They were at it again – for the most part the gray brigade of male, in fancy dress (115 in total), deciding the fate on who would be God’s infallible messenger on earth. More to the point, the candidates, a collective of stalwarts, reactionaries and minor moderates decided to make a decision after only two days, the white smoke signalling their decision. Those who were favoured had found themselves celebrating mass with swelling congregations. It was a horserace on the divine – and the punters were turning up with their hopes in droves. Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer of Sao Paolo, Brazil, was one such magnet.
In the final vote, it was that other giant of Latin America, Argentina, that got across the finishing line. And Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio had been close in the previous elections that resulted in Benedict XVI’s victory, netting the second highest number before bowing out in the conclave.
The Church’s public relations unit has had its hands full, dealing with the brush fires of child abuse allegations and the problems of corruption. It was time not so much for a change as a change of angle and emphasis, a person from outside Europe altogether, a conservative yes, but one with a sizeable resume on engaging the poor.
Pope Francis I is being given the brush of austerity for the press. The drink he takes, and what he advises everyone else to take, is strong and seemingly uncompromising. “Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.” He is said to have been a self-denier of luxuries other cardinals enjoyed, certainly his predecessors in Buenos Aires. He makes his own food, visits slums, takes public transport. That, at least, was his previous incarnation. Certainly, with that regime of “outreach” and engagement, priests will have a spike in work.
We certainly are not going to be getting much change on various traditional bogey subjects – gay marriage, the availability of free contraception, and artificial insemination. Francis I had a beef with Argentinean President Christina Kirchner over her permissive policies. The President has, in turned, regarded Bergoglio as something of a relic, a creature of “medieval times and the Inquisition.”
While that irked him considerably, nothing excused a priest’s refusal to baptise the children of single mothers “because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage. These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalise the Church.” Out, he would seem to be suggesting, with the church that is divided, the falsely inclusive family.
All of this seems to the good. But the past is a weight that has its own force, and no one who ever becomes a pontiff can claim to be free of decisions he might have either regretted or refused to reconsider. During the years of the military dictatorship in Argentina, the clerics were conspicuously silent as the brutalities after 1976 unfolded. Yes, Argentina has a large population of Roman Catholics (under seventy percent), but only ten percent of those attend mass on a regular basis. This is not a good record to be placing on your resume.
Bergoglio pressed Argentina’s bishops to come clean, issuing a collective apology in October 2012 for the church’s failure to protect its believers. But such an apology could never single out the military regime itself as an exclusively violent force. Blame also lay with its opponents, the leftist guerrillas. The none-to-subtle suggestion was that those who had disappeared were also to blame for their beliefs. Blood met blood. All had to be condemned.
Human rights activists have seen this as a lazy and nasty confection. The dimmer view to take here is that Bergoglio did little as 30,000 people were kidnapped and murdered between 1976 and 1983. An even darker view is to refer to some specific examples of moral complicity that have been dug up.
One such account comes from journalist Horacio Verbitsky, whose The Silence describes the withdrawal of the Jesuit order’s protection of two priests who were secretly jailed by the military junta for their work in poor neighbourhoods, the very sort of work, it would seem, that Bergoglio lauds. It was Bergoglio who initiated the withdrawal after the two men, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, refused to quit visiting the slums and teaching liberation theology (Reason, Mar 13). Both men, one of whom gave the account to Verbitsky, were imprisoned for five months. Such behaviour tended to put the noses of other Jesuits out of joint. Yorio sniffed treachery; and Jalics went silent, refusing to discuss the account.
Bergoglio counters with his own white knight exploits, telling his biographer Sergio Rubin that he concealed people on church property during the junta’s rule, facilitating the escape across the border of one man using forged papers. Not challenging the junta openly was simply done in the name of that empty term “pragmatism”. Furthermore, he intervened on behalf of the very same priests he has publicly abandoned, pleading their case with the dictator Jorge Videla.
Fortunato Mallimacci, former dean of social science at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, has little faith in the new pontiff taking issue with that very type of morally sundered pragmatism. “History condemns him. It shows him to be opposed to all innovation in the Church and above all, during the dictatorship, it shows he was very cozy with the military” (Reason, Mar 13). Is this the same man that major presses claim modernised the Argentinean church? Clearly we are talking chalk and cheese.
In appearing to address the crowd after the election, Francis I was decked out in sombre, white garb, the elaborate trimmings of Benedict XVI abandoned in favour of austere contemplation. True, he has been industrious in his pastoral work, a devotee of engagement over doctrine. But such industry has its other reward: netting souls, healing reputations. As a fisher of souls, Francis I will have much work to do. Repairing a Church rented by scandal and accusation will be a tall order. As he tries to do so, he may well have to confront the sorts of demons pragmatism brings.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org