Jorge A. Aquino

Watching reactions to the papal election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, I have been knocked over, even awed, by their far-flung and contradictory range, by their passion, and by the fiercely polemical attitudes that have constellated in discussions about him. Mapping these responses tells much about the crossroads Roman Catholicism straddles today.

The most striking responses attending Francis’ ascent in the United States have been the adulation and plaudits from white liberal Catholics and progressive Latinos, each for different reasons. On the one hand are white liberals, who perceive that Francis—with his reputation for humility, simplicity, and personal poverty, and his specially charismatic connection with poor communities—might be the reformer for whom they’ve been waiting. If he does not change fundamental doctrine, he will probably reform the aspects of the church today that are most obviously disordered and dysfunctional. Those would include a Vatican curia believed—after a series of scandalous “Vati-leaks” from Pope Benedict’s personal assistant to the press—to be addled in corruption and power-gaming. They would also include more insightful and far-reaching responses to the problems of clergy sexual misconduct.

Latinos/as, on the other hand, have been excited by a figure they identify as a “Latino pope” and/or a “Third World pope”—though both signifiers leave much to be desired. The word “Latino” overstates the commonality between the experience of an Argentine prelate such as Cardinal Bergoglio, and the diverse Latin@s populations of the United States. It is striking how little most U.S. Latin@s seem to know about the context and history of a prelate who has excited them so visibly. In discussions among Latin@ Catholic theologians and clerics one sometimes finds an attitude of defensive protectiveness toward Francis—whether for his Franciscan-Jesuit posture, or for his perceived citizenship in “La Patria Grande” (the great fatherland) as imagined by some Latin@s in the United States.

Both groups speak with raves of their first impressions of Francis as a pastoral pontiff: his affable and open humility, the simplicity and poverty of his personal lifestyle, his ordinary private apartment, his penchant for getting about Buenos Aires on public transit, his bachelor cooking, and his impatience with people who fuss about his personal attire or comfort. Bergoglio is even perceived to be practicing a 21st-century incarnation of liberation theology’s opción preferencial por los pobres—the preferential option for the poor—because of his famous pastoral outreach to the marginal communities of Buenos Aires. Progressives sense in him the possibility of a charismatic opening in world Catholicism, one that harnesses the particular cultural charisms of Latin American Catholics, and those from other churches in the Global South.

I would exercise caution with all these perspectives, considering the life of the Church in long-historical, decolonial perspective. The designation of this pope as a potential reformer, or as a “Third World” or “Latino” pope, arise from a mesh of misunderstandings about Pope Francis, and about Argentina in a larger stream of Latin American history, that belie Francis’s real location in today’s order of global Roman Catholicism. By “order,” I mean the secular order of historical Roman Catholicism, constituted originally in the Roman legalization and imperialization of fourth-century Christianity. The Roman order evolves into the late medieval Hispanic Christendom that takes root in the Américas as an instrument of the conquest, with Cristóbal Colón and Hernán Cortés—but which is also contested by men like Bartolomé de las Casas and Antonio de Montesinos. This originary historical dialectic—between greedy conquerors and prophetic Christian evangelists—evolved into conflicts, throughout the second half of the 20th century, between Latin America’s Church-sanctioned national security states and the theology of liberation. This is one perspective from which to think the larger import of Bergoglio’s accession.

Argentina was one of the most notorious of the Latin American national security states to emerge in the 1970s. A military junta led by General Jorge Videla and Admiral Emilio Massera launched a reign of terror on liberal and Marxist groups after their March 1976 coup overthrew the government of Isabel Perón. Some 30,000 people lost their lives—arrested, sometimes disappeared, tortured, or killed—in military detention facilities, such as the notorious naval academy where counterinsurgency interrogations took place. Bergoglio, who was Argentina’s Jesuit superior from 1973 to 1979, has been identified as a silent party to the dictatorship. Prominent Argentine critics—human rights lawyers, journalists, and survivors of the dictatorship—insist that he still has much for which he must give an account. But Bergoglio has never been convicted of any wrongdoing in connections with the human rights abuses of those years.

I read Bergoglio’s election as a top-down compromise by a Roman Catholic hierarchy struggling—like the proverbial Dutch boy before the teetering wall of the levy—to reconcile deepening tensions between these two poles of authority and power in Catholic-Christian churches throughout the world. His papacy would represent continuity in the Vatican’s 30-year-plus strategy to co-opt and neuter the more radical political and social options of the post-conciliar period. The most obvious target has been the discourse and pastoral praxis of liberation theology—including its merger of church-building into radical political options. More recent targets include women’s ordination movements, as well as LGBTQ equal rights. To the extent that Pope Francis has anything to offer as “the first Third World pope,” it is in this context that such an offering will be made.

