Catholicism and White Privilege: A Latino Pope for a New Era, Not a New World

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If it’s possible to fall in love with a pope, and so quickly, then I am guilty.  A Jesuit pope named Francis, a pastoral former archbishop from the global south, a man of science and of letters who washes the feet of those with HIV/AIDS, a straight-shooting administrator who is humble, merciful, gracious and prayerful.  I know it’s blasphemous to ask for proof of God’s existence but, after yesterday’s election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to become the first Pope named Francis, it’s hard not to think and know that God hears the prayers of God’s people.  There have already been so many good articles and blogposts on the new pontiff and I do not have much to add to the hope, surprise, anxious anticipation, or caution that has already been written, but there is one bone of contention I’d like to pick, not so much about the pope himself but in the language flying in the media around him: that he is the first “New World” pope.

“What’s so wrong with ‘New World?'” you may wonder.  Pope Francis is from Argentina, located in the south of the western hemisphere.  It is certainly a new thing for the spiritual leader of Roman Catholicism to be one who was born in and has spent the vast majority of his career in the subaltern.  The phrase calls to mind, for some, a sense of discovery, hearkening back to the Age of Exploration.  It accompanies a hopefulness for a new way of being Catholic as well as a shift in power dynamics, clipping some European apron strings and mooring ourselves in the uncharted territory of the western hemisphere.  The problem is that it was not a new world to the people that already lived there: the indigenous peoples of the Americas that were conquered, enslaved, raped, and, yes, Christianized (which in one sense reflects a loss of culture as well as of native religions).  The national observance of what is known as Columbus Day in the United States is known as el Día de la Raza to many Spanish-speakers in the Americas: the Day of the Race, a new race created when the European colonizers, along with their African slaves, mixed, by love or more probably by force, with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.  For Latin@s today, el Día de la Raza is a source of pride but also an important reminder of the brutal history of colonization.  Indeed, the treatment of the indígenas was so bad it proved to be a source of epiphany and conversion for Bartolomé de las Casas, the sixteenth century Spanish Dominican missionary who gave up his encomienda and all his slaves to become a staunch advocate for the indigenous peoples.

“I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”  -Bartolomé de las Casas

So when I see and hear some reputable, even respectable, media sources, theologians and priests use the phrase “New World” to describe the new pope and along with him their hopes for the future of the Roman Catholic Church, I want to ask them, “Whose new world are you talking about?”  The phrase is too tied to a European-, Western cultural-, and even northern hemisphere-centered (sorry, U.S. and Canada) worldview to be responsibly used by anyone who does not directly come from the conquered peoples of the Americas.  One colleague of mine kindly pointed out that Virgilio Elizondo, a famous Mexican-American liberation theologian, has worked to reclaim this phrase in a Christian, mestizo culture, implying that it need not be a Eurocentric phrase but can be a sign of God’s hope in the worst of circumstances.  While I am certainly sympathetic to Fr. Virgilio (his work is excellent and I recommend him to anyone), my point is simply that that must be the work of Latin@s to make.  Indeed, I know of several Latin@s and at least one prominent Latin@ scholar who said, “Don’t like New World. Period,” for some of the reasons I’ve just listed.  In my mind, this situation comes under the poorly titled category of “I can talk about my family but you can’t.”  I, as a white, middle-class, North American woman, cannot responsibly use that phrase without acknowledging the white privilege that taints it and so the phrase is not appropriate for casual, brief, unexplained communication.   As much as I’m sympathetic to positive uses of “New World” in relation to Christian theology and hope for the future of the Catholic Church in light of the election of Pope Francis, I ask all media, priests, and theologians who do not identify as Latin@, and particularly those who identify as white or Caucasian, to join me in dropping the term “New World” from our religious, theological, and cultural vocabularies in reference to Pope Francis and his cultural context.  I ask that we opt instead for more neutral or positive terms such as “western hemisphere,” “the Americas,” “the subaltern,” or “the revolutionary continent.”

White privilege, as that (unasked for) unearned advantage and conferred dominance, can only be undone by a conversation that happens among white persons.  This is such a sensitive subject but one that needs to be addressed. I want to be clear, as I am especially with my white, male Christian students who often feel like scapegoats (for lack of a better word) when we study issues of race, class and gender, that while they and we must acknowledge the history we have inherited and to which we (largely unknowingly) contribute, we have the opportunity to participate in history’s transformation not just by shouldering the blame for a history of oppression but by first acknowledging and taking responsibility for our own visible and invisible complicity in that history we have inherited and then amending to change the future of that history.  Transforming history means first using our language ethically and responsibly, so that a simple, well-intentioned but poorly understood phrase does not cut open anew the wounds of our past–our past because that is the only way we should think of history–unique, distinct, unrepeatable, and yet ultimately shared.

There was an interesting blogpost yesterday on the significance in the ancient Roman era of the white seagull that landed on the chimney of the Sistine Chapel during the conclave, hours before the new pope was announced.  It signaled that the new pope would be an “unexpected candidate from a maritime region” and that he would be “a curial reformer.”  Certainly the first statement has proven true and I hope the second will as well.  Pope Francis seems well poised to pilot the bark of Peter and Catholic history into a new era, maybe even a new heaven and a new earth, but it can’t happen unless we leave the New World behind.

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