Cruising mean streets in the popemobile

The mainstream media love big, easy stories — natural disasters, inaugurations, papal elections. The election by the College of Cardinals of Jorge Bergoglio was a softball lobbed right over the plate, and the media knocked it out of the park.

Much was made of the fact that Bergoglio took the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, a choice that’s humble or grandiose, depending on your point of view. I couldn’t help but think of Harvey Keitel, in Mean Streets, as the would-be mafioso who secretly aspires to the saintliness of Francis. Which is not to say there’s anything criminal about Pope Francis I; it’s just that he’s a long way from being a saint.

AP reported that Bergoglio, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, “often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina’s capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.” But the new pope is also a shrewd and personable company man who, as Robert Parry wrote, knew when to speak up for the poor and oppressed, and when to keep his mouth shut:

…Much as Pope Pius XII didn’t directly challenge the Nazis during the Holocaust, Father Bergoglio avoided any direct confrontation with the neo-Nazis who were terrorizing Argentina. Pope Francis’s defenders today, like apologists for Pope Pius, claim he did intervene quietly to save some individuals.

But no one asserts that Bergoglio stood up publicly against the “anticommunist” terror, as some other Church leaders did in Latin America, most notably El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero who then became a victim of right-wing assassins in 1980.

Indeed, the predominant role of the Church hierarchy – from the Vatican to the bishops in the individual countries – was to give political cover to the slaughter and to offer little protection to the priests and nuns who advocated “liberation theology,” i.e. the belief that Jesus did not just favor charity to the poor but wanted a just society that shared wealth and power with the poor…

Church leaders would have us believe that liberation theology inevitably leads to the sort of leftist regime depicted in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, whose protagonist is a deeply flawed priest in Mexico, circa 1935, struggling to maintain his faith while running from a government-sanctioned death squad.

In one scene, set in a barn, the priest tries to finish saying Mass in time to escape the killer cops. Greene describes the priest as he sees his fear reflected in the eyes of the faithful:

Heaven must contain such scared and dutiful and hunger-lined faces. For a matter of seconds he felt an immense satisfaction that he could talk of suffering to them now without hypocrisy — it is hard for the sleek and well-fed priest to praise poverty.

Greene’s priest seems to have more in common with the leftist Romero than with Bergoglio, who “visited the slums” but wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t played ball with right-wingers who killed advocates of the poor and oppressed.

The question now is whether Bergoglio, as the boss of bosses, will actively fight for slum dwellers or merely praise their poverty as he cruises past them in the popemobile. He’d be a lot more interesting if he tried to walk the walk, or at least revealed himself to be a man in conflict with himself, openly struggling with his flaws, like Greene’s priest or Keitel’s mobster.

Food for thought: If the pope had an iPod, would he download the Chips’ “Rubber Biscuit”?

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1 Response to Cruising mean streets in the popemobile

  1. Mara says:

    David McKenna are still writing freelance for the world of commerce? Been trying to reach you. Mara from RCN Pton Ping me asap at


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