Bergoglio and Argentina’s ‘Dirty Wars’

One common strategy for assessing his place in the fabric of Christendom has been to ask what Bergoglio did during La Dictadura. A furious debate has emerged over whether he was the enemy of liberation theology, and whether he had some sort of nefarious complicity in the barbarities and atrocities that racked Argentina during the years of its brutal, fascistic military dictatorship (1976-1983). Bergoglio was Jesuit Provincial of Argentina from 1973 to 1979, some of the worst years of the dictatorship. He was accused of betraying two Jesuit pastoral agents—Fathers Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics—to the military in 1977. Those men were disappeared for five months, tortured, and later released in a field, naked and drugged. Bergoglio has also been accused by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo of stonewalling their investigations into the whereabouts of missing family members. Though Argentine journalists, human rights lawyers, victims, and scholars are convinced Bergoglio has complicity problems, the charges have hardly stuck. He faced questioning in 2010, in a lawsuit seeking redress for the kidnappings of Yorio and Jalics. Argentine human rights lawyers describe Bergoglio’s testimony in that case as equivocal and evasive—a claim that bears out on reading transcripts of the testimony. But the case did not bring any sanction against Bergoglio, as lawyers for the Jesuits apparently failed to obtain clear and convincing evidence of his role in their clients’ disappearance. After the cardinal’s elevation, Jalics released a statement saying that he had long harbored suspicions of Bergoglio’s hand in his detention, but has since come to doubt those suspicions. But the suspicions are far from settled among other survivors and their allies, who see Bergoglio, and/or the Church at large, as fellow travelers in a fascist regime. Beyond the question of juridical complicity, a more pastorally relevant inquiry has arisen over Bergoglio and the theology of liberation in Argentina. Was Bergoglio an ally, an enemy, or just remotely indifferent to the many pastoral projects in his jurisdiction that were influenced by liberation theology? And what was Bergoglio’s place and ideological stance in the context of a brutal regime that vaingloriously identified itself in the ignoble genealogy of Latin-Hispanic Christendom?

Global capitalism has a religious history. In Latin America that history involves the colonial abduction of the Christian gospel, and its reforging as the heartless soul of an ideology of conquest and racialized exploitation. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI blessed the division of the Hispanic New World between the Spanish and Portuguese in the name of Christian evangelization, and in 1508 Pope Julius II gave control over the New World church to the Catholic Kings. Clerics were partners in the bloody conquest of Cuba in 1511-1512. A Franciscan promising heaven tried to convert the rebellious Indian chief Hatuey as he was bound up to be burned at the stake. Told that Spaniards go to heaven too, Hatuey refused the Franciscan’s offer and died in a legendary ball of fire. We have this story from Bartolomé de Las Casas, who had an encomienda of his own on Hispaniola, in the years before his famous Pentecost Sunday conversion (1514). The Christianity of 1492 reached the New World as a theology of domination. Natural law inflections of Christian doctrine, from men like Juan Ginés de Sepúlvda or Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, gave birth to the first of the New World races: los Indios—the “Indians.” African slavery would also be naturalized by recastings of the biblical “curse of Ham,” and arguments that slavery was a purgative stage of spiritual perfection whose reward was manumission—sometimes here, sometimes in the hereafter.

Among the 20th-century heirs of this genealogy are infamous dictators like Spain’s Francisco Franco and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. Argentina’s dictators Videla and Massera belong squarely in this lineage. Their crusade was a national nightmare.

To read the report of Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappeared is to have one’s blood run cold. The dictatorship deployed a far-flung strategy of state terror, from a warped anti-communism that targeted ordinary forms of civil political activism and cultural life as supposed acts of terrorism against the state. The regime practiced extreme forms of brutality. The report turns over case after case illustrating a wide-ranging secret apparatus, given over to arresting supposed “subversives,” interrogating them at length, often under torture, kidnapping and hostaging family members in order to smoke out suspected people in hiding, and disappearing persons to cover up crimes of torture. The security services became notorious for disposing of detained persons by throwing them—beaten, starved, drugged, and tortured—out of helicopters into the Atlantic, in a manner reminiscent of the countless Africans tossed off the slave galleons of old. Security dragnets even seized elderly and disabled people, practicing an accentuated cruelty on them given their aged or infirm state.

