Pope Francis on Communist Crucifix: “It Wasn’t An Offense”

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Last week, I wrote about the dangerous symbolism of the hammer-and-sickle crucifix (and matching medallion) presented to Pope Francis by Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Though many — very many — in the Catholic media jumped quickly to the conclusion that Pope Francis was “not amused” by the gesture and in fact said as much to Morales during the presentation, later translations of the video (which had poor audio quality, making initial assessments difficult) showed this not to be the case. Fr. Lombardi later confirmed that the pope was not troubled by the gift, but didn’t at first realize its significance. We later found out that on Friday, Pope Francis presented these images to Our Lady:

Before leaving Bolivia, Francis placed two gifts he received on Wednesday from President Evo Morales at the foot of a statue of Mary. One of these, a chain with a chunky medallion, had the figure of the crucified Christ carved into a wooden hammer and anvil. This image had been drawn by Fr. Luis Espinal, the Jesuit priest who was assassinated in Bolivia in March 1980.

“This morning,” reads a statement issued by Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, “Pope Francis celebrated Holy Mass in the chapel of the private residence of the Archbishop Emeritus of Santa Cruz de la Sierra. At the end of the Eucharistic celebration, the Holy Father presented two decorative honours that were conferred onto him by Bolivian president Evo Morales during his courtesy visit to the Presidential palace in La Paz , to a statue of the Our Lady of Copacabana, patron saint of Bolivia.”

Francis accompanied this gesture with the following words: “The President of the nation was kind enough to offer me two decorative honours on behalf of the Bolivian people. I thank the Bolivian people for their affection and the President for this courteous gesture. I would like to dedicate these two decorations to the patron saint of Bolivia, the Mother of this noble nation, so that she may always remember her people and from Bolivia, from the shrine where I would like them to be, that she may remember the Successor of Peter and the whole Church and look after them from Bolivia.”

This morning, we have the first reports from the Holy Father’s plane trip back to Rome. While we await the longer transcript of his remarks, The Associated Press has issued a report:

Pope Francis says he wasn’t offended by the “Communist crucifix” given to him by Bolivian President Evo Morales during his South American pilgrimage.

[…]

Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, said Espinal was well-known among his fellow Jesuits as a proponent of the Marxist strain of liberation theology. The Vatican opposed it, fearing that Marxists were using liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as a call for armed revolution against oppressive right-wing regimes that were in power in much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.

During a news conference en route home to Rome on Sunday, Francis said he interpreted Morales’ gift through the prism of Espinal’s Marxist bent and viewed it as protest art.

After taking into consideration the time in which he lived, Francis said: “I understand this work. For me it wasn’t an offense.”

Francis added that he brought the crucifix home with him.

As I argued in last week’s article:

This is, of course, a profound opportunity. Since the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has dodgedaccusations of Marxism. He speaks in Evangelii Gaudium, for example, of the need for “programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income”; in his February, 2014 address to the UN he called for “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State”; in Laudato Si, he admonishes those who show “no interest” in “a better distribution of wealth”. Peppered in his statements and speeches and homilies are not-so-subtle barbs at the free market economy and the injustices inherent in an inequitable share of resources.

But he also insists that his thinking is of a piece with Catholic Social Teaching. He has said, in response to suspicions about his allegiance to socialist concepts, “Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people…”

This, now, is a moment, an opportunity for clarity. This at last is a chance that has been literally handed to him to settle the question, as any good shepherd would do. Now is the moment for him to speak out about the impropriety, the blasphemy of associating the Crucified Christ with Soviet semiotics; now is the time condemn Communism in no uncertain terms, like his predecessor Pope Pius XI (and others) before him; this is the opening for him to make clear, once and for all, that his concern for the poor and for the sharing of resources not be construed as an attempt to “save Christian civilization” through a collaboration with something so “intrinsically wrong.”

Many believe that Pope Francis has opened a door to the synthesis of Christianity and Marxism. Those who know better understand that the two can never be reconciled. Let us hope that the pope does, in fact, exercise great moral fortitude, and definitively teaches those who have been misled by the promises of this evil ideology the grave danger of their error.

It now appears that Pope Francis has chosen not to take this opportunity. The conclusions we should draw from this — and the consequences that will stem from it — are deeply troubling.

At the very least, all the Catholic media outlets that still have headlines about the pope “rebuking” or rejecting this gift should be issuing corrections or retractions. This is uncomfortable for all of us, but obfuscating what happened won’t make it any less so.

If you’re not already doing it, pray for Pope Francis. Every day. My family prays for him in our daily rosary. Please be sure to add him to your intentions as well.

UPDATEVatican Insider has published a transcript of the papal commentary on the plane. This is the section that concerns Fr. Espinal:

What did you feel when President Morales gave you the crucifix with the hammer and anvil? And where did it end up?

“I was curious, I didn’t know Fr. Espinal was a sculptor and also a poet. I learned about it in these past few days, I saw it and for me it was a surprise. It can be categorised as a form protest art. In Buenos Aires, some years ago, there was an exhibition displaying the works of a good sculptor, a creative Argentine who is now dead. It was protest art, and I remember one piece was a crucified Christ on a falling bomber: a criticism against Christianity but because of its alliance with imperialism. I would qualify it as protest art, that in some cases can be offensive. In this particular case, Fr. Espinal was killed in 1980. This was a time when Liberation Theology had many different branches. One of these branches used the Marxist analysis of reality and Fr. Espinal shared these ideas. I knew this because that year I was rector of the theology faculty and we talked a lot about it.” In the same year, the Society’s general, Fr. Arrupe, sent a letter to the Jesuits asking them to stop the Marxist analysis of reality and four years later, in 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the first document, which is critical, and the second, which opens up to more Christian viewpoints. Espinal was an enthusiast of this Marxist analysis and he produced this work. His poetry also belongs to that genre. It was his life, his way of thinking. He was a special man abounding in human genius, a man of good faith. Let us interpret it this way: I understand this piece and I did not find it offensive. I carry it with me. I left the decorative honours which President Morales gave me behind… I have never accepted such decorations but Morales acted in good faith, to please me, so I thought of it as coming from the people. I prayed it over and I thought I would leave them with Our Lady of Copacabana, so they go to the shrine.  The wooden Christ I took with me.”

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