Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Jorge Mario Bergoglio: Pope Francis I and Latin American politics

Yesterday I saw the much-praised Spanish-language movie called, simply, NO. It’s about the nonviolent NO campaign in Chile (1988) which led to the ouster of Augusto Pinochet, the dictator responsible for several thousand deaths, tortures, and “disappeared” political prisoners. The principal actor in the film, the Mexican dreamboat Gael Garcia Bernal, is described as giving his best performance ever “and that’s saying something” (HuffPost) as an adman who is recruited, against his inclinations, to design TV commercials for the NO campaign. Gradually he becomes a courageous supporter, continuing the work even when his young son is threatened.

(For background, watch the splendid PBS three-part documentary A Force More Powerful. The NO campaign is one of seven successful 20th century non-violent movements covered in the film—along with Gandhi, the civil rights movement, the Danes in World War II, the Solidarity movement in Poland, the end of apartheid, the Philippine revolution)

The priests and bishops of the Chilean Roman Catholic Church conducted themselves well during the Pinochet years. For ten years, “the Catholic Church was the only institution bold enough to confront the régime…In Chile, the poor and persecuted have found solace in the church from the first days of military rule a decade ago” (The New York Times 11/20/83). During the régime of Pinochet, Pope John Paul II, famous for his courage in the political theater, visited Chile. It is reliably reported that he interceded strongly and directly with Pinochet, using his considerable charismatic powers as Pope, to urge him to relinquish his dictator’s position and move the country toward democracy.

No one watched the coverage of the papal election more avidly than I. Having been in Rome for three weeks during Holy Week only two years ago made it even more exciting. When the new pope emerged from behind the curtains, my first thoughts were like everyone else’s—Who is this guy? And then: He’s from the New World! The first Jesuit pope! the first Pope Francis! Is this good for the Jews? (just kidding…sort of)

Seriously, my very next thought was: he’s from Argentina. Where was his voice when the drugged political prisoners were being thrown out of airplanes? With all this talk about his love for the poor, what did he do to protest on behalf of the people who were imprisoned and tortured during the Dirty War? What support did he offer to his priests who were on the front lines?

The stakes here are somewhat personal for me. The greatest Pauline (letters of St. Paul) scholar of the second half of the twentieth century was Ernst Käsemann, who powerfully influenced many of the biblical theologians in the “apocalyptic school” that I have written about several times before on this website. I had the honor of meeting him when he visited Union Theological Seminary. Käsemann’s daughter Elisabeth went to Argentina to work with the poor and, while there, formed ties to groups opposing the military dictatorship. She was arrested, imprisoned, brutally and repeatedly tortured, and then shot to death. I well remember when we who had been at Union received that terrible news in 1977. Her parents had to pay a significant sum to recover her body.

(A not so-incidental note: Rather extraordinarily, a capsule history of the Dirty War and its 30,000+ victims appeared in one of the same issues of the New York Times that covered the papal election. It is in the obituary for Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz, the economic minister during the dictatorship, who was under arrest for human rights abuses at the time of his death a few days ago. Read it here:   

As I write, there is a growing media storm about Father Jorge, as he modestly liked to be called even when he became a cardinal. The Vatican, no doubt sensing a worldwide reaction, responded with unusual speed only two days after the election, but the reportage continues apace and will only increase. The reports have been mixed, to say the least. The famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children were “disappeared” and who still seek their missing grandchildren, greeted Bergoglio’s election with scorn. Argentine novelist Martín Caparrós wrote, “The hierarchy of Argentina’s Catholic Church was complicit with the military genocide.” Bergoglio has been accused by many (though not all) of “withdrawing protection” from two Jesuit priests whom he deposed (presumably because they were dangerously enthusiastic about “liberation theology”) just two weeks before they were kidnapped.

