The Conversion of Pope Francis and “Why the New Pope Must Resign”

Francis Capitalism

“Why the New Pope Must Resign.” That was the title of an article I wrote just after the election of Pope Francis in 2013. In it I joined Argentina’s Horacio Verbitsky and others questioning the role of Jorge Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis) in Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-’83).

Since then, friends have asked me about that. “What do you think now – in the light of the fresh spirit of reform the pope has introduced – in the light of his tremendous popularity?  Surely you were mistaken in your original, hasty judgment.”

That’s the typical question and observation.

My answer has been that I’m delighted with Pope Francis and the direction his papacy has taken. Both his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, and especially his new eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’ are magnificent. Their criticisms of capitalism-as-we-know-it as the structural cause of world poverty and environmental destruction couldn’t be a clearer endorsement of a form of liberation theology that is both spiritually moving and politically engaged.

I’m glad the pope didn’t resign. Pope Francis is great.

But in response to my friends, I also add that the issue of Father Bergoglio’s involvement with the Dirty War is not resolved. Nor should it be ignored. Recalling its elements holds lessons for us – about the Roman Church’s history of supporting oppression, about whitewashed historiography, and most importantly, about the possibility of repentance and deep personal change.

Consider the first point, the Church supporting fascist oppression. It happened in Argentina during the Dirty War as it happened in Germany under Adolf Hitler.

When Bergoglio was Jesuit Provincial, he was accused of turning over to the army two of his Jesuit colleagues and former teachers, Fathers Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics. Both had been pro-socialist clerics and members of the Third World Priests’ Movement (MSTM). Such membership was considered a capital crime by the country’s ruling junta.

Yorio and Jalics had been embroiled in a long-standing feud with their Provincial not so much about their MSTM affiliation, but about their activities in a slum community the two priests served and lived in. Bergoglio didn’t have much time for Jesuits in his province being associated with left-wing causes – nor for versions of liberation theology tainted with Marxist analysis.

Like John Paul II and his chief advisor Josef Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI), he preferred a strain of liberation theology that prioritized the poor, but apolitically without revolutionary aspirations. Bergoglio liked to call that strain the “Theology of the People.” It prioritized their reflections on the gospel, and popular devotion to images, novenas, etc. Other versions of liberation theology were too “ideological.”

After being arrested and tortured, both Yorio and Jalics accused Bergoglio of fingering them to the army.

Father Yorio died without retracting his accusation. Fr. Jalics at first didn’t want to discuss the matter, saying that he and Bergoglio had reconciled.

Beyond the case of Yorio and Jalics, there was that of Father Christian Von Wernich. He had been a police chaplain during the Dirty War. After its conclusion, during the process of national reconciliation, Von Wernich came under investigation for his direct roles in police tortures and murders.

In response, while Bergoglio was a member, the Argentine Bishops’ Conference protected Von Wernich by transferring him to Chile under an assumed name. That is, the Bishops Conference treated accusations of torture and murder in exactly the same way bishops throughout the world had often dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children: transfer the offender and cover up the past.

So, the question becomes, was Jesuit Provincial Bergoglio, like the predominant leadership of the Argentine Catholic Church, somehow cooperative with the ruling junta?

This brings us to my second point about historiography.

In defense of the future Pope Francis (and of the church hierarchy in general), his biographer, Austen Ivereigh, offers explanations that end up sounding much like the defense of Pius XII vis-à-vis the Nazis and his failure intervene against the Holocaust. Ivereigh argues:

  1. When the military took over in 1976, Argentina (like Weimar Germany) was in a state of political and economic chaos.
  2. So virtually all segments of society welcomed the military take-over (as Germans and the German Catholic Church welcomed Adolf Hitler).
  3. The military’s brutal Dirty War was secretive about the extremity of its measures. (Fr. Bergoglio testified that it took him some time to realize what was happening.)
  4. So people like Bergoglio didn’t really know what was going on (just as Germans claim they didn’t know about the concentration camps and ovens).
  5. When he did find out (like Pius XII) Bergoglio “worked quietly” to help potential victims escape – while fulfilling his primary duty of protecting the Jesuits from suspicion, investigation and reprisals from the ruling junta.

As with Germany such reasons end up sounding like excuses that raise suspicions of cover-up and historical obscurantism. They evoke the following observations and questions:

  1. Bergoglio gives every indication of being on the same page with John Paul II and Josef Ratzinger who also largely “looked the other way” when confronted with evidence of government brutality in dealing with left-wing elements of the clergy and faithful, e.g. in Central America in general and in El Salvador and Nicaragua in particular.
  2. Bergoglio clearly shared their disdain for priests involved in politics.
  3. If (as Ivereigh suggests) Father Bergoglio was so well-connected and friendly with all factions (including government officials and military leaders on the one hand, and their opponents including MSTM members on the other) how could he not have at least suspected what was really happening?
  4. If Jalics had forgiven Bergoglio (as he originally had said) what had he forgiven?
  5. Why did Jalics apparently change his story a few days after Pope Francis’ election? On being repeatedly contacted by the media about the issue, Jalics said, “The fact is: Orlando Yorio and I were not denounced by Father Bergoglio.”
  6. Father Yorio offered no deathbed recantation of his charges against Bergoglio.

And that brings me to my final point about repentance and its significance for Catholics today.

As Ivereigh indicates, the prevailing method of dealing with such contradictions is to  reluctantly argue that Father Bergoglio perhaps did cooperate with the military – as did so many other churchmen in positions of authority during the Dirty War. However, in Bergoglio’s case, he also courageously helped many escape – at some risk to himself.

