Pope Francis and the Argentine generals

Pope Francis and the Argentine generals
Pope Francis and the Argentine generals

Pope Francis has completed his first days in office. Much has been made of his frugal lifestyle, his apparent simplicity and his sense of humour. Those are admirable traits and it is also refreshing to hear a religious leader talking about solidarity with the poor rather than the prosperity gospel preached by so many. On the other hand, virtually every knowledgeable commentator cautions that we should not expect changes to the hierarchy’s conservative doctrinal positions on matters such as birth control, the ordination of women or of married men. Francis may prove to be a humble man and a pastoral leader, but the substance of the message likely will not change as much as the manner of its delivery. The media has gone overboard in covering the selection and installation of a new pope. It is great television – the backdrops of St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican, the suspense, the white smoke, the pope’s first appearance on the balcony. But now at least some journalists and commentators are getting down to work, as they should, to tell us more about the man who has been elevated to this position of prominence and power.

Criticizes Kirchner governments…

As the Archbishop and Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio chose to play a high profile political role in Argentinean politics during the past 10 years. He has been a frequent and biting critic of the reformist government of Nestor Kirchner and that of his wife Cristina, who won election as president following her husband’s time in office. Bergoglio has been especially critical of legislation that would reform the laws around birth control, same sex marriage, adoptions and the rights of homosexuals. He has been described in some accounts as the unofficial leader of the political opposition to the democratically elected government in Argentina.

…but not military regime

The historical record also shows that Bergoglio was not a critic, at least not a public critic, of the brutal military regime that deposed the government of Isabel Peron in 1976. The military junta killed and tortured tens of thousands of its own people in what was called the “dirty war.” There is widespread agreement that the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina was supportive of a regime that justified its repression in the name of rooting out leftists and subversives, which all too often meant anyone who was poor.

Father Jorge Bergoglio was the head of Argentina’s Jesuits at that time. While he was concerned about the poor, he was also staunchly opposed to liberation theology, which he saw as too close to Marxism and class struggle. That stance may well have tempered criticisms he otherwise may have had about the military regime. Or he may have simply lacked the courage to speak up.

Bergoglio and torture

The Globe and Mail and other newspapers report that in 1976 Bergoglio kicked out of the Jesuit order two priests who had been working with the poor in the slums. A few days later the two were kidnapped, imprisoned and tortured over a period of five months before being released. One of them has since died and the other, Francisco Jalics, now lives in Germany. In a memoir published in 1995, Jalics claimed that Bergoglio had not protected them but had actually filed a complaint against them with the military.

Bergoglio has denied those accusations, saying that he worked behind the scenes to have the two priests released, and that he met with the heads of the army and the navy in that quest. Vatican publicists have now waded into the question, saying that accusations about Bergoglio’s behaviour are the work of “anti-clerical left wings elements.”

The Globe and Mail quotes an author named Daniel Levine, who has written about religion and politics in Latin America. “The bulk of the Argentine Catholic hierarchy was in the conservative wing – they were aligned with a conservative religious view and also a conservative political view that strongly backed the regime and the army and the coup,” says Levine. He adds, however, that Bergoglio was not “complicit” with the regime, although he did remain silent.

Difficult to unravel

Historical questions such as these are often very difficult to unravel. There is still a heated debate, for example, about whether Pope Pius XII was complicit about the fate of Jews under the Nazi regimes in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, or if, indeed, he worked behind the scenes to try and save as many of them as he could.

It is also tempting to make quick judgments from a comfortable perch about what someone should have done in a certain situation. The murderous era of the Argentine generals was a tense and dangerous time, even for as conservative church figure such as Bergoglio.

Romero and Bergoglio

In the same era, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was also a conservative when appointed as archbishop, spoke out courageously about the torture and murder being carried out by the military regime in El Salvador. Most of his brother bishops remained silent and some certainly supported the regime’s murderous excesses. For his outspokenness, Romero was assassinated as he said mass on March 24, 1980.

In Argentina, Bergoglio remained publicly silent. Perhaps he did work quietly behind the scenes to save those snatched from their homes and offices or from the street. Or perhaps he did not.

A pope, by definition, occupies a political as well as a religious role. The Vatican is a state with observer status at the United Nations and many other international connections. John Paul II used his papacy in a very political project to help bring down communism. It remains to be seen how Pope Francis will wield his authority.