Argentina is described as having been much more hand-in-glove with the military régime than in Chile, even though the number of tortured and dead in Argentina (30,000+) was five times larger and therefore even more impossible to ignore. Three days after the election of Bergoglio, an article researched by no fewer than five reporters filing from Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Berlin described a variety of reactions to the matter. An Argentine historian at The New School in New York said that the public indifference of Bergoglio and others “created the proper conditions for the state killings.” No less a person than the former head of the military junta, Jorge Videla, stated that the bishops had “collaborated” with the régime. (Videla was belatedly convicted of human right abuses and is now serving multiple life sentences.)

Silence, as we know from the terrible history of the 20th century, means complicity. A Jesuit who is a friend of the new Pope Francis is quoted as saying that only a small number of Argentine bishops spoke out against the military dictatorship. Most remained silent. A few pulled strings and worked relationships behind the scenes to extricate individual prisoners, with lack of success in most cases. “Later on,” said the Jesuit, “the bishops realized this [their public silence] was a mistake.”

(Cardinal Bergoglio finally managed to extricate the two Jesuits, who after being abused for four months were dumped half-naked and drugged by the roadside. However, the sister of one of them still bitterly blames him for what happened to her brother. The other one has made gestures of forgiveness toward Bergoglio, but the minimal nature of this reconciliation does not suggest a wholehearted exculpation. Further information can be found at but the reports change hourly.

By far the most important voice in support of the new pope is that of Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Argentinean winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1980), whom I have long admired. (He met with Jimmy Carter at Grace Church in New York City when I was on the staff there. The Secret Service was all over the place.) Pérez Esquivel was arrested in Buenos Aires in 1977, tortured, and held by the junta for 14 months. He is an unimpeachable defender of human rights (though his views of the post-9/11 United States would enrage most Americans, not to mention Israelis). Pérez Esquivel made a statement after Bergoglio’s election a couple of days ago, stating that although Bergoglio lacked moral courage during the Dirty War, nevertheless “he was never an ally of the dictatorship” (front page article, The New York Times 3/18/2013).”) This is faint praise, coming from a man who has been detained in two countries for his political views.

Much has been made of the new pope’s lack of interest in papal fashion. Imagine the disappointment of the proud Italian artisan who made magnificent red loafers in several sizes only to be told that the old black shoes would do! People seem mesmerized by Francis’ paying his own hotel bill, riding the bus, and sitting at table on the same level as the other cardinals. These symbolic actions are not unimportant, but they may be more style than substance. There is a type of person who wins hearts because he wants to believe in the good of everyone but at the same time turns a blind eye to injustice and cruelty. And moreover, is it not a confused scale of importance when a Christian leader says publicly (as Bergoglio did in 2010) that same-sex marriage is the work of the devil, and yet did not raise his voice against the state-sanctioned torture and murder of political prisoners? The 1983 New York Times article notes that in Chile, Cardinal Raúl Silva Enríquez “urged priests to denounce arrests, disappearances, and cases of abuse and torture that came to their attention…Cardinal Silva Enriquez was a constant thorn in the Government’s side.”

Pope Francis I is already showing signs of pragmatism. He did some maneuvering, a couple of years ago in secular Argentina, trying to give some room to same-sex marriage supporters. One of my correspondents reminded me that Jesuits are known for bold moves. If he is able to do the impossible and reform the Curia, it will be a mighty deed for which posterity and all Christendom will thank and remember him.  But one could wish that Cardinal Bergoglio had been a thorn in the side of the Argentine junta. Remember Elijah, whom King Ahab dreaded: “When King Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, O troubler of Israel?’” and “Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’” (I Kings 18:17 and 21:20)

About those drugged bodies thrown from planes: the same 3/18/13 New York Times front-page article reports:
A clergy member offered biblical justification for the military’s death flights, according to an account by one of the pilots anguished about dumping drugged prisoners out of aircraft and into the sea.

And finally:
Martin Hengel of the University of Tübingen dedicated his book Crucifixion to Elisabeth Käsemann. Read the story of her terrible ordeal and death here: