As expected, Pope Francis held an in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome this Monday. As widely reported by secular media, he made use of this opportunity to personally clarify his thoughts about the Hammer and Sickle "crucifix" (and the medallion, the "Order of Fr. Espinal" featuring a smaller version of the same) that were presented to him by President Evo Morales of Bolivia. Catholic News Agency has, thankfully, published a translation of the entire press conference (Full text of Pope Francis' in-flight interview from Paraguay to Rome.) The relevant portion is reproduced below (followed by our commentary):
Aura Vistas Miguel, (Radio Renascenca): Well, there’s no group. It’s just me from Portugal. (laughing) Holiness, what did you think when you saw the hammer and sickle with Christ on it? And where did this object end up? What did you think when you saw the hammer and sickle with the Christ on it, given to you by Evo Morales? And where did this object end up?
Pope Francis: Ah, yes, truly. I heard 'mantello' (editor’s note: mantle, cloak: ‘mantello’ is similar to ‘martello,’ the Italian for hammer, that’s why the Pope needed the question repeated), and I didn't understand. It’s curious, I didn't know this, nor did I know that Fr. Espinal was a sculptor and also a poet. I learned this in these days. I saw it and for me it was a surprise. Secondly, you can qualify it in the genre of “protest art” – for example in Buenos Aires, some years ago, there was an exhibit of a good sculptor, creative, Argentine, who is now dead. It was protest art, and I recall one, it was a crucified Christ on a bomber that was falling down, no? It’s Christianity, but a criticism that, let's say, Christianity allied with imperialism, which is the bomber. The genre that first I didn’t know, and secondly, I would qualify it as protest art, which in some cases can be offensive, in some cases. Thirdly, in this concrete case, Fr Espinal was killed in 1980. It was a time when liberation theology had many different branches. One of the branches was with Marxist analysis of reality. Fr Espinal belonged to this, this. Yes, I knew because I was in those years rector of the theology faculty and we talked a lot about it, about the different branches and who were the representatives, no? In the same year, the general of the Society (of Jesus), Fr. Arrupe, wrote a letter to the whole Society on the Marxist analysis of reality in theology. Stopping on this point saying, “it’s no good, these are different things, it’s not right, it’s not correct.” And, four years later in 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the first small volume, the first declaration on liberation theology that criticizes this. Then comes the second, which opens to a more Christian perspective. I’m simplifying, no? Let’s do the hermeneutic of that time: Espinal was an enthusiast of this Marxist analysis of the reality, but also of theology using Marxism. From this, he came up with this work. Also the poetry of Espinal was of this kind of protest. But, it was his life, it was his thought. He was a special man, with so much human geniality, who fought in good faith, no? Making a hermeneutic like this, I understand this work. For me it wasn’t an offense, but I had to do this hermeneutic, and I say it to you so that there aren't any wrong opinions.
Vistas: Did you leave it there?
Pope Francis: No, it’s traveling with me. Maybe you heard that President Morales wished to give me two honors, the most important of Bolivia (editor’s note: the Condor of Andes) and the other of the Order of Fr. Espinal, a new order (editor’s note: the Senate of Bolivia approved it June 30). If I ... first, I’ve never accepted honors. I don’t do it. But, he did it with so much good will and with so much pleasure to please me. And, I thought that this comes from the people of Bolivia. So I prayed about it, what I should do. (I thought,) If I bring it to the Vatican it'll go to the museum and end up there and no one ... I thought about leaving it with Our Lady of Copacabana, the Mother of Bolivia, which will go to the sanctuary. The two honors will be in the Shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana, the Madonna, while the Christ is coming with me. Thanks.
Lest the usual spinmeisters and establishment bloggers again hide beneath the "Francis is just being his usual careless but well-meaning self" excuse, it is necessary to note that again and again in the course of this particular press conference, Francis explicitly speaks of his need to be careful when touching very sensitive matters, even saying at one point, "but I don’t want to say something foolish". The Francis that we hear and read in this press conference is a man acutely aware of the need to be careful with what he says, which gives even greater weight to what he actually says.
That Francis was not at all offended by the two Communist "crucifixes" (the big "cross" and its smaller version on the medallion of the "Order of Fr. Espinal") given to him by Morales was already evident not only from his smiles and body language shortly after these were given to him, but also from his decision to offer the medallion as a gift to the Our Lady of Copacabana, patroness of Bolivia. As he said two days ago, according to News.Va:
“The President of the Nation, in a gesture of warmth, was so kind as to offer me two decorative honours on behalf of the Bolivian people. I thank the Bolivian people for their affection and the president for this courteous gesture. I would like to offer these two decorations to the patron saint of Bolivia, the Mother of this noble nation, so that she may always remember her people and from Bolivia, from the shrine where I would like them to be, that she may remember the Successor of Peter and the whole Church and care for them from Bolivia”.
He then recited the following prayer to the Virgin Mary:
“Mother of the Saviour and Our Mother, Queen of Bolivia, from the heights of your Shrine in Copacabana, heed the prayers and needs of your children, especially the poorest and most abandoned, and protect them. Receive as a gift from the heart of Bolivia and as a token of my filial affection these symbols of closeness and warmth that President Evo Morales Ayma has bestowed on me with cordial and generous affection, on behalf of the Bolivian people, on the occasion of this apostolic trip, which I entrusted to your solicitous intercession.
“I pray that these honours, which I leave here in Bolivia at your feet, and which recall the noble flight of the condor in the skies of the Andes and the honoured sacrifice of Fr. Luis Espinal, S.J., may be emblems of the everlasting love and persistent gratitude of the Bolivian people for your solicitous and intense tenderness.
So, the Holy Father describes the medallion, with its "Communist crucifix", as an "honor", a token of the "honored sacrifice of Fr. Luis Espinal", worthy to be offered to the Holy Mother of God as a votive offering for himself, for Bolivia, and for the whole Church.
If this is not praise then what is it? Diplomacy? Diplomacy did not and could not have dictated that the Pope should also praise this blasphemous "cross"! There was simply no need for this, even if the Pope merely wanted to be polite: he could have remained silent about it, or left his "decorations" quietly at the disposal of the Bolivian hierarchy. With this ostentatious gesture he has destroyed all the excuses offered up a certain kind of idolatrous Catholic press. His words during the July 13 press conference only confirm that in offering the "Order of Fr. Espinal" to Our Lady he intended to highlight its importance and to save it from being forgotten in the Vatican.
Francis' profuse praise for Fr. Espinal -- whose Marxist ideology he explicitly acknowledges -- is impossible to reconcile with his dutiful references to the condemnation of Marxist Liberation theology both by the CDF and the late Fr. Pedro Arrupe. This illustrates one of the central realities of the crisis in the Church, which has reached a truly acute stage under this Pontiff: the doctrine is not formally contradicted and is even dutifully repeated in a mild and "harmless" manner, while heteropraxis is allowed free rein and its fathers praised. (He also has profuse words of praise for Evo Morales, who has done so much to secularize and overthrow the Catholic character of the Bolivian state.)
There is so much more to say about the Pope's words, and we hope to post more commentary on the true significance of much of what he said (especially in Bolivia), but for now we invite our readers to the silence of expiatory prayer to Christ Crucified. Reparation is also due for the offense offered to Our Lady, Queen of Sorrows.