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Pope Francis: First Latin American, Jesuit Pope Picked to Head Church; Praised for Work with Poor

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Pope Francis: First Latin American, Jesuit Pope Picked to Head Church; Praised for Work with Poor
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National Catholic Reporter
National Catholic Reporter Profile of Pope Francis
Transcript |

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was picked Wednesday to become the first pope from Latin America and the first not to hail from Europe in more than 1,000 years. Bergoglio is viewed as a theological conservative who has staunchly opposed abortion, same-sex marriage and the ordination of women, but he has been praised for his devotion to the poor. We speak to Tom Roberts, editor-at-large at the National Catholic Reporter and author of “The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself.” [includes rush transcript]
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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A papal conclave has selected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, to be the new pope. He replaces Pope Benedict XVI, who shocked the Catholic Church last month when he became the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years. Bergoglio is the first pope from Latin America and the first not to hail from Europe in more than a thousand years. He’s also the first to come from the Jesuit order of priests, which is known for its work on social justice.

On Wednesday, the new Pope Francis took to the balcony of St. Peters wearing an unadorned white robe. He briefly addressed the thousands of Catholic pilgrims waiting to greet him.

POPE FRANCIS: [translated] Brothers and sisters, good evening. As you know, the duty of the conclave is to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world, but we are here. First of all, I would like to pray for Benedict, our bishop emeritus. We pray all together for him for God to bless him and for the Madonna to hold him.

AMY GOODMAN: Pope Francis is viewed as a theological conservative who staunchly opposed abortion, same-sex marriage and the ordination of women. Here in the United States, the Jubilee USA Network praised his selection for his devotion to the poor. In Argentina, he’s long been dogged by reports he aided the military dictatorship in the ’70s.

Later in the broadcast, we’ll go to Argentina to speak with a leading investigative journalist who has written extensively about the role of the new pope during Argentina’s military dictatorship. But we begin our show with Tom Roberts, editor-at-large at the National Catholic Reporter, author of The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself. He joins us from Kansas City, Missouri.

Tom, welcome to Democracy Now! Give us a thumbnail history of the new pope, Pope Francis.

TOM ROBERTS: Well, he is 76 years old, which puts him on sort of the older end of the scale for a new pope. He was educated in Argentina and also in Rome and Germany. He kind of embodies that mix of European and developing world, First World and developing world sensibilities. He is a Jesuit. And as you mentioned earlier in the lead-up, a lot of firsts in this one: the first Jesuit, the first non-European in a long, long time. He’s the first one to be named Francis. And so, it’s an interesting—he’s an academic. He started life as a—pursuing a career in chemistry, decided to join the Jesuits, rose quickly in their ranks. He was named a bishop by John Paul II, I think in 2001, and then rose to the ranks of cardinal. So he’s been around for quite a while. He’s been in leadership positions, but not in Rome and not in the Vatican bureaucracy. So, it is, again, a very interesting choice because of all the firsts and the fact that he’s outside of the normal wheel of Vatican influence and that culture.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Tom, the significance again of some of these breakthroughs here, these firsts, specifically about the—him being a Jesuit? Obviously, the Jesuits have always been considered the intellectuals or the philosophers of the church. Way back in the colonial period, the Spanish monarchy expelled them from the Americas because of their role, their social role. That particular significance?

TOM ROBERTS: Well, I think that for any order priest—it’s significant for any order priest to be elected pope—I don’t know how many of them there have been—but especially Jesuits, who have a particular charism, have been big players in the church through history. And they are noted for, you know, intellectual accomplishments, for raising institutions of higher learning, and for the social justice component. I mean, they’ve been strong social justice advocates in many areas of the world.

I think the other thing that is distinctive—and this has nothing to do with him being a Jesuit as much as it does an approach toward ecclesiology and also what it means to be a religious leader—is the way he lives. When he became a cardinal, became bishop of Buenos Aires, he didn’t take the big mansion. He gave up the driver and the car. He takes the bus to work, as they say, often takes the equivalent of the subway. He really does live a life identified with the poor. He lives in a simple apartment, cooks his own meals, and has really been identified with a very, very strong social justice current in Latin America. He has used language about the inequalities between countries and talks about Argentina as one of the most unequal places in the world, talks about the unjust distribution of goods as a social sin.

