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The new president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, says that the election of Pope Francis was arranged in Heaven by Hugo Chavez, who had passed away March 5th, just days before the conclave. Maduro asserted that Chavez, “… must’ve influenced [Christ] to convene a South American Pope. Some new hand arrived and Christ said, ‘Well, it is the time for South America.’”
I don’t pretend to know what is going on in heaven – or even if Chavez is there – but I have studied and taught about Latin America for years. The linking of the Venezuelan president to the Argentine pope is similar to how U.S. Catholics linked John F. Kennedy and the vigor of Kennedy’s Camelot administration to Blessed Pope John XXIII and the reforms of the II Vatican Council. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan’s combination of charm and conservative principles was considered in tune with Blessed Pope John Paul II. These associations sprung from popular culture and did not carry an imprimatur. The comparison in Latin America of the combative Hugo Chavez with the humble Pope Francis is just as revealing.
People who only get news in English from mainstream U.S. media may not understand the linkage. The flamboyant Chavez was often caricatured here as “dictator” for having changed the law so that he might run for additional terms. (New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg did the same.) Then there is the matter of favoring the press that favors him. (Dick Cheney loves to be on Fox News.) Chavez railed against the super-rich elite and fostered spending programs for the middle-class and the poor. (Barack Obama campaigned on a similar class-conscious platform.) And then there are the crude, almost vulgar references to his political opponents that show a lack of class. (Have you caught Sarah Palin’s act these days?) I believe that much as the U.S. public excuses the shenanigans of politicians, the people of Latin America ignore style when they compare Chavez with the pope on the substance of policy.
I will leave evaluation of Mr. Chavez’ sins to St. Peter. Chavez’ Bolivarian Revolution, on the other hand, voices principles of concern for economic equality in harmony with the social justice perspectives of Catholicism. The witness to this similarity comes from Pope Francis when in 2007 as archbishop he addressed the Latin American episcopate with a stark statement of the need for economic change on the continent: “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least.” He added “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”
I do not suggest the future pope intended to endorse Hugo Chavez: rather, he stated an axiomatic principle of Latin American Catholicism since 1968. We Latino Catholics protest the “unjust distribution of goods” as “social sin.” Love of our brothers and sisters, therefore, requires us to enlist all forces, both in and out of government to redistribute wealth according to the teachings of Christ. In other words, the pope’s social justice commitment does not come from Mr. Chavez: it is the other way around, with Chavez and the continents governments siding with the church. It not just some tiny anti-American “left” that thinks this way. In the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, in the San Juan cathedral, the Mass for the repose of the soul of Chavez featured the same message of the need to redistribute wealth so as to attack systemic poverty. The collapse of neo-liberal economics no longer debates the need to redistribute wealth in our 21 republics, the challenge is rather how to do so.
The message of Pope Francis, therefore, is faithful to the experience of the church in his hemisphere where the majority of the world’s Catholics reside. What was once considered the periphery of the church is now its center. We can expect, therefore, that Pope Francis will move the entire world by teaching and example towards the redistribution of wealth in ways shaped by the Latin American experience. As President Maduro predicted: “One of these days God is going to call a constitutional congress in heaven to change the church in the world….”