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RELIGION: Pope Pius IX, Liberation Theology and Latin America

Pope John Paul II succeeded John Paul I, who was Pope for only 34 days; he won general affection by his kind, folksy manner and thereby changed the whole style of the Church. Pope John Paul II, the product of a strict ecclesiastical education, has actively cultivated popularity; he was surprised and dismayed when his beatification of Pius IX created a storm which drowned our the approval of the beatification of John Paul 1.

Americans have little idea of the impact this has had on the opinion of "Catholic" countries, such as Italy itself, France, Spain and Mexico, where there is a strong tradition of anti-clericalism. While the doddering Pope was addressing a huge crowd in St.Peter's Square, Jews and Protestants were protesting. There was a story on the Roman Church reserved exclusively for the conversion of Jews (with no success, the Jews being a hard-necked people).

There was also a TV program from the church of the papal orders of nobility, which had pushed for the canonization of Pius IX. One of them was interviewed, and he seemed a hard, unkind person. TV ran pictures of the guillotine used to execute the Pope's enemies. Pope John Paul II tried to justify his beatification on the grounds that Pius IX loved the Church. The justification is unconvincing; those who sponsored the Inquisition loved the Church--too much.

Who was Pius IX? Like many of today's hard-line reactionaries, he started out as a liberal, and reformed the Papal States. Like modern liberals appalled by the Bolshevik revolution, he was hit by the 1848 Revolutions, when a mob forced him to flee Rome. A French army of Napoleon III occupied the city, and he was able to return, a changed man. He proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of Mary and her Assumption to be dogma, and in Spain and elsewhere professors who refused to swear to it were forced to resign. He condemned secularization and proclaimed papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. He refused to give up the papal states to the approaching Piemontese army, which seized Rome in 1870 and made it the capital of Italy.

This made him "the prisoner of the Vatican", and things did not change until Mussolini granted it sovereign status. Pius IX was viewed by Catholics as a political prisoner, the kind International Amnesty pleads for today. I wonder if Amnesty International would have helped him? John Paul´s Vatican II offset Vatican I, and wanderlust-full John Paul II is certainly not a prisoner of the Vatican.

We may wonder what the impact of all this will be in Latin America, the cradle of liberation theology, and especially in Mexico, where the issue of clericalism is very much alive. Liberation theology came out of the Congress of Medellín, and it made John Paul II, who is basically a conservative, uneasy and even angry with clerics accused of entering politics. The Church in Latin America, traditionally allied with the ruling classes, saw the coming of people's power, and liberation theology was an attempt not to be marginalized by it. We await the outcome of this confused situation.

Ronald Hilton - 9/04/00