Photo: 2014 Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis to Korea Closing Mass for Asian Youth Day August 17, 2014 Haemi Castle, Seosan-si, Chungcheongnam-do | Credit: Korean Culture and Information Service

Photo: 2014 Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis to Korea Closing Mass for Asian Youth Day August 17, 2014 Haemi Castle, Seosan-si, Chungcheongnam-do | Credit: Korean Culture and Information Service - Photo: 2016

When the Pope Turned His Back

Analysis by Jonathan Power

With his focus on economic justice, Pope Francis is still riding a wave of adulation three years into his job. And perhaps it’s deserved, but as leader of the Jesuits and then as bishop and archbishop in Argentina, he failed to publicly denounce the abuses of the military junta. Jonathan Power compares the pope’s silence to the courage of Brazil’s church hierarchy, which stood up to dictatorship. Power urges the pope to explain exactly what went on and how the Argentine church erred. The pope’s admission, Powers argues, would inspire his followers to think more profoundly about moral dilemmas and, perhaps, even help them be braver in the face of evil.

LUND, Sweden (World Policy Journal) – It’s no wonder Pope Francis is still riding a wave of adulation nearly three years into his job: He speaks out against child abuse within the Catholic Church and against homophobia at large; he renounces the panoply, regalia, and bureaucracy that repels so many; he condemns “the idolatry of money” and says “working for a just distribution” of wealth is a “moral obligation.” And sometimes, at midnight, he visits the homeless on the streets of Rome, wearing only a black cassock.


But this is also the same man who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, refused to meet the grandmothers and relatives of infants who had been torn away from their imprisoned and tortured mothers during Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s and 1980s. The same man who apparently never said a word in public, even during a church homily, about the ugliness and evil enveloping the society around him.

Francis, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, ignored the example of many of the Catholic Church hierarchy in neighboring Brazil, who stood up to their military rulers and dulled the urge of the government to torture and murder. Indeed, many historians say the church accelerated Brazil’s transition to democracy.

We cannot know in what way the often rough-and-ready Argentine democracy would be different today if the church had spoken out, but it’s likely that if Catholic leaders had acted like their Brazilian counterparts, lives would have been saved, families kept intact, and many spared from torture. It’s also probable, while recognizing the country’s tumultuous past before the generals took over, that Argentina would be a less bitter and tormented nation today.

Andrea Tornielli shies away from these issues in his biography Francis: Pope of a New World. Tornielli is the long-time Vatican correspondent for the well-regarded Italian newspaper, La Stampa. He has written eight books on various popes. But his amnesia and ignorance of the wider context of the life of Francis is typical of many church observers.

In his book, he omits the history of the countries of the southern cone of Latin America and in particular overlooks the military regimes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. When writing about Argentina, he is adept at giving the church’s case but closes his eyes to dissident opinion.

Yet if the 1.2 billion Catholics ignore the pope’s past, they are in danger of making a plaster saint, who might not weather well when scholars, theologians, and historians set to work on Francis’ legacy. If the pope could write a letter to the faithful and explain exactly what went on and what was done wrong by the leaders of the Argentine church, we might end up with a pope truly worthy of sanctification. For those who believe in the church, it would doubtless inspire them to think more profoundly about moral dilemmas in the political and human rights arena and, perhaps, even make them a bit more courageous.

An Iron Fist

In the 1960s—when the liberals, democrats, unionists, liberation theologians, and ultra-leftists began their push for democracy, a free press, a reformed judiciary, economic and social equality, land reform, human rights, and, most sensitive of all, a decrease in military power— the generals of South America responded with an iron fist in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.

In Brazil, the generals took control in 1964 (and ruled until 1985). There was initially no U.S. connection, although Washington cooperated with the junta once they were in power. There was torture and persecution, though not on the same scale as Argentina. A big part of the reason was the forcefulness of the church. The senior cleric, Paulo Evaristo Arns, the cardinal of São Paulo, was extremely outspoken. When a workers’ movement in the car factories led to a series of illegal strikes, the cardinal took up their cause and held special services for them in the cathedral. Bishops, priests, and nuns marched with the strikers. The workers’ leader, Luíz Inácio “Lula” de Silva, as he told me in an interview published in the International Herald Tribune, was given unreserved support by the cardinal.