So, there are a lot of characteristics to him that don’t fit any categories, except that he comes from the Global South, and there we find leaders, religious leaders, who have very, very strong social justice instincts, even though, on many of the issues, as you’ve noted, he would be considered a theological conservative, which would not be rare, by the way, for any of those cardinals. I mean, you’re not going to find a liberal or someone that—somebody in the developed North would call liberal on those issues in that conclave.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Tom Roberts, the significance of him choosing the name Francis, Pope Francis, for Francis of Assisi?

TOM ROBERTS: Yes, and he made it clear that it was for Francis of Assisi and not Francis Xavier, one of the early Jesuits. The significance, I think, cuts a number of ways. First of all, I think that it’s a recognition, if Francis is used as a reform figure, for the—the recognition of the need for reform in the church, a getting back to the gospel. He doesn’t like—and it’s been pretty well chronicled—doesn’t like rigid clericalism. He doesn’t like all the fuss of elaborate clothes. Again, simplicity is the order for him. And he came out in a plain white cassock, none of the—none of the other frills that can go along with that first entrance.

The other thing he did was he bowed in prayer to the group, to the crowd before him, and asked them to pray for him first before he gave them his blessing, which is a significant sign of humility. And the other thing he did, which I think was very endearing to Catholics worldwide, was that he asked them to pray with him, and he prayed very familiar prayers—you know, the Our Father and the Hail Mary. Catholics worldwide are familiar with those. And so, it was a meeting of someone we could understand. This was not elevated theology. This was not, you know, a triumphal entry. This was a very humble “Walk with me,” as he said. “Let’s begin this journey together, and let’s pray the simple prayers that we all know. And before I, as pontiff, bless you, pray for me.” So it was a really different—a different entrance of a new pontiff, introduction of a new pope.

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Roberts, we want to thank you for being with us, editor-at-large at the National Catholic Reporter, author of The Emerging Catholic Church: A Community’s Search for Itself. When we come back, we’re going to Buenos Aires to speak with the leading investigative journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, to talk about the role that the new pope, Pope Francis, played during the 1970s, during what is known in Argentina as the “dirty wars.” Stay with us.


The Fall of the House of Europe


The Enchanters came / Cold and old,
Making day gray / And the age of gold
Passed away, / For men fell
Under their spell, / Were doomed to gloom.
Joy fled, / There came instead,
Grief, unbelief, / Lies, sighs,
Lust, mistrust, / Guile, bile,
Hearts grew unkind, / Minds blind,
Glum and numb, / Without hope or scope.
There was hate between states,
A life of strife, / Gaols and wails,
Dont’s, wont’s, / Chants, shants,
No face with grace, / None glad, all sad.
W H Auden, The Golden Age

We have, unfortunately, no post-modern version of Dante guided by Virgil to tell a startled world what is really happening in Europe in the wake of the recent Italian general election.

On the surface, Italians voted an overwhelming “No” – against austerity (imposed the German way); against more taxes; against budget cuts in theory designed to save the euro. In the words of the center-left mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, “Our citizens have spoken loud and clear but maybe their message has not been fully grasped.” In fact it was.

There are four main characters in this morality/existential play worthy of the wackiest tradition of commedia dell ‘arte.

The Pyrrhic winner is Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the center-left coalition; yet he is unable to form a government. The undisputed loser is former Goldman Sachs technocrat and caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti.

And then there are the actual winners; “two clowns” – at least from a German point of view and also the City of London’s, via The Economist. The “clowns” are maverick comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star movement; and notorious billionaire and former prime minister Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi.

To muddle things even further, Berlusconi was sentenced to one year in prison last Thursday by a Milan court over a wiretapping scandal. He will appeal; and as he was charged and convicted before, once again he will walk. His mantra remains the same: ”I’m ‘persecuted’ by the Italian judiciary.”

