What Will Selection of New Pope Mean for Latin America?

March 13, 2013

Sara Kozameh

This post was amended March 14, 2013 to reflect a correction by The Guardian.

The papal conclave announced today that the new pope will be Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina. “Pope Francis,” as he will be named, will be the first Latin American pope. Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – who has clashed with Bergoglio in the past over gay marriage and other issues – quickly issued a congratulatory message.

Even though he was reportedly the runner-up to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the last papal succession in 2005, Bergoglio was considered a dark horse candidate this time around. But the move could in part reflect recognition on the Roman Catholic Church’s part that it has been losing more and more of its flock in recent years to Protestant Evangelicalism and other denominations. The son of Italian parents, Bergoglio would seem to personify the link between Rome and Latin America. As National Catholic Reporter noted:

Bergoglio is a candidates [sic] who brings together the first world and the developing world in his own person. He’s a Latin American with Italian roots, who studied in Germany. As a Jesuit he’s a member of a truly international religious community, and his ties to Comunione e Liberazione make him part of another global network.

Much foreign media attention has focused much on Bergoglio’s austere lifestyle, but his selection could lead to further scrutiny of past wrongdoing by the Catholic Church just when pedophilia and sex abuse scandals have done significant damage to the Catholic Church’s image and membership. As the Irish Times wrote of Bergoglio:

his elevation to the papacy could lead to renewed scrutiny of the Argentinian church’s role in the country’s Dirty War, when it offered support to the military junta in its brutal campaign of murder of left-wing dissidents.

Perhaps the most detailed charges have been leveled at Bergoglio by journalist Horacio Verbitsky in the Argentine daily Página/12 and a book. Verbitsky described these in an interview with Democracy Now on March 14, 2013; perhaps the most damning concern allegations that Bergoglio aided the dictatorship in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics.*

Notably the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have also denounced Bergoglio as having been complicit in the torture and murder of suspected dissidents during the Dirty War. A 2007 statement read in part:

“The church that fell silent before the heinous crimes, that actively participated in the torture of our children…the same one that collaborated, lied and turned its back on us, is the Church of Bergoglio and the right, which manages the rapist priests, and remains silent at the trial of Von Wernich [Argentine Roman Catholic priest sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and kidnapping], but vomits all its hatred when it comes to abortion.” [Our translation.]

But John Otis recounted in the Houston Chronicle in 2005:

After Bergoglio was appointed archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, he tried to make amends.

When the pope apologized for church abuses through the centuries, Bergoglio insisted that Catholic officials in Argentina wear garments symbolizing penance for sins committed by clergy during the dictatorship.

As other press reports have noted, Bergoglio has also criticized unrestrained global capitalism. During Argentina’s 2001-2002 economic crisis, according to John Otis:

…Bergoglio provided a moral compass as Argentina weathered its worst financial crisis.

In his homilies, Bergoglio lectured the country’s politicians about the evils of corruption, which played a major role in the economic free fall. He mediated talks among politicians, union leaders and citizens groups, helping to keep a lid on violent street protests.

“We were at risk of disintegrating as a country,” said the Rev. Diego Burbridge, a parish priest in Buenos Aires. “Bergoglio played an important role as a pacifier.”

In a profile in 2005, National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen described Bergoglio’s positions on social and economic justice issues:

Bergoglio has supported the social justice ethos of Latin American Catholicism, including a robust defense of the poor.

“We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” Bergoglio said during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. “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.”

Perhaps in recognition of statements like these, Jubilee USA issued a press statement today reading in part:

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio chose the name Francis. His name choice of Francis signifies that his papacy will have a great devotion to justice, peace and to the poor. He is also the first Pope of the Global South and he will articulate a vision of an international economy that serves and protects the poor. 

Here’s a guy who has taken the life of St. Francis seriously. He gave up his mansion and driver and lives in an apartment in Buenos Aires.  He even cooked for himself.

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has a deep commitment to Justice. Pope Francis will preach that we need to promote access to food, water, education, employment and healthcare for every person, without discrimination.

But condemnation of poverty and inequality is in keeping with official Church doctrine, as are Bergoglio’s positions on other topics. National Catholic Reporter summarized:

Bergoglio is seen an unwaveringly orthodox on matters of sexual morality, staunchly opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. In 2010 he asserted that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children, earning a public rebuke from Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Surveying his background, Bergoglio is likely to provide continuity to the Catholic Church’s role in Latin America, which is characterized by the continued isolation of priests, nuns and lay persons connected to liberation theology and a strained relationship with left-leaning leaders in countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela.

Note: An earlier version of this post included an excerpt from a Guardian op-ed. That op-ed has since been corrected to state:

• This article was amended on 14 March 2013. The original article, published in 2011, wrongly suggested that Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky claimed that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio connived with the Argentinian navy to hide political prisoners on an island called El Silencio during an inspection by human rights monitors. Although Verbitsky makes other allegations about Bergoglio’s complicity in human right abuses, he does not make this claim. The original article also wrongly described El Silencio as Bergoglio’s “holiday home”. This has been corrected.

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