Cardinals Elect a New Pope from Argentina -- Does the New Pontiff Come with a Dark Past?

This article has been corrected and updated.

The 115 voting members of the College of Cardinals moved with great alacrity to send a signal that they meant to shake up the church. With the election, in a speedy, two-day conclave, of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, they've done just that, at least for the sake of appearances, electing the first South American ever to grace the papal throne. In fact, he's the first pope since 741 A.D.* not to come from a European country.

But it doesn't end there. Unlike past popes, Bergoglio hails from the Jesuit order of priests, regarded as the intellectual backbone of the church's academic instititutions, and known as rebellious despite its members' vow of obedience to the pope. And Bergoglio has chosen a name never before used by a pope: Francis. While we don't yet know his reasons for choosing that name, it calls to mind the beloved Francis of Assisi, whose mission to the poor, and reverence for animals renders him an honored figure even to those outside of the Catholic faith.

Yet, despite his Latin American origins, the election of Bergoglio does not break the tradition of the papal chair as a white man's throne; the new pope's parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina.

It's no secret that the Vatican likes its mystery and drama, a fact brought home as watchers of the Roman Catholic Church awaited the big reveal of the new pope, as white smoke is spilled out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The smoke is the signal sent by cardinals assembled inside the chapel that they have chosen a man to lead the world's largest Christian denomination.

After making the media, as well as the faithful assembled in St. Peter's Square, wait for 40 minutes, the hordes are given what they crave: the appearance of the new pope on the balcony of the famous basilica. 

Looking for a Savior

It was apt, perhaps, that the princes of the church should choose to elect their new boss on the very day that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $10 million to four victims of a priest who abused them as children, another chapter in the church's worldwide child sexual abuse scandal. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected to the papal throne in 2005, hopes were high that the former Vatican enforcer would crack down on the many archbishops, like L.A.'s Cardinal Roger Mahony, who moved abusive priests from parish to parish without reporting their crimes to authorities.

Instead, the man who became Pope Benedict turned a blind eye as the scandal continued to unfold. 

And then there was the VatiLeaks scandal, in which the pope's butler was charged with leaking the pope's private correspondence to an Italian journalist, who revealed a curia (akin to a presidential administration) riven with internecine battles and backbiting, as well as corruption at the Vatican Bank.

Meanwhile, Benedict had his henchmen crack down on U.S. nuns for their ostensibly "radical feminism." The fact that those nuns are champions of the poor was not lost on American Catholics, throngs of whom supported the sisters with street demonstrations last year.

American Catholics also favor the ordination of women, and see their church as "out of touch," according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

So when Benedict announced his nearly unprecendented abdication, many in the church breathed a sigh of relief, fingers crossed that the conclave of 2013 would yield a pontiff who could bring the church back into the good graces of the world. 

But given Bergoglio's doctrinal orthodoxy and hints of a dark past, he may not be quite the messiah the faithful had hoped for.

Compassion for the Poor, But No Progressive

News reports are making much of Bergoglio's personal humility and belief in compassion for the poor. When named archbishop, he gave up his limo, opting to ride the bus. He's said to live in a simple apartment where he cooks for himself. He's viewed as a truly pastoral figure, devoting his career to his home country of Argentina, where he is known as an educator of the priests who work at the parish level.

But when liberation theology, born of the theological notion of a preferential option for the poor, was sweeping his continent, Bergoglio backed away, and a frequent criticism of his term as archbishop is that, despite his simple lifestyle, he speaks little of social justice, stressing individual spirituality.

In fact, he's theologically closer to the last two prelates, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, than to the liberal and beloved Pope John XXIII, whose legacy leaves many Catholics yearning for someone similar. But Bergoglio campaigned against same-sex marriage in Argentina, and said that adoptions by LGBT people discriminate against children.

Yet he has called for LGBT people to be treated with dignity, according to the National Catholic Reporter, and has shown compassion toward AIDS patients. "In 2001," writes NCR's John L. Allen, Jr., "he visited a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of 12 AIDS patients."

On matters pertaining to the rights of women, including their reproductive rights, Bergoglio holds to the orthodox line. He even sought to prevent the distribution of free contraceptives in Argentina.

