Ever since the surprising news of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s appointment as Pope Francis broke yesterday, Argentina has been a whirlwind of speculation.
The streets are full of rumours about his past, estimates about his future, and debates over the political significance of his papacy for the continent and the Catholic Church. There is even speculation about the future of his football team, San Lorenzo, now that it has a powerful supporter in the Vatican. It is without a doubt a historical moment that caught everyone by surprise, and everyone has something to say about it.
The issue causing the greatest controversy is Bergoglio’s alleged relationship with the last military dictatorship. In general terms, the whole Argentine catholic church has been questioned for its silence, if not outright complicity, regarding the crimes of the dictatorship. Furthermore, when priests were found out to be involved in crimes against humanity and convicted for it, the church has been too lenient with them. When former chaplain Christian Von Wernich was found guilty of kidnappings, torture, and murder, the church released a lukewarm statement, signed by Bergoglio, declaring that he had acted of his own accord, thus avoiding any kind of institutional responsibility. Meanwhile, Von Wernich is still a part of the church and has not been sanctioned.
Bergoglio himself has been accused of being directly involved in the kidnapping of four Jesuit priests and a group of catechists in 1976. In May of that year, the priests were kidnapped and tortured. Two of them, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were released five months later, while the other ones were disappeared. Bergoglio maintains that he warned the priests to leave the neighbourhood where they were doing social work as a raid was imminent, and that he even tried to intercede before Admiral Emilio Massera to secure their freedom.
Yorio, however, contests the pope’s version. “Bergoglio didn’t warn us of the danger we were in” he told journalist Horacio Verbitsky. “I also don’t have any reason to think he did anything for our freedom, quite the opposite.” According to Angélica Sosa de Mignone, the mother of one of the catechists that were kidnapped together with priests, they “were freed thanks to the intervention of [her husband] Emilio Mignone and the Vatican and not thanks to Bergoglio, who was the one that turned them in.”
The controversy surrounding Bergoglio’s activities during the dictatorship is a long standing one. Verbitsky has written several articles about it for Página 12, and in the highly polarised reality we live in, many accuse him of waging a political war against the former Archbishop. However his sources are the testimonies of survivors such as Yorio, and the book ‘Church and dictatorship’ by Emilio Mignone (co-founder of the Centre for Social and Legal Studies, or CELS, and father of one of the disappeared catechists), where he talks about the “sinister complicity” between the church and the military, who “did the dirty work of cleaning up the inside of the Church, with the acquiesce of the priests.”
The revival of the controversy in light of Bergoglio’s election as pope has prompted many to express their opinion for and against him. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who received the award for his commitment to the fight for human rights during the dictatorship, told the BBC that “Bergoglio had no links to the dictatorship.” However, he later added on Twitter that “We can’t ignore that a large part of the Argentine church hierarchy was complicit with the dictatorship” and that “Bergoglio was not a direct accomplice of the dictatorship, but he lacked the courage to support our struggle for human rights.”
A Progressive Pope?
In Vatican terms, and compared to his contenders during the conclave, Francis is considered something of a reformer. Many catholics hope the new pope will be able to solve some of the pressing issues that the Holy See is facing. Widespread allegations of sexual abuse within the church, corruption scandals in the Vatican involving money laundering and fraud by the Vatican Bank, the sustained growth of secularism and increasing lack of faith in the world, the rise of alternative Christian religions, among others.
Although his social sensitivity and his work with the poor and sick are widely recognised, in Argentina, he is broadly considered as a conservative in social matters. It would not be realistic to expect a catholic leader to support progressive social causes such as the legalisation of abortion (which Bergoglio opposed even in cases of rape) or euthanasia. However, the virulent campaign the church led against gay marriage in 2010 and his homophobic declarations on the matter place him on the far right of contemporary Argentine politics.
In a letter he wrote to a congregation of nuns as the gay marriage bill was being debated in Congress, he stated that “[gay marriage] is a move by the devil”. “At stake here is the life of so many children who will be discriminated against by denying them the human development that God intended be provided by a father and a mother,” he said, adding that “this is not simply a political struggle; it’s the aspiration to destroy God’s plan.” His appointment has been strongly criticised by the LGBT community.
Less extreme, especially compared to those of his predecessor Benedict XVI, are his views regarding contraception. While he accepts the use of condoms to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, he has been criticised for opposing government plans to distribute free contraceptives.
Francis and Cristina
During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and head of the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Bergoglio had a tense relationship with the governments of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
While the confrontation perhaps reached its highest point during the debate for the gay marriage law during President Fernández’s term, the government had looked at Bergoglio with suspicion since day one. The Archbishop has been highly critical of the Kirchner and Fernández administrations, both for their leadership style and for specific issues such as the persistence of poverty. The government began to consider him as part of the political opposition, especially when he met with then-vicepresident Julio Cobos after his “no” vote during the campo crisis.
Yesterday, after Bergoglio’s appointment, eyes quickly turned to President Fernández and her reaction to the announcement. In the afternoon, the president sent a brief letter to the new pope, which was published in her official Twitter and Facebook accounts. The very formal letter congratulated Francis on his appointment and expressed her hope that he would produce “fruitful pastoral work” towards “justice, equality, fraternity, and peace for humanity.”
Later on the same day, she again congratulated Bergoglio and celebrated the election of a Latin American pope. She added that “We hope he will carry a message to the great powers, for them to engage in dialogue. That he can convince the powerful of the world – those with arms, financial power- to take a look at the emerging countries and encourage a civilising dialogue.”
This statement was interpreted as a request for the pope to lend his influence to the Falklands/Malvinas sovereignty dispute with the UK, and more broadly, as an indication that the government might try to benefit from the Argentine papacy to boost the country’s international standing.
President Fernández’s spokesman also confirmed yesterday that she will attend the pope’s inauguration on Tuesday 19th March.
What Does It Mean For Us?
One of the biggest questions circulating since yesterday is what influence the new pope will have on Latin America, as well as the international projection the region will gain thanks to Francis’ papacy.
While Latin America holds the largest concentration of the world’s catholics (483 million), many wonder why the church decided to elect a Latin American pope now, after centuries of European primacy.
The more pessimistic theory suggests that the aim of the Catholic Church is to increase its presence in the region in order to slow down the progressive reforms sweeping across the continent. Many have compared his appointment to that of Polish pope John Paul II during the cold war, interpreting the latter as an attempt to counterbalance the influence of Soviet communism. However, some analysts point out that this end could have been better met by Brazilian hopeful Odilo Scherer, considered more conservative than Bergoglio.
Those who support and celebrate the new pope, think that the church is simply giving the continent the long overdue representation it deserves, and hope that his papacy will bring a renewed message of hope and unity and will focus its efforts in the fight against poverty.
Whichever way it goes, Francis can expect to be met by the challenges of a church in crisis, in a world in crisis. As a pope, he will have a significant amount of power over the lives of millions of people around the world. Those people expect, and hope, that he will use that power sensibly.