There was substantial fraud and economic corruption involved with everyday administration of the dictatorship—sometimes for the individual gain of its officials, other times to abet the nefarious ends of a national security policy run amok. The truth commission documented massive forgeries of identities used by security officials for secret operations against leftists. It also documented the use of legal mechanisms and forms of documentation to steal property—bank deposits, real estate, securities—from individuals under detention and their families. The report documents the disappearances of entire families, as well as a massive program to remove children from detained women and give them in adoption to families of military or government officials. Clerics in the Argentine Church were believed to have a substantial role in this program, even if Bergoglio himself has not been proven culpable.

In the larger scheme of history, the Argentine dictatorship is one of the darker chapters in the millennial Black Legend of Western, Eurocentric colonialist/neoliberal imperialism—lately flying under the aegis of the national security apparatus of the United States.

The hot controversy over Bergoglio’s ascent makes no sense without understanding the deep wounds Argentina suffered—from which it is still recovering!—in the aftermath of the dictatorship. Nor can it be understood without confronting the equivocal, sometimes shameful role of complicity and silence that Argentina’s Roman Catholic Church, the country’s dominant religious institution, played during those years. In many ways the opposition and suspicion around Bergoglio manifests an identification people make—justified or not—between him and the vainglorious, latter-day Christendom that proposed to destroy Argentina in the name of saving it.

Option for the Poor: Which? Whose?

The Argentine dictatorship opens in the period between the pathbreaking general conferences of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) at Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979), in which the first options of the post-Vatican II period were discussed then implemented in South America and the dioceses of the Spanish Caribbean. The most famous option was the “preferential option for the poor.” More than merely an option against material poverty, the option for the poor encompassed a wide-ranging smorgasbord of economic, educational, cultural, political, and human rights. It emerged in the perspective of a Christian ideal of salvation reframed in terms of the “integral liberation” of the whole person. In advocating the full enfranchisement of all persons in civil society, the bishops affirmed that economic and social justice are the keys to social peace. Social peace, in turn, is a necessary, though insufficient, predicate for realizing the Christian ideal of salvation in an earthly, historical “reign of God.”

The option for the poor was born as Latin American social and church movements grappled with the two overwhelming facts that mark the historical signature of late twentieth-century Latin America. First, that the region’s perennially widespread poverty is girded by corrupt, oligarchical regimes of long standing, themselves embedded in the international capitalist order. The Roman Catholic hierarchies, in Latin America and in Rome, have always been central players in the political and social establishments behind that oligarchical order. The second overwhelming fact has been described by liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez as one of the “signs of the times” of the postwar period: the powerful decolonial awakening that prompted masses of people all over the earth to liberate themselves from domination and exploitation under corrupt local despots and/or parasitical foreign empires. In the Américas, the United States was the dominant empire, managing its geopolitical and economic interests through proxy regimes in each of the countries of its portfolio.

Argentina’s fit in this history has to do with its assimilation of a key U.S. export: North American ideologies, doctrines, and the nefarious techniques of hemispheric national security. In the age of the Cold War, the ostensible target was “communism.” But in the Américas, the real project was the defense of a lop-sided and decadent class order, on which was grounded the poverty and mass dispossession of the region. Peaceful social protests were succeeded by more radical or revolutionary political options from the underside in almost every Latin American society in this time (1964-1995). Repression, arrayed in supposed defense against communist subversion, was ruthlessly deployed to snub the legitimate demands of long-suffering constituencies. The United States—panicked about the wild-card internationalism of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions—stepped up military aid, weapons, and various forms of training in counterinsurgency to allies in the Américas, in the name of stalling communism and promoting democracy. The invariable result was that governments turned their weapons on the people, destroying democracy throughout the region.

Theologies of liberation, and the base community movements they inspired, emerged as part of a broad front challenging this yanqui empire from inside Christendom. They were a special target of the national security states. Marxist theorization was one dimension in Christian reflection from below. The theory of dependency—developed by critical successors of Raúl Prebisch—offered a mapping of the international economic order that was very compatible with anti-imperialist Christian activism. But more radical forms and practices were also sprouting—and Argentina had a reputation for some of the most radical movements of Marxist-Christian or revolutionary-Christian stripe.

Bergoglio and Argentina’s Ibero-Fundamentalist Christendom

Those movements worked their agenda against that of elites that were strongly identified with historical Latin American, Hispanic Christendom—the type that drove the conquest, the indigenous genocides, African slavery, and founded the institutions of capitalism in the Américas.

