Stephen Gottlieb: The Choice of a Pope

Mar 19, 2013

I have held back from talking about the choice of a pope. After all, a pope is a decision to be made by and for our Catholic brothers and sisters. And it seems improper for non-Catholics to get into that issue.

Years ago, I wrote a friend, H. Jefferson Powell, at Duke, that I felt I had a stake in his winning his argument from Episcopal theology, in his great book, The Moral Tradition of American Constitutionalism.

Similarly, we all have a stake in the choice of a pope. The pope affects brotherhood and sisterhood across faiths. Friends in both faiths have told us that Bishop Hubbard made a very positive difference in the relation of Catholics and Jews here. His work also reflected a shift in Vatican thinking. I suspect he knew his initiatives would be supported there. Popes matter.

And the moral authority of the Papacy and the Vatican matter. Yet we are faced with a deafening silence about some of the greatest moral tragedies of our time, like the silence of the Vatican regarding the desaparecidos, the tens of thousands of people who were “disappeared” in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America, as many as thirty thousand in Argentina alone, by military regimes in a determined struggle against democracy. Many of us remember las madres y las abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the brave mothers and grandmothers who came daily to the capital to demonstrate for the return of their children and grandchildren. The Vatican objected then to liberation theology as it had taken root in Latin America in support of the poor and the nearly enslaved peasants. But its silence on the disappearances was deafening.

Pope Francis, in Argentina in the thick of that so-called “dirty war” on democracy, tried to save some of the people. But we are learning the Church knew a great deal about what was going on, had lists of the disappeared, the desaparecidos.  Wealthy or powerful parishioners could ask the clergy for information about their children. But not the peasants. The Church was neutral about the war, the disappearances of writers, students and peasants alike whom the military feared. The sin of murder is clearly identified in the Ten Commandments. But the Vatican had nothing to say about the desaparecidos, one of the great moral issues of our time.

Of course the hot button issues have all been about sexuality and reproduction. My concern has been the way that the theological argument about abortion has blocked realistic efforts to deal with the explosion of population around the world, and in turn the way all those additional people contribute to global warming. From my point of view, global warming is one of the preeminent moral issues of our time. But the Church’s resistance to dealing with the underlying population explosion has been deafening.

One should expect isolation rather than awareness to characterize a human institution, organized as a self-perpetuating board, over thousands of years. But one has a right to expect a religious institution to be sensitive to moral issues. The American Church played a much more positive role in our own Civil Rights Movement.

So in fact I care very much who the Pope is. And I hope that the elevation of Pope Francis will yield some light on this dark chapter in Church history, and, even better, some changes that will prevent such moral obtuseness coming from what should be a preeminent moral institution of our world. We have much to hope for from the new pontiff and every good wish for his success.

Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran. 

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