VATICAN — Responding to waves of controversy after receiving a “communist crucifix,” a carving of Christ crucified on a hammer and sickle, from Bolivian President Evo Morales, Pope Francis said he took no offense, but understands the work as “protest art.”
“I would qualify it as protest art, which in some cases can be offensive,” the Pope said during an in-flight news conference on his July 12 overnight flight from Paraguay to Rome.
But given the context of this piece of art, he added that he understands the idea behind the crucifix, and, “for me, it wasn’t an offense.”
He recalled an exhibition in Buenos Aires several years ago, in which an Argentinian artist he described as “a good sculptor, creative” and who is now deceased, made a similar piece depicting a crucified Christ on an airplane.
“It was protest art, and I recall one: It was a crucified Christ on a bomber (airplane) that was falling down, no? It’s Christianity, but a criticism that let’s say Christianity allied with imperialism, which is the bomber.”
The Pope confirmed the crucifix given to him by Morales last Thursday was traveling with him back to Rome.
The cross with a hammer and sickle is a reproduction of another carved during the 1970s by Father Luis Espinal Camps, a Spanish Jesuit missionary in Bolivia, who was killed in 1980 during the Bolivian dictatorship.
The Pope’s reaction after receiving the crucifix has been a source of debate, as the audio of the video is marred due to the clicking of journalists’ cameras.
Francis said that he had been unaware that Father Espinal, in addition to his work as a journalist, was also a sculptor and a poet.
He noted that, during his life, Father Espinal had sympathies with the Marxist interpretation of liberation theology, which at that time was widely popular in South America.
It was criticized both within the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), to which both Pope Francis and Father Espinal belong, in 1980, and later by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in its first declaration on liberation theology, in 1984.
Taking a “hermeneutic” approach to the crucifix, one that involves an interpretive act of understanding with an emphasis on dialogue, the Pope made an analysis of the times, saying that Father Espinal “was an enthusiast of this analysis of the Marxist reality, but also of theology using Marxism.”
It was from this perspective that Espinal created the work, he said, noting that the priest’s poetry was also “of this kind of protest.”
“But it was his life; it was his thought. He was a special man, with so much human geniality, who fought in good faith, no?”