It’s one of those photos that cries out for a thought bubble.
During Pope Francis’ visit to Bolivia yesterday – the second stop on the Pope’s three-country tour of South America this week – left-wing President Evo Morales offered him an unusual crucifix that depicts Jesus nailed to a hammer and sickle. That is, Jesus laid out on the international symbol for communism.
Francis reportedly muttered to Morales, "Eso no está bien." Translation: We are not amused.
But insert a balloon over Francis’ head, and I'll bet he was also thinking: “Gee, thanks, Evo. As if I didn’t have enough trouble with conservatives.”
This pope isn’t exactly the darling of the international right wing, whether it’s Roman Catholics in the Vatican or Republicans in the U.S. They already consider him a commie in a cassock – thanks to his emphasis on social justice for the poor, income inequality between countries and the really green encyclical he published last month supporting climate change science.
Now, conservatives will most likely hold up the image of Pope Francis receiving Jesus the Revolutionary from Comrade Evo as prized proof of his Marxist bona fides. Only a shot of Barack Obama wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt would fetch a higher price on Planet Conspiracy.
On Planet Reality, neither Francis nor Obama is a socialist. Still, both religious and political conservatives should take a long hard look at the photo from Bolivia – because it speaks volumes not about Francis’ radical flaws but about their reactionary failures.
The religious side first.
The Argentine-born Francis was elected the first pontiff from Latin America two years ago largely because the Roman Catholic Church is hemorrhaging membership in his home region. The Pew Research Center in Washington D.C. reported last fall that only 69 percent of Latin Americans call themselves Catholic today compared to more than 80 percent at the turn of the century.
A big reason for that exodus is the mainstream Catholic Church’s centuries-long neglect of the poor – not a smart posture when you’re serving a continent with some of the world’s worst wealth inequality.
The one wing of the Church that has in fact bothered with the whole poverty thing is the left wing – the so-called “liberation theologians.” But they’re hardly a large enough priestly legion to keep Latin America’s poor from bolting to groups like Evangelicals – whose mainstreams do engage the hoi polloi, which is a big reason a fifth of Latin Americans today call themselves Protestant.
So, as much as conservative Catholics might rage at a hammer-and-sickle crucifix, it’s a Planet Reality reminder that their wing is most responsible for the Church's numbers going south in South America – and in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.
If the Catholic Church wants to recoup devotees in Latin America, then Francis has to woo the region’s plebeians. It’s why, for example, he’s pushing for the sainthood of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by henchmen of El Salvador’s right-wing oligarchy in 1980 for championing the poor during that country’s civil war.
It's why he apologized this week for the Church's past "grave sins" against indigenous people in Latin America.
And it’s why he has to do photo ops with popular populists like Morales.
The same lesson holds, even moreso, for political conservatives.
They love to rail these days at the Latin American leftists who rule not just in Bolivia but in Ecuador (the first stop on Francis’ itinerary this week), Venezuela, Argentina and Nicaragua, among others. And they complain for good reason. The economic and human rights situations in many of those countries, especially Venezuela, are disastrous.
But what I rarely if ever hear from the conservatives is an acknowledgment of why those leftist governments came to power in the first place.
You didn’t hear it, for example, at Miami Dade College’s forum this week on democratization in Latin America. It was a worthy event. But while it resounded with speeches demonizing Venezuela’s socialist revolution, it was a lot quieter on the issue of why a good chunk of Venezuela’s electorate still votes for that revolution.
It’s because Venezuela’s poor still remember the monstrously corrupt system that preceded the socialists. It plundered so much of Venezuela’s oil wealth – the country has the western hemisphere’s largest crude reserves – that half the country’s population lived in poverty when voters elected the late socialist President Hugo Chávez in 1998.
Ditto Bolivia. If it has a president – its first indigenous head of state – who proffers communist crucifixes as papal party favors, it’s because the more conservative presidents before him usually did little if anything to ease the gaping wealth gap in South America’s poorest country.
Conservatives will want to use the Evo photo to crucify Francis. Sadly, what they probably won’t see in the image is the need to redeem themselves in Latin America.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.