Socialist priest speaks out after death of the Pope

Erik Demeester interviewed Remi Verwimp, who is an activist of a special kind. He is in fact a priest who belongs to a group called Christians for Socialism in Belgium inspired by liberation theology and Marxist ideas. As a lecturer at the Theology and Society Workshop (Werkgroep Theologie en Maatschappij) he has developed a critical view on the Catholic Church and especially on the latest pontificate.

Before he started to analyse the 27-year pontificate of John Paul II Remi wanted to put the last months of suffering of the Pope into a broader perspective.

“The two month long agony of the Pope and the media hype around it is a great mise en scène designed to identify his suffering with that of Jesus Christ. But that is wrong. The suffering of John Paul II and that of Jesus have nothing in common. The Pope suffered and died from illness and old age. Jesus suffered as a result of his resistance against an oppressor, the Roman Empire. Jesus did not just die. He was arrested, tortured and finally murdered because he rose up against all forms of exploitation. Jesus was killed for his beliefs and his actions! What a difference with this man who just passed away. Those last months of mise en scène are very typical of the theological policy of the Vatican that is built around the figure of the suffering Jesus. The political dimension of a Jesus who struggled against oppression and injustice is put in the shadow. In its stead we have a mysticism that can be applied to whatever form of physical suffering. Jesus’ example is being depoliticised.”

“Yes, the media hype around the death of the Pope surprised me a bit. But I think they’ve gone too far. I hear not a few people reacting against this and becoming more critical”.

In fact, an Internet poll published yesterday by the Flemish Catholic paper De Standaard, indicated that almost half of the respondents thought that John Paul II was not a good Pope.

Asked to explain how we should interpret the mass gatherings of Catholic worshippers in front of the Vatican, Remi notes:

“Many people have been alienated by the Church as an institution and by its practices. On the other hand those massive gatherings and mourning all over the world cannot simply be explained with the media hype. Today there is a deep quest for spirituality and religion in the world. People are looking for shelter and a meaning to life. We live in a society where people feel isolated and abandoned. The searching man or woman does not find an answer. They are looking for strong figures and personalities. John Paul II seemed to give an answer to those people. In that sense religion is the opium of the people. This poses the question on how to deal with religion. We know that religion is used – and that is what the Pope has been doing – to wrap a nice, beautiful but protective veil around the edifice of power, dictatorship and injustice. It is used to cover up structural injustice.”

Remi does not doubt for one minute that the Pope’s activities were very political and right wing, if not reactionary:

“During his pontificate the Pope had established under his direct initiative some 123 different religious organisations that are all right-wing, conservative and reactionary. Some are linked to Opus Dei but others have their own dynamic like the Egidius community, the Tiberiades and so many others. They are based on small communities and preach a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Their aim, which is also the Pope’s aim, is to replace the old territorial structures – parishes for instance – of the Church that are now experiencing a general emptying out. The fact that John Paul II refused access to the clergy for women also strengthens this tendency. In Belgium for instance 2000 jobs aimed at helping community based Christian groups have not been filled as a result. Meanwhile the 123 new right-wing religious groups receive all the necessary aid. Those are the groups who also organise those world events of young people called World Days of the Youth around the figure of the Pope. We should nevertheless not be impressed by those gatherings. The media presents them as the proof that the Pope is loved by young people. It is not difficult to obtain this result of massive turnouts if those 123 organisations from all over the world come together at one place. Of course even amongst those circles of young and mostly right-wing people there is a desire for spirituality in a world full of insecurity and uncertainty.”

“Those reactionary objectives of the Pope are more sharply revealed in his early alliance with the American President Ronald Reagan. When he became president he published the so-called Santa Fe document. This was in 1980. It was a policy report on National Security based on the situation in Latin America. Part of the measures elaborated in this document to combat ‘Evil Communism’ in Latin America was to oppose the Christian rank and file groups who preached liberation theology. The Pope and Ronald Reagan were in complete accord on the objectives. John Paul II succeeded to marginalize during his pontificate the numerous supporters of liberation theology through a policy of appointments of right-wing clergymen and repression against people like Ernesto Cardenal, the priest who was a minister in the first revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua in 1979. This situation made it very difficult for groups like Christians for Socialism to develop their work. It had a very negative effect.”

“It is true that the Pope also condemned the foreign debt of the poorest countries and that he favoured the cancellation of those debts. He also criticised the war in Iraq, but this was probably a tactic to protect the small Christian community in that country. Yes, he has even criticised capitalism but only its outer forms, the symptoms, and the consequences. He never really condemned the capitalist system as such. He took a very different attitude in relation to the regimes in Poland and the Soviet Union. If you believed the media, you would think that the Pope pulled down the Berlin wall single-handedly! John Paul II considered communism as the worst sort of atheism, which had to be combated fervently. That determined his support for the leadership of Solidarnosc, the Polish trade union that fought the Polish regime. This Pope was a very right-wing political leader of the Catholic Church.”

What about the new Pope?

“I expect nothing from a new Pope, except that he will continue and strengthen the right wing and conservative legacy of John Paul II. There can be no doubt about it. We on our side as critical Christians need to go and rediscover the Bible. Our Bible has been expropriated of its content as an instrument of the poor and the dispossessed in the struggle against injustice. Of course we nourish our inspiration from other currents such as the socialist ones. Nevertheless we have to reclaim Jesus as someone who struggled against the institutions and the structures of oppression”.