Peter Casarella: The RealClearReligion Interview

By Nicholas G. Hahn III

As a former president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the United States and an expert in all things Latino theology, Peter Casarella's phone won't stop ringing -- for good reason. Rome has a new Bishop in Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, hailing from Argentina. Dr. Casarella is a professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University, and in 2008, was named founding director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology. I spoke with him about the new Pope, Argentine liberation theology, and what to expect on World Youth Day.

RealClearReligion: Why did the College of Cardinals go to the "ends of the earth" to find a Pope?

Peter Casarella: The College of Cardinals recognize that about forty percent or more of the Church is in Latin America, they recognize that fifty percent of Christianity on the globe is Spanish speaking, they recognize that there is growth in the South, but they also wanted someone that fit with their own expectations and presuppositions. Having someone who speaks Italian, German, and Spanish -- as the new Pope does -- means that he has a European cultural heritage and is a Latin American. That's a very catholic way of bringing things together.

It's a big boost for the Church in Latin America, it's a boost for Latinos in the United States, but the challenge that Pope Francis now faces is not to be an Argentine, or a Latin American, or a Spanish-speaking pope, but to be the Bishop of Rome who speaks urbi et orbi -- to the city and the world.

RCR: Do you think the Cardinals recognized the rise of Protestant evangelicalism in Latin America in choosing a Latin American?

PC: There are today varied forces taking Catholics out of the Church in Latin America. One is the Pentecostal movement. The other is secularism, which is stronger in Argentina than other countries in Latin America. Pope Francis has those experiences and will be able to reinvigorate Catholicism in Latin America, but it won't be easy. Blessed John Paul II said the new evangelization had to be new in its form, ardor, and methods. This Pope will hopefully give us a new form of that evangelization.

RCR: Did the Cardinals chose a Jesuit on purpose?

PC: I don't think that was a factor. I don't think someone who is a Capuchin would vote for a Jesuit simply to give strength to religious orders. But they're setting a historical precedent. The Jesuits have been around since the Reformation, they are the major factor in Catholic education -- though, teaching at a Vincentian university, I shouldn't admit that openly -- they set up institutions that change countries and change cultures. Ignatius asked that an appendix be added to the Spiritual Exercises whereby the Jesuits took a personal pledge of loyalty to the Pope. So, the fact that there's never been a Jesuit Pope is striking.

Bergoglio, though, is an ironic figure. He's a Franciscan-Jesuit, so to say.

RCR: What do you know about the man, Jorge Mario Bergoglio?

PC: He's the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a city in a very complicated country. Interestingly, to be of Italian background in Buenos Aires is like being Polish or Irish in Chicago -- it's the norm. Italians are something like forty percent of the Argentine population. What you do in Buenos Aires is go to Italian restaurants. He fits into that culture very well as a Spanish-speaking Italian.

One of the big questions in Latin America is the future of liberation theology. In taking the mantle, the name of "the poor one," he has this model of simplicity: taking public transportation, cooking for himself, refusing to live in a fancy mansion. And so, that dimension of Latin American bishops and certainly socially progressive Jesuits, seems to be in Bergoglio's witness. I seem him reinforcing that message of a "preferential option for the poor." At the same time, he is known in Buenos Aires for his support of the ecclesial movements, Communion and Liberation for one, which some regard as a counterpunch to the liberation theologians.

RCR: Does this experience with the ecclesial movements like Communion and Liberation effectively outweigh the surrounding influences of Argentinian communism and Marxism?

PC: Liberation theology thrived in Argentina, but not with the same vigor as in Brazil or Mexico. There was never the same fervor for the Marxist-Socialist brand of liberation theology among the mainstream Catholic theologians in Argentina.

RCR: There were no Ernesto Cardenals in Buenos Aires?

PC: I suppose I could find a couple of those. But when I was in Buenos Aires and talked to the theologians there who know him and would be representative of the Argentine situation, they wanted to talk to me about von Balthasar, they wanted to talk about theological aesthetics, they wanted to talk about religion in literature. They asked me to lecture on the American experience of religious freedom as a basis for the whole continent. So, they're not Marxists or socialists by any stretch -- they've come a long way and recognize that liberation theology needs to move on.

RCR: Tell that to Ms. Kirchner.

PC: Well, Bergoglio took on Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina, on the debate about gay marriage. He failed. Argentina adopted a gay marriage provision, but Bergoglio opposed her publicly and was articulate in his defense of the Christian notion of marriage. That's not communist or Marxist. That's defending the Church, that's speaking the truth.

Besides, Benedict XVI left a legacy for Pope Francis. Benedict gave us encyclicals that deal with social questions. He made it very clear that the principle of subsidiarity is non-negotiable. He made it very clear that the Church, when advocating for a "preferential option for the poor" as it relates to structural sin, can't negate the value of capitalist free enterprise. Pope Francis walks in these footsteps and I'm confident he will align himself with Benedict.

Pope Francis won't be a communist or an anti-communist. He's going to be a Franciscan Jesuit who serves as the Bishop of Rome. And this new Bishop of Rome will travel to Rio de Janeiro in the summer for World Youth Day. He will be returning to Latin America not as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, but as Pope Francis. This is an opportunity, a chance for him to show this model of humility, to witness to the Gospel, and to be a model for young people. That will be a key moment in understanding exactly what influences prevailed. He won't be able to avoid it when he returns home.

RCR: What will Pope Francis do about the rise of persecution of Christians throughout the world?

PC: He will face questions of religious liberty in the struggle between the American episcopacy and the Obama administration. With the news that Vice President Biden will attend the installation Mass, Pope Francis will face that directly. A more significant issue will be how he interacts with the Church in China. But other than his Franciscan gesture of being poor, humble and speaking the truth, I can't really predict how he'll engage those geopolitical debates. He'll have to do it.

The only thing we can look at with any certainty is that Pope Francis wants to evangelize not just in word, but also in deed. He didn't wear the pallium; he appeared in a simple white cassock. He asked for the people to pray for him as he stood there silently with his head bowed.

RCR: As a 76-year-old man with one lung, will Pope Francis be able to make it through all this?

PC: I don't know that the College of Cardinals gave him a medical exam, but they're practical. I do, however, acknowledge your point. I, too, was surprised. Many were looking for someone in his sixties, and this 76-year-old man caught us by surprise. The fact that Benedict XVI opened the door to a resignation means that should his faculties diminish, I'll assume Pope Francis will exercise that same capacity to examine his conscience before God if he has to resign. Then the Church will move on to the next conclave. In this sense, I think that the resignation of Benedict XVI was a game-changer.

Nicholas G. Hahn III is the editor of RealClearReligion. Follow him on Twitter @NGHahn3.

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