The Pope, in his visit to Bolivia last week, received, with apparent consternation, a gift from President Evo Morales of what has been dubbed a ‘communist crucifix’, depicting Christ crucified on the hammer-and-sickle emblem. Though it is unclear whether Francis responded with the Spanish “eso no está bien” (“this is not right”) or, according to a Vatican Spokesman, “no sabía eso” (“I didn’t know that”) regarding the origins of the cross, he was evidently less-than-pleased, returning the ‘gift’ to a presidential aide within a few seconds.
The Roman Pontiff, however, was not without praise for the unabashedly socialist president, hailing his social and economic reforms as “important steps…towards including broad sectors in the country’s economic, social and political life”. Morales has previously enacted strong measures against his ‘main enemy’, the Catholic Church, formally secularising the country, removing the Bible and cross from the presidential palace, and inserting rituals to the Andean earth goddess before all official ceremonies. Yet, he has had a change of heart since the Jesuit took office. Seeing in the Pope, perhaps, a new hope of partnership in social reform, the gift was undoubtedly a political push to force an identification of interest between the Vatican and his party.
Francis has been one of the most politically active popes in recent memory. He has issued strong statements on the environment and is continually making use of his influence to criticise global capitalism and the social and economic inequality which it enables. However, as this recent scandal of the cross makes clear, Francis firmly resists any attempt to politicise his mission. Doubtless, had he been presented with a crucified Christ on any other political symbol, from a fasces to a red rose, they would likewise have been received with an “eso no está bien”.
Though he is more than comfortable praising the recent memory of his murdered fellow-Jesuit, the Bolivian Fr. Espinal- a vocal leftist activist during Suarez’s coup, considered by many as an avowed communist- Francis consistently evades political categorisation. This papacy is determined not to be recruited into any political agenda because its message is fundamentally apolitical, even if it places stringent demands upon those in positions of power.
Francis has achieved something that his predecessors have struggled with for centuries: the Christian objective of being in the world, but not of it. In his case this means participating in global affairs without associating too closely with any party involved. This ultimately reflects his membership of the Society of Jesus, which, contrary to its monastic cousins, shuns the incarceration of the cloister for more active agency in the Church in our world. The Jesuits are armed with a goal of retaining spiritual separation from the trappings of worldly engagements, while at the same time striving for “the defence and propagation of the faith”. From St. Ignatius’ time onwards, this has primarily meant care for the “estranged”, the poor, and the socially marginalised.
For Francis, then, the cross is his absolute reference-point, and to relativise his absolute by fashioning it into a political emblem is to radically misunderstand the theology of his mission. Though lately a new hope for socialists and the boogeyman of the right, we should think of the Pope as enacting the Kierkegaardian motto that “once you label me, you negate me.” In imitation of his God, Francis has “no respect of persons” (Rom 2.11) – or parties for that matter.
The Papal Ensign features two keys, the golden one representing the Pope’s spiritual authority, and the silver his “temporal authority”. Francis’ de-politicisation of the Church is a step towards clarifying the nature of this silver key. As head of a church that has historically sided with agents and contenders of power from monarchies to civil war factions, Francis has made a clear break with history. From the Queen to Evo Morales, Francis understands the leaders of the world as nothing more than “co-operators in the building of a more just and fraternal society”— they are to be alternatively chastised or praised for their actions only insofar as they relate to this goal.
In his interview with Putin last month, Francis refused to indulge either American or Russian interests, where, maintaining his characteristic aloofness from political partisanship, he sided only with the cause of peace. Though Francis by necessity deals with the powerful, his true audience will always be the greater body of worldwide Catholics. Borrowing the language of the ‘church militant’, we need to understand his focus on the Catholic “boots on the ground”, who, like him are Miserando atque Eligendo— that is, “lowly but chosen” for a mission of social justice and charity.