Pope Francis and Argentina’s Dirty War

Today, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, become the 266th pope of the Catholic Church. Taking the name Francis, Bergoglio was the first pontiff from the Americas, and the initial reaction to having a Latin American pope resonated with many Catholics on this side of the ocean.

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However, Bergoglio’s past is one that raises serious questions about the Church’s new leader and whether the move is yet another example of the Church trying to overlook its history. Besides Bergoglio’s belief that “a government-supported law to legalize marriage and adoption by same-sex couples as ‘a war against God,'” many Argentines and students of Latin American history have already brought up Bergoglio’s role during Argentina’s military dictatorship of the late 70s and early 80s, also known as The Dirty War.

Here is what The New York Times reported today about this part of Bergoglio’s life:

He has been less energetic, however, in urging the Argentine church to examine its own behavior during the 1970s, when the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left. In what became known as the Dirty War, as many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by a military dictatorship that seized power in March 1976.

In a long interview with an Argentine newspaper in 2010, Cardinal Bergoglio defended his behavior during the dictatorship. He said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.

One archival photo has been posted in the last few hours, showing Bergoglio giving communion to Jorge Rafael Videla, Argentina’s military dictator from 1976 to 1981, as well as other photos of Videla with Argentine priests and cardinals. These photos are coming from people who want the truth to be known about Argentina.

In this first photo, a priest many believe to be Bergoglio is giving communion to Videla. The Global Post has more about this picture here. (UPDATE: A report out of Argentina says that this photo is not Bergoglio.)

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The photo came from this newspaper cover:

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These other photos are circulating online as well, although they are not photos of Bergoglio and Videla. This photo shows Cardinal Antonio Samoré and Videla.


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This photo shows an unidentified Argentine priest with Videla. It is also making the online rounds.

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A 2011 piece by Hugh O’Shaughnessy called “The sins of the Argentinian church” presents a summary of the issues surrounding Bergoglio:

To the judicious and fair-minded outsider it has been clear for years that the upper reaches of the Argentinian church contained many “lost sheep in the wilderness”, men who had communed and supported the unspeakably brutal western-supported military dictatorship that seized power in that country in 1976 and battened on it for years. Not only did the generals slaughter thousands unjustly, often dropping them out of aeroplanes over the River Plate and selling off their orphan children to the highest bidder, they also murdered at least two bishops and many priests. Yet even the execution of other men of the cloth did nothing to shake the support of senior clerics, including representatives of the Holy See, for the criminality of their leader General Jorge Rafael Videla and his minions.

The piece continues:

What one did not hear from any senior member of the Argentinian hierarchy was any expression of regret for the church’s collaboration and in these crimes. The extent of the church’s complicity in the dark deeds was excellently set out by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s most notable journalists, in his book El Silencio (Silence). He recounts how the Argentinian navy with the connivance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship’s political prisoners. Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home in an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. The most shaming thing for the church is that in such circumstances Bergoglio’s name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to chose the successor of John Paul II. What scandal would not have ensued if the first pope ever to be elected from the continent of America had been revealed as an accessory to murder and false imprisonment.

Meanwhile, outlets will continue to push Bergoglio’s other narrative, one that of a humble priest who is a champion of the poor:

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has become the Catholic church’s 266th pope, is the choice of humility, a Jesuit intellectual who travels by bus and has a practical approach to poverty: when he was appointed a cardinal, Bergoglio persuaded hundreds of Argentinians not to fly to Rome to celebrate with him but instead to give the money they would have spent on plane tickets to the poor.

Something of a surprise choice – he was quoted as a 30/1 outsider going into the conclave – the archbishop of Buenos Aires was one of the leading challengers to Joseph Ratzinger during the 2005 conclave that elected the latter as Benedict XVI.

A champion of liberation theology which some thought might have been too much for conservatives in the Vatican, he nonetheless is considered a candidate that everyone in the higher echelons of the church respects. He becomes the church’s first Latin American pope.

Much is made of his humility: he gave up the grandiose setting of the cardinal’s residence in the Argentine capital for the trappings of a small apartment, and rejected the notion of a chauffeur driven car for public transport.

The conflicting narratives have begun. Some say that Pope Francis should be given a “second chance” and be allowed to lead. However, tell that to those who still feel the suffering and pain of Argentina’s dark past, one that is currently on trial.

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