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Article about the pope
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The Pope, Social Justice, and Catholicism.

I was asked to write an article about the pope for ( about the pope. It covers a lot of ground quite lightly, but anyway...

I was thirteen when the Pope last came to
Australia. He appeared at Randwick Racecourse in his 'Popemobile'; a vehicle that, I remember, separated him from the crowd. It was a big spectacle that I felt detached from, even though I and other kids made a huge formation of the Josephite symbol out of shiny blue cloth, to mark the beatification of blessed Mary Mackillop.

Being a Catholic has always been like breathing for me, but at the same time, it has also seemed contrived sometimes.  It is intertwined in even the language I use, and the principles I fall back on, as it is for other friends and members of my family. The tradition speaks to me in the deep symbolic richness of ritual, evoking ancient, even pre-Christian and Pagan imagery and stories that are very much universal motifs throughout human cultures.

Like many Catholics, my spiritual experience is a personal one, whilst my ethical journey has been more political, propelling me into the realms of environmentalism and collective action. This urgency has come from a belief that there is much ethical scrutiny on individuals and not enough on corporations and governments: political institutions that avoid ethical responsibility. Of course, such an analysis would lead me to evaluate the Catholic Church as an institution.

All spiritualities, if they are to be more than refuges of denial to escape from the world, need to engage in the world, so people can look at injustice and misery in the face and not look away.  The Church has an important role in supporting the strength of grassroots peoples' movements to fight systemic injustice, especially in the Majority (Third) World. The papacy of John Paul II responded strongly to the people in the
Philippines, Poland and the Former Soviet Union. However, I believe that it utterly betrayed the peoples' movements in Latin America

There is an important tradition within the Catholic Church called Liberation theology, which understands the Bible as a narrative of liberation, starting from the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in
Egypt. During the 1970's, such stories of scripture resonated with the experience of people living in poverty under brutal US-backed regimes in Latin America. The tradition, informed by theorists such as Paulo Freire and Karl Marx, and supported by bishops such as Oscar Romero and Don Helder Camara, encouraged reflection and action, and gave a Christian framework of legitimacy to the struggle of millions of people who resisted these regimes in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Brazil
among other places. Whilst John Paul II privately told Latin American liberation theologians such as Cardinal Arns, of Brazil that he supported their work; in practice, the Vatican actively closed down institutions of Liberation theology, and moved conservative and Opus Dei priests into poorer radical areas, whilst exiling the radical priests into far off other places. Barely a month before Oscar Romero's assassination, he had an audience with the pope, in which the Pope instructed him to co-operate with the murderous El Salvadorean government. Romero simply could not do this.

Vatican's stance towards liberation theology was tinted by the simplistic rhetoric of the Cold War era, which viewed the grassroots social movements in Latin America as part of the Communist 'domino effect'. Its destructive actions were consistent with an agreement between the Pope and Reagan. Reagan appealed to the Pope's deep desire to rid Eastern Europe of authoritarian Communism, and asked that the Church in return control its areas of radical ferment in Latin America
. I am not certain about whether the Church was already suppressing Liberation theology before this. Much of Reagan's motivation came from a policy document known as the 'Santa Fe' document, drafted by conservative American Christians. In other words, the Vatican more willingly followed the advice of the US Government, rather than trusting and listening openly to its own grassroots church in Latin America.

So what about now?
Such power relationships are not unique to these instances. Over the last few years I have become more aware about the opacity and the lack of respectful consultation within the Catholic Church. I have witnessed authoritarian power politics that I thought we were moving away from. Some small sects have gained influence by enforcing the purity of their own doctrines to the detriment of the rest of the Church. For example, Opus Dei, whilst fundamentally disagreeing with the Church reform process of Vatican II, has positioned itself strategically by gaining positions in the highest ranks of the
. One would think that its views should disqualify it from such positions, since it does not agree with the spirit of the modern church.

On the home front, George Pell's interventions in Sydney seem those of a despot. He has stepped into matters in which he has little expertise, breaking down relationships of trust. This includes changing the religion syllabuses of catholic schools, controlling the editorial approach of The Catholic Weekly, firing university chaplains that he doesn't like. It is disturbing that he rarely consults the people most affected, or his fellow priests. Such is the climate of overwork and disillusionment that several Sydney priests have left the priesthood in the last few years. (Maybe they should take him to the Industrial Relations Commission!).

My personal experience with Catholic student groups confirms this picture. In 2001, I witnessed the stacking of a national council meeting of IMCSA, the Australian Catholic Student Movement, by about 20 students I had never seen before, who were flown to Sydney from around Australia for the occasion, (with some mysterious funding source). When asked personally, few had any understanding of the network and its principles of social justice, they just voted en bloc against us. These students, supported by Pell, alleged that apparently we were not real 'Catholics' - their exclusive definition of 'Catholic' happened to include only themselves, the Vatican, and perhaps a few saints. A few days later, there were glowing reports in The Catholic Weekly about them breathing new life into the IMCSA- a very biased view.

If the Catholic Church is to survive, it cannot be a monoculture. A field of uniform plants cannot evolve beyond itself, rather it becomes self-destructive, attracting plagues of insects. I think that the church needs to further embrace its diversity. Some concrete ways are to listen to and dialogue with social movements; to encourage both traditional and modern forms of ceremony; to respect and value Queer people as full members of the Church; to ordain women; to understand there is more to society than the nuclear family alone, and hence to have a pastoral approach of helping support local community networks. It needs to bring all Catholics into the halls of deliberation and collective decision making (or at least, consultation), so we can have some responsibility over the destiny of the Church. It is the only way we can inform our consciences as a collectivity, and get used to the ideas of institutional responsibility that are essential for social justice in the new millennium.


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