Last Pentecost Sunday, Pope Francis named fourteen new cardinals. Several of those selected were from the “peripheries,” countries where Christians are a small and vulnerable minority, such as Japan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Madagascar. The other new cardinals were members of the Curia or heads of national bishops’ conferences. Three honorary members—too old to vote in a consistory—were also named: the Spanish Claretian spiritual writer Aquilino Bocos Merino; a retired bishop from Mexico, Sergio Obeso Rivera; and a retired Bolivian bishop few Catholics had heard of—Toribio Ticona Porco.
Ticona was bishop in the territorial prefecture of Corocoro, which is not even a real diocese. It includes a large mining district but no major population centers. In keeping with canon law, he offered his demission in 2012 when he turned seventy-five, and it was accepted. After his retirement, he dedicated himself to the foundation of a school for orphans. He is now suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
The only thing Ticona is really noted for is his love for the poor. In fact, his whole life has been marked by poverty. He is a Quechua-speaking Indian whose father died at a young age after working in the mines. In his youth, Ticona helped support his family by shining shoes and selling newspapers. He lied about his age so that he could join the military early and so become less of a burden for his mother. After military service, he worked in the mines and then at a brewery for about five years. Through a contact with Belgian missionaries, he first felt a vocation to the priesthood. He was sent to study at a seminary in Chile but that lasted only a few months; he had received a very sketchy formal education and was far behind his fellow seminarians. He was finally able to continue his studies back in Bolivia, where he had more support.
After ordination, Ticona was sent to a town in a mining district called Chacarilla. The town itself had a population of only twenty-three people, but the parish included the surrounding areas and the total number of parishioners was about two thousand. Given the circumstances, it was not all that surprising that the community of Chacarilla asked Ticona to serve as mayor, which he did for fourteen years. In 1986, Ticona was anointed auxiliary bishop of Potosí and also given responsibility for the Bolivian community in Buenos Aires, where he first met Jorge Bergoglio. In 1992 he was named bishop of Corocoro, where he served until his retirement.
Ticona is only the third Bolivian cardinal and his country’s first indigenous one. He is not in the traditional image of a “prince of the church,” an honor usually reserved for members of the nobility or leaders of important dioceses. But his selection is in line with Pope Francis’s desire for a church of and for the poor, and with his call for pastors who are not foremen or feudal lords but servants, poor and simple, close to the people. Pastors with “the smell of sheep.”
So far, so good. I thought Ticona’s appointment as a cardinal deserved more attention and decided to try to write something about it. To get more information I searched for Toribio Ticona—the first entry I ran across was “New Cardinal Denies Having Wife and Children.” Other entries echoed similar accusations. The principal source for all this information was a Spanish news agency, Adelante la Fe—one of the media outlets the former papal nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò used to publicize his letter asking Pope Francis to resign. According to Adelante la Fe, the pope was perfectly aware of Ticona’s situation, and the message the pope wanted to send was that celibacy is no longer important in the church. This was simply another step in a systematic dismantling of essential structures, the “great apostasy” supposedly announced at Fatima. As I dug further into this story, I discovered a whole little world of traditionalist groups that were eagerly promoting it. Some of them claim to remain in communion with Rome, while others have entered into open schism.
Now, I can understand the nostalgia for Latin, for a certain lost “grandeur” and security, and I respect those who feel as though they need this. In fact, I have shared this nostalgia myself, and I think the church has shown a great deal of patience toward those who feel this way, as long as only incidentals are involved.
But what we are witnessing in many traditionalist groups of the kind that have targeted Ticona is on a different level altogether. Here Catholic identity is being defined as adherence to a rigid and unforgiving moral code and to a formalistic liturgical rite. This is combined with a total disregard and even disdain for social justice and the teachings of Vatican II. The image of a triumphant and glorious church is part of our creed and the object of our hope, but it is not our present reality, and to pretend otherwise is a dangerous form of self-deception. The Kingdom of Christ is not of this world; we are not yet a cortege of white-robed innocents following the Lamb wherever He goes. We are members of a pilgrim church, a community of broken people seeking mercy—and a communion of saints only to the degree that this mercy is received. Beneath all the triumphalism of the traditionalists can be heard the blasphemous prayer of the Pharisee: “I give you thanks, O Lord, that I am not like the rest of men.”