In his illuminating history of Argentina’s “Christianity and Revolution” movement (Cristianismo y Revolución, Córdoba 2001), Gustavo Morello describes the historical hierarchy of the Argentine Church as a pillar of the country’s oligarchical order:

a conservative elite, right-wing, traditionalist and fundamentalist, loyal to ideals of Hispanic Christendom, and which advocates the merging of state and church. For them, the destiny of the nation and of the church are joined. It is aristocratic, Catholic nationalism. The Church is fixed in time, nothing should change; the question is to defend the Catholic nation.

It’s a perspective that helps situate the ambivalent response to the election of Francis, who is seen—especially by liberal or liberationist Argentine Christians—as a product of that order. Indeed, this response to Bergoglio is worlds apart from the sort of celebration and adulation Francis has aroused among even progressive white and Latino/a Catholics.

It is not clear to me just how complicit Bergoglio may have been with the dictatorship—if at all. In all honesty, the evidentiary requirements needed to make a fair assessment of such a question will require more time and documentation than I have at hand, not to mention knowledge of the many human rights proceedings in the years since La Dictadura. I have weighed a fair amount of documentation, and find no real smoking guns against Bergoglio. I have also seen serious misreadings of the evidence by prominent, non-Argentine intellectuals who tried—but failed—to make quick assessments of an extremely complicated documentary archive in the immediate response to Francis’s election.

At the same time, I do not see in Bergoglio a prophetic voice of the sort that we saw in El Salvador, with the martyred Archbishop Romero, or in Brasil’s famously prophetic Dom Helder Câmara. Bergoglio seems not to have denounced the dictatorship in any memorable way until well after it was over. Liberationist theologian Jon Sobrino noted this non-denunciation in his comments on Francis’s election:

It doesn’t seem fair to speak of complicity, but it seems correct to say that in those circumstances Bergoglio distanced himself from the Popular Church which was committed to the poor. He wasn’t a Romero—celebrated for his defense of human rights and assassinated while exercising his pastoral ministry. I don’t have enough knowledge, and I say this with the fear of being mistaken. Bergoglio didn’t present the image of Monseñor Angelleli, an Argentinian bishop who was assassinated by the military in 1976. Very possibly, it did occur in his heart, but he wasn’t used to bringing out in public the living memory of Leonidas Proaño, Monseñor Juan Gerardi, Sergio Méndez . . .

And despite Bergoglio’s reputation as a pastor to the poor, I do not recognize him as any sort of latter-day liberation theologian. Even Leonardo Boff, who spoke very enthusiastically of Francis, did so in a way that showed he had little previous knowledge of him or his theological views. Which can only mean that Bergoglio was an unknown commodity, not a peer to an outstanding liberation theologian like Boff.

I am also less inclined to describe Bergoglio’s ministry to the poor as a sufficient practice of liberation theology’s option for the poor. The option for the poor was, and remains, a full-bodied option, actually an open horizon. It insists on addressing poverty, yes—but it critically insists that the agency of poor persons, in its fullest development, is even more important. It involves cultural, educational, labor, and political rights, a leveling of class privileges, human dignity, respect, and patrimonial recognition. And increasingly in this age of queering consciousness across Europe and the Américas, the option is also read as an option for sexual freedom, including rights to love, to make love, and to marry whomever affection, maturity, and mutual consent would bind together.

The best reading I can make at this point—and I am still reading!—is that Bergoglio would probably not support dimensions of the option involving gender equality, equal rights in sexuality and marriage, and broad class-restructuring responses to economic inequality. Bergoglio was no champion of gender equality in Argentina, and will never speak favorably for the ordination or women—and even less for extending the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. On the economic front, we can expect continued advocacy for the poor, and a continuation of his predecessor’s more progressive stance against neoliberal economics and the profiteering and class-entrenchment they foment. But I would be surprised to hear any drastic proposals for class restructuring.

Which is my way of saying that I do not expect more from this pope than sunny smiles, charming homilies, maybe some charismatic reinvigoration, and a few inspired encyclicals. We may see an end to the diplomatic blunders that marred Pope Benedict’s papacy. But I assume that the most important work—horizontal democratization of institutional authority, the ordination of women, the admission of married priests, and the revocation of heterosexist-homophobic doctrine on sexuality— will remain undone by the end of what will probably be a short papacy.

Jorge A. Aquino, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he teaches on Latin American theology and religious history, Latino/a and Afro-descended religious identities, and the challenge of racism in theology and faith discourse. A former co-chair of the Religion in Latin America & the Caribbean group of the American Academy of Religion (2007-2011), Aquino is vice president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States (ACHTUS). He is completing a book on the religious roots of racism in the Américas, to be published by Baylor University Press.