New Pope, New Debate on the Role of the Church during Dictatorship?

Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics, University of Helsinki

A debate is likely to restart in Argentina over the role of the Catholic church in the military dictatorship and dirty war during 1976-1983. Much evidence exists of both direct and indirect involvement of the church leaders in grave human rights violations. Apart from information gathered by human rights organizations, this been confirmed by one of the dictators himself.

In a regional comparison, the church in Argentina was considered more involved in human rights violations than in some of the neighboring countries. When making statistical comparisons, we have to remember that the overall numbers of people killed and disappeared were also higher in Argentina than in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, or Brazil. Therefore, a higher number of priests involved in human rights violations does not necessarily mean a higher percentage of involved priests per victim.

The complicity of the church with violent crimes is clearly established in Argentina. Nevertheless, we need to remember that there were also catholic priests who defended human rights during military dictatorship, themselves at times becoming victims of persecution. Some of these priests had background in Movimiento de Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo, that formed part of the more general Latin American left-leaning catholic tendencies that had been boosted by the famous regional meeting of Bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968. Some of these tendencies have been known as liberation theology.

The record of the new pope himself in this regard is not clear and will soon be discussed intensely. One of the main points of controversy comes from reports on his role in the torture of two fellow Jesuit priests linked to liberation theology. One of them later accused Bergoglio “of effectively handing them over to the death squads by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work”. On the other hand, he seems to have played a role in getting them our of prison.

His politics will also be commented more generally. For gay rights and feminism, Francis is likely to remain yet another reactionary pope. For the conservatives of Opus Dei, his election may seem like liberation theology just took over. For anyone interested in the difficulties otherwise progressive Latin American priests have had with sexuality, gender and reproductive rights, I recommend reading Elina Vuola’s analyses on what she insightfully calls limits of liberation.

Compared to his conservative views in other matters, the economic policy inclinations of the new pope suggest somewhat more radical sympathies, though he has never been directly associated with the liberation theology tendencies that flirt with Marxism. A Keynesian pope, perhaps?

Bergaglio’s relationship with the current government in Argentina has included moments of tension that reflect his ambiguous politics. He has sometimes taken a conservative position (gay rights) and sometimes sounded like a leftist opponent of the government (distributive concerns of economic policy). Despite the tensions, human rights activists have also accused the current goverment of an uncomfortably close alliance with Bergaglio and the church.

PS. The biggest country of origin of cardinals is Italy. The new pope cardinals pick has Italian roots. Should this be called Postcolonial Italocentrism? More seriously, pressures to elect a Latin American pope had been mounting. Inside the church, the role of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) will now be highlighted more than before.

5 thoughts on “New Pope, New Debate on the Role of the Church during Dictatorship?

  1. Hi Teivo,

    You don’t seem to have any clue about Catholicism and its nature. Therefore it’s quite remarkable that you write predictions about what the new Pope will or will not do.

    Critique is ok, but your writing is really rubbish – and you market yourself as an educated man, academic.

    You should read few books. You’re talking about religion of 1,2 billion people, about philosophy and tradition, which has had huge influence in our culture – and it still does.

    • Dear Vis-a-Vis, Many thanks for your comments. Looks like you did not appreciate my text so much, which is perfectly fine. Perhaps a couple of clarifications of mine are in order. You say you do not like my predictions about what the new Pope might do. I believe the “predictions” were limited to stating what kind of debate was likely to start, and it does look like the things I mentioned have been debated since I published my post. In general, I do not like predictions that much, as I am more into future scenarios. In short posts I may have committed a few predictions here and there, but perhaps you would like to point out what predicions of mine you disagree with.

      Maybe I should mention that I have lived a dozen years in countries that can be considered Catholic (mostly Peru) and I have taken part in various kinds of activities of the Catholic Church. Some of them have been very personal, others more professional. I have also been exposed to the Catholic life more generally. In Peru, I have been visiting professor in Catholic University of Peru. In Canada, I have been a couple of times what they call distinguished vitising professor at Saint Mary’s University, established by the Roman Catholic Community of Halifax, the Irish Christian Brothers and the Society of Jesus, (Jesuits). Of course, having been exposed to something does not yet prove one could not write rubbish about it. Perhaps you want to be more specific.

      And yes, reading more books is always a good idea. What would you recommend?

  2. Hi,

    have you read Horacio Verbitsky’s book “El Silencio”? How trustworthy it is?
    There are quite interesting information from Francicus 1 (Jorge Bergoglio’s) past.
    “In seinem Anfang 2005 erschienen Buch „El Silencio“ skizziert er, wie Bergoglio die beiden Priester zwei Monate nach der Machtübernahme des Militärs aufforderte, den Jesuitenorden zu verlassen. Die Männer galten in Kirchenkreisen aber auch bei den Militärs als „Guerilleros“, weil sie Sozialarbeit in einem Armenviertel leisteten. Doch sie lehnten Bergoglios Gesuch ab. Sie seien keine Guerilleros, sagten sie, und baten Bergoglio als ihren Vorgesetzten darum, dies der Junta zu vermitteln. Bergoglio versprach, ein Wort für sie einzulegen. Jalics und Yorio aber auch andere Zeugen beschrieben später, wie Bergoglio sein Wort brach und die Priester stattdessen denunzierte. Er ließ der Junta eine Nachricht zukommen, dass die Priester nicht mehr unter dem Schutz der Kurie stünden. Bald darauf wurden sie entführt. Es existiert ein Dokument, aus dem hervorgeht, dass Bergoglio einem Beamten der Junta indirekt empfahl, den Reisepass von Jalics nicht zu verlängern, um so dessen mögliche Ausreise zu verhindern.
    Kardinal Bergoglio äußerte sich nie zu diesen Vorwürfen. Erst im Jahr 2010, …”

    • Mikael, many thanks for the quote and the question. Quotes from Verbintsky’s book El Silencio: de Paulo VI a Bergoglio: las relaciones secretas de la Iglesia con la ESMA have indeed been circulating recently. I have not read the book, so I cannot take a strong position on it. I have a couple of other books by him, sometimes read his stuff in Página12 and have once sort of collaborated with the organization (CELS) I believe he is the director of. On the basis of these not-so-deep impressions, my vague feelings about him have been mostly sympathetic, but I cannot judge or assess the trustworthiness of all of the information he provides.

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