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Pope Francis, Argentina's Dirty War, and the Straight and Narrow Path

Newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pontiff and will lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Newly elected Pope Francis I appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica on March 13, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the 266th Pontiff and will lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

It took under 24 hours for the darker side of newly anointed Pope Francis' Argentine past to surface. Since then, the shadows have faded, but still they linger. The main story was that he had failed to protect two Jesuits working in the slums of Buenos Aires from arrest by agents of one of the vilest American dictatorships of the 20th Century, the one that ran Argentina between 1976 and 1983.

The two were tortured at the ESMA -- the Argentine Navy’s Mechanical School — a bosky college-like campus on the northwest edge of the city where carloads of  abductees were brought every night and tortured, usually to death. Residents of the surrounding high-rises could hear the screams, sometimes obscured by the sounds of loud canned music. Nothing could surmount the smell of human bodies burned in pits around the officer’s club where the torture took place.

If Bishop Jorge Bergoglio’s efforts did free his two sacerdotes from the ESMA, he deserves much credit.  Even after the dictatorship fell, its practitioners, when they weren’t denying it existed,  bragged that  ESMA’s survival rate was practically nil. Actually, hundreds, maybe thousands, left the place alive. But they were the ones who were then dropped from aircraft 10,000 feet off the Argentine coast.

I think it is fair to say that this was the fate of most of the courageous Catholic clergy  (many of them, like the two he saved, members of the Liberation Theology movement that Bergoglio strongly opposed) who resisted the dictatorship. In then-dictatorial Chile and Brazil and even Central America, prominent church members stood up against oppression and many of them survived, though some, like Salvador’s great Bishop Oscar Romero, did not.

Not in Argentina, where the dictatorship and Church leadership were intimately entwined. Did this account for the fact that the number of “disappeared” was dramatically higher there than in the other countries?  As an Argentine Catholic cleric or monastic in those days, you had your choices — you could risk being a martyr for your faith or, at least publicly, a live coward (there was a third option, of course: you could be a partner in the dictatorship, blessing the torturers at their work). Jorge Bergoglio, to the public eye, was a live coward.  He may have saved a few lives working behind the scenes. But to this day, he equates the left’s early outbreaks of violence with the dictatorship’s totalitarian reaction. Just as the dictatorship’s remaining supporters do.

If he had become pope 50 years ago, there would have been another, greater issue at stake in his past. This would be his unique Jesuitical background. Many 19th Century historians termed the Jesuits the great collective villains of the post-Enlightenment era, blaming them for everything from snuffing out the Renaissance to driving Protestantism out of half of Europe, even to plotting murders of monarchs who struggled with the Church. Trained to an incredible level of discipline and obedience, members of the order were reportedly obliged even to commit mortal sins if told to do so by their superiors. It was always a matter of the end justifying the means, and an organizational rigidity that, even its Catholic critics noted, “admitted no alteration except in a more rigid direction.”

Two centuries later, history takes a brighter view. There have been important Jesuit biologists and astronomers, linguists, naturalists and sociologists. Their schools and universities supply decent education to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, all over the world.  Many modern Jesuits were strong supporters of Liberation Theology.

But big questions remain: what sort of supreme religious leader can a man trained in the Jesuitical traditions of moral casuistry and probablism —  sanctified moral relativism and Machiavellian duplicity — end up being? For that matter, how does the practice of lifelong utter obedience avail you when you are at the summit of the billion-person global power structure?  How does a tradition of utter rigidity prepare you to run a Church direly in need of so much change?

Bergoglio is known for his humility and for reaching out to the poor, in the best Jesuitical traditions. He’s also known, in a less appealing tradition, for his anti-gay, anti-birth control and same-sex marriage pronouncements. 

So what kind of pontiff will he be?  Never having been prone to sticking his head out of the trench, Bergoglio is more likely to be an opponent of change than a change agent.

Maybe the best we can hope for is the commitment of the Irish priest reported by novelist Honor Tracy, “to always take the straight and narrow path between right and wrong.”