Part I: MEET THE NEW POPE, SAME AS THE OLD POPE…
Okay, that’s not really fair, even if it is too close to the truth for comfort. But let’s make the due distinctions between the two popes currently living in the Vatican, shall we?
The ex-pope, Benedict XVI (Germany’s Joseph Ratzinger), was the imperious, divisive, and extreme loose-cannon with the seriously stained history (beginning with his Hitler Youth membership and culminating in his lead role in the decades long cover-up of the Church’s little problem with pedophile priests). During his tenure, Pope Ratz regularly made inflammatory statements denigrating Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, women, and secular humanists, alike. Despite his charismatic leadership (now that’s sarcasm), the Catholic Church’s public relations woes and dwindling global membership continued, and Ratz finally decided to become the first pope to RESIGN in nearly 600 years (offering that he needs to spend more time with his wife and kids… or some equally convincing explanation).
Enter (in a puff of white smoke): Argentina’s own Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the first-ever New World/Southern Hemisphere pope… though not the first-ever non-European pope (but you have to go back over a thousand years for those other, mostly Middle Eastern, pontiffs). Mr. Bergoglio is also the first-ever Jesuit pope, representing the Church’s intellectual/social justice wing (cool… though Bergoglio’s social justice record is mixed, at best, as I’ll soon explain). He’s chosen the papal name Francis I, specifying that St. Francis of Assisi was indeed his inspiration; the choice seems genuinely significant, as Bergoglio has reportedly long eschewed the trappings of wealth and power. Socially very conservative (duh) and politically very active — he’s said some repugnant things while campaigning against marriage equality — Bergoglio is nonetheless renowned for living humbly and reaching out to weak and vulnerable populations (even while mounting forceful political opposition to parties and policies with proven track records of serving those populations).
Let’s see, now… what have I left out? Only the stinking skeleton in Bergoglio’s closet (yep, I saved the worst for last). As a young man in a position of high office — the thirty-something senior official of Argentina’s Jesuit company — Jorge Bergoglio notably helped the Catholic Church bless (legitimize, condone, and otherwise support) the 1976 military coup that overthrew Argentina’s democratic government, initiating a several-year nightmare that would leave several thousand people dead and tens of thousands more disappeared (mostly tortured/killed) in at least seven countries on three continents. In the years since, Bergoglio has mostly opposed and refused to cooperate with official investigations into that coup de tat and the ensuing crimes against humanity (which were considerable). He has maintained this intransigent stance despite Argentina’s courageous, ongoing efforts to expose the nation’s darkest chapters under the dictatorship of General Jorge Videla (supported by officials in the Church and in Washington, DC). It is also worth noting that Cardinal Bergoglio, rather than reconciling with the political left of Argentina, continued to vigorously attack and oppose liberal politicians who have credibly and successfully championed Argentina’s poor (like the now-deceased president Nestor Kirchner and his spouse-successor President Cristina Kirchner).
From today’s DemocracyNow! here is Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky (an expert in this chapter of his country’s history) summarizing Bergoglio’s complicity in the 1976 Argentinean military junta’s kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests under his authority:
“But when the military coup overthrew the Isabel Perón government, he [Bergoglio] was in touch with the military that ousted this government and asked the Jesuits to stop their social work. And when they refused to do it, he stopped protecting them, and he let the military know that they were not more [no longer] inside the protection of the Jesuits’ company, and they were kidnapped.”
Between Verbitsky’s account and a few others I’ve now looked over, I think it’s fair to say that Bergoglio and other high officials of the Catholic Church were relatively cozy and complicit with the authoritarian (torturing, “Dirty War” fighting) regime of General Videla. The CIA was running Operation Condor at the time (expanding the program of murderous and despotic CIA-installed Chilean president General Augusto Pinochet), working with six Latin American authoritarian regimes to kill, disappear, jail, and otherwise silence hundreds of thousands of “subversives” (leftists, journalists, communists, students, lawyers, social justice advocates, liberation theology-practicing nuns and priests, etc.). During this period, an estimated 50,000 political dissidents were killed and another 30,000 disappeared (presumed dead), with over 400,000 dissidents jailed (using statistics from The Center for Justice and Accountability, cited in a 3/5/13 CNN article). And “Argentina is where the greatest number of killings of foreigners was carried out under Operation Condor” (Amy Goodman, on her 3/7/13 show).
Another DemocracyNow! guest today, Ernesto Séman (New York University historian and former reporter for two Argentine newspapers), first acknowledges Bergoglio’s complicity in Argentina’s “Dirty War” and then connects the Cardinal’s leftist-condemning past to his more recent opposition to progressive-populist policies:
“The case of this complicity of Bergoglio with human rights violations during the dictatorship is by far the most important episode. But during the last decade, he did, as the State Department implicitly suggests, [lead] the opposition to the government, in a decade in which Argentina lived the largest and fastest reduction of poverty and inequality, as in most of all Latin American countries. So that kind of paradox between the kind of social conservatism and an opposition to social agenda that has been pretty successful during the last years is very important.”
Verbitsky adds: “He was against liberation theology…. Being among the poor doesn’t mean to be for the poor.”
So, does Pope Francis represent an improvement over his abominable predecessor? Yes, but only a modest one (the skeletons in his closet appear to be every bit as ghastly as those in Benedict XVI’s). Granted, the optics are good with this changing of the papal guard, but don’t be fooled by appearances (South American Bergoglio may be, but as I’ve cautioned before, identity politics is for suckers!).
Next — Part II: The Death of Hugo Chavez