Argentine bishops want people to hear the pope, not about the pope

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ROME – Even though the papacy isn’t a popularity contest, a pope’s influence in his home country is one way to measure how he’s doing. Alas, when it comes to Pope Francis’s Argentina, things are a bit more complicated: According to the local bishops, Argentines hear about the pope, but they don’t actually hear him.

According to a 2020 poll by the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), nine in ten Argentines affirm that their religiosity did not increase after the election of history’s first pope from the global south. Furthermore, 40 percent of Argentines are “completely indifferent” to the pope, and within this number, 32 percent of those who answered identify as Catholic. And 27 percent of the people think he’s too involved in politics instead of spiritual affairs.

Seeing these numbers, it comes as no surprise that the head of the Argentine bishops’ conference, Bishop Oscar Ojea of San Isidro, believes that two of the six challenges the local church faces for the coming years involve Pope Francis and his magisterium:

  • The missionary challenge posed by Pope Francis Encyclical Evangelii Gaudium.
  • The Synod on Synodality convoked by Pope Francis.
  • Accompanying the Social Magisterium of the Church.
  • The Defense of life.
  • Abuses in the Church.
  • Gender ideology.

Speaking about the Synod, which includes a two-year consultation process at a parish, diocesan, national and regional levels before the actual Synod of Bishops on synodality, to be held in Rome in Oct. 2023, Ojea said that with it, “The Church goes out to listen in a world of deaf ears, in which each group listens to its own discourse. Before the proposal of the Synod there are different reactions and fears.”

As president of the Argentine bishops, he said, “I have clearly seen sectors of a secularized mentality, very entrenched in some media outlets, that do not hesitate to use disinformation, slander and defamation to attack the Church, seeking to expel it from the public space”.

On the other hand, he argued, “there is a religious fundamentalism that does not respect the freedom of others and feeds forms of intolerance and violence, longing for a church that imposes power.”

These two sectors, according to Ojea, have much economic and media power, and in Argentina, they have joined together, “like Pharisees and Sadducees,” to systematically denigrate the church “through the figure of Pope Francis, who has deserved the respect and consideration of most of the peoples of the world, near or far from the church, over these nine years of his pontificate.”

In his own country, the bishop pointed out, these groups have become a major obstacle for Pope Francis to “be read directly” and thus his teachings reach the faithful. Instead, “our people have heard more opinions and qualifications about him than what he expresses through his words and writings.”

Pope Francis talks with, from left, Marcelo Daniel Colombo, Archbishop of Mendoza; Oscar Vicente Ojea, bishop of San Isidro; Mario Aurelio Poli, archbishop of Buenos Aires; and Carlos Humberto Malfa, bishop of Chascomus, during a meeting with the Argentinian Episcopal Conference at the Vatican Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018. (Credit: L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP.)

“We must continually unmask these two extremes, without allowing ourselves to be defeated by a secularism that worldlyizes the church or by a fundamentalism that prevents it from enculturating itself and properly reading the signs of the times,” Ojea said.

On the matter of clerical sexual abuse, the president of the Argentine bishops said: “We must not give in to any kind of cover-up. We have to be very firm in this determination. We bishops, in these situations, carry a real cross.  We must first of all protect the victims, recognize that although there are some false allegations, the vast majority of the allegations are true and this should concern us, occupy us and invite us to deepen in a reorganization of the ecclesial structure.”

He pointed out that protecting children, preventing abuse, and helping survivors is a task for the entire Church, “called to confront the weight of a culture impregnated with clericalism inherited from its history.”

Ojea also spoke of the need to fight all forms of abuse, including those of power, financial nature and conscience.

Speaking about gender ideology, the prelate said that on this matter, it is important for the laity to be formed, because “in a certain sense, we have found ourselves surprised in the mist of a very fast cultural change.”

“It is possible to distinguish without separating, the biological sex from the sociocultural role of sex,” Ojea said. “Gender ideology instead distinguishes sex and gender by separating them and thus preventing a harmonious relationship of all aspects of the human person.”

Pope Francis has referred to this issue in several opportunities throughout his pontificate, calling it a “global war” against the family. Last year, speaking about where he sees evil in a book about Pope John Paul II, he said that “one place is gender theory. Right away I want to clarify that I am not referring to people with a homosexual orientation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church invites us to accompany them and provide pastoral care to these brothers and sisters of ours.”

Gender theory, he said, has a “dangerous” cultural aim of erasing all distinctions between men and women, male and female, which would “destroy at its roots” God’s most basic plan for human beings: “Diversity, distinction. It would make everything homogenous, neutral. It is an attack on difference, on the creativity of God and on men and women.”

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Francis said he did not want “to discriminate against anyone,” but was convinced that human peace and well-being had to be based on the reality that God created people with differences and that accepting — not ignoring — those differences is what brings people together.

When it comes to the Argentine bishops, Ojea said that “we prefer to adopt a gender perspective. Gender ideology instead thinks of gender as a fluid and self-constructed reality independent of biology so that one’s identity could be designed according to the autonomous desire of each person.”

The prelate also said that “all persons” must be treated according to “their equal dignity,” and on this regard, “we cannot deny that our history bears traces of a patriarchal history in which the equal dignity of males and females has not been recognized in practice and we see that here a profound change is necessary.”

Ojea said the bishops’ conference sees the imposition of gender ideology on all educational projects, ignoring the freedom of parents and educational institutions, is also part of the sixth challenge they foresee for upcoming years.

On the fourth challenge, the defense of life, Ojea said that sometimes, the Catholic Church is accused of being “anti-rights” and that by being against abortion and same-sex marriage, the Church is putting these “in the same bag” with violence against women.

“We must make it clear that we are not anti-rights because in the first place we defend the right of every mother and every unborn child, that is, the right of all, without excluding anyone,” he said. “We must always strongly affirm our most resounding rejection of all types of violence, especially that which is exercised against the most vulnerable, women and children.”

Abortion on demand in the first 14 weeks of gestation was legalized in Argentina in December. In the videos, Ojea says he spoke about the matter with Pope Francis back in January, when the two met at the Vatican. During that conversation, the pontiff urged the bishop to find “creative ways” to continue underlining the importance of life, and the fact that it is science and embryology books that prove that life begins at conception.

On the first challenge, that of being a missionary Church, he said it comes directly from Francis’ programmatic letter, Evangelii Gaudium, published in 2013, where he wrote: “I dream of a missionary option capable of transforming everything.”

“The immediate context of the pandemic has left deep traces of anger, sadness, disillusionment and fear,” Ojea said. “All these shards left by the pandemic cannot be evaluated conveniently because of the proximity in time. This missionary outreach of our Church faces this reality and this context.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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