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.