In my book Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education, there is a chapter titled “A Pope Away from a Perfect Life for the Jesuits.” The chapter documents in depressing detail the ways in which the Jesuits began to wage war with the pope following Vatican II. It describes how the 28 Jesuit campuses became the battlefields for a protracted war between the Jesuits and Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. From heretical theologians to social justice warriors lobbying for LGBTQ+ clubs and activities and student access to contraception and insurance coverage for abortion, Jesuit campuses had become contested terrain for Catholic teachings.
Beyond these campuses, the Jesuit war on the papacy is well documented in a number of books and articles—including Passionate Uncertainty, which pointed out that most within the Jesuit Order “denigrated and deceived” each of the popes, disobeying them as they waited for each pope to die in the hope that the next pope would leave the Order with a free hand to accomplish their new, more worldly mission of social justice. Believing themselves to be just a pope away from a perfect life of freedom from doctrinal constraints, Rev. Paul Shaughnessy, S.J., observed in an article titled “Are the Jesuits Catholic?” published in The Weekly Standard in 2002 that “the Jesuits became papists who hate the Pope and evangelists who have lost the faith.”
This animosity toward the pope disappeared with the election in 2013 of one of their own Jesuit priests, Rev. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J. As a Jesuit priest from Latin America, Pope Francis was at the epicenter of the earliest days of Jesuit resistance to the pope following Vatican II when a small number of Jesuit priests became involved in the propagation of a new, more liberating and empowering theology that coupled theology with sociology and a dominant concern for the “here and now” rather than eternal salvation. A longtime Jesuit commitment to missionary work in Latin America became redefined when the Jesuits began to view their mission in more worldly terms.
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Specifically, the Jesuits began to see their work as helping Nicaragua defeat the regime led by the Somoza family. Allying with Daniel Ortega and the Marxist Sandinistas, the Jesuits became leaders in what emerged as a violent Sandinista attack on the Somoza regime. The Jesuit alliance also involved alliances with Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Soviet Union.
The Sandinista leaders openly proclaimed their ultimate aim: to create a Marxist society in Nicaragua to serve as the beginning of a Marxist revolution throughout Central America. The Jesuits were integral to this goal. With more than 90 percent of the Nicaraguan population belonging to the Catholic Church, the Sandinistas knew that they needed to enlist the Jesuits and the Church to legitimate their activities. Liberation Theology provided the Sandinista revolutionaries with support because this theology “of the people” combined Christianity with the very aim of Marxism-Leninism.
Pope Francis came of age during these early days of Liberation Theology. He appears to have been shaped by the new theology promoted by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest known as the “Father of Liberation Theology.” Author of A Theology of Liberation, Gutierrez viewed theology as “situational,” defining a “process not an outcome.”
Likewise, there was Franciscan Liberation Theologian Leonardo Boff, the chief promoter of the dream of a Marxist utopia in which the “people of God” became the new Church and made the rules of the Church. In Boff’s book—which was strongly denounced by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1985—Boff dismissed the hierarchical authority of the Church, mandating that “the sacred power must be put back into the hands of the people.” As Malachi Martin explained in The Jesuits,
No teaching or directing authority would be allowed “from above,” from the alien, hierarchic Church. In fact, the very symbols of that Church had to be firmly rejected. Symbols and all else must come “from below.” From the people.
Concerned about this new theology of the “Church of the People,” Cardinal Ratzinger pronounced that Boff revealed “a profound misunderstanding of the Catholic faith as regards the Church of God in the world.” Likewise, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the Nicaraguan bishops denouncing the “People’s Church” in especially harsh terms:
This church born of the people was a new invention that was both absurd and of perilous character…Only with difficulty could it avoid being infiltrated by strangely ideological connotations along the line of a certain political radicalization, for accomplishing determined aims.
Today, the Church under Pope Francis has become infiltrated by the same strange ideological connotations. Pope Francis has resurrected both Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff and given Boff papal advisor status. The National Catholic Register has suggested that Boff has become a “spokesman” for Pope Francis “with some of his most audacious proposals.” Boff was a major contributor to the encyclical Laudato Si’ and most recently lauded Fratelli Tutti on his website. Of Laudato Si’, Boff claimed that “Great names in world ecology affirmed: with this contribution, Pope Francis puts himself at the forefront of the contemporary ecological discussion.”
In fact, Boff has been the strongest supporter of Pope Francis and his elevation of the melding of the political ideology and liberation theology of Latin America. On his website Boff was dismissive of what he called the “European Church as an ally of colonization.” For Boff, the Church has been:
…an accomplice of indigenous genocide and a participant in slavery. A colonial Church was implanted here, a mirror of the European Church. But for more than 500 years, despite the persistence of the mirror Church, there has been an ecclesio-genesis, the genesis of another way of being church, a church no longer mirror but source.
For Boff, this “new church” was
incarnated in the local indigenous black-mestizo and immigrant culture of peoples from 60 different countries…It projected a theology appropriate to its liberating and popular practice. It has its prophets, confessors, theologians, saints, and many martyrs, among them the Archbishop of San Salvador.
In an essay published nearly 20 years ago entitled “Liberal Catholicism Re-examined,” Peter Steinfels, a one-time religion correspondent for The New York Times wrote, “one definition of liberal Catholicism is simply papal teaching a hundred years too soon.” Published in Believing Scholars: Ten Catholic Intellectuals, Steinfels, a retired professor at Fordham University, reflected the sentiments of most progressive theologians on Catholic college campuses who believed that their dissenting views on the Divinity of Christ, the path to salvation, women’s ordination, reproductive rights, and sexual morality are the views of the future of the Catholic Church.
