Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | May 2, 2011

A Book Review of Matthew Fox’s The Pope’s War (with musical guest Sinead O’Connor): Reflections on Pfleger’s Suspension & John Paul’s Beatification

The news, here in Chicago, of Father Michael Pfleger’s suspension by Cardinal Francis George, while perhaps surprising to some given his immense popularity, was, for me, almost expected.  It comes as a part of a pattern of behavior from the Vatican that goes back to the previous Papacy, a sort of counter-reformation in the wake of the liberalization of the Second Vatican Council. You see, Pfleger’s suspension is neither merely an internal matter of the Catholic Church nor does it have anything to do with the specific conflict between Pfleger and his Cardinal.  It is telling that the Cardinal headed off to Rome immediately after the suspension rather than going to the people.  To understand this event, one must look into the recent history of the Catholic Church and the man who has become the primary ideological force not merely during his own Papacy, but throughout the previous one—Joseph Ratzinger, known now as Pope Benedict XVI.

It is fitting that this news comes with the beatification—rushed through by Ratzinger—of Pope John Paul II this weekend.  Whereas a freedom-fighter like Oscar Romero—killed by death squads for standing up for the poor—was condemned by this Pope and John Paul II, the man whose enduring legacy will be the crushing of Liberation Theology will become a saint.  What other fate could Pfleger have expected in such a Church?

Matthew Fox is no journalist, nor is he an unbiased observer of the Vatican.  Fox is one of the 92 people he lists in the appendix to his book, The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How it Can Be Saved (New York, Sterling Ethos), whom Ratzinger has silenced or expelled.  But one would be hard pressed to dispute the claims Fox makes: that Ratzinger’s connection to Right Wing groups like Opus Dei, his rejection of progressive theology such as Fox’s Creation Spirituality movement and the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America, has led to a massive and systematic repression of anyone working for the poor, for the rights of women and homosexuals, and for truly creative and dynamic theology.

Ratzinger’s influence goes back to the previous Papacy, when he was in charge of tracking down dissident clergy and silencing them.  He was able to do so with alarming silence from the mainstream media.  Seduced by the flawless public image of John Paul II and American cold war propaganda that equated Liberation Theology with the USSR, the media said little as Liberation Theology in Latin America was crushed.  One by one, theologians and priests who had stood by the poor against often-violent oppression—with US complicity—were silenced.  Even more than Pfleger, these people were putting themselves at risk by bravely opposing oppressive regimes.  Imagine if Dr. King had been similarly “silenced” during the American Civil Rights Movement.  The result, years later, has been two-fold: The work the Catholic church had been doing to seek a more just society has been curtailed, leading leftists and intellectuals to abandon religion altogether; second, fundamentalist sects—and it is no coincidence that these have been supported by the same Right Wing North Americans who fought Liberation Theology—have gained a strong foothold in Latin America as people seek more vibrant forms of worship.

Moreover, it has become clear that Ratzinger would rather go after a feminist than a child-rapist.  It turns out that Sinead O’Connor had a point when she protested child abuse in the Church back in the early nineties.  Then, few defended her.  Now that the scope of the abuse, and the degree to which Church leadership ignored it, have come to light, her simple and poignant protest seems mild. (See video)

So why should those of us not in the Church care?  It is easy to see why a silenced theologian like Fox, or the parishioners at St. Sabina in Chicago (Pfleger’s Church) would care, but what about non-Catholics? What about the ever-growing group of Catholics who have left the Church?  What about Jews, or Protestants, or Hindus?

First, Ratzinger and his ilk promote a total rejection—again, regressing to the pre-Vatican II days—of other faiths.  He has rehabilitated open Holocaust deniers and openly criticized Islam.  Such an approach makes interfaith dialogue difficult, for one—one would think that a man who lived in Germany during the Holocaust would understand the need for interfaith understanding—but even more importantly, it makes interfaith spirituality impossible.  The Catholic tradition—for all its baggage—has much to teach the world.  Unfortunately, a pathological emphasis on orthodoxy, a false unity that, as Fox points out, lacks the diversity that authentic unity requires, has resulted in much of its truth being obscured.

Second, Ratzinger’s “crusade” is political as well as theological.  He has supported groups with open Right Wing agendas.  The impact of his policies in the Catholic world is felt by all, Catholic and non-Catholic. Neighborhoods and nations in which priests are silenced are transformed to adhere to Ratzinger’s vision of the world in which the poor, and women, and the Global South, and homosexuals find themselves at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Third, the lack of rigor in our media when it comes to the Pope—even in today’s anti-intellectual climate, it is shocking—allows people like John Paul II to become heroes.  This is how his ideas can affect not only the Church, but also other institutions run by those who, seduced by the anti-intellectualism of Ratzinger’s Church, are lacking a critical consciousness.  Fox points to several institutions, for example, dominated by Opus Dei members.

Finally, Ratzinger’s theology has left the Catholic Church on the sidelines of the pursuit of what Fox calls a post-modern spirituality, a spirituality than can give rise to a worldview capable of dealing with myriad problems humanity faces.  How can a body-denying, Earth-despising, sexually-repressed spirituality deal with such issues as climate change?  How can a spirituality that won’t speak of justice and sentimentalizes the poor deal with global poverty?

Fox’s book, while exposing many of the problems with Ratzinger’s Papacy, ultimately focuses on the work that got Fox silenced in the first place—re-imagining religion in the post-modern context.  While surely the people have largely been silenced and marginalized in an increasingly hierarchical Vatican, Catholics can and must realize that they can take control of how they choose to worship and how they choose to understand the fundamental religious questions: Who are we? What is our relationship to and place in the world? What makes me feel alive?  The stories that guide us must not be told by those in power and meekly accepted by the rest of us.  This is the work towards which religion inspires us at its best, work the Catholic Church has neglected for too long.  But, as Fox points out, there is a role for religion, for Christianity, and for Catholicism in this work—what Thomas Berry calls “The Great Work”—a role that secularism has not entirely filled. Regardless of one’s religion, or lack thereof, The Pope’s War is worth reading.



  1. Spot on, my brother! As a former Roman Catholic I am saddened at the beatification of J2P2, while St Oscar Romero remains ignored by the official Church. The latter shall always be a martyr in the hearts of his people and mine.

    • Many thanks, Brother Yossi.

  2. I am reading the book now and totally agree with it and this review. I wish this book were mandatory reading for every adult

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