As the presidential aids open the large case, Pope Francis stares into it, quizzical, examining the two medals laid therein. An aide of Evo Morales (the Bolivian president and leader of that nation’s Socialist Movement) then turns, draping first one, then the other, around the pontiff’s neck, the latter a four-sided cross inlaid with a hammer and sickle, superimposed by a corpus of Christ. The aides then open a second case, revealing a larger version of the same “crucifix,” rough-hewn, made from wood, laquered in distressed, gold paint. Morales, who has met with Pope Francis on several occasions and demonstrates a certain familiarity with the Vicar of Christ, takes the opportunity to speak into the microphone as he shows him the gift.
Pope Francis shakes his head, eyebrows raised, and says something difficult to make out.
The volume level on the initial video is low, and the audio itself quite muddy. This, combined with Pope Francis’s natural facial expression — which can easily be mistaken for a scowl — along with the shaking of his head, leads early reports to indicate that the pope has expressed his disdain for the gift, some going so far as to say he offers an audible statement of rejection: “No está bien eso” (“This is not good.”)
Catholic commentators, understandably appalled at the gift of a blasphemous crucifix — Christ nailed approvingly to the symbol of the ideology repeatedly condemned by the Church and responsible for the deaths of an estimated 100 million people worldwide — immediately praised the pope’s “moral fortitude” for rejecting the gift.
But that was not what happened.
The pope did not say “No está bien eso” (“This is not good”) but rather, “No sabía eso” (“I did not know that.”) In context, this altered the entire exchange. Later, as slightly better versions of the video surfaced, and teams of native Spanish-speakers turned up the volume and listened, a new translation emerged.
“Holiness , they have carved, fortunately, the symbol of the cross, of the hammer and sickle, that is probably the work of Espinal…[Fr.] Luis Espinal. Interesting as a symbol…” Morales said, stopping short as the pope interjects something.
“I did not know that.” Pope Francis says, a curious look on his face.
“Now you know.” Morales says, smiling broadly, and hands him the cross. In the room, shutter clicks fire off from multiple cameras in staccato as the pope holds the unusual gift, a replica of that carried by the murdered Jesuit he has come, in part, to commemorate.
Repeated viewings of the video, with the benefit of hindsight and a translation, demonstrate clearly that the pope was not, in fact, scowling at the presentation of this gift. It was untrue, as some outlets originally reported, that Pope Francis was “not amused” by the “Commufix” (as some have taken to calling it) and in fact smiled for photos while holding it after it was handed to him.
This should come as a surprise to precisely no one, since Fr. Luis Espinal, whose own “crucifix” this one was modeled after, had well-established Marxist allegiances. It was also known in advance that a replica had been made, with the intention of giving it to the holy father. The day before the meeting between Morales and Pope Francis, America Magazine published an article in which they featured interviews with some Bolivian Jesuits and their associates who knew Fr. Espinal:
“Espinal is part of the iconography of the left in Bolivia,” said Rafael Archondo, director of the Jesuit-run news service Agencia de Noticias Fides.
With Father Espinal, “the pope and Evo (Morales) coincide,” on the priest’s importance, he said, possibly helping to build better relations between the Bolivian government and the Vatican.
Father Espinal was born into a religious family in Spain in 1932, during the Spanish Civil War. He joined the Jesuits — like an older brother; a sister became a Carmelite — and wanted to go to India, but missionary visas were unavailable, Father Albo said.
Father Espinal studied communications and went to work for Spanish television, producing a Catholic program on current affairs. He resigned after a story on internal migrations and slums was canceled without his superiors even seeing it.
He moved to Bolivia in 1968 and “was reborn,” Father Albo said. “He fell in love with the country” and became a citizen in two years, renouncing his Spanish citizenship in the process.
Father Espinal founded a newspaper, worked in TV and film taught communications in local universities and wrote movie reviews — which included “indirect” criticisms of the military rulers. He wrote poetry in Catalan and read the Bible in Greek.
Father Albo showed a reporter a published photo of a crucified Christ attached to a homemade hammer and sickle, instead of a cross, that Father Espinal kept by his bed.
“He was of the left. This is certain. But he never belonged to any party or pretended to be part of one,” said Father Albo, who said he hopes to present a replica of the hammer and sickle crucifix to the pope.
Father Espinal “gave a lot of importance to the dialogue between Marxists and Christians,” he explained. “It was not pro-Soviet … (it was) the need for the church to be close to the popular sectors. Some understand this, others don’t. To me it is very clear.”
Vatican Insiders I have spoken with tell me that the protocol for gift exchanges between a pope and heads of state involve a certain amount of pre-planning and not many surprises. Typically, the Vatican Secretary of State is made aware of any gifts in advance. Often, press releases are issued about the significance of the gifts, which are usually intended to convey a certain meaning. Once gifts are given and photos are taken, the gifts are always handed to an aide, who exits the stage and deposits them somewhere for safekeeping. This is standard operating procedure.
In other words: what took place was completely normal. There was no “awkwardness,” no “moral fortitude” on display. It was, quite simply, a textbook meeting between the pope and a head of state, full of the requisite diplomacy and niceties that such exchanges occasion.
