The papal visit: a moral agenda

22 January 2018

Pope Francis’s visit to Peru provided welcome political relief to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski with the media switching attention from the crisis surrounding former president Fujimori’s pardon to covering every aspect of the pontiff’s three-day visit. However, the visit also served to highlight some uncomfortable truths, especially those concerned with the protection of the environment and indigenous peoples at the mercy of extractive-led development. And the Pope did not shy away from the issue of corruption.

The visit followed on from one to Chile, a country in which Catholicism no longer enjoys near-universal support and has come under fire for its seemingly tolerant attitude towards priests guilty of sexual abuses. Peru is still a more Catholic country than Chile, despite the strong inroads made in recent years by evangelical churches of different stripes. The warm and emotive welcome given to Pope Francis during his stay – which included visits to Puerto Maldonado and Trujillo as well as Lima – was notable.

Pope Francis, a Jesuit, does not belong to the same stable as Peru’s ultra-conservative cardinal, José Luis Cipriani, from Opus Dei. The visit sought to avoid highlighting differences with the local hierarchy in which Opus Dei still looms large. However, partly as a consequence of Francis’s election as Pope, the centre of gravity within the Peruvian Church appears to be shifting back towards a less conservative stance.

The visit was preceded by the announcement of a Vatican investigation into the affairs of Sodalicio, another far-right Catholic grouping blamed for sexual abuses of minors. As in Chile (although perhaps not to the same extent) paedophilia and attempts to cover it up have been the source of copious criticism in recent years.

On his arrival in Lima, Pope Francis met with Kuczynski, and was not reticent in addressing the issue of corruption which has permeated political discussion over the past year. “I encourage and urge all those in positions of authority, in whatever sphere, to insist on this path [tackling corruption] in order to bring your people and your land the security born of feeling that Peru is a place of hope and opportunity for all, and not just for the few,” he said to applause.

Francis’s visit to Puerto Maldonado on 19 January, the capital of the jungle region of Madre de Dios, provided the opportunity to criticise, once again, the ecological and human depredation caused by uncontrolled destruction of the Amazon rain forest. The need for action to prevent further ecological deterioration was the subject of the 2015 papal encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. It was also a message expressed during his visit to Bolivia in 2015.

The Peruvian state has so far proved incapable of arresting the expansion of illicit gold mining which has wrought environmental havoc over large swathes of Madre de Dios.

In his address in Puerto Maldonado Francis referred to Amazonia as “a land disputed on various fronts, on the one hand by neo-extractivism, the strong pressure [exercised by] large-scale economic interests that direct their greed towards oil, gas, timber, gold, agroindustrial mono-cultivation..” He went on to say the threat to indigenous territories “from the perversion of certain policies that ‘promote’ the preservation of nature without taking into account human beings who live in them, concretely you our Amazonic brothers”. Thousands of indigenous people were present in Puerto Maldonado, arriving from all over the Peruvian Amazon region as well as from Brazil and Bolivia.

On his return to Lima from Puerto Maldonado, he further rammed home his warnings about the depredation of natural resources in search of business profit: “The false gods, the idols of greed, money and power corrupt everything. They corrupt people, institutions and also destroy the forest”. The strident message could not have been lost on Peru’s political leaders. For further quotes from his visit to Madre de Dios, go to La Republica.

In his brief visit to Trujillo, where he celebrated mass on the nearby Huanchaco beach, Francis urged people affected by last year’s El Niño not to lose hope. The Kuczynski government is coming under ever stronger criticisms for failing to respond effectively to the destruction caused along much of Peru’s northern coast. The Pope also decried “organised violence, like contract killings and the insecurity they breed”. Trujillo has become one of the most violent cities in Peru because of its role in drug trafficking.

The following day, on 21 January, Duberlí Rodríguez handed Pope Francis a copy of the so-called ‘Pact of Madre de Dios’ which aims to improve the administration of environmental justice. This consists of ten commitments to giver victims of environmental depredation better access to the justice system. For more detail, see La Republica.

But probably the highlight of the trip was the enormous open-air mass celebrated at the Las Palmas airbase in Lima, attended by up to a million of the faithful on 21 January.

The Pope’s visit outlined a moral agenda. This has been invaluable for those who seek to protect and promote human rights. The extent to which his words will be heeded, behaviours changed, now that he has left Peru is, of course, another matter.

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    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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