Face-to-Face With Pope Francis

Nancy Scheper-Hughes is chair of the Doctoral Program in Medical Anthropology at Cal-Berkeley. Scheper-Hughes was granted an audience last April when the Vatican brought together some 20 scholars, human rights activists, governmental, UN, and civil society leaders at the request of Pope Francis who asked them to examine human trafficking and modern slavery.

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First of all, he is an incredibly happy man, a man at peace with himself and with the world. He seems comfortable in his skin. But most of all, he is fearless. Although he still ends most encounters with the petition, “Pray for me,” he is smiling and radiant. In accepting the heavy cargo that is the papacy, with all of its entanglements, intrigues, risks and dangers, and its daily uncertainties, Pope Francis is calm and reassuring. Whatever happens, it will be all right. He needs company and conviviality. He is no longer of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits; he is not walled up in a rectory of aging priests. He is a lucky man, fully in the world, surrounded by people, families, students, visitors from parts known and unknown. He is as if freed from a burden. He can say what he wants, even surprising himself at times. Like the late South African leader, Steven Biko, Pope Francis writes what he likes. He can pontificate.

Last June, the Pope’s long-awaited encyclical on climate change and global warning and their effects on soil, water and all the creatures, including humans, whose survival depends on a healthy and sustainable planet, was released. He sounded quite a lot like the Latin American ecofeminist Ivone Gabera, when he said “the worldwide disruption of the physical climate system and the loss of millions of species that sustain life are the grossest manifestations of unsustainability.” It appears likely that this will be followed by an encyclical on human trafficking as modern slavery. To this end, Pope Francis has convened many workshops and last April this included two linked, back to back, plenary advisory sessions at the Pontifical Academy of Social Science, the first on “Human Trafficking: Issues Beyond Criminalization,” and the second on “Climate Change and the Common Good” at which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke and who met privately with Pope Francis, of whom he said, “I count on his moral voice, his moral leadership.”

Pope Francis sees the destruction of the environment and the proliferation of human trafficking networks as interrelated abominations, both of which are catastrophic. Never one to mince words he refers to global warming as a mortal, deadly sin, and to human trafficking as a crime against humanity. He refers to the 15 percent who are devouring the earth as unconscious consumers dependent, knowingly or not, on modern slave labor through human trafficking.

I was surprised to receive the invitation by the Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute, Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo and President Margaret Archer, to participate in the plenary session on human trafficking noting that Pope Francis had asked us “to examine human trafficking and modern slavery” to which he added pointedly: “Organ Trafficking could be examined in connection with human trafficking.”

Having published several articles on clerical sexual abuse over the years, and criticized Church teachings on women, sexuality and reproduction in my books and edited volumes, and even a cheeky article in CounterPunch on the election of Jorge Bergoglio, I thought “this cannot be.” Someone was asleep, or then, perhaps, someone was awake. I certainly was. And I plugged away writing and submitting three separate papers to the Pontifical Academy in my anxiety. I feared my ticket would be cancelled at the last moment. How would I get through those young Swiss guards? What should I wear? Black long sleeve shirts and pants, I supposed. Where would I be staying? On arrival at the airport, a Vatican car and driver was waiting, and he drove at breakneck speed taking the curves like a Hell’s Angel motorcyclist. I apologized after each stifled cry. We rolled into the Vatican and I was unceremoniously deposited with my heavy bags, two computers in case one wouldn’t work. The building was called DOMUS SANCTAE MARTHAE in Latin, it sounded familiar. It certainly should have rung a bell, but it didn’t at first. Early check-in, heavy medieval looking brass door keys, never lose it. It works like a passport as one steps outside for a breath of air, show it whenever you are questioned at the papal checkpoints. I learn to dangle it as I walk. “Room 220, madam, and do not take the elevator to the right.” “I won’t, I promise.”