From Recife, in the country’s northeast, the diminutive and “red” (at least according to Time magazine) archbishop, Helder Camara, traveled the world, seeking support for those who opposed the government. The regime tolerated the church, and gradually the government loosened up. In the end, the military leaders agreed to elections in 1985. Later, after the army stepped aside, Lula was to become the extremely popular president of Brazil, initiating reforms that, according to the Economist, lifted 36 million Brazilians out of poverty. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, herself once tortured, has continued Lula’s social policies, albeit with less panache.

To the south, the repression in Argentina was severe. Political prisoners were dropped from planes into the sea; torture was endemic. But, unlike in Brazil, the church leadership kept its head down, and the state did not willingly relax its grip.

Argentina was the home of Bergoglio, better known today as Pope Francis. At the early age of 38, Bergoglio was made head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, appointed three years before the military takeover in 1976. (The regime lasted until 1983.) He was authoritarian—“over the top,” as he himself said later. There were emails in circulation from fellow Jesuits complaining about his behavior. One senior Jesuit wrote, “He left the Society of Jesus in Argentina destroyed, with Jesuits divided and institutions destroyed.”

In 1988, five years after the junta had fallen, Bergoglio became archbishop of Buenos Aires and eventually a cardinal. Church leaders, including Bergoglio, generally spoke sotto voce in any retrospective criticism they made of the military regime.

In New Worlds: A Religious History of Latin America, John Lynch, a history professor at the University of London observes, “The Argentine church had a long tradition of conservatism, public caution, and subordination to the state, whose economic support it accepted for salaries, seminaries, and education. There was a deep-rooted culture which prevented it from changing its ways or adjusting to a modern church … There were further factors too, peculiar to Argentina. The role of military chaplains created built-in support for the action of the military authorities.”

Bishop Jose Medina, appointed to the military vicariate by Pope John Paul II, even justified torture in 1982: “Sometimes physical repression is necessary; it is obligatory and thus licit.”

“Painful Drama”

Before military rule, during the era of dictator Juan Perón and his wife, Isabel, Bergoglio was accused of being on the right wing of the Perónist movement. In reality, Bergoglio wasn’t right wing in any political way, although he was, vaguely, a Perón supporter. In one interview, he said he owed part of his political education to the writings of Leonidas Barletta, a well-known member of the Argentine Communist Party. But he never dallied with the leftists much either.

Unlike now, he stood firmly against the then Latin American vogue of liberation theology, a belief system that incorporated a strong anti-capitalist component. (These days he has sought to beatify Oscar Romero, the slain archbishop of El Salvador. Romero was assassinated while praying in the cathedral by a right-wing death squad for his outspoken views that were in the mold of liberation theology.)

The popes of the time were critical of Argentina, but they never pressed their convictions. Pope Paul VI said in 1970, “The Argentine church should not hold on to any privilege. It should be content to serve the faithful and the civil community in an atmosphere of tranquility and security for all.” The historian Lynch notes that John Paul II considered the disappearance of citizens a “painful drama” and urged the Argentine bishops to respond.

Two outspoken Argentine bishops were killed in almost identical car crashes that have never been satisfactorily explained. One was carrying evidence about two murdered priests. Every bishop in the country knew about these outrages, as did Bergoglio, then head of the Jesuits, but the church’s leaders said nothing out loud. Silence was the order of things.

Bergoglio did not support the rule of the junta as some bishops did, but he remained publicly silent on human rights abuses for most, if not all, of his tenure as head of the Jesuits. After the junta had fallen, Bergoglio and his fellow bishops did issue a request for forgiveness: “Through our actions and omissions we discriminated against many of our brethren, without becoming sufficiently involved in defending their rights. We beg God, the Lord of history, to accept our repentance and to heal the wounds of our people.”

When asked why it had taken him so long to speak out, Bergoglio told his authorized biographers, Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti, a year before he became pope, “If I said nothing at the time, it was so as not to dance to anyone’s tune, not because I had anything to hide.”


