Should papal diplomacy prove ineffective in reconciling the church with society, a potential force for so much more good would be lost.

In 2015, two hundred years after the fact, the Catholic Church, through its leader, apologized for sins committed against indigenous Bolivians in the process of their colonization, from which the Church is said to have gained financially. The stigma of servitude persists to this day and indigenous Indians remain the largest (over 70%) but poorest segment of the population. As with indigenous Canadian women, Bolivians are very often considered fair game for sexual molestation and abuse by their compatriots of European descent. As if to illustrate the urgency of reform, during independence celebrations in 2008, a group of indigenous women marching in support of President Morales’s (himself an Aymara Indian) policies was verbally abused, stripped naked, and beaten.

Roma mora; Rome delays. It was 198 years (counting from 1800) before Pope John Paul II apologized to Africans for Catholic involvement in the slave trade, 359 since the persecution and prosecution of Galileo for his allegedly heretical scientific beliefs, and 794 for the sacking of Constantinople during the Crusades.

A grave sin of omission was publicly confessed by John Paul II: the church’s historical discrimination against the Jewish people. In an act not possible to rationalize, the Third Lateran Council [of Bishops] sitting in 1179, decreed, “Jews and Saracens are not to be allowed to have christian servants in their houses, either under pretence of nourishing their children or for service or any other reason. Let those be excommunicated who presume to live with them.” This led to the establishment of ghettos out of which Jews were only allowed in daylight hours. The only redeeming feature of the canon is that it protected Jews from forcible baptism and prohibited the confiscation of the property of Jewish converts to Christianity.

The Church is a work in progress and has needed reform in every age of its existence. In this era, gestures are important because apart from the consolation they bring, they have the potential to mobilize church members for much needed social action. By reconciling the church to society, the Pope and his two immediate predecessors are repairing the damage to the moral authority of the office done by the church’s frequent flirtations with consumerism and elevation of the secular values of power, possessions and pleasure—and its quest for a secular form of respectability.

In a splintered world, authoritative voices, such as those of Chief Rabbis, the Dalai Llama, the Mahatma, and leaders of other faith groups and social movements, have a role to play. Indeed one major, frequent and bitter criticism of Pope Pius XII is that he remained ‘silent’ (or more accurately, conservative in his denunciation?) when the Nazis began to persecute Polish and Italian Jews. It is believed a word from Pope Pius would have galvanized the Catholic faithful to oppose the Holocaust, but that he failed to use his moral authority. This has earned him, and the church generally, the reputation of having been sympathetic towards the Nazis, despite Catholic efforts such as the Assisi Underground through which Jewish Italians were hidden in religious institutions, some disguised as monks (three babies are said to have been born in Pope Pius’s personal quarters in the Vatican).

World Meeting of Popular Movements: A Papal Initiative

Pope Francis’s apologies were addressed[i] to the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, a gathering of activists, farmers and manual workers held in Bolivia. The meeting, an initiative of Pope Francis and implemented by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is a forum for the most excluded of the world to interact in changing their situation. There was no requirement to be Catholic to attend, and in fact Che Guevara T-shirts were very much in evidence. The first meeting held in Rome was attended by groups as diverse as: the Asian Social Institute from the Philippines, Border Agricultural Workers from the US/Mexico Border, Farm Workers Association of Florida, Malawi Union for Informal Sector, National Slum Dwellers Federation of India, Shack Dwellers International/Zimbabwe Affiliate, and the Turkish Peasant Confederation.

A Radical Church is Nothing New

Francis’s radical diplomacy is of a piece with his past life as a prelate and priest. By declining to take up residence in the official papal apartments, he effectively and peacefully occupied the Vatican. He has been demonstrating against exclusion ever since, most notably when he broke with tradition and began to wash the feet of women, prisoners and the sick on Holy Thursday as well as the usual candidates—members of the visible church; the well-heeled and firmly established in their parishes. As it is, he celebrates daily Mass with the people who sweep St Peter’s Square and the staff of the guesthouse in which he lives. Entry to the papal chapel had up to that point been the privilege of foreign royalty and State visitors.

Just as leading from below exemplified by washing the feet of those one leads/serves was radical at the birth of the Church and is totally biblical, so too is radical action in favor of the excluded. Most observers, especially journalists but also nominal Catholics, are unaware the faith is not confined to belief in its theology. When the Pope says, as he did at both WMPMs, that consumerism has led to war and displacement of peoples, he is not ‘digressing’ from ‘pastoral themes’ as is reported by some journalists. Rather, he is referring to the church’s social doctrine which its members are required to implement.

The unifying theme of the doctrine is the entitlement of each individual to the goods of the earth; the essentials of life such as education (hence church schools, technical schools and skills training), healthcare (church hospitals which form the backbone of health services in much of the developing world) and freedom from hunger (Catholic Action Groups such as Caritas and Catholic Workers Movement). These are just three of what are called the Works of Mercy which can be either corporal works or the more familiar spiritual works: the more familiar ‘pastoral themes’ considered by the secular world to be the limit of the church’s concerns.

At the WMPM, Pope Francis was in combative mood, he said, “Let us begin by acknowledging that change is needed….I am speaking about problems common to all Latin Americans and, more generally, to humanity as a whole.”

He then pointed to the system that produces poverty: “I wonder whether we can see that these destructive realities are part of a system which has become global. Do we realize that that system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature? If such is the case, I would insist, let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable….”