My room is an elegant but simple suite of two rooms with large, high windows. A bedroom with a single bed with a plain cross on the wall, a bureau with a flatscreen TV that I’ll never use. In the sitting room is a sturdy desk and tall heavy chairs. I try to rest but prefer looking out the windows into a lovely garden with a statue of Mary and rose bushes. ‘Tis the month of our mother, the blessed and beautiful days’, the hymn comes back in a flash, along with the smell of rose petals in a basket. Restless, I go downstairs to the dining room, where I am served a three or four course lunch that is still somehow light, delicately seasoned, and organic and served with an exquisite red wine. But I have arrived first and I am all alone in a sea of men in black and white cassocks, or brown robes. So it was to be every day after the other scholars and participants arrived. We women were of course in the minority by spades and we adapted easily to the dress code of women in black or dark pants and men in long white frocks. In the end clothes did not make either the man or the woman. However, gender was still highly marked, and many priests, monks, and bishops staying at Santa Marta were uncomfortable sharing a table with a woman, let alone talking to her. One Irish priest did but he seemed to be distracted by the dark red streak of color in my hair. (“How or perhaps why did she do that?” he seemed to be thinking). And he quickly made an excuse to sit at another table with only men.

Where should I put my eyes, my hands? I looked up and there he was, at a small table in the corner, Pope Francis eating and chatting with a priest, most likely a Franciscan, in a brown robe. Oh, no, I thought. I must be in the residence where Pope Francis lives and he is sitting right over there. I quickly swallowed what I could and all but ran up the flight of stairs, and there I realized that my rooms were catty-corner to the Pope’s private residence announced by a glorious wall of stained glass. I thought about Pope Francis as I went to bed and again when I woke up in the morning.

I felt blessed to be in that space. Would I now need to renounce my article in CounterPunch renouncing my status as a Catholic (but maintaining an identity as a “deinstitutionalized” Franciscan Catholic) in response to the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse in the United States, Ireland, Canada and Brazil? I had sorely missed the simple beauty of a Mass well celebrated and I readily accepted the invitation by Bishop Marcelo to participate in a small, intimate Mass every morning led by a different Bishop or Cardinal each day in Saint Peter’s crypt. Holy Communion was the best bread for a hungry soul. There, in the bowels of Saint Peter’s cathedral, once again on my knees the old habits and ‘habitus’ returned along with, if not exactly faith, my former suspension of disbelief. The words of the Latin responses – mea culpa, mea culpa, and mea maximum culpa — glided off my tongue like anxious little captives who had been freed after a long time. I began to pray again, and I prayed for the Pope’s safety as well as that of my family dispersed as we were.

Our work at the plenary in addition to presenting our papers was to work on a draft of recommendations regarding the Prevention, Criminalization, and Resettlement and Rehabilitation of Trafficked Persons. We used the Pope’s guidelines, which define global human trafficking as modern slavery, and as a crime against humanity. Among our recommendations were that all nations having ratified the ILO Convention (1957) would make forced labor a criminal offense with commensurate penalties and that the assets seized from convicted traffickers should be used for the basic needs and rehabilitation of victims of human trafficking. We also called for the creation of a WATO (World Anti-Trafficking Organization) as a watchdog to the WTO (World Trade Organization) to make visible the complicity of transnational industries in the exploitation of trafficked workers.

With respect to the human trafficking in organs — my contributions to the recommendations were the following: (1) That human trafficking for procurement of organs from the poor, refugees, ethnic minorities, prisoners and other marginalized persons is based on exploitation and is a crime against humanity. (2) The buying, selling, brokering, and implanting of organs and tissues from trafficking persons is to be prohibited in all countries. (3) We asked all religions to encourage and promote voluntary and altruistic organ sharing with others either as a last act of gifting organs at brain death or as a living gift of a kidney to a loved one or a stranger in dire need. The sharing of organs with others, freely and without compensation, is a commendable act of mercy. Organ donation must be rooted in social solidarity.

The Vatican agendas on human trafficking are quite radical, including the proposition that human trafficking should lead to a ‘pathway to a passport’ and resettlement in the host country. The Pope would like to see human trafficking inserted within the UN initiative on global environmental and economic sustainability; human trafficking is ‘modern slavery’ and a ‘crime against humanity.’