But then at some point, he underwent a kind of conversion and is now a progressive. At least at the administrative level, Bergoglio’s own testimony indicates that he experienced a profound conversion. He confesses that as a young Jesuit Provincial (he was only 36 when appointed), he was too headstrong, uncompromising and authoritarian.

Indications are, however, that the about-face went far beyond managerial style.

The exact turning point in the process remains unclear. It could have come after Bergoglio was virtually drummed out of the Jesuits by progressive elements which saw him as an impediment to the Society’s reform in the spirit of Vatican II.

Afterwards he spent two years in a kind of exile and deep introspection. Ivereigh reports that Bergoglio passed days hearing the confessions of simple shantytown poor people. He also spent hours in semi-depression, simply staring out his window. Colleagues worried that he was sick. Was it some type of breakdown?

Whatever the case, clear evidence reveals a subsequently changed man. Previously he was criticized by more liberal fellow Jesuits and others for failing to ask important questions about poverty. As they put it, “He’s great at ministering to the poor. But he never asks why they are poor.” (The criticism evoked the famous comment of Dom Helder Camara, the archbishop of Olinda and Recife in Brazil who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”)

But as pope in Laudato Si’ Francis makes no bones about why the poor have no food, or jobs, or homes, or education. With observations worthy of the MSTM members he rejected, the pope says, all of those problems are connected by the invisible thread called deregulated capitalism. His encyclical says that poverty, environmental destruction and a whole host of other problems are caused by capitalism-as-we-know-it. (So, predictably and true to Dom Helder’s words, Rush Limbaugh and others call Pope Francis a communist.)

Evidence of radical theological change goes much further. Consider, for instance, that Francis has:

  • Surrounded himself with liberation theologian advisers concerned with history and structural analysis.
  • Rehabilitated and consulted pro-socialist theologians blacklisted by his two predecessors – most prominently among them Brazil’s Leonardo Boff.
  • Identified Marxism as similar to the teachings of the early church fathers, claimed Marxists as his friends, and referred to them as “closet Christians.”
  • Echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking of Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.”
  • Peppered both The Joy of the Gospel and Laudato Si’ with frequent uses of the loaded word “liberation” contrasting the deleterious effects of “liberation” of markets (from government control) with the liberation of peoples proclaimed in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
  • Has similarly made Medellin’s phrase “preferential option for the poor” the watchword of his papacy, even going so far as to identify it with “the gospel itself.”
  • Beatified the martyred Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who is considered the patron saint of liberation theology. (Romero did, by the way, confront the ruling military and lost his life as a result.)
  • Described the world’s dominant economic system as running “counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.
  • Worked with the Obama administration to open doors to Cuba which for more than 50 years has struggled to construct an economic alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it.
  • In keeping with the insights of liberation theology, the pope has turned working against capitalism-as-we-know-it into a moral issue. In Laudato Si’ he wrote: “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – is a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in The Joy of the Gospel where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”

All of this represents not only a personal conversion for Pope Francis, but a summons to his Church to follow in his footsteps.

What he has written in “The Joy of the Gospel” indicates that he recognizes in a Church the same crisis he underwent. It is out-of-touch and in need of a complete overhaul. “Everything must change,” he has said.

For too long, he has written, the Church has been mired in an authoritarian judgmental paradigm and in viewpoint-narrowness that has focused on important but non-essential matters foreign to the focus of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s Kingdom. So-called “pelvic issues” were of little concern to Christianity’s Great Master.

The pope implicitly calls Catholics resembling his former conservative, apolitical self to engage in the process of political, economic, and ideological change before it’s too late. Stop staring out the window at a world falling apart, he tells us. Emerge from denial and obstructionism and come to grips with climate chaos and changing the economic system that causes not only environmental destruction, but world hunger, poverty, high infant mortality, and war.

Those are statements Fathers Yorio and Jalics could fully endorse.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

3 thoughts on “The Conversion of Pope Francis and “Why the New Pope Must Resign””

  1. I wonder if the saying “greater the sinner, greater the saint” could be appropriate here. We often want our ideal figures to be 100% Simon pure perfect, but reality does not deliver that. Maybe it would be nice if the Pope would publicly confess his sins; or would it only undermine confidence in his new direction among a public, some of whom are looking for any way to discredit him and his radical ideas? Do we really want an unrealistic demand for perfection to become the enemy of the possible?

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  2. Helder Camara is quoted in various ways — sometimes asking why people are poor, and as in your post, asking why people have no food.

    It is reasonable to question why people are poor (or rich). Why do some people have plenty of food, and others have almost none? However, the answers to that question do not necessarily lead to a conclusion that the questioner is “communist”. Hunger and famine is often associated with Communist policies (in Venezuela, North Korea, Ukraine/Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc.), where dogmatic political people try to manage food production — and do a poor job of managing.

    Helder Camara’s question is fair for any government, whether communist/socialist, or not. Venezuelan government officials have blamed the CIA for ongoing food shortages. Ordinary people may see the situation differently from their government.

    http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2013/sep/26/venezuela-food-shortages-rich-country-cia

    This Guardian article credits the Venezuelan government for reducing malnutrition overall, but there are serious shortages that many other countries do not experience. Governments should improve the lives of their citizens, not deprive citizens of essential foods, education, medicine, and liberty.

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    1. Good questions you raise here, Mary. Food production is hard to get right, especially when huge conglomerates and the governments they employ undermine efforts to produce for local needs rather than prioritizing export. Certainly treating food like any other commodity has been disastrous. 30,000 children die each day from hunger-related causes, while countries like our own throw away enough food to feed everyone. There’s got to be a better way. The pope’s principle of “Preferential Option for the Poor” indicates the direction.

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