalizes the people, and the people cannot compete. In the latter, Pope Francis even justifies “the rage and powerlessness at the sight of persistent inequalities,” and shows appreciation for the movements that are keeping up their work. 

The technocratic paradigm is mostly a socio-political problem for Pope Francis, one he sees from a very pragmatic perspective. It is not a general push to consider the human being as an object in a world where the technology rules. To Pope Francis, technocracy is just any ideology that puts the State or the market at the center.

Pope Francis writes, then, “Tthe technocratic paradigms (whether state-centered or market-driven) are not enough to address this crisis or the other great problems affecting humankind. Now more than ever, persons, communities, and peoples must be put at the center, united in healing, to care, and to share.”

From this perspective, it also becomes clear the Pope Francis' request “to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out. It would ensure and concretely achieve the ideal, at once so human and so Christian, of no worker without rights.”

In the end, Pope Francis’s project for integral human development is driven by one desire or goal: the redemption of the people. The perspective must be reversed: the institution must be placed at the service of the people, and not the people at the service of the institutions.

Whatever that is, it is not a socialist perspective: Pope Francis tries to give pragmatic responses to practical issues; that’s the Latin American way.

Here lies a crucial key to understanding Francis’s pontificate. Pope Francis does not concern himself with doctrinal issues simply because those issues are far from the people. To Pope Francis, it is essential above all to approach people. The pragmatic solution comes first.

Pope Francis does not care about history because, to him, the urgent matters come first. History is not important. The reaction to issues is important. This is what the Pope means when he mocks the rhetoric of “we have always done it this way”.

Pope Francis is not a Pope that looks at the institutions because institutions have betrayed the people. In Latin America, the people and the great leaders shape the institutions and not vice-versa. For this reason, the institutional side will never be fully developed during this Pontificate, not even in Curial reform.

This Pope will always be the one who shapes this institution, not vice versa.

Francis is not a Pope who looks at the problems of the world with the perspective of a long term ideal. He looks at the issues of the world with the view of the people. As a man of the people, he looks for concrete and fairly ready solutions. The marginalized ones must be re-included in society, and this must be the institution’s task at any cost.

For all of these reasons, we cannot expect revolutions on doctrinal issues.

Pope Francis applies a different point of view. Between the marginalized people and the institutions, he instinctively is on the side of the marginalized. Now that history is at the crossroads, Pope Francis thought it was time to grab the momentum for the redemption of the marginalized. Or at least, to try for it.

Pope Francis’s message to popular movements is, in the end,  a message. However, the message was sent on Easter Sunday. That must carry some weight of meaning. Reading between the lines, Pope Francis is celebrating the resurrection of the people. That people that, according to Pope Francis, can never fail.

This is the reason why Pope Francis cannot look to any other way out of the coronavirus crisis but the Latin American way. Pope Francis universalizes, in fact, the sentiment of the Latin American continent. Following Simon Bolivar and Methol Ferré's ideas, Pope Francis aims at a Latin American continent united and strong, a new guiding light in the world. The letter to the popular movements provides another clue to the contents of this vision.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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