There was one exception to the progressive nature of our deliberations. It occurred on the final day of the meetings when we were asked to review and edit the draft of our recommendations to be given by Margaret Archer to the pope. Chancellor Marcelo and several clerics and older male members of the pontifical Academy wanted the word ‘prostitution’ inserted instead of “trafficking in persons for the provision of coerced sexual services.” The traditional Catholic scholars insisted that prostitution by its very nature was slave labor and thereby eroded human decency. The women present at the plenary — two of whom were nuns who worked with migrant workers and with sex workers in Brazil, Africa and Italy — understood that not all sex work was coerced or tied to human trafficking. When the traditionalist men insisted that they had never encountered a ‘prostitute’ who did not say she was forced to comply the women exchanged glances from across the corners of the room. I feared that a woman geographer from Australia sitting next to me was going to faint she was so pale. We stayed calm and held to our distinctions, and it will be up to the final drafters of the statement and then, ultimately, to Pope Francis to decide.

The Conversion of the Militant Anthropologist
The highlight of our meetings was the special pontifical academy papal audience. Should the women scholars wear a mantilla? I had pulled one out of a cedar chest of odd old clothes in my basement that my grandchildren sometimes used for dress up, but I looked so patently absurd in a mantilla that I pulled it out of my hand luggage. On approaching the Holy Father, the man I had written about in a critical piece, soon after he was elected, I blanched and wanted to hide. But my old Catholic self came to the rescue, and I thought, well I, too, can ask forgiveness. I tried to bend down and kiss the Pope’s ring only to discover that he had no papal ring to kiss, so I awkwardly kissed his bare hand as a gentleman from Vienna might have done upon being introduced to a woman he did not know. I was terrified that I would be pulled off the line, as I had been on the day of my First Communion because my veil was on wrong, with the elastic strap awkwardly under my chin rather than tucked under my hair. But not one of the papal bodyguards in tuxedos stepped up to intercede and take my gift package of books from my hands. In addition to the Spanish translation of Death without Weeping and the Italian translation of The Commodified Body, and several other articles on organ trafficking that had been translated into Spanish and Italian, the package contained a handwritten note from UC Berkeley Chancellor, Nick Dirks, and a little UC Berkeley golden bear pin. I was given a pair of pearly white rosary beads, but not until after I had a moment to ask Pope Francis to please remember the women, the ones unable to bear so many children and so many losses. I pointed to the chapters on drought and thirst, on the madness of hunger among rural workers in the cane, and the weight of the world on the shoulders of poor women and their angel babies.

Francis the Good had done so much good already, surely he might consider the women, the women who need him as much as he needs them to make his conversion complete. Throughout our short stay at the Vatican, Pope Francis responded immediately to the tragedy of the capsized boat of African refugees that sunk off Italian shores. He accepted the resignation of a Bishop in Missouri who had protected a clerical child sexual predator. He initiated the beatification of Dom Helder Camara, the ‘little red archbishop’ of Recife who sheltered me when I got in trouble with the 5th army of Brazil in 1965 and who welcomed me (and my family) back to Brazil in 1982, during the Brazilian democratic opening (the Abertura) when he reminded me that my duty as an anthropologist was to listen, observe, and to write about the institutions of invisible violence of hunger and drought in the badlands of the interior of Pernambuco.

Every evening after dinner and a return to Santa Marta, we all shared our worries about the risks that Papa Francisco was taking. On the day after our plenary conference ended, Wednesday, April 22, there was a shutdown of the Internet at the Domus Santa Marta, and the presence of high security. Although given no explanation the guesthouse staff was tense. Something was up. I went to my quarters and tried to read a novel I had brought with me, Out Stealing Horses, by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson, and then I sat down to revise my recommendations for Pope Francis on human trafficking for organs. Well into the night there was still no access to the Internet. The next morning I was picked up by the same Vatican chauffeur but it wasn’t the crazy ride to the airport that worried me now. When my flight stopped in Chicago to clear customs, I read the headlines about the arrests the day before of nine people on the island of Sardinia who the Italian police had linked to a Qaeda-terrorist cell that had been planning to strike the Vatican and Saint Peter’s Square as part of a ‘big jihad in Italy.” May God protect him.

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