9 thoughts on “Pope Francis and the Argentine generals

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  1. The comparison with Oscar Romero is very telling here. It does take great courage to speak out against organized state sponsored injustice, and Romero had this courage. I remember when reading Romero’s memoirs that at one point he went to Rome to try to talk with the then pope about the human rights abuses occurring in his country. The pope hardly gave him any time, accused him of being a troublemaker and suggested that he be more diplomatic in his criticism. Another comparison I have is from my experience in Congo during the fraudulent election there in 2011. The Roman Catholic church had 30,000 election observers on the ground and surely knew what was going on. At the beginning they made some pronouncements about taking to the streets and protesting the election results. However after a show military force and government pressure their election protest fizzled out. It will take a enormous amount of courage for this or any pope to stand up bravely against injustice in the world, especially when it is state sponsored. However Archbishop Romero had a genuine spiritual conversion and followed through with concrete actions. Is it too much to hope for that a pope could also have a genuine conversion?


  2. I traveled briefly in Argentina in 1980, visiting parishes from La Rioja, Mendoza and Buenos Aires. What I saw troubled me – priests did not visit the poor areas of their parishes – because of the fear for their own safety and sometimes in consideration of the poor. If a priest visited the poor, he was suspect and could be considered a subversive. But those whom the priest would visit would sometimes receive visits from the military to find out why the priest had come to their homes. All it took was a few whispers from an unhappy neighbor and someone would disappear in the night never to be seen again. Of course, there were many in the church leadership who were active in their support of the military – even to the point of participating in the torture of prisoners. There was a very small group who were faithful to the gospel and the preferential option for the poor. Begoglio was not one of them, nor was he one of the “dirty” conspirators of the military. He would seem to come under a different category – the “lukewarm”, the “tepid”, the “coward”. Afraid to stand up in defense of his own men, perhaps like so many Argentinians who assumed that “if they were taken by the military they must have been involved in something”. All it took was a whisper, a nod or wink in the direction of a military patrol and someone would be gone. Bergoglio has had many years since to reconsider his lack of prophetic fidelity during these years. But then if he had been faithful he surely would not have been “elevated” to the rank of bishop and then Cardinal. So he has got to the throne of Peter by being unfaithful to the call to stewardship – that may hang around his neck as his albatross. He has certainly made signs of a different “style” in this papacy, perhaps there will also be a different “substance” but that will be more difficult considering his previous positions in the area of “pelvic orthodoxy” and popular ecclesiology (ie. base communities).


  3. While there’s been lots of talk about the new pope’s alleged ties with the Argentine generals in the 1970’s, not a word has been said about the role of the US in supporting these military dictatorships not only in Argentina but in countless other countries in Latin America.

    What else is new? The School of the America in Fort Bening, Georgia trained thousands of military police and officers in the fine art of techniques in the fine art subverting democracy (torture, assassination, disappearances).

    Then there was the overt military support of the govt’s of El Salvador and Guatemala and the Nicaraguan contras in the 1980’s where the massacre of entire villages was commonplace. They made the Argentina generals look like weak-kneed liberal democrats.


    1. If ever there was / is an untold history of the U.S. then the S.O.A. is one of them, I periodicaly visit the s.o.a.w. site, to see how the protests at bening goes. as far as I can tell this would not have been possible without the complicitness of some religious leaders of the day. it started 1947 panama


  4. While watching all the pomp and pageantry of the election of the Pope, a comparison between Archbishop Romero and Pope Francis came to mind. Romero was a true Jesus follower. It remains to be seen, given Cardinal Bergoglio’s apparent silence in Argentina, if he will now as Pope Francis speak out forcibly against that kind of oppression.The Pope’s concern for the poor is, of course, really heart warming and admirable. But he must speak out in the most forceful manner, about the real reasons of world poverty and oppression, e.g. foreign invasions and war, and the obscene wealth of the few, including the ever increasing power of multinational corporations. That is what has to happen if there is to be a better world for the millions of poor and disadvantaged human beings. Perhaps that would bring back Catholics who no longer go to church.


  5. If it’s any consolation, Hans Kung, certainly no friend to the Vatican establishment, is giving the new pope a thumbs up. He was quite surprised and happy with his selection, telling the CBC he was “a good man.”


  6. It will not take long to determine the cloth from which Pope Francis has been cut. There are many challenges facing Roman Catholicism, and his response will show what sort of gospel he has come to proclaim. In short, we will know him by his fruits.

    While I am impressed with Francis’ obvious concern for the poor – score one for the new Pope – that is but one, albeit a critical ‘one,’ of many issues facing the Church. There’s also a lot of press being devoted to what Francis did, or did not do, during the repression in Argentina but, for me, the proof will be in the pudding. I don’t have much regard for the mainline media in the developed world as a credible source of news because it is owned and directed by the architects of our ‘culture of death’ (John Paul II’s term) who celebrate a monstrous world that exalts profit, not life.

