What About the Junta Years? “The Dirty War”

One subject of controversy that has begun to surround the new pope is his role under the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983. when he led the country’s Jesuits. According to the BBC’s Vladimir Hernandez he was accused of effectively delivering two fellow priests into the hands of the military authorities in 1976 by declining to endorse publicly their social work in the slums of Buenos Aires, which infuriated the junta at the time.

Another accusation leveled against him from the “Dirty War” era is that he failed to follow up a request to help find the baby of a woman kidnapped when five months’ pregnant and killed in 1977. It is believed the baby was illegally adopted.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, a human rights activist at the time of the “Dirty War” was jailed and tortured by the regime. Esquivel told BBC News: “There were some bishops who were in collusion with the military, but Bergoglio is not one of them.” One would hope such credible witnesses will be enough to quell this kind of personal attack on the character of Francis.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters a week ago today that the accusations [about Cardinal Bergoglio during the years of war in Argentina] “must be clearly and firmly denied.”

During Argentina’s economic crisis of 2001, then Cardinal Bergoglio openly protested at police brutality during the unrest which saw Argentina’s President Fernando de la Rua swept from power.

At a gathering of Latin Americana bishops in 2007 Cardinal Bergoglio is quoted by the National Catholic Reporter as saying: “We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

I am personally persuaded that while the new pope is not a defender of (hard versions of) “liberation theology” he is not a corporate defender of the kind of status quo social policy that favors the wealthy and powerful. He openly embraces a (so-called) “preferential option for the poor.”

But critics of Bergoglio will likely ramp up these various stories about the Argentine history between 1976-1983 as time goes on. Some evangelicals have already picked up on them and, to my thinking, misused them because of a simple failure to understand context and nuance. These critics argue that Bergoglio said too little about the complicity of the Catholic Church during a time of military rule. I believe this kind of attack should be expected. It is common to the secular media in many parts of the West. I also believe most people will soon realize that this is not who this man really is at all. Actions will speak louder than words and soon we shall see who the pope really is in his actions.

St. Francis of Assisi

When Cardinal Bergoglio was announced, commentators immediately seized on several surprising aspects of the result of the conclave says veteran Vatican commentator John L. Allen, Jr.:

  • He had not been identified as one of the leading candidates heading into the conclave.
  • He’s the first pope from outside Europe in at least 1,000 years, depending on how one defines “Europe.”
  • He’s the first pope from Latin America.
  • He’s the first Jesuit pope.

Those are all noteworthy points, but the most arresting thing about the new pope is his decision to take the name of Francis in honor of the great patron of the earth, of simplicity and of the poor.

Allen added that, “In effect, the landslide winner [of this conclave] was actually St. Francis of Assisi.” John Allen further suggests that:

No matter how long his papacy lasts, the new pontiff’s very first decision will probably rate as among his boldest. Over the years, I’ve talked to historians of the papacy who regarded “Francis” as a name no pope could, or should, ever take. It’s like “Jesus” or “Peter,” they argued – there’s only one, so it would be borderline sacrilegious for a pope to claim it for himself.

On TV, I tried to explain what the name “Francis” conjures up in the Catholic imagination. For most Catholics, I said, there are two faces of the church. There’s the institutional church, with its rules and dogma, its wealth and power, its hierarchical chain of command. Then there’s the church of the spirit, a humble and simple community of equals with a special love for the least of this world. Ideally, the two go together, but in any case, they’re distinct.

By taking the name “Francis,” the pope effectively said the spirit of that second face of the church needs to shine through anew in the first.

Already, the new pope has sent small but unmistakable signals that simplicity and humility will be hallmarks of his reign: asking the crowd in the square to bless him before he blessed them; dropping by his Roman hotel to pay his bill; taking the bus with the cardinals as they left the Casa Santa Marta rather than the usual papal limousine. His first act after donning his papal vestments and returning to the Sistine Chapel wasn’t to plant himself on the papal throne, but to walk over to 76-year-old Cardinal Anthony Okogie of Nigeria, who entered the conclave in a wheelchair, and give him a special greeting.

What has made this pope an early hit, in other words, is the sense that Francis is more than a name, but rather a statement about the kind of pope he wants to be.

(There was some early confusion about whether the pope meant to honor Francis of Assisi or St. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary. The cardinals later explained that when Bergoglio announced his name inside the Sistine Chapel, he added that he did so in honor of Francis of Assisi.)

Heading into the conclave, an anti-establishment mood was clear among many of the cardinals who were preparing to elect a successor to Benedict XVI. The diagnosis was that Benedict’s support team had dropped the ball over the last eight years in terms of business management and the cardinals were looking to shake things up.

Allen then concluded:

At the same time, they knew they weren’t just hiring a CEO. Better business management in the church is important, but somehow it must be grounded in the Gospels. That’s the sense in which St. Francis was a great reformer, the one whom God asked to “rebuild his church,” and reform in this Franciscan sense is what the cardinals seem to be hoping “Papa Bergoglio” can deliver.

Henri De Lubac once wrote that the difference between St. Francis and Martin Luther is the difference between a reform aimed at holiness and a reform aimed at criticism. In choosing Bergoglio, the cardinals seem to have opted for the former.

Whether the new pope can pull it off is anyone’s guess. The cardinals thought they were voting for reform eight years ago when they elected Joseph Ratzinger, a man who was in the Roman Curia but not of it. It didn’t play out that way, and now the cardinals have turned to another pope well into his 70s, this time a true outsider.

The former pope embraced Benedict as his patron, signifying a scholarly and quasi-monastic style. This pope has chosen Francis, suggesting an earthier and more popular way of living the faith, one that emphasizes closeness to the poor. Both Benedict and Francis were great reformers, but the approach is different. Francis in the streets, Francis in the new pope’s name, and Francis in the mandate the pope has been issued. All in all, not a bad month for the “little poor man” of Assisi. Now the spotlight shines on the pope who carries his name and all the expectations it arouses.