When he was head of the bishops’ conference from 2005 to 2011, Bergoglio resisted pressure to formally apologize for the bishops’ actions during military rule. Later, after democracy was established, the Argentine judiciary issued a ruling that stated the Catholic Church was complicit in the abuses and noted that the church was still refusing to investigate those believed responsible.

The hierarchy of the church had much to be sorry about. According to a book sympathetic to Francis by Paul Vallely, members of the junta on the day of the coup had a long meeting with Adolfo Tortolo, who was the president of the bishops’ conference. Tortolo then told the clergy to encourage citizens to cooperate in “a positive way” with the new government.

Later in an interview, Bergoglio said, “We have to keep in mind that, like wider society, the church came to realize what was happening gradually. Nobody was fully aware of what was happening at the start.”

But that’s simply not true. According to Vallely, “Declassified documents reveal that at a meeting on May 10, 1976, ten of the bishops gave chilling details to one another of incidents in their dioceses of persecution, harassment of priests, arbitrary arrest, looting of detainees’ homes, and even torture. Nineteen bishops wanted to issue a public condemnation of the government, but 38 voted against that.”

The most serious accusation against Bergoglio is that he allowed two Jesuits to be kidnapped in 1976. One of them, Father Orlando Yorio wrote a critical report to the Jesuit authorities in 1977, which was obtained by The New York Times. In it, Yorio wrote that Bergoglio “did nothing to defend us, and we began to question his honesty.”

The other, Father Franz Jalics, published a book about his experiences in 1994. In it, Yorio accused Bergoglio, when he was head of the Jesuits of Argentina, of telling the two men that he supported their work in the slums. But behind their backs, Jalics claims Bergoglio had actually been seeking to undermine them, making negative reports about them to local bishops and claiming they were in the slums without his permission.

Indeed, Bergoglio expelled them from the order in May 1976, an almost unheard of action.

 “Three days later,” as The New York Times reported, “hundreds of armed men descended on the slum and arrested the two priests. Yorio was accused of being a guerrilla. The priests were detained for five months, blindfolded, and chained hand and foot, fearful they might be killed at any time.”

Finally, they were drugged and dropped off half-naked on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

In a statement posted on a Jesuit website in March 2013, Jalics said he could not comment on the role of Bergoglio in these events. He said that years after the kidnapping, he and Bergoglio had celebrated mass together and had embraced. “I am reconciled to the events and view them from my side as concluded,” Jalics wrote after the election of the pope. Later, a more robust statement was issued from his secluded monastery in southern Germany, saying that it was “wrong to assert that our capture took place at the initiative of Father Bergoglio.”

But who said the arrests were at Bergoglio’s initiative? What Bergoglio did was keep his mouth shut in public. However, behind the scenes, according to his biographer Rubin, he was advocating on behalf of the priests. The Jesuit leader persuaded the family priest of dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so that he could say mass instead. Once inside the junta leader’s home, Bergoglio privately appealed for mercy.

Bergoglio gave his own viewpoint to his authorized biographers: “I never believed that Yorio and Jalics were involved in ‘subversive activities’ as their persecutors claimed, and the reality was they were not.” He said he did everything in his power to protect the priests by appealing to the military junta and also to church officials who had greater authority.

Yorio died in 2000, convinced he had been badly let down, if not betrayed, by his superior, and is not around to make his own observations on the papal election. But his sister, Graciela Yorio, who was very close to her brother and privy to all that had befallen him, said a few days after Bergoglio’s election as pope, “I’m living his election with a lot of pain.” She said she believes that by declining to publicly endorse the social work of the two priests in the slums, he left the priests open to arrest.

It’s not the only time Bergoglio declined to act.

When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio refused to give even an appointment to the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization that campaigned for the children of political prisoners who were put out for secret adoption to military families. The Mothers and Grandmothers, according to Jimmy Burns in his pro-Bergoglio book Francis: Pope Of Good Promise, have “copious files of letters which distraught relatives had written to the Argentine Episcopal Conference asking for help and which were never answered.”

