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The stained robes of Pope Francis

By Antonio Castillo - posted Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Last week, a memorial in the Argentinean Parliament for the deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was abruptly interrupted by the announcement of the new Pope. Thunderous applause came from the opposition bench and a deafening silence was heard from the government side.

Julián Dominguéz, the president of the chamber, made a passing mention of the election of Buenos Aires' Archbishop Jose Maria Bergoglio as the new leader of the Catholic Church, and hastily continued with Chavez' memorial. The opposition demanded the memorial stop. Dominguéz didn't budge and the opposition stormed out.

This account from Argentina's El Clarín newspaper is telling. José María Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – is a dividing figure whose collisions with the Kirchner presidential dynasty – first with the late Ernesto Kirchner and now with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner - have been openly unholy.

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There has never been much love between Bergoglio and the Kirchners, especially after president Cristina Fernández legalized homosexual marriage in 2010. "A business of the Diablo" and a "plan to destroy God's plan," uttered Bergoglio while leading rallies throughout the country against gay marriage.

There is no doubt that his election – an historic milestone - has been received with elation by Latin American Catholics, especially in the context of the rapid and massive growth of protestant churches. Fifty years ago 90 percent of Latin Americans were Catholics, today its 70. And while in the last five years there has been signs of Catholic renewal, the trend continues of strong growth in the Pentecostal movement especially in Brazil and Central America. "An inexorable trend," described it The Economist in 2008.

However this trend shouldn't be confused with an increasing religiosity in the region. The fact is that Latin Americans are embracing secularism in various forms. And Argentineans are leading the way. No wonder.

In contrast to other Latin American countries, such as Chile, Nicaragua, Peru or even Brazil, the Argentinean Catholic Church has had a dubious relationship with democracy and a cozy connection with military regimes. It is perhaps a provoking statement, but it is beyond reasonable doubt that the new Pope has emerged from one of the most reactionary brands of Catholicism in Latin America.

While on the other side of the Andes, the Chilean Catholic hierarchy was a tireless defender of human rights during the military dictatorship of General Pinochet; the Argentinean hierarchy was either oblivious or accomplices in the brutal human rights violations committed there in the so-called dirty war.

In El Silencio (The Silence), an exposé into the involvement of the Church with the dictatorship, respected Argentinean journalist Horacio Verbitsky points an accusing finger at José María Bergoglio, Archbishop Raul Primatesta, Nuncio Laghi and Monsignor Adolfo Tortolio. In 1977 in the middle of international condemnation of human rights violations in Argentina, Tortolio declared, "The Church deems that the armed forces government is a necessary conjuncture."

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Tortolio was following the example of Monsignor Victorio Bonamín – who a year earlier on January 5, 1976, eulogized the dictatorship. "It was written, it was God's plan, Argentina must not lose its greatness and has been saved by its natural custodian, the armed forces," said Bonamín.

José María Bergoglio – or shall we say Francis - has also a stain on his robes. After the dictatorship, during investigations into human rights violations, theologian Marina Rubino declared that after the coup of 1976 Archbishop Miguel Raspanti, fearing for the safety of two community-base Jesuit priests Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, tried to protect them. Bergoglio opposed to it.

The two ended up in the notorious torture center of ESMA (The Navy School of Mechanics). Unlike the four Catechists kidnapped in the same operation, the two priests came out alive after five months of detention.

The charges have never been proven and Bergoglio has tried to clear his name since then. This is the main driving force behind his autobiography El Jesuita (The Jesuit) where he writes about his role as leader of the Jesuit order between 1973 and 1979. But so far he has failed to convince Argentinean human rights activists of his role played during the dictatorship. "He was either a coward or an accomplice," said in a statement the Argentinean Association of Former Detained and Missing People.

When the Kirchnerists in the Argentinean parliament decided not to join in applause after the announcement of Bergoglio as the new Pope last week, the scene was set. While he might have captured the imagination of the Catholic world – as a unifying figure - his image back home is deeply divisive especially among those who became victims of the last military dictatorship.

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About the Author

Antonio Castillo is a journalist and academic at the RMIT. He has a special interest in democracy and international news. His books include Journalism in the Chilean Transition to Democracy (2009). He is the editor of Global Media Journal, Australian edition.

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