13th March marks the anniversary of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election as Pope Francis. Over the past two years, he has surprised many around the globe by demonstrating an acute political awareness and active involvement, best exemplified by the encyclical on climate change or by his indispensible role in developing groundbreaking relations between the United States and Cuba.
Austen Ivereigh, a London-based journalist, author, and commentator, was present in Rome when the white smoke materialised in the sky, signalling the election of Bergoglio as Pope Francis. Having written his doctoral thesis 25 years earlier at Oxford University on how Catholicism shaped Peronism during the 1930s and 40s, Ivereigh quickly realised he was in a privileged position to tell Bergoglio’s story from a unique perspective. As he well argues, as much as you can’t understand John Paul II without understanding Poland, it is equally impossible to fully understand Bergoglio without understanding Argentina.
Indeed, his recent biography on Pope Francis, ‘The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope’, has proven to be a sharp and fascinating journey into Bergoglio’s life, intelligently locating him within the tensions and conflicts particular to Argentina and his time. The Spanish translation, ‘El Gran Reformador: Francisco y el Retrato de un Papa Radical’, will be launched on 30th April at the Feria del Libro in Buenos Aires, where Ivereigh will be taking part in a discussion panel on the book.
Erika Teichert sat down with Ivereigh to explore the complex relationship between religion and politics during the turbulent times of 1960s and 70s, which fragmented Argentine society as well as the Argentine Church. Importantly, they discussed how such historical developments informed Bergoglio’s political and theological views during that crucial time, defining in many ways his future direction as leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.
Since his election as Pope, Francis has surprised with his involvement in extremely political issues, such as the encyclical on climate change and the recent developments between US and Cuba. Could you describe how Pope Francis came to conceive of such a role in politics?
He is deeply engaged in political questions and always has been. What I found from my research into his life is that he had a very strong political calling from a very young age. He was very interested in politics as a teenager, lived through the clash between Perón and the Catholic Church, was very interested in left-wing thinking in the late 1950s and was very close to what one might call the Catholic move to Peronism in the 1960s.
I read everything he wrote as a Jesuit over 20 years and it shows a very powerful sense of how political communities are formed, and above all, reformed. Of course, he is primarily religious. So it’s wrong to read some of his writing in a political lens. And yet his concept and understanding of leadership and governance are there from the very beginning. People often say that he is a combination of a desert Saint and Machiavelli, a quite unusual combination: he’s not cynical, and yet, he has a very acute sense of power and how it works.
For his thesis –which he never really completed– he studied the theologian Romano Guardini. Above all, he was interested in how disagreement was necessary for the dynamic of a community. But, there is also a way in which it can go wrong becoming schism and division. Specifically in Argentina, “partidismo” was a very big thing for Bergoglio. He strongly felt that this factionalism was the besetting sin of Argentine politics.
A third point, is that he had a very strong opposition to ideology as being a human construct which will tend to come from the elites and be imposed from top down; whereas true politics should always connect with the values of ordinary people. And that was really his task as Archbishop of Buenos Aires: he spent a lot of time constructing bridges between politicians, and between the Church and the political class. He would bring together politicians each year for the Jornada de Pastoral Social, which is a remarkable thing where the Church acts as a host to bring together the political class. I’ve never seen anything like it in the Church anywhere else in the world.
I’ll conclude all this by saying that we have in this Pope somebody who has thought more deeply about politics that any Church leader in generations. He feels a vocation to reanimate politics and reconnect politics with the values and needs of ordinary people, above all the poor.
During Bergoglio’s education as a Jesuit priest in the late 1950s and during the 1960s, Argentina was undergoing an extremely turbulent political period, which began to divide society between Peronism and anti-Peronism –strong political labels that are still determinant in politics today. How strongly where these socio-political divisions reproduced in the Argentine Church at the time and particularly in Bergoglio’s educational circuits?
The answer is very strongly. When he became provincial of the Jesuits at the age of 36 in 1973, the Argentine Jesuit province was very divided, as was the Church in general, in very similar lines to the rest of society.
You had one group that was looking to the return of Perón. Within which you had one group in favour of violent revolution and a Cuban-style socialist state and another group who were opposed to this left-wing narrative of Peronism. And then, there was the other group that was looking to the army as a protection against the advent of Communism. There were Jesuits who were involved in the Third Word Priest Movement around Padre Carlos Mugica. You had other Jesuits who were connected to the army families; in fact, there were military chaplains in the Jesuits. So it was all very divided.
