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Weissman writes: "As former Argentine arch bishop Jorge Bergoglio celebrates his first Holy Week as Pope Francis, the slum-dwellers, peasants, women, and sexual minorities of Latin America wait to see what impact his Catholic Church will have on their here and now."

Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural Mass with cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. (photo: CTV/AP)
Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural Mass with cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. (photo: CTV/AP)

Pope Francis: A Modern Passion Play

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

28 March 13


s former Argentine archbishop Jorge Bergoglio celebrates his first Holy Week as Pope Francis, the slum-dwellers, peasants, women, and sexual minorities of Latin America wait to see what impact his Catholic Church will have on their here and now. Theirs is the skin in the game, which makes it imperative to know what he did and did not do, whether to advance his own career or out of fear of the military and his more hardline fellow clerics. Asking, as I did last week, does not attack the church, its beliefs, or its believers. My questions simply highlight the political direction that Bergoglio and other church leaders chose to take in the 1970s and will continue to take unless Pope Francis finds the courage, clarity, and moral force to lead his flock in a radically different direction.

Back in the 1960s, large numbers of mostly Jesuit priests offered new hope by going beyond the soup kitchens of Christian charity and helping the poor organize to fight for their own rights. They called it liberation theology. Who (of a certain age) can forget Dom Hélder Câmara, the feisty Archbishop of Recife, who stood with the poor and against the Brazilian military dictators and their supporters in Washington? "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint," he loved to say. "When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." These were the sentiments, both religious and secular, that the Argentine military and its anti-communist death squads tried to root out, and they did it with the backing of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, their close allies in Washington, and a very right-wing church hierarchy in Argentina.

"The Argentine Church leadership, with a few notable exceptions, behaved abominably, "Professor Charles Kenney wrote on the web site of Commonweal, the widely respected American Catholic magazine. "They gave public recognition and support to the military dictatorship for years." The Argentine human rights activist Emilio F. Mignone, a former government minister and lay Catholic official, ties that support to church leaders eager to rid themselves of the liberation theologians, whom they saw as communists, subversives, and terrorists. The military, he wrote in his path-breaking "Iglesia y Dictadura" ("Church and Dictatorship"), cleansed "the inner courtyard of the Church, with the acquiescence of the prelates." Evidence of the church's complicity is overwhelming, though Bergoglio and the hierarchs have never gone beyond asking forgiveness for not speaking out against the junta's attack on human rights. In a very limited mea culpa, they loudly admit their sins of omission, concealing the far worse crimes they committed.

Evidence on Bergoglio, Argentina's top Jesuit during the Dirty War, is still coming to light, both for and against him. Father Franz Jalics, who had accused Bergoglio of denouncing him to the military, has now clarified his position. Jalics puts the blame on a young girl who knew him and Father Orlando Yorio from the religious community they had created in Bajo Flores, a Buenos Aires slum that the military and many in the church considered a center of Marxist sedition. The girl had joined the guerrillas to fight against the dictatorship, and when captured, gave her torturers the names of the two priests, which led to their abduction and captivity.

Defenders of Bergoglio hail Jalics's latest statement as their best defense. In fact, his account squares perfectly with what Yorio, his family, and the Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky have long said. Bergoglio did not formally denounce the two liberation theologians, but he fed the junta's suspicion of them and increased their vulnerability by officially disbanding their community, dismissing them from the Jesuit order, and withdrawing their ministerial licenses as early as February 1976. This was a month before the coup against Isabel Peron, but several months after the death squads had begun their killing spree. According to [8]Mignone[8], the military interpreted the withdrawal of the ministerial licenses and "the critical expressions of their Jesuit provincial, Jorge Bergoglio, as an authorization to go ahead."

Father Yorio saw it the same way. In his report to Jesuit officials in Rome, he wrote that Bergoglio promised to talk to the military and vouch for him and Jalics, but instead spread rumors among the clergy that the two had begun working with the guerrillas. Those rumors were an incitement to murder.

Some years later, the Jesuit order invited Yorio to rejoin them. He told them that he first wanted to see what Bergoglio had said about him. The Jesuit authorities refused his request. Jalics returned to the order. Yorio, who died in 2000, never did, and his brother Rodolfo still disputes Bergoglio's unsubstantiated claim that his intervention with the military ultimately saved Yorio and Jalics. Rodolfo credits the Papal Nuncio Pío Laghi, who strongly supported the junta, but felt compelled to protect the two priests. Rodolfo also paraphrases a telling account he got from Orlando about his interrogation. "You have a theological deviancy," his military interrogators told him. "When the Gospel speaks of the poor, it refers to the poor in spirit. You busy yourself with the materially poor, and you organize them. That is not yet subversion, but it could become so." The captive Orlando had heard it all before - from his Jesuit superior, Bergoglio.

Readers will decide for themselves what to make of this, but let me share my personal reaction. As an atheist and Jew - and yes, one can be both - I find scriptural arguments for and against liberation theology completely foreign. But I have long valued the political work its adherents do in poor communities. I must also confess a surprising sympathy for the new pope. I can only assume he believes in a just God who knows what he did during the Dirty War. This is the cross Pope Francis bears, and it must be terrifying, an unending crucifixion in his personal passion play. If I could only write that play as a work of fiction.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes on international affairs.

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