On the Selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francisco

March 13, 2013

As most are aware by now, Catholic cardinals selected Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope, the first time a Pope is from Latin America. (In addition to being the first Latin American pope, he’s also the first Jesuit pope.) There had been much hope for a non-European pope, and Bergoglio fits that bill.

However, his election is more than a little surprising, given his past. Bergoglio was the head of the Jesuits in Argentina during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983, during which the military murdered upwards of 30,000 people (as well as kidnapping hundreds of children whose parents the regime had tortured and murdered). Unlike Catholic officials in neighboring Chile and Brazil, where priests, bishops, and even cardinals spoke out against human rights abuses and defended victims of abuses, in Argentina, the Catholic Church was openly complicit in the military regime’s repression. Bergoglio was not exempt from this involvement: military officers have testified that Bergoglio helped the Argentine military regime hide political prisoners when human rights activists visited the country. And Bergoglio himself had to testify regarding the kidnapping of two priests who he stripped of their religious licenses shortly before they were kidnapped and tortured. This isn’t just a case of Bergoglio being a member of an institution that supported a brutal regime; it’s a case of Bergoglio himself having ties, direct and indirect, to that very regime. For those who hoped for a Pope who might represent a more welcoming and open path for the Catholic Church, the selection of Bergoglio has to be a let-down.

This is why the selection of Bergoglio over Scherer is disappointing. Thirteen years younger than Bergoglio, Scherer’s path was notably different. To be clear, the Catholic Church supported Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) in its early years; however, as Ken Serbin has demonstrated, already by the late-1960s and early-1970s, high-ranking officials in the church hierarchy were secretly meeting with representatives from the dictatorship in order to try to pressure military rulers to respect human rights, even for alleged “subversives.” By the latter half of the 1970s, the Brazilian Catholic church had become one of the more vocal opponents of human rights violations under the regime, and the Archdiocese of São Paulo ultimately played a central role in secretly accessing, collecting, and publishing files on torture, murder, and repression under the dictatorship, eventually published in 1985 as Brasil: Nunca Mais (literally Brazil: Never Again; in English, Torture in Brazil). Where Bergoglio was active in a context where the Argentine Church openly supported military regimes and human rights violations, Scherer was active in a context where members of the Brazilian Church openly took a stand against such abuses and against the regime that committed them.

A few weeks ago, a student asked me if I thought the cardinals would finally pick a Latin America pope. I commented that if they were smart, they’d diversify by picking a Brazilian and democratizing a bit, but I feared they’d pick an Italian and show a refusal to reform and democratize the church. With the selection of Bergoglio, it appears they’ve chosen to split the difference, diversifying beyond Europe while continuing the conservatism that defined recent popes.

We’ll see how it turns out – perhaps Francisco I works out well, and perhaps he uses his past and his new position to try not only to transform the Church but to provide a platform that advocates human rights and the punishment of human rights violators. However, it is disappointing that the cardinals selected somebody tied to one of the most violent and brutal of Latin American dictatorships. The cardinals could have made an implicit statement about supporting human rights under authoritarian regimes, and they failed to do so. It’s not the end of the Church, but it’s another misstep they didn’t have to make.

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  1. March 13, 2013 at 16:01

    Thanks for the very useful information. However, Bergoglio is only the first non-European pope since the 1st millenium. Gregory III was from Syria.

    • March 13, 2013 at 16:03

      I was wondering about this, actually. I knew there had been one born in Syria [and we'll just ignore the fact that, technically, St. Peter was the first pope, and definitely not European], but I wasn’t sure if he’d lived there his whole life up to becoming Pope, and couldn’t remember who it was. Cheerfully corrected!

      • March 13, 2013 at 16:33

        Ah, if residency is the question, I’m not sure how much, if anything, we know about his life prior to the papacy.

        Thanks again for the post; one has to wonder what baggage the *other* contenders had ….

  2. ctb
    March 13, 2013 at 17:00

    Not to mention that while he was Jesuit Provincial for Argentina, in 1978, the Jesuit Universidad del Salvador conferred a Doctorate Honoris Causa to Admiral Emilio Massera. Jesuits were pretty cozy, it seems, with the regime.

  3. Bart
    March 13, 2013 at 19:50

    Gee, The New Hour tonight never mentioned his connection to the disappeared.

  4. Kenneth Alonso
    March 14, 2013 at 06:42

    I do not recall any sitting US president who objected to the military regimes in South America. Bergoglio did apologize to the Argentine people. If I were a Roman Catholic, I would have preferred Sean O’Malley.

  5. March 14, 2013 at 07:38

    Pope Gelasius 1 was an African,. Pope Miltiades was an African, Pope Victor I was also an African. All non-Europeans.

  6. William C
    March 14, 2013 at 08:39

    looking at the underlying it seems the allegation about helping the military hide political prisoners has now been withdrawn

  7. March 14, 2013 at 09:30

    This (and many of the previous) College of Cardinals is still fighting Vatican II. If they had their way, they’d go back to the Latin Mass and have churches redesigned so that the priest would face away from the Congregation while celebrating Mass. They’re terrified of nuns who speak up for the true teachings of Christ.

    Both John Paul II and Benedict packed the College with conservatives. Despite the fact that Francisco I is a Jesuit (a “Mendicant Order” which was part of the Inquisition—now the “Holy Office”), I don’t see any sign here that Rome will consider any real change.

  8. March 14, 2013 at 09:52

    In 1976, Bergoglio demanded that two Jesuit priests—Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics—cease preaching liberation theology and leave the slums where they were working. After they refused, Bergoglio had them removed from the order. The two men were subsequently kidnapped and tortured by the military. According to Associated Press: “Yorio accused Bergoglio of effectively handing them over to the death squads by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work.”

    Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky wrote a book in 2005 covering the affair, El Silencio: de Paulo VI a Bergoglio: las relaciones secretas de la Iglesia con la ESMA. “He put the safety of the [Jesuit] Society of Jesus above the safety of the priests,” Verbitsky alleged.

    http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/03/14/pope-m14.html

  9. Ranger Jay
    March 14, 2013 at 11:39

    Meet the new pope; same as the old pope. No vaginas here.

  10. March 14, 2013 at 14:06

    Thanks for mentioning Torture in Brazil. It’s a story of tremendous courage (among those who spent five years secretly copying over a million documents) and horrific outrage. I’m less sanguine than you about the Brazilian church’s “Dialogue” with the generals. Even though it went on out of the public eye, I think it provided cover for the regime.

    BTW, copies of the original documents are apparently available for study at Columbia University’s law library.

    • March 15, 2013 at 08:29

      Thanks much, especially for your work! The compiling of the Brasil: Nunca Mais files really is remarkable [though I'm by now familiar with the story, Lawrence Weschler's narrative never ceases to amaze.] And as for the secret meetings with the generals, I don’t disagree with you. It’s definitely complicated – I think the Brazilian Church’s later actions help the dialogues look better than they would have if they stood alone, but that doesn’t mean the regime couldn’t or didn’t use them as cover. And that’s excellent news about Columbia’s law library – I didn’t realize they are there, but it’s good for future reference. Thanks much!

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