Where was Bergoglio in all of this? I would say he was a Peronist in sympathy. He came from a family of first-generation Italian immigrants, a lower middle class family. Therefore, he was naturally Peronist, since that was always the natural recruiting ground for Peronists. He was very much opposed to the “gorilismo” (anti-Peronism) within the Revolución Libertadora. And he was close to a movement called Guardia de Hierro. This was a group that was basically orthodox Peronist, anti-Montonero, who were recruited from the working class Peronists. However, he wasn’t a militant: he was involved as a spiritual advisor. But there was a natural sympathy between him and them. That’s where I would locate him.
The Consejo Episcopal Lationamericano (CELAM) –a collegial body representing the various Bishop Conferences of Latin America– met in Medellín in 1968 to apply the Second Vatican Council to Latin America. This was a crucial event from which the well-known movement of liberation theology was born, a rather political re-interpretation of the role of the Church. Could you briefly explain this emergence of liberation theology and its influence in Jorge Bergoglio’s views of religion and politics?
Medellín was a particular reading of The Second Vatican Council held in Rome between 1962 and 1965. Medellín is considered to be the birth of liberation theology because this was the first time that the expression “the option for the poor” was used. But I wouldn’t say it’s a political re-interpretation. I would say that it’s a reading of the signs of the times. It is reading society in the light of the Gospel in a particular historical moment, where –in an increasingly socially divided society– the Church realised that it was called to stand with the poor and the oppressed rather than with the elites. That then gave birth to what is called liberation theology.
In fact, there were various branches of liberation theology. To be simplistic about it, there were two main ones. The first one used the social sciences and Marxist analysis and this was the liberation theology that was predominantly associated with Brazil, Peru, and Central America. And which came to Argentina through the Third Word Priest Movement. The second branch of liberation theology was a nationalist one very much associated with Argentine theologians, which rejected liberalism and Marxism and had a much more nationalist reading of “the people”. The Church stands in this case with the historic quest for emancipation from neo-colonialism through the values of the people and culture. This became known as “people theology”. This latter one is where Bergoglio stood.
The Marxist liberation theology ended up dying off partly because the Vatican condemned it and partly because it fell back with the advent of democracy. The other version of liberation theology, which people didn’t really know about, has re-emerged through Bergoglio and the others and it is now, in many ways, the programme for the universal Catholic Church.
However, the Marxist version of liberation theology was very much alive when it was co-opted by the Peronist left. Could you tell us a bit about how this identification of guerrilla groups with the Marxist-revolutionary branch of liberation theology came about?
There’s a period of radicalisation in the late 1960s across Latin America. In Argentina the main trigger is the Cordobazo of 1969, when the dictatorship of Onganía repressed a demonstration by workers and students.
There was a meeting in the late 1960s in La Havana, Cuba, where there were four Argentine radicals present. They then came back to Argentina and formed these guerrilla forces with Cuba’s support. These forces eventually coalesced into two main groups: the ERP and the Montoneros. The Montoneros came from a nationalist-Catholic background –a combination of revolutionary ideas plus radical Catholicism, while the ERP came from a Trotsky-ate background. So there are two political cultures represented in Argentine guerrilla movements.
Both groups, Montoneros and ERP, were calling for the return of Perón. Both saw Peronism as the vehicle for social revolution. This was a misreading of Peronism, but it was one that was encouraged by Perón who was very politically cunning. But in fact, it became clear when Perón came back that he wasn’t interested in such left-wing revolution. The Montoneros turned against Perón and that’s why we have the chaos and the carnage between 1974 and 1976, which basically provoked the military coup.
As I try to explain in the book, at the time Argentina had the world’s largest guerrilla force committing an extraordinary level of violence. No Western government could ever have tolerated such a threat to the State. In this sense, it is not surprising that the Argentine people wanted a military coup. That, of course, doesn’t justify what happened afterwards. But that context is very important to explain to non-Argentine readers, because they tend to assume that there was a democracy before 1976 and that the military just came in and suppressed it. But Argentina is not Central America.
How was the Third Word Priest Movement related to these guerrilla groups?
While Padre Carlos Mugica wasn’t part of Montoneros, he was the spiritual director of the leaders of Montoneros. He really accompanied them in their journey into revolutionary violence. And, problematically, even though he didn’t condone violence himself, he basically legitimised it.
There’s a kind of liberation theology justification of violence, which is basically self-defence. If the elite is armed and they are suppressing the people, then the people have the right to take advance on their own defence. In the context of the time, which is military dictatorship, that reading was persuasive. Yet, the idea of armed revolution as a means of changing politics is really not one that is consistent with the Christian tradition.
