As the new leader of what is by far the largest part of Christianity, which is the largest of the world’s religions, there has been huge media coverage – most of it favorable – of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who is now Pope Francis I.
One exception came from former AP and Newsweek reporter and now author Robert Parry headlined: “Dirty War Questions for the New Pope.”
Parry wrote the following:
“If one wonders if the U.S. press corps has learned anything in the decade since the Iraq war – i.e. the need to ask tough question and show honest skepticism – it would appear from the early coverage of the election of Pope Francis I that U.S. journalists haven’t changed at all, even at ‘liberal’ outlets like MSNBC.
“The first question that a real reporter should ask about an Argentine cleric who lived through the years of grotesque repression, known as the ‘dirty war,’ is, ‘What did this person do? Did he stand up to the murderers and torturers, or did he go with the flow?’ If the likes of Chris Matthews and other commentators on MSNBC had done a simple Google search, they would have found out enough about Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to slow their bubbling enthusiasm.
“Bergoglio, now the new Pope Francis I, has been identified publicly as an ally of Argentine’s repressive leaders during the dirty war when some 30,000 people ‘disappeared’ or were killed, many stripped naked, chained together, flown out over the River Plate or the Atlantic Ocean and pushed, sausage-like, out of planes to drown.”
A similar critique came from The Guardian columnist Hugh O’Shaughnessy, as well as the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson and also from the New York Times’ Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter. They reported that the new pontiff “was less energetic, however, in standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them while as many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.”
Surely the College of Cardinals must have considered the issues raised in these critiques. I would imagine that their electing Cardinal Bergoglio means they have honestly resolved this controversy. By striking contrast to these five journalists, President Obama issued the following statement:
“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day.”
The New York Times on March 16 reported from Vatican City the following:
“Reacting with unusual swiftness, the Vatican on Friday rejected any suggestion that Pope Francis of Argentina was implicated in his country’s so-called Dirty War during the 1970s, tackling the issue just two days after the pontiff’s election.
“Dismissing them as opportunistic defamations from anticlerical leftists, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, added that such charges ‘must be rejected decisively.’ On the contrary, he said, ‘there have been many declarations of how much he did for many people to protect them from the military dictatorship. …’
“Fernando Solanas, a film director and congressman who was forced into exile during the dictatorship, said Francis was known for his ‘enormous fairness and wisdom.’ …
“One of the charges is that Francis was complicit in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests with antigovernment views whom he had dismissed from the order a week before.
“After the church for years denied any involvement with the dictatorship, Francis, then a cardinal, testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Gen. Jorge Videla, the former head of the military junta, and Adm. Emilio Massera, the commander of the navy, to ask for the release of the priests. …
“[Father Lombardi] pointed out that one of the two priests, the Rev. Franz Jalics, had made a statement on Friday. It was issued by the German branch of the Jesuit order and also released by the Vatican.
“Father Jalics said that he and the other priest moved to a Buenos Aires slum in 1974 to work among the poor, with the permission of the archbishop and of then-Father Bergoglio.
“He said their position was ‘misunderstood within the church’ and that they were later falsely linked to leftist guerrillas. Soldiers arrested and interrogated them, and they were ‘inexplicably held in custody blindfolded and bound’ for five months, even after an officer said he believed in their innocence, according to Father Jalics. ‘I cannot comment on the role of Father Bergoglio in these events,’ he said.
“Years later, he continued, the priests met with Father Bergoglio, who by then was archbishop of Buenos Aires. ‘Afterward, we together celebrated Mass publicly and embraced,’ Father Jalics said. ‘I am reconciled to the events and view them from my side as concluded. I wish Pope Francis God’s rich blessing for his office.’”
Francis I is the first pope in world history from the New World, the Western Hemisphere, as well as the first member of the Society of Jesus to be so elected.
Having known and considerably enjoyed a number of his fellow Jesuits – three of whom I debated many years ago on the subject of abortion – I share in the widely broadcast enthusiasm over the selection of this new world leader.
And let me add my relief that a one-time issue of controversy seems to have been passed into history. Witness the absence of almost anyone questioning whether papal infallibility belongs only to the new pontiff – rather than to him who has just retired as well – and what would happen if they disagreed on a matter of faith.
Seventy-six-year-old Francis I is the 266th pope.
The New York Times reports that he faces an immense array of challenges left by his predecessor: a shortage of priests, rising secularism in a West that increasingly sees the Church as out of touch, growing competition from evangelical churches in the Southern Hemisphere and the sexual-abuse crisis.
“Known for his outreach to the country’s poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals. …
“Though he is averse to liberation theology, which he views as hopelessly tainted with Marxist ideology, Cardinal Bergoglio has emphasized outreach to the impoverished, and as cardinal of Buenos Aires he has overseen increased social services and evangelization in the slums. …
“In a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship. He said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.”
That is similar to what Pope Pius XII did. Instead of directly defying Rome’s occupying Nazis – which would have surely led to his immediate execution – Pius was able to save the lives of thousands of Jews, surreptitiously.
For this, he – and Pope Francis I – deserve tribute, not denunciation.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Argentine human rights activist, told the BBC:
“There were bishops who were complicit in the dictatorship – but not Bergoglio.”