Something of this mentality can be sensed in the defamation campaign against Toribio Ticona and Pope Francis. This shouldn’t surprise or scandalize us too much. The image of the pilgrim church reflects the image of the pilgrim Christ, who was reviled and, finally, crucified. We are never more attuned to the spirit of Jesus and the church than when we are humiliated and ridiculed. Still, it is disappointing, to say the least, to see Ticona vilified in the press and used as a cudgel with which to attack the pope.
I spent six years in Bolivia and learned something about the country during that time. One thing I learned is that celibacy is all but meaningless for the indigenous culture. What it values is fecundity. I have been told that, during Vatican II, the Bolivian bishops actually requested that celibacy be optional for the indigenous clergy (they never received a response). The unofficial solution to this problem was to have a “housekeeper” in the rectory of rural parishes. This did not necessarily mean that the priest and his housekeeper were living as husband and wife, but it was an arrangement that the local people could accept: it meant that their wives and daughters were more or less safe. In many cases, this was the only way to make sure the people could trust their pastor. A celibate man, living alone, was commonly considered a strange and even dangerous freak. I knew a Belgian priest who lived in the south of Bolivia with a woman who was a member of a secular institute. This woman had adopted two Bolivian orphans, who called the priest “Daddy.” Both the priest and the woman were loved and respected in the parish, and they loved and respected each other, but there was absolutely nothing sensual between them. This was one of the most impressive communities I’ve ever seen, and it would not have been possible for either of them alone. But what would someone from the outside, who did not understand the situation, think?
So, yes, it’s quite conceivable that Ticona had such a “housekeeper,” especially given his physical limitations. But even if he did (and no evidence has been produced), that wouldn’t prove he had an illicit sexual relationship. To imagine it would is to ignore the local context and to interpret the situation according to standards that are irrelevant. These accusations against Ticona were first made in 2011; they were investigated by the Vatican and dismissed as calumnies. After the rumors resurfaced last year, Ticona publicly denied them, and threatened legal action against the media outlets responsible for spreading them.
It has also been reported by Adelante la Fe that the Bolivian bishops conference has forbidden Ticona to speak in its name mainly because of his relationship with the controversial Bolivian president, Evo Morales. The two are old friends (Morales is the country’s first indigenous president), and Morales was there in Rome when Ticona received his red hat. Ticona has criticized President Morales for certain things but has refused to comment on others, insisting that this is not his role. He does hope for a closer and more fruitful relationship between the government and the church, but as far as I know he has never pretended to speak in the name of the bishops conference. He has taken great pains to clarify that his political opinions are personal.
Adelante la Fe also claims that the Bolivian bishops have isolated Ticona because he is an “indigenist” who, in collaboration with Morales, wants to impose native cultural values on Bolivian society. Of course, the history of Bolivia is largely one of European cultural values being imposed by a minority on the native population. It has also been darkly alleged that the cardinal “did not always wear his clerical garb in public,” and that he is in favor of liberation theology, which, for some traditionalist Catholics, is indistinguishable from Communism.
I have spoken with friends of mine in Bolivia, and apparently no one there takes these accusations against Ticona seriously except the people who make them. I find this all very sad. I know that “in my Father’s house there are many mansions”: there are different sensitivities, cultural values, political contexts. I know that we always have much to learn from those with whom we disagree; they can make us see our own weaknesses, and we should be grateful to them for that. There should be tolerance, humility, receptivity, and respect on all sides. And this is exactly what many arch-traditionalists expect from the church for themselves, while refusing to offer it to others. They demand to be indulged, even as they condemn the rest of us.
Still, character assassination needs to be called out by its name, and clearly contrasted with the Gospel. What should have been a moment for celebration—the elevation of an indigenous cardinal whose only distinction was his quiet service to the poor in a mostly forgotten corner of Latin America—instead became the occasion for another battle in the war against Pope Francis. To any outside observer the defamation of Cardinal Ticona looks like a defense not of orthodoxy but of privilege: Ticona has the wrong politics, the wrong friends, the wrong background. One could fairly call this attitude anti-evangelical. Or one could just call it pathetic.