What do you think were the implications of this critically divided political identity to the Argentina Church and how successfully did they attempt to overcome this?
I suppose the answer is not very successfully, because the Church was very divided and so were the Argentine Bishops’ Conferences. There was one group on the right, which were associated with the military chaplains, who really justified the military coup. And although they didn’t justify torture, they were understanding of it. The other group on the left were sympathetic with the Third Word Priest Movement and it had active priests who militated in the revolutionary left and who believed that the Church should have a position of opposition to the military government. And then you had the broad middle, I think it’s about two-thirds of the Bishops, who recognised the need for the military government but opposed the methods that they gradually discovered were being employed.
One can see during the period between 1976 and 1982 the growing awareness of Argentine Bishops and then their moving to a position of opposition and advocating for democracy. There is little doubt that during the first few years of the military government, when most of the atrocities were being committed, that the Bishops had a very weak voice. Because like most of Argentine society, they understood the need for the military coup and they were inclined to give the military the benefit of the doubt.
There’s a second reason why the Bishops were being silent and this is a very crucial point. People weren’t going to the Bishops and asking them to speak out against the regime. They were going to them and saying, “I have a relative who’s disappeared, please help me.” And the Bishops were going to the military and saying “Where is this person?” And the military would just fob them off. So the Bishops knew that if they moved to a position of outright opposition to the military, they would then have no chance of helping to rescue people. This is where the Catholic Church is above all pastoral: they start with the concrete needs of the people. Even though in retrospect I don’t think the Church’s posture during the Dirty War was sufficient –indeed in the year 2000 the Church made an historic apology for its complicity in what was happening– my reading is that at the time the choices were actually very complex. And the Church did certainly manage to get some people out. But of course, in retrospect, had they known what they knew later, they would have taken a very different position.
As for Bergoglio, he wasn’t a Bishop during the Dirty War. But I think a lot of people assume that as head of the Jesuits he had a platform from which to critique the government. However, I don’t accept that. I think while the Bishops do have a public platform, the religious orders really don’t. So I don’t think he had a position from which to critique the government. But more importantly, he had two objectives set to him from Rome by the Jesuit General. The first was to save the Jesuits from suppression by the military. The second was to help people who were fleeing from the regime. And he did both with great success: not a single Jesuit lost their lives during the Dirty War and he saved dozens of people. Indeed, he could only do this because he kept quiet. If he hadn’t, neither of those two objectives could have been achieved. People often say that Pope Francis should have done more. But living under a totalitarian regime makes moral choices extremely difficult. And it seems to me, looking back, that his choices were actually the right ones.
The Argentina Independent recently wrote an article about the Curas Villeros [priests who live in villas, or shantytowns], who are a living legacy of Padre Carlos Mugica and the Third Word Priest Movement. However, one major difference between then and now seems to be their level of politicisation.
It is important to say that the Curas Villeros came into being in the 1970s exactly as a result of Padre Carlos Mugica. But, at the time, they were strongly associated with Montoneros and stood in opposition to the Bishops. Now, the Curas Villeros under Cardinal Bergoglio became something very different. Firstly, they assumed the “option for the poor” in Church terms, without engaging with particular political movements. Secondly, they no longer stood in opposition to the Bishops.
I interviewed some Curas Villeros for the book and they are just very impressive pastoral priests who are building up the community among the very poor. In total conformity with Cardinal Bergoglio’s vision for the Church, they see themselves as helping to evangelise the whole Church from the “periferias.” That is precisely what an option for the poor means. It means that it is when you stand with the poor and the people in the margins of society that you can bring Christ to the rest of society, rather than the top-down idea. So I see the Curas Villeros as being apolitical in the party-political sense, but deeply political in terms of political engagement. For example, I mention in the book their extraordinary 2009 document on drug trafficking, which was a really good example on where the Church can advocate for the poor.
Bergoglio at least doubled the number of priests in the villas and he was constantly present on the weekends. He naturally identified with the villas and the working class barrios like Bajo Flores and Avellaneda. That’s where he felt at home, it was his natural place. It is in this sense that he has a real option for the poor. Indeed, that’s what an option for the poor looks like.
Austen Ivereigh’s ‘The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope’ was published by Henry Holt & Co. at the end of 2014. It is available on e-readers, priced from US$14.99. The Spanish translation will be available in Argentina from May.
Homepage image of Pope Francis courtesy of Wikipedia.