There’s more, much more. These four characters – Bersani, Monti, Grillo, Berlusconi – happen to be at the heart of a larger than life Shakespearean tragedy: the political failure of the troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), which translates into the politics of the European Union being smashed to pieces.

That’s what happens when the EU project was never about a political ”union” – but essentially about the euro as a common currency. No wonder the most important mechanism of European unification is the European Central Bank. Yet abandon all hope of European politicians asking their disgruntled citizens about a real European union. Does anybody still want it? And exactly under what format?

Meet Absurdistan

Why things happened in Italy the way they did? There is scarcely a better explanation than Marco Cattaneo’s, expressed in this blog where he tries to understand ”Absurdistan”.

It all started with an electoral law that even in Italy was defined as ulna porcata (a load of rubbish), validating a ”disproportional” system (political scientists, take note) that could only lead to an ungovernable situation.

In Cattaneo’s matchless depiction, in the Senate the One for All, All For One coalition (Bersani’s) got 31.6% of the votes. The Everyone for Himself coalition (Berlusconi’s) got 30.7%. And the brand new One Equals One All the Others Equal No One movement (Grillo’s) got a surprising 23.8%.

And yet, defying all logic, in the end Everyone for Himself got 116 seats, One for All, All for One got 113 seats, and One Equals One All the Others Equal No One got only 54 – less than half.

At street level, from Naples to Turin and from Rome to Palermo, there’s a parallel explanation. No less than 45% of Italians, from retired civil servants living on 1,000 euros (US$1,300) a month to bankers making 10 million euros a year, don’t want any change at all. Another 45% – the unemployed, the underpaid – want radical change. And 10% don’t care – ever. Add that to the ungovernability lasagna.

And extract from it a nugget of cappuccino-at-the-counter wisdom. Absurdistan’s finances will soon be in a state as dire as Hellenistan – those neighborly descendants of Plato and Aristotle. And then Absurdistan will become a model to Europe and the world – where 1% of the population will control 99% of the national wealth. From Lorenzo de Medici to Berlusconi; talk about Decline and Fall.

Bunga Bunga me baby

Tried to death (including being convicted for tax fraud in October 2012; he walked); beneficiary of dodgy laws explicitly designed to protect himself and his enormous businesses empire; the Rabelaisian Bunga Bunga saga. He beat them all (so far). Silvio Berlusconi may be the ultimate comeback kid. How did he pull it off this time?

It’s easy when you mix a billionaire’s media wattage (and corporate control) with outlandish promises – such as scrapping a much-detested property tax. How to make up for the shortfall? Simple: Silvio promised new taxes on gambling, and a shady deal to recover some of the funds held by Italians in Swiss banks.

Does it matter that Switzerland made it clear it would take years for this scheme to work? Of course not. Even Silvio’s vast opposition was forced to admit the idea was a ”stroke of genius”. Nearly 25% of Italians voted for Silvio’s party. Nearly a third backed his right-wing coalition. In Lombardy – informally known as the Italian Texas – the coalition smashed the center-left to pieces; Tuscany on the other hand voted traditionally left, while Rome is a quintessential swing city.

Silvio’s voters are essentially owners of small and medium-sized businesses; the northern Italy that drives the economy. They are all tax-crazy; that ranges from legions of tax evaders to those who are being asphyxiated by the burden. Obviously, they couldn’t care less about Rome’s budget deficits. And they all think German Chancellor Angela Merkel should rot in Dante’s ninth circle of hell.

Frau Merkel, for her part, had been entertaining the idea of quietly cruising the eurozone waters towards her third term in the coming September elections. Fat chance – now thanks to Silvio’s and Beppe Grillo’s voters. Talk about a North-South abyss in Europe. The EU summit this month is going to be – literally – a riot.

Those sexy polit-clowns

All hell is breaking loose in the EU. Le Monde insists Europe is not in agony. Oh yes, it is; in a coma.

