The Pope’s Paradox

24 October, 2020

Spain. Vox motion of censure against the government. In the cynical show that was the session, the spokesman of the Valencian left replied to Vox with a Long live the Pope!. Sudden confession of the social-feudal and clerical Carlist origins of the Spanish regionalist left? Some of it is an atavistic reflex. But the game is much broader and deeper. A couple of hours before, Sánchez had brandished the Pope and his last encyclical as if they were a seal of quality against a far right that, he affirmed, despises Pope Francis. He was not merely saying that: while he spoke of Pope Francis with the arrogance of an altar boy, the right-wing Trumpist candidate Abascal referred to the Vatican monarch as Pope Bergoglio thus also following the American script.

Sánchez asserted that, taking advantage of the meetings with Conte, he will go on pilgrimage next week to the Vatican to receive the papal blessings. But more lies behind the rhetorical appeal. If the goal were only to score a photo and a rhetorical point against Vox, it would be ludicrously expensive. Apparently, the government will take for granted and ensure the opacity of the appropriation of 40,000 properties by the Catholic Church.

So the question remains: Why this sudden appearance of the Pope as a political reference?

The reality is that this is far from being an exclusively Spanish phenomenon. In Argentina Bergoglio has been on the power scene for decades, and his enthronement as Pope only led him to be more, rather than less, present in the brawls of local politics… while he became omnipresent in Italian politics. From the Congo to China, the Pope pretends to be a local political agent capable of twisting or conditioning imperialist alignments. In countries like Croatia, it is not unusual to see the prime minister acting as a battering ram for papal positions against the United States, to the delight of the Chinese press. For if the papal power holds little spirituality, Vatican international policy is even less fraternal and humanitarian. The Rohingya are perfectly aware of that, for instance. The Vatican has always, and especially during this papacy, looked for any imperialist mess it could jump into. And they aren’t lacking in a moment like this of heightened conflict between powers.

The Pope, China and the United States

In the post-war world, human rights defined by the UN were a battering ram and an ideological battlefield in the cold war. They were not only a reference to be used at convenience according to time and country. The original model of the French Revolution had codified the new civil religion of the bourgeoisie and its holiest trinity: (mercantile) freedom, equality (of the feudal estates before the law of the state) and fraternity (of all classes in the defense of the nation). But in their reinvention the UN needed to launder such disparate things as intellectual property, the forced nationalization of people, or more or less obligatory unionization.

Today, when the emerging blocs are looking for ideologies to arm themselves argumentatively in the conflict, the USA are promoting a re-reading focused on property rights and freedom of worship against China. The aim of highlighting property rights and their relationship to the trade war is clear. Religious freedom serves to disguise the attempts to instrumentalize various movements such as Falun Gong and Chinese regional nationalisms (Tibet, Uyghurs…) as well as to legitimize the investment in evangelical sects that gave such good historical results to the United States in Central America, Brazil or South Korea.

And in this the Vatican, whose imperialist alignments coincide with those of the German and French bourgeoisies and which has been trying to build a power base in China for more than 450 years, becomes an obstacle. In China, the CCP bureaucracy has imposed on the Vatican a system of electing bishops similar in substance to that enjoyed by Mussolini or Franco. Bishops and cardinals are reviewed and necessarily approved by the state. The USA has pressured the vatican curia as much as possible into breaking off negotiations and denouncing the imposition.

But the Vatican wanted to consolidate gained ground. The extension of the agreement for the appointment of bishops means that the Pope is recognized by the Chinese state as head of the Catholic Church in the country and that he has the final say in the appointment of bishops… that is to say, it is a better agreement than the concordats with Mussolini and Franco which reserved for themselves the final veto. So in Rome there was no shadow of a doubt. The Pope responded to American pressure with a rebuff to Pompeo, and the clash reached such violence in the past month that the American press came to claim that the State Department was trying to stir up and strengthen Bergoglio’s internal rivals … which in turn would have responded by initiating a purge of the Holy See’s economic apparatus.

Thus, the Vatican of Pope Francis conducts, for its own interest, the international policy that the Franco-German EU does not have the strength to impose even internally: to stop the influence of the United States in America and Africa, to affirm its autonomy in order to make deals with China in Asia and to dance with ease over the divisions of the Muslim world, containing Turkey while keeping its finger in the eye on Israel and Saudi Arabia. How can they not admire him as a political entrepreneur who also gives ideological meaning with his encyclicals to the main axes of European imperialist discourse despite playing with even drier ideological tricks than those of Brussels.