Land, Roof, Work

Building on the theme of the inaugural WMPM in 2014, at which he called Land, Roof and Work sacred rights, The Holy Father dwelt on the necessity for the popular movements to participate alongside governments and international bodies in securing those rights. Commending the work of popular movements he made clear he was not advancing an ideology “This rootedness in the barrio, the land, the office, the labor union, this ability to see yourselves in the faces of others, this daily proximity to their share of troubles and their little acts of heroism: this is what enables you to practice the commandment of love, not on the basis of ideas or concepts, but rather on the basis of genuine interpersonal encounter. We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people….”

Acknowledging that neither the Papacy nor the Church has a recipe for change, he nevertheless proposed three tasks that would make a difference.

Put the Economy at the Service of Peoples

“The first task is to put the economy at the service of peoples…. A just economy must create the conditions for everyone to be able to enjoy a childhood without want, to develop their talents when young, to work with full rights during their active years and to enjoy a dignified retirement as they grow older. It is an economy where human beings, in harmony with nature, structure the entire system of production and distribution in such a way that the abilities and needs of each individual find suitable expression in social life. You, and other peoples as well, sum up this desire in a simple and beautiful expression: ‘to live well’.

“Such an economy is not only desirable and necessary, but also possible….The available resources in our world, the fruit of the intergenerational labors of peoples and the gifts of creation, more than suffice for the integral development of ‘each man and the whole man’[ii] The problem is of another kind….A system which, while irresponsibly accelerating the pace of production, while using industrial and agricultural methods which damage Mother Earth in the name of ‘productivity’, continues to deny many millions of our brothers and sisters their most elementary economic, social and cultural rights….

“Welfare programs geared to certain emergencies can only be considered temporary responses. They will never be able to replace true inclusion, an inclusion which provides worthy, free, creative, participatory and solidary work.

“Along this path, popular movements play an essential role, not only by making demands and lodging protests, but even more basically by being creative.”

Work Towards Justice and Peace

“The world’s peoples want to be artisans of their own destiny…. They want their culture, their language, their social processes and their religious traditions to be respected. No actual or established power has the right to deprive peoples of the full exercise of their sovereignty…. Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new. Let us say YES to the encounter between peoples and cultures. Blessed are the peacemakers.”

It was at this point that the apology was made to the people of Bolivia for colonialism.

Environmental Protection

“Our common home is being pillaged, laid waste and harmed with impunity. Cowardice in defending it is a grave sin. We see with growing disappointment how one international summit after another takes place without any significant result. There exists a clear, definite and pressing ethical imperative to implement what has not yet been done.”

The Sleeping Giant

Beyond addressing the already socially active like the Popular Movements, and holding out an olive branch to those who have left the church in disgust at its many failings, Francis’s challenge is to the millions of Catholics complacently ticking off their checklists of daily devotions: Mass, rosary, Angelus, perhaps Bible study, and weekly confession, a prison or hospital visit and of course almsgiving, thereafter remaining content to bask in the glow of their achievements. His example is meant for those who are able to sit through endless news broadcasts of mass murder by States, genocide, induced poverty, war and the forced migration and displacement that follow, without feeling prompted to leave their comfort zones.

There was no visible or audible response from the international laity when the Christian bishops of Gaza, (Catholic, Episcopalian and Orthodox) issued a joint communiqué in 2014 calling for the end of the cycle in which every two or so years there is a military assault on their country, and proposed that granting Palestine official recognition as a State would be a move in that direction. The Vatican has responded by recognizing Palestine’s statehood. To their credit, the United States Conference of Bishops showed solidarity by leading pilgrimages to the Holy Land followed by their own statement in support of Palestinian Statehood. A similar statement was issued by Cardinal Vincent of Westminster who visited Gaza in November 2014 to see for himself.

If just a fraction of ordinary Catholic laity had supported the appeal, at the very least those with the power to intervene would have been inundated by protest letters as they used to be during the struggle to free South Africa. If the laity was more responsive, Aid agencies would not be short of cash as they are today in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere. However a straw poll of Christians revealed the majority are not only yet to respond to the disasters of the day (corporeally or spiritually), but are not up-to-date with the easily accessible facts. For example, at the time of writing, young African migrants expelled from Israel and deported to Uganda and Rwanda in exchange for arms from Israel, travelled unnoticed to Libya via Sudan from where they hope to board unsafe vessels to Europe. When asked how they would travel they answered simply, “People traders.”

“In conclusion, I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize….I am with you. Let us together say from the heart: no family without lodging, no rural worker without land, no laborer without rights, no people without sovereignty, no individual without dignity, no child without childhood, no young person without a future, no elderly person without a venerable old age. Keep up your struggle and, please, take great care of Mother Earth.”

Should papal diplomacy prove ineffective in reconciling the church with society, a potential force for so much more good would be lost, especially to Africa whose non-performing leaders are yet to apologize to their people for the poor governance that has produced so many failing states and forced migrants. It would be a shame if a century from now, Catholics found themselves having to apologize for indifference to the slow holocaust of the Palestinians and to the descendants of displaced people.


[i] Source of Pope Francis’s speech: Radio Vaticana News July 10 2015

[ii] PAUL VI, Encyclical Populorum Progressio (26 March 1967), 14: AAS 59 (1967), 264.