In this month of August, Pope Francis has found himself facing opposition on two of the best-known points of his preaching. And opposition in an unusual form: because the critiques have not come from inside the Church, but from outside, from authoritative voices of secular opinion; and also because he has never been explicitly named in the controversy, although it is evident that the criticisms were aimed against him as well.
The first point concerns the phenomenon of migration. In recent days, a ruling from the Italian judiciary and an appeal signed by a certain number of intellectuals of the far left have compared the reception centers for immigrants sailing from Libya for Italy to “concentration camps,” and the rejection of their indiscriminate admittance to a “mass extermination” analogous to that of the Jews on the part of the Nazis.
These comparisons are not new. Frequent recourse has been made in recent times to words like “lager,” “extermination,” “holocaust” to denounce the treatment reserved for immigrants by those who do not want to accommodate them without reservation.
But this time, in conjunction with the joint decision of the Italian government and the Libyan authorities to put the brakes on the shipments of migrants carried out until now by criminal organizations at the expense of many lives, and in conjunction with the resolute support for this decision from the president of the Italian episcopal conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, the aberrant association of the “non-welcome” of immigrants with the extermination of the Jews has not passed by in silence, but has generated a healthy flare-up of criticisms.
Properly speaking, none of the critics has mentioned Pope Francis by name. But he too not long ago had referred to as “concentration camps” the camps for receiving immigrants in Greece and Italy.
He did so in a homily given on April 22 at the Roman basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Tiber Island, during a ceremony commemorating the “new martyrs” of the 20th and 21st centuries.
And this sally of his reinforced even more the standard storyline on Pope Francis when it comes to immigration: as a pope of unlimited welcome for all, always and at all costs.
Because it is true that Francis, in this regard, has also occasionally said the opposite. For example, during one of his inflight press conferences, on the way back from Sweden last November 1, he praised the “prudence” of leaders who put limits on accommodation, because “there is not room for all.”
Just as it is true that Cardinal Bassetti spoke with the prearranged approval of the pope – who had himself just come from a private meeting with Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni – when last August 10 he supported the hard line of the government of Rome against “those who exploit the phenomenon of migration in an inhumane manner” by organizing crossings from Libya to Italy.
But the fact remains that these correctives have not made a dent in the image of Francis that has been built up in the media, as a champion of indiscriminate accommodation. And one may wonder if this is the work of the media alone or his as well, considering the overwhelming preponderance of his appeals for welcome full stop, compared with the paltry number of his commendations of “prudence” in governing the phenomenon of migration.
The second point of the preaching of Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio that has ended up under fire from criticism has to do with his overall political vision, hostile both to globalization, in which he sees the perverse effects prevailing, and to free market policies, which he has often branded as “economy that kills.”
In an editorial in “Corriere della Sera” of July 26, no less an economist of internationally recognized authority than Francesco Giavazzi, a professor at Bocconi University in Milan and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, identified precisely these two hostilities as the root of the current wave of populism: which are on the right when the origins of the malaise are identified in globalization (Donald Trump in the United States, Geert Wilders in Holland, Marine Le Pen in France…) and on the left when instead the malaise is traced back to free market policies (Syryza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bernie Sanders in the United States…).
The “perfect storm” of recent years – in Giavazzi’s view – is that both the populism on the right and that on the left have joined together in a shared “rejection of the élite,” meaning both the political and economic institutions.
Giavazzi has not written so, but this rejection is the same one that vitalizes the overall political vision of Pope Francis, enunciated above all in those “manifestos” of his which are the speeches he has given to the “popular movements.” A rejection that he also systematically extends against the ecclesiastical establishment.
A rejection that, however, has no future, according to Giavazzi. Because both the populists on the right and those on the left “have in common a lack of staying power, a short-term view that, when it works well, limits itself to putting problems off until tomorrow, which simply makes them more acute.” And he cites the example of the “revolt against the free market policies implemented in Argentina during the Menem presidency during the 1990’s, which brought Peronism back into power.”
He did not name Bergoglio, but he too is implicated here. Who knows if he has taken note.
It can be added that in recent days, after the terrorist attack in Barcelona, Pope Francis has been criticized for a third reason: for his refusal to speak of the Islamic roots of this terrorism, which for the umpteenth time he has reduced to a simple act of “blind violence.”
In this case, however, the criticisms have been explicitly aimed against him, by name. Just as had been done before, for opposite reasons and from the opposite side, against Benedict XVI, who in the memorable lecture in Regensburg had identified and denounced the roots of violence inherent in Islam. And they made him pay dearly for it.
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)