And yet Brussels (the bureaucrat-infested European Commission) and Berlin (the German government) simply don’t care about a Plan B; it’s austerity or bust. Predictably, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem – the new head of the spectacularly non-transparent political committee that runs the euro – said that what Monti was doing (and was roundly rejected by Italians) is ”crucial for the entire eurozone”.

In 2012, Italy’s economy shrank 2.2%, more than 100,000 small businesses went bust (yes, they all voted for Silvio), and unemployment is above 10% (in reality, over 15%). Italy may have the highest national debt in the eurozone after Greece. But here Absurdistan manifests itself once again via austerity; Italy’s fiscal deficit is much lower than France’s and Holland’s.

Pop up the champagne; France is in vertical decadence. It’s not only the industrial decline but also the perennial recession, social turbulence and public debt beyond 90% of GDP. France, the second-largest eurozone economy, asked the European Commission for an extra year to lower its deficit below 3% of GDP. Jens Weidman, president of the Bundesbank, roared ”Forget it”.

Portugal is also asking the troika for some room. Portugal’s economy is shrinking (by 2%) for the third year running, with unemployment at over 17%.

Spain is mired in a horrendous recession, also under a monster debt crisis. GDP fell 0.7% in 2012 and according to Citibank will fall a further 2.2% this year. Unemployment is at an overwhelming 26%, with youth unemployment over 50%. Not everyone can hit the lottery playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid. Ireland has the eurozone’s highest deficit, at 8%, and has just restructured the debt of its banks.

Greece is in its fifth recession year in a row, with unemployment over 30% – and this after two austerity packages. Athens is running around in circles trying to fend off its creditors while at least trying to alleviate some of the draconian cuts. Greeks are adamant; the situation is worse than Argentina in 2001. And remember, Argentina defaulted.

Even Holland is under a serious banking crisis. And to top it off, David Cameron has thrown Britain’s future in Europe in turmoil.

So once again it was Silvio’s turn – who else? – to spice it all up. Only the Cavaliere could boom out that the famous spread – the difference between how much Italy and Germany pay to borrow on the bond markets – had been ”invented” in 2011 by Berlin (the German government) and Frankfurt (the European Central Bank), so they could get rid of himself, Silvio, and ”elect” the technocrat Monti.

German media, also predictably, has been taking no prisoners with relish. Italy and Italians are being routinely derided as ”childlike”, ”ungovernable”, ”a major risk to the eurozone”. (See, for example, Der Spiegel.)

The ultra-popular tabloid Bild even came up with a new pizza; not a Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) but a Quattro Stagnazioni (Four Stagnations).

The verdict is of an Italy ”in the hands of polit-clowns that may shatter the euro or force the country to exit”. Even the liberal-progressive Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin defines Italy as ”a danger to Europe”.

Peer Steinbruck, Germany’s former finance minister and the Social Democratic candidate against Merkel next September, summed it all up: “To a certain degree, I am horrified that two clowns won the election.”

So whatever government emerges in Italy, the message from Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt remains the same: if you don’t cut, cut and cut, you’re on your own.

Germany, for its part, has only a plan A. It spells out ”Forget the Club Med”. This means closer integration with Eastern Europe (and further on down the road, Turkey). A free trade deal with the US. And more business with Russia – energy is key – and the BRICS in general. Whatever the public spin, the fact is German think-tanks are already gaming a dual-track eurozone.

The people want quantitative easing

This aptly titled movie, Girlfriend in a Coma, directed by Annalisa Piras and co-written by former editor of The Economist Bill Emmett, did try to make sense of Italy’s vices and virtues.

And still, not only via Prada or Maserati, Parma ham or Brunello wines, Italy keeps delivering flashes of brilliance; the best app in the world – Atom, which allows the personalization of functions on a mobile phone even if one is not a computer programmer – was created by four 20-somethings in Rome, as Republic reported.

Philosopher Franco Berardi – who way back in the 1970s was part of the Italian autonomous movements – correctly evaluates that what Europe is living today is a direct consequence of the 1990s, when financial capital hijacked the European model and calcified it under neoliberalism.