In 2010, Bergoglio, now a cardinal, was asked to testify in a trial over the “stolen babies.” He said he had only known of the practice after democracy returned to Argentina. But the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo started their weekly protests in the main city square of Buenos Aires in April 1977, one year after the generals took power. As their numbers grew, they had hundreds taking part in the demonstrations. They made signs with photos of their children and brandished their grandchildren’s names. The government tried to marginalize and trivialize their work by calling them las locas, or the mad women. Braver parts of the Argentinian press gave them coverage.

The Mothers remember with bitterness how the doors of the cathedral in Buenos Aires were nearly always barred to them, particularly when they tried to escape a baton charge by the riot police or the kidnapping attempts of death squads.

BBC Radio 4 tracked down the audio of Bergoglio’s testimony before a state tribunal dealing with “crimes against humanity” held in 2010. At first he claimed that bishops were exempt under the law. The court was forced to decamp to Bergoglio’s own office to take evidence from him.

When he was asked when he first knew of cases of children being taken away from their mothers, he replied: “Recently, about 10 years ago.” Then he paused and corrected himself. “No, it must have been around the time of the military junta trial.” That was held in the mid-1980s. If this is indeed true, then Bergoglio must have been leading a blinkered existence. The Jesuits were and are very good at circulating news to their 20,000 members around the world. As a former head of the Argentine Jesuits, it is unlikely that he didn’t hear the “chatter.”

There had been a lot of “noise” for anyone to hear. The Mothers and Grandmothers cultivated international attention by publicizing the many stories of the “disappeared.” In 1978, when Argentina hosted the World Cup, the large international press corps in town for the matches covered the Mothers and Grandmothers’ demonstrations at the Plaza de Mayo. Bergoglio, an energetic man who traveled regularly around town by metro and bus, must have seen the demonstrations at some point. Many of the women were also serious Catholics who talked to their priests and bishops, trying to persuade them to support their cause.

Rubin argues that the lack of courage in speaking out was a failure of the church in general and that it is unfair to single out Bergoglio. “In some ways, many of us Argentinians ended up being accomplices,” Rubin recalled in an interview with the Associated Press prior to the Pope’s election in 2013.

“Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship,” Adolfo Perez Esquival, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta’s atrocities, told Radio de la Red in Buenos Aires in March 2003.

In a small act of contrition, Bergoglio made an effort as soon as he became pope to extend an olive branch to the Mothers and Grandmothers. About a month after his election, he met with Estela de Carlotto, the leader of the Grandmothers at the Vatican.

An “Excess of Courage”

A left-wing Brazilian nun—and now also a prizewinning novelist—Valeria Rezende, a long-time friend of mine and also a good friend of São Paulo’s Cardinal Arns, surprised me recently when she defended Bergoglio: “Francis had to be very prudent, because of the excess of courage of others. Many people I knew well wanted to be arrested, tortured … do crazy things, seeking personal heroism, not considering the danger they were attracting to others. … It was a dilemma to be too openly against the dictatorship, especially for a man of the hierarchy. The police could retaliate by raiding church houses and convents and find and kill many more people.”

On an individual basis, Bergoglio quietly extended a helping hand to dissidents on the run, providing shelter and even arranging a flight that took one to Brazil. After Bishop Enrique Angelelli was killed in what was probably a staged car crash, Bergoglio took three of the bishop’s seminarians into hiding. One Jesuit, Miguel La Civita, later wrote, “Bergoglio acted like a father to us to fill the space that had been left by the death of Angelelli.”

Any accusation, Civita wrote, that he collaborated with the junta was “a barbarity that reflects a lack of ethics on the part of the accusers.”

The human rights lawyer Alicia Oliveira told Vallely she was invited every weekend to a retreat house where there “were often farewell meals for people who had been protected by Bergoglio and who were being smuggled out of the country.” She spoke about how Bergoglio had given his own ID card to a fugitive who looked rather like him.

To get a proportioned picture of Bergoglio at the time of the dictatorship, it’s worth comparing him with the cardinal of São Paulo, Arns, who earned much respect within Brazil because of his human rights campaigns and open contempt for the dictatorship—as I discovered when I went to Brazil to interview him in 1979.

