Bolivian President Evo Morales presents Pope Francis with ‘communist crucifix’
14 hours ago July 10, 2015 3:41PM
A perplexed Pontiff … Bolivian President Evo Morales presents Pope Francis with the crucifix carved into a wooden hammer and sickle. Critics called it a “provocation”. The L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP) Source: AP
BOLIVIA’S President Evo Morales handed Pope Francis an unusual and some say “provocative” gift during the pontiff’s visit to the country: a carving of Christ crucified on a wooden sickle and hammer.
The sculpted juxtaposition of two of the world’s most potent symbols, Christianity and communism, was made by Jesuit priest Luis Espinal.
A poet and artist, Espinal was assassinated in 1980 by right-wing paramilitaries, and the pope paid tribute to him on Wednesday on his way from the airport to La Paz, stopping at the site of his death.
Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope.
Local Catholic leaders said the unusual gift fits with Morales’ quirky personality.
“We’re used to the creative originality of President Morales,” said Eugenio Coter, from the Church’s Bolivian Amazonian missionary region.
But Bolivian Bishop Gonzalo del Castillo denounced the gift as “a provocation, a joke”.
Other critics said it was a distasteful, and possibly heretical melding of faith and ideology.
Bolivia’s communications minister, Marianela Paco, explained that the gift was symbolic.
“The sickle evokes the peasant, the hammer the carpenter, representing humble workers, God’s people.”
“That was the intention of this gift, there was no other,” she told Radio Patria Nueva.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said on 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.
Pope Francis in Bolivia … his embrace of local sand indigenous customs delighted locals. Picture: AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO Source: AFP
“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.
The Vatican launched a harsh crackdown on Liberation Theology in the 1970s and 1980s, fearing that Marxists were using its “preferential option for the poor” to turn the Gospel into a call for armed revolution.
The Bolivian government insisted the gift wasn’t a political manoeuvre of any sort, but was a symbol that Morales thought the “pope of the poor” would appreciate.
Pope Francis and Bolivian President Evo Morales … Bolivia was the second leg of a three-nation tour of South America’s poorest countries, where he has been acclaimed by huge crowds. Picture: AFP PHOTO / JORGE BERNAL Source: AFP
“That was the intention of this gift, and it was not any sort of manoeuvre … It was really from great affection, a work designed by the very hands of Luis Espinal,” Communications Minister Marianela Paco told the Patria Nueva radio station.
The Catholic blogosphere was buzzing with the “Communist crucifix” and what, exactly, Morales intended by giving it to the pope.
The Rev James Bretzke, a theologian at Boston College in Massachusetts, said there is no church legislation that addresses whether Christian imagery is sacrilegious since Christian art is often portrayed in a variety of ways.
But, he continued: “Is this in good taste? Does this seem to be using the Crucifix for political agenda? And I would say the answer is probably yes. Therefore, I would judge it personally in bad taste and especially manipulative to present it to the Holy Father in a situation like that where it clearly hadn’t been cleared ahead of time.”
The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome’s Pontifical Holy Cross University in Rome, said it all boils down to Espinal’s intent in designing the cross and Morales’ intent in giving it to the pope.
“I’d suppose that, given Morales’ warm welcome and Espinal’s personal convictions, the intent was not to offend but rather to indicate potential for dialogue and even synergy,” he said in an email. “Christians tend to see our symbols from the perspective of universal love, redemption, and even Christ’s triumph over evil. Indeed, that is what the cross is all about!”
During his South American tour, Pope Francis has also demanded an immediate end to what he called “a genocide” of Christians taking place in the Middle East, describing it as a third world war, and apologised for the sins, offences and crimes committed by the Catholic Church against indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.