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.