Those Catholics who were initially so excited at the idea that Pope Francis attempted to reject such an inappropriate gift were let down, therefore, when they read the following official explanation of the day’s events:
Bolivia and the Vatican both sought Thursday to tamp down controversy over President Evo Morales’ gift of a “Communist crucifix” to Pope Francis, insisting that no offense was intended or taken by the gesture.
Morales gave Francis the crucifix carved into a hammer and sickle upon Francis’ arrival in Bolivia Wednesday, immediately raising eyebrows given Morales’ past attacks on the church and his socialist bent. Critics said it was a distasteful, and possibly heretical melding of faith and ideology.
It turns out, the crucifix was originally designed by a Jesuit activist, the Rev. Luis Espinal, who was assassinated in 1980 by suspected Bolivian paramilitaries during the months that preceded a military coup. Francis, a fellow Jesuit, stopped his motorcade to pray at the site where Espinal’s body had been dumped when he arrived Wednesday.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Thursday the pope had no idea that Espinal had designed the crucifix and was surprised to receive it — a reaction clearly visible in the footage of the encounter. Some reports suggested the pope told Morales “This isn’t good;” one of Francis’ friends sent a tweet quoting him as saying such. But Lombardi said it wasn’t known what the pope had said.
Lombardi said Espinal had designed the crucifix as a symbol of dialogue and commitment to freedom and progress for Bolivia, not with any specific ideology in mind. Lombardi said he personally wasn’t offended by it.
“You can dispute the significance and use of the symbol now, but the origin is from Espinal and the sense of it was about an open dialogue, not about a specific ideology,” Lombardi said.
He noted the context in which Espinal was living: as a priest working for social justice in Bolivia during a period of instability that preceded a right-wing dictatorship known for human rights abuses.
However, one of Espinal’s friends and fellow Jesuits, the Rev. Xavier Albo, said Espinal’s intent was for the church to be in dialogue with Marxism, and said Espinal had altered his crucifix to incorporate the Communists’ most potent symbol: the hammer and sickle.
“In this he clearly wanted to speak about the need to permanently dialogue not just with Marxism but with peasants and miners etc.,” Albo told The Associated Press earlier this month.
So what does this all mean, and why does it matter?
Ours is a religion rich in symbol, ritual, and gesture. Atheistic Communism, an evil ideology that denies human dignity, oppresses true religion, and has taken the lives of countless millions of innocent people, is inextricably bound up with the image of the hammer and sickle, first popularized on the Soviet Flag. Fr. Espinal embraced this symbol because he was a leftist, involved in liberation theology (itself likely a Soviet construct), and a man who desired dialogue — and perhaps even a form of synthesis — between Marxism and the Church. And yet, Communism is an ideology that is completely incompatible with Christianity, as Pope Pius XI made clear in his 1937 encyclical, Divini Redemptoris:
Again, without receding an inch from their [Communists’] subversive principles, they invite Catholics to collaborate with them in the realm of so-called humanitarianism and charity; and at times even make proposals that are in perfect harmony with the Christian spirit and the doctrine of the Church. Elsewhere they carry their hypocrisy so far as to encourage the belief that Communism, in countries where faith and culture are more strongly entrenched, will assume another and much milder form. It will not interfere with the practice of religion. It will respect liberty of conscience…See to it, Venerable Brethren, that the Faithful do not allow themselves to be deceived! Communism is intrinsically wrong, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever. Those who permit themselves to be deceived into lending their aid towards the triumph of Communism in their own country, will be the first to fall victims of their error. And the greater the antiquity and grandeur of the Christian civilization in the regions where Communism successfully penetrates, so much more devastating will be the hatred displayed by the godless.
This is, of course, a profound opportunity. Since the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis has dodged accusations of Marxism. He speaks in Evangelii Gaudium, for example, of the need for “programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income”; in his February, 2014 address to the UN he called for “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State”; in Laudato Si, he admonishes those who show “no interest” in “a better distribution of wealth”. Peppered in his statements and speeches and homilies are not-so-subtle barbs at the free market economy and the injustices inherent in an inequitable share of resources.
But he also insists that his thinking is of a piece with Catholic Social Teaching. He has said, in response to suspicions about his allegiance to socialist concepts, “Marxist ideology is wrong. But in my life I have known many Marxists who are good people…”
This, now, is a moment, an opportunity for clarity. This at last is a chance that has been literally handed to him to settle the question, as any good shepherd would do. Now is the moment for him to speak out about the impropriety, the blasphemy of associating the Crucified Christ with Soviet semiotics; now is the time condemn Communism in no uncertain terms, like his predecessor Pope Pius XI (and others) before him; this is the opening for him to make clear, once and for all, that his concern for the poor and for the sharing of resources not be construed as an attempt to “save Christian civilization” through a collaboration with something so “intrinsically wrong.”
Many believe that Pope Francis has opened a door to the synthesis of Christianity and Marxism. Those who know better understand that the two can never be reconciled. Let us hope that the pope does, in fact, exercise great moral fortitude, and definitively teaches those who have been misled by the promises of this evil ideology the grave danger of their error.