Hints of Dark Past and Troubling Association

During Argentina's "dirty wars," which took place under a military dictatorship, 1976-1983, political opponents of the regime were routinely disappeared while American aid dollars rolled in to the junta. Throughout it all, most of Argentina's bishops remained silent, including Bergoglio.

UPDATE: Horacio Verbitsky, a prominent Argentinian journalist, wrote in his book, El Silencio, that in 1976, Bergoglio, then a high-ranking official in the Society of Jesus (the formal name for the Jesuit order), "withdrew his order's protection," as Reuters described the allegation, from two priests working among the poor in Argentina's urban slums. The two were subsequently kidnapped by the regime.

The Reuters article includes this comment from an Argentine scholar about Bergoglio and the Dirty Wars:

"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," Fortunato Mallimacci, the former dean of social sciences at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, once said.

His actions during this period strained his relations with many brother Jesuits around the world, who tend to be more politically liberal.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy, writing two years ago in the Guardian, suggested that Bergoglio may have been more complicit than merely silent.** UPDATE: However, since Bergoglio's election yesterday as the new pope, the Guardian has amended O'Shaughnessy's piece, writing in an editor's note that O'Shaughnessy incorrectly attributed his accusation of Bergoglio's alleged involvement in a plot to hide the junta's political prisoners from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to a book by Horacio Verbitsky. (See our correction, below.)

The cardinal's spokesman denied the charges, and, according to the U.K. edition of the International Business Times, "no evidence was presented linking him to the kidnapping" of the two priests. A 2005 lawsuit against Bergoglio for his alleged involvement in the  the kidnapping apparently came to naught.

News reports also describe Bergoglio as being "close to" the international right-wing group, Communion & Liberation, which is currently embroiled in several corruption scandals in Italy. (Just exactly what "close to" means is never quite explained.) C&L is said to be a favorite cause of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI; in fact, he employed four women members of C&L's Memores Domini, whose adherents pledge lifelong celibacy. 

Estimated by one Italian newspaper, according to NCR's John Allen, to have assets of more than $100 billion ("representing 5 percent of Italy's gross domestic product," Allen notes), C&L is deeply involved in Italian politics, particularly in Lombardy, say news reports. From NCR:

Robert Formigoni, the highest profile adherent of Communion and Liberation in Italian politics, now finds himself embroiled in a deepening corruption scandal. The longtime governor of the Lombardy region is at the centre of a judicial investigation into bribery for the awarding of public health contracts. He also faces charges of suspicious ties to a shady businessman now in jail on corruption charges, and of using public funds to pay for his private vacations.


Another veteran member of Communion and Liberation, Antonio Simone, has already been arrested and charged with being part of a scheme to bilk as much as $74 million from a well-known Italian health institute. According to media reports, Simone’s personal Catholic piety is the stuff of legend; apparently, during the 1990s, when he held public office as an assessor in Lombardy, he would convoke his staff for morning prayer before beginning the day’s work.

While no one has suggested that those scandals involve Bergoglio, they do shed light on the movement's involvement in secular and political life, suggesting that Bergoglio may be a bit more worldly than his humble lifestyle would suggest.

*An earlier version of this article said that Bergoglio was the first pope to come from outside Europe, which is incorrect. He's the first pope since 741 to do so. h/t TeacherKen.

**An earlier version of this article contained a long quote from a 2011 article by Hugh O'Shaughnessy in the Guardian, which the Guardian has since corrected, removing the paragraph's central allegation. Here's how the O'Shaughnessy's original allegation read, as previously quoted in AlterNet's article:

The extent of the church's complicity in the dark deeds was excellently set out by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina's most notable journalists, in his book El Silencio (Silence). He recounts how the Argentine navy with the connivance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship's political prisoners. Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home in an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. The most shaming thing for the church is that in such circumstances Bergoglio's name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to chose the successor of John Paul II. What scandal would not have ensued if the first pope ever to be elected from the continent of America had been revealed as an accessory to murder and false imprisonment.

Here's how the paragraph reads now in O'Shaughnessy's Guardian piece:

The extent of the church's complicity in the dark deeds was excellently set out by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina's most notable journalists, in his book El Silencio (Silence). He recounts how the Argentinian navy hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship's political prisoners on an island linked to senior clerics.

We regret publishing a quote that was in error.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.