Pope Francis’ Mexico Trip Ends on a Controversial Note

After discussing drugs, corruption, and immigration in Mexico, the Holy Father’s in-flight press conference on his way back to Rome touched on even more hot-button issues.

The final days of his trip to Mexico included remarks from Pope Francis about drug-related violence, mass immigration, and Zika virus, among other subjects.

On Tuesday, Pope Francis continued his tour of some of Mexico’s most troubled spots with a trip to the state of Michoacán, where oppressive drug cartels and citizen militias have battled for years over control of the state’s “hot lands” to the west, and where narco-corruption permeates virtually every aspect of the state’s troubled political and economic life.

Aiming his words specifically at the young people of the state gathered in a stadium in the capital city of Morelia, the Pope reiterated a principal theme of his trip: the linking of consumerism and materialism with the violent greed of drug trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes that mark the region.

Encouraging them to regard their lives as valuable apart from their material wealth, the Pope admonished the young people that “the principal threat to hope is to allow yourself to believe that you begin to be valuable when you start wearing the right clothes, the latest brands and fashions, or when you enjoy prestige, are important because you have money; but in the depths of your heart you do not believe that you are worthy of kindness or love. The biggest threat is when a person feels that they must have money to buy everything, including the love of others. The biggest threat is to believe that by having a big car you will be happy.”

Paraphrasing St. Lawrence, the third-century martyr who called the poor “the treasure of the Church,” the Pope told the youth, “You are the wealth of Mexico, you are the wealth of the Church.”

“I understand that often it is difficult to feel your value when you are continually exposed to the loss of friends or relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, of criminal organizations that sow terror,” the Pope told the crowd. “It is hard to feel the wealth of a nation when there are no opportunities for dignified work, no possibilities for study or advancement, when you feel your rights are being trampled on, which then leads you to extreme situations. It is difficult to appreciate the value of a place when, because of your youth, you are used for selfish purposes, seduced by promises that end up being untrue.”

The answer, the Pope assured them, is Jesus, who “is able to bring out the best in me.”

“Hand in hand with him, we can move forward, hand in hand with him we can begin again and again, hand in hand with him we find the strength to say: it is a lie to believe that the only way to live, or to be young, is to entrust oneself to drug dealers or others who do nothing but sow destruction and death,” said Francis, adding that Christ “refutes all attempts to render you useless or to be mere mercenaries of other people’s ambitions.”

The Pope also emphasized the notion of the family as an alternative model to the individualistic and socially isolated society devoted only to commerce, a theme he had also mentioned in the violent and impoverished Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec the previous Sunday. “Being a community, a family, and knowing that we are citizens is one of the best antidotes to all that threatens us, because it makes us feel that we are a part of the great family of God. This is not an invitation to flee and enclose ourselves, but, on the contrary, to go out and to invite others, to go out and proclaim to others that being young in Mexico is the greatest wealth, and consequently, it cannot be sacrificed.”

The Mexican media expressed some surprise when the Pope briefly exploded in anger at spectators in Morelia who pulled him over a handicapped person and almost caused him to fall. “Egoista!” (“Selfish”) the outraged Pope yelled, prompting headlines such as: “For the first time, Mexico sees Pope Francis angry”; “They pull the pope in Morelia and oh how angry he gets!”; and “Pope gives a ‘holy scolding’ to faithful who pulled him.” In a second case, a famous Mexican soap opera actress, Belinda Peregrín, was seen by the media as annoying the Pope when she took up space in an area where handicapped people should have been given priority, a charge she bitterly denied through her Twitter feed.

Injustice underlies mass migrations, Pope tells faithful

Pope Francis’ first stop in the state of Chihuahua was a state prison, the Center for Social Rehabilitation, where he continued to link the virtue of mercy with redemption from a culture of violence and hopelessness.

“Celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy with you is recalling the pressing journey that we must undertake in order to break the cycle of violence and crime,” he told an audience of male and female prisoners. “Divine Mercy reminds us that prisons are an indication of the kind of society we are. In many cases they are a sign of the silence and omissions which have led to a throwaway culture, a symptom of a culture that has stopped supporting life, of a society that has abandoned its children.”

The key to liberation from the cycle of violence, Francis said, was rehabilitation of both imprisoned criminals and of the society that encourages their destructive habits of living. “Mercy reminds us that reintegration does not begin here within these walls; rather it begins before, it begins ‘outside,’ in the streets of the city,” said the Pope. “Reintegration or rehabilitation begins by creating a system which we could call social health, that is, a society which seeks not to cause sickness, polluting relationships in neighborhoods, schools, town squares, the streets, homes, and in the whole of the social spectrum.”