The Vatican ideology

The last two encyclicals have been particularly well received by the European press and chancelleries. Laudatio Si titled by the media as the enviornmentalist encyclical had the typical structure of the sectarian genre: quotes and quotations to show that everything had been already said by the church and that the present pope is the legitimate continuation of a long-standing papal doctrine. The more generalities, the better and more applauded by an EU needing to legitimize the green deal and what it means by vaccinating the conservative petty bourgeoisie from climate change-denying temptations.

Something else is Fratelli tutti. The style deviates from the two previous ones to emphasize Bergoglio’s self-citation and favorite references.

The first half of the text, which begins by presenting the EU as the greatest success of fraternity so far, focuses on the criticism of everything that identifies the US vis-à-vis the European discourse. It states, with generalities reminiscent of the bureaucratic literature of Brussels, the defense of local cultures, the condemnation of death penalty, the need to limit international capital flows, the green deal, women’s equality, the social function of property, the need to ensure equal access to all those who suffer a disability… Such is the accumulation of European goals that it seems to be competing for an European grant. There is, of course, a special space dedicated to encouraging Christians to accept and treat migrants with dignity. But no criticism of the European model. The EU is warned of risks – such as responding to immigration with xenophobia -, it is lectured with a long explanation of the parable of the Good Samaritan … but it is never condemned the way individualistic values and cultural imperialism are condemned, which, it need not be explicitly recalled, are inevitably associated in half the world with the USA and Britain. Europe is reminded that its great cultural and religious heritage is there to be used. It goes without saying.

The second half makes its own interpretation of human rights by stating that just as it is unacceptable for someone to have fewer rights because they are a woman, it is equally unacceptable for the place of birth or residence already to determine fewer possibilities for a dignified life and development. But to this moment of lucidity follows the old theological justification of exploitation, presenting the bourgeoisie as a class of chosen ones by divine design to manage for the common good taking advantage of their magical capacities to increase goods and wealth.

From there, now that it is already clear who is the subject of all this, the remaining are peoples’ rights, international cooperation and… multilateralism. In other words, a new version of the Brussels argument against the United States. And this is followed by the definition of boundaries for populism -leaving Peronism on the good side and Orban on the bad side- and liberalism -leaving Anglo, Bolsonaro and Macri neo-liberalism on the bad side. Presenting against both of them the so-called popular economy -a declaration of extremely subsidized precarization- as an imaginative and poetical alternative. It soon becomes clear that the pontiff does not love it for its – non-existent – capacity to lift anyone out of poverty, but for its usefulness in framing the weakest and most atomized sectors of workers into the people. The Pope’s argument, like that of any theorist of Peronist or Fascist background, is that the only alternative to atomization (the individual) is the framing into the nation: each one is fully a person only when they belong to a people. And there he enters into a weak explanation, on a moral basis, of politics such as that popular building which Laclau liked so much and which serves as a tactical manual for Argentina’s Kirchnerism and Podemos’ Errejón… that is, on a culture of dialogue capable of grounding social peace in lasting consensus. And from there, we go back to nods to the peace processes, to Colombia, to reconciliation, the memory of the Argentine dictatorship… and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The encyclical ends up vindicating religions as builders of brotherhood. In view of the definition of fraternity as framing in the nation and submission to capitalism, one must agree with it. It is not surprising that the spokesmen of the European ruling classes uncritically acclaimed the text. More papist than the Pope, El País only condemned Francis I for not having written the encyclical in the so-called inclusive language of feminism.

What do we get out of this?

Capitalism has been too long a reactionary brutality in motion, an anti-historical atrocity. That is why the intellectual and moral sterility of the rising blocs today is such that the old churches see their opportunity. The Vatican offers itself as an ideological partner to the European aspirations it encourages and participates in. And so we see the apparent paradox of a European anticlerical left shouting Long live the Pope! in the parliaments facing national-catholic right-wing extremists, aligned with the USA, who dream of an anti-Pope. It would be difficult to think of something more grotesque if both parties, supposedly confronted by the application of the right to life to fetuses, did not coincide in denying it to millions of people in their eagerness to save the economy. That is to say, saving the profitability of capital.

Search in Communia