Pope Francis, the CIA and the ‘Death Squads’
The election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis brings back into focus the troubling role of the Catholic hierarchy in blessing much of the brutal repression that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, killing and torturing tens of thousands of people including priests and nuns accused of sympathizing with leftists.
The Vatican’s fiercely defensive reaction to the reemergence of these questions as they relate to the new Pope also is reminiscent of the pattern of deceptive denials that became another hallmark of that era when propaganda was viewed as an integral part of the “anticommunist” struggles, which were often supported financially and militarily by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
It appears that Bergoglio, who was head of the Jesuit order in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s grim “dirty war,” mostly tended to his bureaucratic rise within the Church as Argentine security forces “disappeared” some 30,000 people for torture and murder from 1976 to 1983, including 150 Catholic priests suspected of believing in “liberation theology.”
Much as Pope Pius XII didn’t directly challenge the Nazis during the Holocaust, Father Bergoglio avoided any direct confrontation with the neo-Nazis who were terrorizing Argentina. Pope Francis’s defenders today, like apologists for Pope Pius, claim he did intervene quietly to save some individuals.
But no one asserts that Bergoglio stood up publicly against the “anticommunist” terror, as some other Church leaders did in Latin America, most notably El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero who then became a victim of right-wing assassins in 1980.
Indeed, the predominant role of the Church hierarchy – from the Vatican to the bishops in the individual countries – was to give political cover to the slaughter and to offer little protection to the priests and nuns who advocated “liberation theology,” i.e. the belief that Jesus did not just favor charity to the poor but wanted a just society that shared wealth and power with the poor.
In Latin America with its calcified class structure of a few oligarchs at one end and many peasants at the other, that meant reforms, such as land redistribution, literacy programs, health clinics, union rights, etc. But those changes were fiercely opposed by the local oligarchs and the multinational corporations that profited from the cheap labor and inequitable land distribution.
So, any reformers of any stripe were readily labeled “communists” and were made the targets of vicious security forces, often trained and indoctrinated by “anticommunist” military officers at the U.S.-run School of the Americas. The primary role of the Catholic hierarchy was to urge the people to stay calm and support the traditional system.
It is noteworthy that the orchestrated praise for Pope Francis in the U.S. news media has been to hail Bergoglio’s supposedly “humble” personality and his “commitment to the poor.” However, Bergoglio’s approach fits with the Church’s attitude for centuries, to give “charity” to the poor while doing little to change their cruel circumstances – as Church grandees hobnob with the rich and powerful.
Another Pope Favorite
Pope John Paul II, another favorite of the U.S. news media, shared this classic outlook. He emphasized conservative social issues, telling the faithful to forgo contraceptives, treating women as second-class Catholics and condemning homosexuality. He promoted charity for the poor and sometimes criticized excesses of capitalism, but he disdained leftist governments that sought serious economic reforms.
Elected in 1978, as right-wing “death squads” were gaining momentum across Latin America, John Paul II offered little protection to left-leaning priests and nuns who were targeted. He rebuffed Archbishop Romero’s plea to condemn El Salvador’s right-wing regime and its human rights violations. He stood by as priests were butchered and nuns were raped and killed.