20 March 2013

Pope Francis: of Assisi, Buenos Aires or Washington

Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina appears to be a different from others who came before him.  To the Papacy, that is.  He is the first Pope from Latin America.  He is the first to take the name Francis. 

Both are significant.  In a context where the Catholic Church is fast losing ground in its ‘traditional homelands’ (Europe and North America), where the numbers of atheists are on the rise and among theists Muslims are gaining ground at a rate that they are projected to be the dominant faith-group 50 years from now, it makes sense to seek fresh pasture.  Asia and Africa, some would say, have a color problem. Latin America is a shade less uncomfortable.

‘Francis’ is also significant.  Francis of Assisi is the saint most identified with the poor, that is poverty, simplicity, humility and most importantly the rebuilding of the Catholic Church.  CNN’s Vatican expert John Allen puts it this way:  "There are cornerstone figures in Catholicism, such as St. Francis; they are ‘irrepeatable’.” 

Pope Benedict XVI once recounted how ‘Christ on the Cross’ came to life three times in the small Church of St. Damian and told St. Francis: "Go, Francis, and repair my Church in ruins."   The Catholic Church, besieged by scandals of corruption, cover up of sexual abuse by priests and other ills, is certainly in dire need of repair on many counts.  It is also seen as an institution that works hand in glove with the rich and a willing and able servant of capital.  Pope John Paul II is often referred to as a key player in bringing down the Soviet Bloc, for example. 

‘Francis’, then, can be taken as a signal, and as Allen says: ‘this will not be business as usual.’   

The Pope does have the credentials to piggy back on the saintly reputation of the original Francis.  He has built for himself a considerable reputation as someone who had ‘a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice.’  He would eat alongside the poor in Buenos Aires when he was an archbishop, for example. 

On the other hand, Bergoglio is also accused of colluding in the monumental human rights abuses of the 1976-1983 military junta that ruled Argentina.  He is seen as an arch conservative in the Church who was totally at odds with the teachings of liberation theology that inspired and was inspired by movements against all manner of tyrannies in Latin America in the seventies, eighties and nineties.  Most tellingly, he is accused of being a Machiavellian felon who betrayed his brothers and had them disappeared and tortured by the military in the name of an insatiable ambition.

The human rights group HIJOS, which represents children of the estimated 30,000 people kidnapped and murdered by the regime, renewed claims he was complicit in stealing victims’ babies and turned in priests, who were then tortured. The longest-standing accusation is that in 1976, as a high-ranking official in Argentina’s Jesuit order, Pope Francis allowed two priests to be kidnapped. Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics were taken to ESMA, an infamous Buenos Aires detention centre, where they remained for five months.

Subsequently, Pope Francis stopped protecting them from the military and paved the way for their capture. He has denied the allegations and no charges have ever been brought.

“Yorio and Jalics were kidnapped in a raid,” Pope Francis told his biographer, Sergio Rubin. “That same night I found out and I started to act. I didn’t throw them out of the church and I didn’t want them to be unprotected.”

Others like Adolfo Perez Ezquiel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist, who was detained by the dictatorship, said Pope Francis, like many clerics of the time, may not have spoken out but could not be accused of being complicit in its crimes.

Estela de la Cuadra, whose sister, Elena, was pregnant when she was kidnapped in 1977, claims otherwise: “Pope Francis lied during a trial of military dictators when he said in a statement that he only found out that victims’ babies had been stolen after the dictatorship ended. Documents from 1979 showed he had knowledge of the case.”

It is well known that Washington has been the main mover in supporting dictatorships, juntas and where necessary ‘democracies’ in Latin America against all movements, peaceful and otherwise, that contested the violence unleashed on peoples and resources by multinational capital.  At best it can be only claimed that Pope Francis has a dubious track record when it came to picking sides.  As such whether he is really a ‘Latin American Pope’ or a religious equivalent of the dozens of Latin American political leaders who were but Washington’s puppets remains unanswered. 
Still, whether out of spiritual predilection or preferences of practice, whether for reasons of convenience or conviction, he has chosen the name ‘Francis’.  He has therefore trapped himself into a particular role. Given the stature that comes with the Papacy, he will have to deliver or be accused of sullying the name of a saint who one could claim most resembled Jesus Christ, in life and ministry. 

Perhaps he will indeed be a different kind of pope.  Perhaps not.  Time will tell.