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Pope Francis looks beyond hammer and sickle crucifix chatter

  • 16 July 2015

Like Queen Victoria, Pope Francis in Bolivia was not amused. On that the media were agreed. But if, after Bolivian President Morales had presented him with a crucifix superimposed on a hammer and sickle, they agreed about what he was not, they disagreed about what he was.

The prudent said that he simply received the crucifix, the wary declared him apparently not amused, the Vatican went a letter further into the alphabet to describe him as bemused, others raised the emotional charge to find him surprised, put on the spot, and angered.

One went out on a limb to assert that he rebuked President Morales for embarrassing him with this melange of Communist and Christian symbols. Whatever of the Pope’s feelings, some Bishops used social media to denounce Morales for arrogantly conflating faith and ideology.

As the story developed, discussion turned to what the Pope had said to Morales (inaudible on the tape), and whether the hammer and sickle were intended as a Communist symbol at all.

President Morales explained, and the Vatican spokesperson agreed, that the design of the crucifix came from Jesuit Luís Espinal who was captured, tortured and killed by right-wing paramilitaries in 1980. On his visit, Pope Francis had stopped to pray at the place where he was killed and had praised his faith and courage. Espinal designed the cross to show Christ close to workers and to peasants.

The story quickly died in a snow flurry at the close of the news cycle. But for those of us for whom the crucifix is a sacred symbol, it invited reflection on how to respond to art that places Christian symbols in political contexts.

Those who criticised the cross given to the Pope believed that it associated Christian faith with communist ideology and the revolutionary violence it endorsed.

To make that association would be wrong, but to be consistent we would have also to deplore the practice of the Conquistadors whose chaplains held the cross aloft in battle. We would also need to reflect on the crosses on Latin American churches that share the town square with the army barracks, the police station and the town hall. The cooptation of faith and the violence Bolivia and many other Latin American nations came from national security ideology as well as from communism.

Religious art has regularly been controversial. We need only remember the outrage at Piss Christ in Melbourne some years ago. Marilyn Manson’s gun cross