In Ciudad Juarez, a border town which was until recently racked by extreme levels of violence and which continues to be a principal gateway to the United States for illegal immigrants from both Mexico and Central America, the Pope invoked the biblical example of the corrupt Assyrian city of Nineveh during a large open-air Mass, noting the capacity of the Ninevites to repent when presented with the possibility of God’s mercy.  

The city of Nineveh “was self-destructing as a result of oppression and dishonor, violence and injustice,” said Francis. “The grand capital’s days were numbered because the violence within it could not continue.” However, God told the prophet Jonah to “make them see this is no way to live, neither for the king nor his subjects…that they have become used to this degrading way of life and have lost their sensitivity to pain. Go and tell them that injustice has infected their way of seeing the world.”

As a result of this exhortation to repentance, “the king listened to Jonah, the inhabitants of the city responded and penance was decreed. God’s mercy has entered the heart, revealing and showing wherein our certainty and hope lie: there is always the possibility of change, we still have time to transform what is destroying us as a people, what is demeaning our humanity,” said Francis, adding, “Mercy encourages us to look to the present, and to trust what is healthy and good beating in every heart.”

Francis linked the spiral of violence that has engulfed parts of Latin America, which he called a “humanitarian crisis,” to “the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones” to the United States.

“The human tragedy that is forced migration is a global phenomenon today,” added the Pope. “This crisis, which can be measured in numbers and statistics, we want instead to measure with names, stories, families. They are the brothers and sisters of those excluded as a result of poverty and violence, drug trafficking and criminal organizations. Being faced with so many legal vacuums, they get caught up in a web that ensnares and always destroys the poorest.”

Before the Mass, Pope Francis had stopped to pray along the US-Mexico border, where he blessed a memorial erected to emigrants seeking to enter the United States, as well as a group of hundreds of spectators viewing the scene from the US side of the border.

Pope tussles with Donald Trump, talks Zika and contraception

Pope Francis continued his tradition of making his most controversial statements during in-flight press conferences when he answered a question that has been repeatedly raised in recent weeks in Latin America regarding the Zika virus, which has been blamed for a rash of serious birth defects in a number of countries, particularly Brazil. Catholic authorities in Latin America have been under pressure from the media to retreat from the Church’s teaching on life and family in response to the outbreak, particularly regarding the right to life, but have remained resolute in their defense of Catholic moral doctrine.

When asked about Zika, Pope Francis reiterated Catholic doctrine on the intrinsic evil of directly procured abortion, shutting the door to such a measure, but simultaneously raised the possibility of “avoiding pregnancy” in response to Zika. Francis made reference to a reported acceptance by Pope Paul VI of the use of contraceptives by nuns at risk of rape, and stated that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”

Pope Francis asserted that “abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to throw someone out in order to save another. That’s what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil.” He continued:

On the “lesser evil,” avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandment. Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape…avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these two mosquitoes that carry this disease. This needs to be worked on.

Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a referendary of the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, expressed concern about the Pope’s reasoning: “Pope Paul VI, as I understand it, did approve of religious women threatened by rape using contraceptives. It is obvious, though, that such measures were taken in self-defense against criminal acts and, more importantly, would have occurred outside the context of conjugal relations.”

“There is no legitimate ‘principle’ by which a ‘lesser of two evils’ may ever be licitly engaged in,” added Peters. “It is fundamental moral theology that even a small evil action may never be licitly engaged in—no matter how much good might seem to result therefrom and no matter how much evil might seem to be avoided thereby.”

Pope Francis also generated controversy by insinuating that presidential candidate Donald Trump is not a Christian because he supports building a wall along the United States’ southern border so as to stop illegal immigration, while demurring from making a direct statement about a proposed Italian law to create homosexual civil unions and to permit homosexual adoption, claiming that it is not his place to enter into political controversies.

Trump’s indignant response was not long in coming. Calling the Pope’s remarks “disgraceful,” Trump added, “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

The next day, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, SJ clarified that the Holy Father’s remarks were not “a personal attack nor an indication of voting.” Trump also struck a more conciliatory tone. “I have a lot of respect for the Pope,” he said during a media event in South Carolina. “He has a lot of personality and I think he’s doing a very good job, he has a lot of energy.”

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About Matthew Cullinan Hoffman 31 Articles
Matthew Cullinan Hoffman is a Catholic essayist and journalist, and the author and translator of The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian's Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption (2015). His award-winning articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, London Sunday Times, Catholic World Report, LifeSite News, Crisis, the National Catholic Register, and many other publications. He holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Holy Apostles College and Seminary, with a focus on Thomism.