During the dictatorship, Arns visited political prisoners in their cells and denounced the abuses of the military. He spoke out against clerical celibacy. He criticized the Vatican bureaucracy, and, in defiance of the pope, he supported liberation theology.

But there were also other factors that made it easier for Arns to publicly disparage military rule. Because of its size—in 1980, Brazil had more than four times the population of Argentina—Brazil decentralized clerical and political authority to a greater extent than Argentina. Arns was able to be more master of his own store and wasn’t second-guessed by bishops.

Arns campaigned directly against the dictatorship. When he became aware that secret police arrested a young priest for possession of documentation encouraging rebellion, Arns lobbied the governor of São Paulo on behalf of the imprisoned clergyman. When denied access to the detainee, Arns spoke out on the radio and in newspapers against the government. He even had descriptions of the priest’s torture nailed to every church door in São Paulo. One reporter for the U.S. newspaper the National Catholic Reporter said it marked the beginning of “open war between the archdiocese and the military.” For over a decade, the church was the main opposition to the military government.

Without Arns’ influence, Lula surely would have been jailed. That could have led to serious confrontation between unionized workers and the state. Without pressure from Arns and the church, there could have been more torture and disappearances, and the press probably would not have gained some measure of freedom, eventually allowing debate on the value of a civilian government. There would have been widespread arrests of the thousands of church activists, like Rezende, who worked in the slums and villages forming action groups to educate people about the nature of the regime, Christianity as a force for justice, and what kinds of better society could be constructed.

Arns could not be more different than Bergoglio. It is impossible to imagine the pope-to-be ever being so publicly brave. I have little doubt that if I interviewed Arns again today, he wouldn’t say anything against Pope Francis. But privately he may feel, as I do, that Bergoglio’s timidity in the face of violent oppression bore resemblance to the clergy in Nazi Germany who kept their mouths shut during Hitler’s time and said little or nothing after.

Bergoglio may have had a private life that was warm and humane. He is—as Tornielli, Burns, Esquival, Rubin, Ambrogotti, and Vallely convincingly show—a man who has put the poor to the fore of his ministry for decades. But as leader first of the Jesuits and later as bishop and then archbishop, he fell short when it came to facing up to the grave human rights abuses of the junta.

Moral Scrutiny

It’s not easy to be the pope. No other world leader attracts such intimate moral scrutiny. And few individuals could survive such detailed looks at the history of their characters.

It is difficult when you are the priest or bishop to think the men and women in your congregation with their charming families taking communion are doing evil. The temptation to think that things are surely not all that bad comes easily. The appeal of saying nothing publicly and doing one’s bit privately is understandable.

I remember hearing Martin Luther King address this theme of individuals forgoing public responsibility. (I’m quoting from memory.) He said, “What would have happened if the people of Germany had pinned the yellow star of David to their own coats and had gone down to the street and cleaned the sidewalks along with the Jews working there?”

Of course, if hundreds of thousands of Ger-mans had done that, Hitler’s Final Solution would have been stymied. It takes a lot of courage, more than most of us have, to do something like that.

But it does happen. Let us not forget that when the Nazi occupiers of Denmark wanted to deport the Jews, the Lutheran Church and all the political parties immediately denounced the action. Across the country, Danish bishops read out critiques during church services. The Danish resistance movement working with the Swedes managed to evacuate to neutral Sweden 7,220 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews.

Bergoglio had to have known that it was probably the regime that had killed two outspoken bishops and a number of priests. He must have known why the Grandmothers and Mothers were marching. Was he too prudent? Or was he fearful?

During the period of military rule, Pope Francis turned a blind eye to suffering, so why doesn’t he tell us about it? He is now the spiritual leader of the largest religious grouping in the world, and he has an opportunity to help us think through what we should all do when confronted with the evil and demanding situations that are all-too-common today.

*Jonathan Power is a former foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of “Conundrums of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day” (Brill, 2007). [INPS – 3 April 2016]

Photo: 2014 Pastoral Visit of Pope Francis to Korea Closing Mass for Asian Youth Day August 17, 2014 Haemi Castle, Seosan-si, Chungcheongnam-do | Credit: Korean Culture and Information Service

Copyright © 2016 World Policy Institute

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