Subsequently, a detailed case can be made that the financial Masters of the Universe used the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis to turbo-charge the political disintegration of the EU via a tsunami of salary cuts, job precariousness for the young, the flattening of pensions and hardcore privatization of everything. No wonder roughly 75% of Italians ended up saying ”No” to Monti and Merkel.

The bottom line is that Europeans – from Club Med countries to some northern economies – are fed up of having to pay the debt accumulated by the financial system.

Grillo’s movement per se – even capturing 8.7 million votes – is obviously not capable of governing Italy. Some of its (vague) ideas have enormous appeal among the younger generations especially an unilateral default on public debt (look at the examples of Argentina, Iceland and Russia), the nationalization of banks, and a certified, guaranteed ”citizenship” income for everyone of 1,000 euros a month. And then there would be referendum after referendum on free-trade agreements, membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and, of course, to stay or not stay within the eurozone.

What Grillo’s movement has already done is to show how ungovernable Europe is under the Monti-Merkel austerity mantra. Now the ball is in the European financial elite’s court. Most wouldn’t mind letting Italy become the new Greece.

So we go back full circle. The only way out would be a political reformulation of the EU. As it is, most of Europe is watching, impotently, the death of the welfare state, sacrificed in the altar of Recession. And that runs parallel to Europe slouching towards global irrelevance – Real Madrid and Bayern Munich notwithstanding.

The Fall of the House of Europe might turn into a horror story beyond anything imagined by Poe – displaying elements of (already visible) fascism, neo-Dickensian worker exploitation and a wide-ranging social, civil war. In this context, the slow reconstruction of a socially based Europe may become no more than a pipe dream.

What would Dante make of it? The great Roberto Benigni, a native of Tuscany, is currently reading and commenting on in depth 12 cantos – from the XI to the XXII – in Dante’s Inferno, a highlight of the Divine Comedy. Spellbound, I watched it on RAI – the square in front of the fabulous Santa Croce church in Florence packed to the rafters, the cosmic perfection of the Maestro’s words making sense of it all.

If only his spirit would enlighten Inferno dwellers from Monti to Merkel, from Silvio to European Central bankers – aligning Man once again with the stars and showing troubled Europe the way.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalization: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge (Nimble Books, 2007), and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at

Second Year Anniversary of Fukushima: The Accident Is NOT Contained. “Reactor 2 has a Large Crack in It”

Worse Than Ever?

Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen said today that the containment vessel at Fukushima reactor 2 has a large crack in it.

Reactors 1, 2 and 3 all exploded.

BBC reports today:

They know very little about what’s going on inside Reactors 1, 2, and 3 […]

They don’t really know what the state of the reactor core is.

Indeed, there is no containment at Fukushima.

Large quantities of radiation are still leaking into the Pacific Ocean. And see this.

The operator of the Fukushima plants says it’s “impossible” to keep storing radioactive water in tanks, and Tepco will need to intentionally dump it into the ocean.

The area around Fukushima has become so contaminated that even the trees are radioactive.

And Tokyo is almost as irradiated as Fukushima.

Agence France-Presse notes:

Beach walkers are likely to encounter a disturbing but relentless flow of flotsam [from Japan] for years to come.


American sailors were exposed to massive doses of radiation. Conditions were so bad that they considered suicide. Many of these good men and women are now really sick. More here, here and here. (But both the Japanese and American governments have abandoned them.)

Tepco might not even meaningfully start working to decommission the plants until the radiation level drops … decades from now (Or until the technology exists to clean it up.)

It has now been officially admitted that the accident was caused by collusion between the government and nuclear industry.

A worker at the Fukushima nuclear plan succinctly notes:

Even an elementary-school kid knows TEPCO always lies.


We have been fooled by the government …

We don’t mean to pick on Japan. After all, the American government is dictating nuclear policy in Japan. American reactors are even more dangerous than Fukushima. And a secret report confirms that Southern California Edison knew of major problems at the San Onofre nuclear plant … but let the slipshod expansion and remodeling project continue anyway.

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