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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Tuesday, Nov. 30 - 4pm to 8pm

On July 8, during his whirlwind tour of Latin America, Pope Francis arrived at La Paz, Bolivia. He stayed for two hours before continuing to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where most of his public activities during his visit to Bolivia were scheduled.

The official reason for this brief visit to the seat of government was Pope Francis’ age and respiratory problems. Still, the schedule in La Paz was charged with political connotations. These included an official state welcoming ceremony, as well as a short tribute to the Jesuit Luis Espinal Camps who was murdered by the last military dictatorship in 1980. The pope’s schedule also made time for a courtesy visit with President Evo Morales in the Government Palace, then a meeting with the civil authorities in the cathedral, followed by an immediate return to the airport to take the plane to Santa Cruz de la Sierra.

This was a tight agenda at more than two miles above sea level that Pope Francis had chosen for himself. For his health, the pope had been advised not to make a stopover in La Paz. Indeed when his visit to Bolivia was first announced in 2014, this stop was not planned. But those who know Jorge Bergoglio say that when he takes a decision, no one can convince him otherwise. The result was an exhausting day for anyone, and much more so for a 78-year-old man with respiratory problems. The pope woke up very early that day in Quito, Ecuador, and reached the residence of Cardinal Julio Terrazas in Santa Cruz almost at midnight. The distance between beds was approximately 2,500 miles.

While it is not worth highlighting every aspect of the pope’s visit to Bolivia, it is worth considering his remarks in La Paz to Morales, one of the most prominent of Latin America’s leftist populist leaders. "Brother President" was the expression with which Francis began his speech at the Cathedral of La Paz in his encounter with the civil authorities.

Immediately after the initial protocol greetings and the “brother president” salute, Pope Francis said: “With your permission, I would like to offer a few words of encouragement in support of your work, which is ongoing.” To make clear the importance of these few lines, we must remember that the pope was addressing a head of state and his government. The lines can seem somewhat formal, but with these words it is hard to deny that Pope Francis made clear his support and even admiration for “Brother” Morales.

Like anyone else, Pope Francis is free to admire whoever or whatever he thinks best. But it is also surely the case that such direct religious legitimation of politicians and political policies should generally be avoided, even discouraged. With this speech and visit, Pope Francis gave months of free advertising to Morales and his government. And perhaps what is more worrisome, the pope clearly (albeit perhaps unintentionally) provided some kind of religious legitimacy to the current policies pursued by the present government in Bolivia. Why else would the pope refer to his support for Morales’ “ongoing work”?

A central element of modern politics is that the state should not be legitimized by metaphysical or religious arguments. This makes it easier to control, limit, criticize, and - in extreme circumstances - even overthrow governments. I won’t speculate on all the reasons why Pope Francis gave such clear encouragement to Morales and his government’s policies, save to say that it may have something to do with the idea that Morales and his current administration embody the romantic idea of an idealized indigene that has not been "corrupted" by Western civilization.

During his encounter with President Morales at the Government Palace, Pope Francis was forced to receive the now so-called “communist crucifix.” Of course, Morales had an agenda with that gift. It wasn’t an innocent gesture. Designed by the same Jesuit priest who had been honored by Pope Francis a few minutes earlier, the pope’s response - “that is not OK” - represented a correction to Morales. The fact, however, that Morales gave Pope Francis this cross - it is unthinkable that anyone would have given John Paul II or Benedict XVI a cross in the shape of a symbol of death and oppression for millions, including the millions of Catholics who have suffered at the hands of Marxist regimes and movements - underscores that Morales didn’t think Pope Francis would be offended. Indeed, only a few minutes later Pope Francis expressed his support for the work of Morales’ regime.

As if this were not enough, on July 9 Francis participated at the “Second World Meeting of Popular Movements.” This is the second of such meetings which the pope has attended. After some greetings he said: “Today God has granted that we meet again.”

This might seem harmless. After all, the pope is a religious leader. But the context was that the pope was speaking at a gathering of people who are, politically speaking, leftist populists. He used language remarkably similar to that used by other leftist populist Latin American politicians.

But here is the question: Where does that leave those Catholics who love Pope Francis and recognize his authority as the Successor of St. Peter but who disagree with leftist populist ideas and the policies pursued by Bolivia’s current government?

Here it is worth recalling the words of the recently retired pope: “The law of imperfection and endangerment applies to Christianity also as a reality experienced by human beings. Its positive political effect is not automatically guaranteed. Indeed, no such promise was made to it, and ecclesiastical official must keep this in mind at all times in their political activities.”

These words are surely worth heeding by any Catholic bishop, priest, or religious – and, not least, other popes. 

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Jorge Velarde Rosso is a Bolivian political scientist. He is Founder and Research Director of LIBERA (Bolivia), senior researcher of the Instituto Acton in Argentina, a professor at Universidad Católica Boliviana, and the author of several articles and books about Joseph Ratzinger’s thought