The current reign of Pope Francis and his promise to remake the Church appears to validate Steinfels’ prophetic statement. In fact, even Steinfels must be a bit surprised at how quickly papal teachings have changed. Most of us became complacent, believing that Church teachings on life, marriage, sin, and forgiveness were safe under the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Besides, even Cardinal Francis George, the late episcopal leader of the Chicago Archdiocese, gave an important homily in 2004 which dismissed liberal Catholicism as “an exhausted project, now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists.”
Most of us believed Cardinal George when he said that progressive Catholicism was “exhausted…unable to pass on the faith in its integrity.” Few could have predicted how successful Pope Francis would be at reviving it. But we all underestimated the power of the Francis papacy to bring to life something that most of us thought was dead. Chronicles contributor John Zmirak captured this best when he declared that Pope Francis has “wrenched from the mortician’s table the suppurating corpse of progressive Catholicism, electrified it back to the semblance of life, and turned it loose on the faithful.”
And now we are faced with a Church that is divided between those of us who still believe in the unchanging truths of natural law on life and sexuality and those like Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.—another Jesuit spokesperson for Pope Francis—who has described those Catholics and Protestants who support natural law in their work in the pro-life movement or on LGBTQ+ issues as participating in an “ecumenism of hate.” And now we are faced with a Church that is divided between those of us who still believe in the unchanging truths of natural law on life and sexuality and those like Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.Tweet This
It is clear which side the pope is on. In the latest Vatican declaration on blessings for same sex couples, Pope Francis has warned priests that they may not cast moral judgment on same-sex couples who ask for a blessing from them, preferring a “pastoral approach” that refrains from teaching about the immorality of same-sex acts or extra-marital sexual relationships. In September 2023, Pope Francis appointed Fr. Spadaro, S.J., to be the undersecretary for the Dicastery for Culture and Education at the Vatican.
It is difficult to predict how much deeper the divisions within the Church can become. Pope Francis appears to provide no middle ground—no room for compromise on issues like the same-sex blessings or the suspension of the Latin Mass. Fr. Spadaro claims to believe that “Pope Francis wants to break the organic link between culture, politics, institution and Church,” but that could not be further from the truth. Pope Francis has brought politics into every aspect of the Church—denigrating political candidates for office like Donald Trump by claiming that “Donald Trump is not Christian” because “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
In the lead-up to the most recent presidential elections in Argentina, Pope Francis appeared to promote the pro-labor candidate and warn about the conservative candidate as one who offers “messianic solutions to a crisis, saying that the way out is never individual…if workers have no rights, they are being enslaved.”
Despite his attempt to intervene in the presidential election in Argentina, Pope Francis had little influence on the outcome as the anti-socialist candidate Javier Milei won the Presidency. President Milei has called Pope Francis a communist on several occasions. Most recently, President Milei gave a speech last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos alerting those gathered about the same kind of socialism that so many of the advisors to Pope Francis appear to embrace. President Milei warned:
I’m here to tell you that the Western world is in danger. And it is in danger because those who are supposed to have to defend the values of the West are co-opted by a vision of the world that inexorably leads to socialism and thereby to poverty.
The current divisions within the Church are unsustainable. But Pope Francis does not seem to recognize the danger as he continues to denigrate the most faithful Catholics in the Church. Just last week, in a meeting with the clergy and deacons in Rome, he mocked what he called (again) the “indietrism of the young clergy”—those he claimed were trying to “lock themselves into formalities, to disguise themselves. You see these young people going to Euroclero, Barbiconi, looking for bonnets.” As long as Pope Francis continues to use the word “indietrism” to denigrate those of us who embrace tradition and natural law, it is unlikely that we will ever find a middle ground during this papacy.
Pope Francis is the pope that the Jesuits have been waiting for. He is the pope who sees Church teachings as a dynamic process always open to change. He is the pope who envisions a utopian world without borders. And as Fratelli Tutti has made clear, he is the pope who envisions a world without capitalism.
We may never know why Pope Francis chose to channel Robespierre and the slogan of the French Revolution, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, in Fratelli Tutti—the encyclical praised so effusively by Leonardo Boff—but there is no denying that the chilling Revolutionary phrase headlines section 103 of the papal document and inspires most of its content. And although the Marxist musings were subtle in the encyclical, Daniel Mahoney points out in a recent essay in American Mind that there is nothing subtle in Pope Francis’ latest foray into Communist collaboration:
Just when one hopes against hope it couldn’t get any worse, the politically inept and immoderate pontiff has now called for greater dialogue and cooperation between Christians, on the one hand, and Marxists and Communists on the other. In recent remarks to DIALOP, a group dedicated to dialogue and political cooperation between Christians and Marxists, Francis lauded such cooperation to fight war and injustice and to “imagine a better world.”
This utopian Marxist dream of a “better world” is exactly what the Jesuits have been waiting for since those early days of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. All of this does little to dispel the concerns of faithful Catholics throughout the United States that their Church is now being led by a pope who is hostile to their faith, their traditions, and their practices, and the true meaning of liberty and freedom as envisioned by the founders of their own country.
[Photo Credit: L’Osservatore Romano/AP]