    One hopes Francis is not like John Paul II who had to learn the hard way. Everyone knows John Paul refused to meet Oscar Romero (the anniversary of his martyrdom is this week) because that has been widely reported. The same refusal to recognize the truth when it was staring him in the face is now evident in his blatant disregard of the warnings he was given about the Legion of Christ. Now that that scandal has erupted, the damage being done is much worse than if action had been taken against the Legion of Christ’s twisted and perverse leader when the alarm was first sounded. Whatever is done in secret will truly become known!

    The allegations against Francis in the media are very similar to the charges that have been made against Pius. What is usually claimed is that both didn’t do as much as they should have done to protect vulnerable people during a time of persecution. The assertion that ‘he could have done more’ is, of course, a charge that be leveled against most of us.

    Pius, for example, did quietly encourage Catholics to hide Jews being sought by the Nazis, but was apparently worried a public denunciation of Hitler would unleash even more persecution of Catholics (who were also targets of the Nazis) and Jews. Was Pius right to fear that publicly encouraging resistance instead of simply encouraging resistance internally and privately in the Church would result in even more innocent deaths? However one answers such a question, it is obvious that a story saying Pius ‘didn’t do enough’ has more ‘punch’ and sells more papers than saying ‘here’s what he did do, and what he did not do – you judge the quality of his response’ …

    But we just don’t know. What I do know is that the mainstream media is, largely, anti-Christian because it recognizes the very real challenge to the status quo and its worship of wealth that authentic Christianity poses. Have you ever noticed how speculation in the media is usually about what bad thing someone may have done, and rarely about what good someone may have done? Thus, a story like ‘How Pius / John Paul II could have done more for the Jews of Europe / people of El Salvador’ is a natural … but equally true stories like ‘Why John Paul II says capitalism is contrary to God’s will’ or ‘Why the Church says economic competition poisons society’ just don’t get the air time.

    It’s obvious why this is so: the media empires are owned by predatory capitalist conglomerates and the media’s job is to proclaim that predatory economics has given us the best of all possible worlds; that competition is healthy ethic; that greed is good; that profit is the ultimate value; and so on and so on.

    I don’t know any mainstream mass media outlet that made a big splash about JP II’s Gospel of Life that was so harsh on the values of what the then Pope called the developed world’s ‘culture of death.’ In real life, JP II’s consistent and never wavering opposition to the invasion of Iraq was a short-lived story. That war has gone on for years, but the mainstream media has not bothered to ‘remind’ people that the Church has consistently opposed it. You can bet if JP II had joined the ‘pro-war’ forces we would have been reminded of that constantly.

    Within the Church, whether or not Francis is the true shepherd will soon be evident. The sheep know the true shepherd’s voice, and they follow it. When they don’t hear that voice, they don’t follow! However one cuts the mustard, Francis is in an unenviable position. No matter what he does, the ‘conservatives’ in the Church will say he has gone too far and the ‘liberals’ will say he has not gone far enough. Everyone has their own way of grading the Pope.

    The true shepherd is one who proclaims the authentic gospel – the gospel of social justice articulated most eloquently in our time by liberation theologians. The true shepherd does not seek to return the papacy to a medieval model proclaiming nonsense about the the divine right of infallible popes. If one removes certain Marxist terminology that upsets some people, liberation theology is what the ‘good news’ proclaimed by Christ is all about.

    So, at this stage, I’m not sure what to make of Francis, but I am giving him the benefit of the doubt. I am one of the hopeful ones, but I’m not naïve … I was also optimistic about Benedict and while I don’t view his papacy as a failure, it didn’t have a lot to ‘write home’ about either. As usual, the media has given me lots of information on Benedict’s blunders and gaffs, but has ignored the positive contributions he made, and that’s understandable because ‘bad news’ always gets more attention than ‘good’ news.

    I am coming to understand a little better each day why St. Paul wrote that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” I truly hope Francis is the real deal, and that our Church’s later-day Babylonian captivity is indeed over, at least for the time being. It would be truly a joy to focus on rebuilding the Church and evangelism, rather than having to devote all one’s energies to keeping it focused on the gospel and the things of God while resisting the idolatrous temptation to create a medieval papacy wielding the twin cudgels of divine right and temporal power that has so entranced the last two CEO’s, er popes!


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