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.

Why the New Pope Should Resign: The Pedophilia Syndrome

ChristianVonWernich

Until yesterday’s election of Pope Francis I, I must confess I doubted the ability of the Holy Spirit to influence the election of a successor to recently resigned Benedict XVI. After all, Benedict and his predecessor had so stacked the College of Cardinals that the likelihood of a progressive or reformer being elected seemed impossible. That is, all of the papabile were clones of the previous two popes – all to a man, opponents of women’s ordination, artificial contraception, and of liberation theology. The patriarchy had defeated, it seemed, the very Spirit of Jesus.

However, as they say, the Holy Spirit operates in strange ways. Evidently, she concluded, “I’ll let them elect a clone of John Paul II if they like. But then I’ll take over and allow the scandalous crimes of that clone to become evident. As a result, he’ll have to resign. Then in desperation, the church will turn to a real reformer – this time chosen from outside the ranks of the College of Cardinals – perhaps even a feminine spirit like mine.”

Does that seem so crazy? Let’s move one step at a time. Before thinking about who the next pope should be, or where she should come from, here is the reason for Francis I to abdicate:

To begin with, he shouldn’t resign because he’s ultimately bad for Argentina and Latin America. That is, despite what they’re saying in the media, Cardinal Bergoglio was bad for the poor of Argentina. Remember, he’s a “compassionate conservative.” That means he’s a churchman who talks about combatting poverty, but then ends up opposing progressive politicians like Argentine president Cristina Kirchner.

In this, he’s the analogue of U.S. bishops siding with the Republican Party. All of those bishops claim to support the poor. However they end up doing the opposite. Their positions on the overriding “wedge issues” of contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage put them in bed with the Republicans and their “preferential option for the rich.” In this way, the bishops end up trying to persuade Catholics to vote Republican. Bergoglio did something similar in Argentine politics.

More accurately still, Francis I is the analogue of John Paul II in Poland. John Paul was ultimately bad for Poland (and the developing world as well). True, he opposed the Polish version of communism and seemed to support the labor union, Solidarity. However John Paul actually undermined his country’s sovereignty and the global labor movement by appearing to give papal blessing to international capitalism. That not only impoverished Poland, it weakened labor and progressives throughout the Catholic world.

The election of Francis I promises to do something similar for (to!) Latin America. As politically conservative, he imparts ecclesiastical approbation to rightist governments throughout the region in their efforts to discredit and unseat Latin America’s newly resurgent progressives.

Secondly, the new pope shouldn’t resign because he betrayed two fellow Jesuits during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” During that conflict (1976-1983), and like most of the hierarchy in Latin America, Bergoglio sided with the criminal dictatorship whose leader has since been put behind bars as a ruthless murderer.

According to Horacio Verbitsky and his book, Silencio, Fr. Bergoglio, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, removed his order’s protection from two of his brother Jesuits accused of “subversion” (i.e. opposition to the military dictatorship). True, Verbitsky says, the future pope adopted a public posture of seeking the Jesuits’ release. However privately he cooperated in prolonging their detention and torture.

Both priests later brought charges against Bergoglio as an accomplice of the military for the priests’ unjust imprisonment. After initially and repeatedly invoking ecclesiastical privilege to avoid deposition about the case, Bergoglio was finally interviewed by prosecutors. According to Argentine human rights organizations, his answers were highly evasive.

No, the real reason Francis I should resign is because of what he did about the von Wernich case. Von Wernich was a police chaplain during the Dirty War. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for aiding and abetting the military in the illegal kidnapping, torture and murder of prisoners during the brutal dictatorship of the Argentine military. According to the New York Times, while von Wernich was being investigated for his actions, and while Bergoglio was a member of the Argentine Bishops Conference, the priest was transferred to Chile under an assumed name. There he served in a parish until his arrest, conviction and imprisonment for the crimes just mentioned. And von Wernich has never been defrocked, even after Bergoglio was elected head of the Bishops’ Conference, nor has any church apology been issued. In fact, the former police chaplain has been allowed to carry on as a priest while in prison.

Now imagine our reaction if von Wernich had been a pedophile. And imagine if Bergoglio had been part of a decision to transfer a pedophile cleric as he evidently was in the case of this serial kidnaper, murderer and torturer. The whole world would be outraged and would demand the pope’s resignation. He would be completely discredited. And yet, a serial kidnapper, torturer and murderer is infinitely more dangerous than a serial pedophile.

The point is that we have exemplified in the case of the new pope the very same syndrome that has been universally descried in cases of pedophilia. It is the same syndrome that plagued the tenure of Benedict XVI and that possibly evoked his own resignation. It’s the Old Boys protecting their own.

As I said, I’m not discouraged by all of this. Instead, my faith in the Holy Spirit has been renewed. Her ways are strange indeed. The papacy is crumbling before our eyes. But it may be the death necessary before resurrection.