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.