Francis is a remarkably original choice for the papacy, writes Federico Finchelstein, an Argentine historian and Associate Professor of history at The New School in New York. But the question is what will his election really change given that the new pope, born and raised in Argentina, where he eventually became the most powerful member of the hierarchy in the 2000s, has not only been an enforcer of conservative views but has also been linked to one of the South America’s most brutal military regimes.


The election of a non-European pope represents a turning point in religious history, at least in the sphere of global perception. Francis I, the first Latin American pope might provide the Vatican with a novel form of government.  One that is more populist in its outlook but perhaps even more grounded in terms of Catholic social action. This is one strong tradition that the Latin American, and more specifically, Argentine approach might provide to help place the Church in this new global century. But also part of the Argentine Latin American tradition is firmly rooted in the previous century and more specifically in its Cold War confrontation with the Left.

Francis is a remarkably original choice for the papacy. He was born and raised in Argentina where he eventually became the most powerful member of the hierarchy in the 2000s.  Like all Latin American churches, the current pope belongs to a tradition that combined “social action” and a rather traditionally charitable but nonetheless engaged policy towards the poorest sectors of the population, with a strong Cold War anti-communist, and most recently anti-gay and anti-abortion rights, concern. In this context, the question remains as to what really changes when the selected pope has not only been an enforcer of conservative views but also has been linked to one of the region’s most brutal military regimes, Argentina's last military dictatorship.

More than 10,000 citizens were killed by the Junta in its “Dirty War.” Pope Francis was not only silent about the crimes of the dictatorship but he was also accused by some progressive Jesuits who were under his responsibility of letting them be kidnapped, never trying to reach to higher religious and military authorities to help them while remaining silent about it. At the time of the military Junta, Pope Francis was the top priest in the Jesuit order in Argentina. And in that role he was responsible for all Jesuits including those progressive priests who were kidnapped and tortured by the Argentine military perpetrators. This is a fact. He has said he could not do more and that he did what he could. So the best historical scenario for him, the one that he prefers, is that of the passive onlooker.  And yet, at least one of the kidnapped priests presented him as a collaborator of the perpetrators. 

According to the most prestigious Catholic human rights advocate, the writer Emilio Mignone sometimes the green light to the perpetrators was given by the Bishops themselves. As quoted by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky: “On May 23, 1976 the Marine Infantry detained priest Orlando Yorio in the Bajo Flores section of Buenos Aires and ‘disappeared’ him for five months. One week before his arrest, Argentine Archbishop Aramburu had withdrawn Yorio’s license for no apparent reason. Several things that Yorio heard during his captivity make it clear that the Armed Forces interpreted that decision and, perhaps, some criticism from his superior in the Jesuit Order, Jorge Bergoglio, as authorization to take action against him. Most certainly, the military had warned both Aramburu and Bergoglio of the supposed danger that Yorio posed.”

The basis for this “danger,” which was apparently accepted by Bergoglio, who would become the current Pope at the beginning of the 21st century, rested on a notion accepted by most bishops: any condemnation of human rights violations was a threat to the Homeland and God. That is, most Argentine Bishops either actively or passively, and in public, accepted the actions of the dictatorship. The dictatorship understood these actions as part of a common Christian undertaking against the “atheistic subversion”, whose justification was ecclesiastical and whose actions military. The intimacy between God and its military nation was highly emphasized at the time and Father Bergoglio, the most important Jesuit in the country never spoke against this. But Father Bergoglio and others has been accused of even denouncing victims as leftists to the authorities. Emilio Mignone poignantly presented him as an active collaborator of the dictatorship.

Father Bergoglio dismissed these accusations as slander but beyond his role in the dictatorship, it would be interesting to briefly examine his idea of the traumas of the past as something that needs to be silenced. Unlike the Church in other Latin American countries (Chile and Brazil, two neighboring countries that also witnessed a powerful encounter between Catholic integrism and the Extreme Right in the last century), in Argentina the Catholic Church was not inclined to defend those whose cheeks had been smashed by the Armed Forces.

The Pope’s view of the past is typical of the larger inability of many members of the hierarchy to think their role in the history of mass atrocity, from the silence of the Church during the Holocaust to the Argentine concentration camps. In 2007, the Pope stated that to examine the past is to curse “into the past.” In keeping with the military idea of the enemy’s version of history as essentially political and, therefore, false, Bergoglio stated that “He who curses into the past does so because he is scheming to take advantage in the present or in the future.” According to the Bergoglio’s version of history, the trauma the country had experienced was a “betrayal of the people.” Indeed, a history of the dictatorship that spoke of its exterminatory policies meant, for Bergoglio, a criticism of the very idea of nation: “We must also recognize what our elders have given us: to bless, not to curse, our past. Sin and injustice must also be blessed with forgiveness, regret and reparation.”  Bergoglio, and the Argentine church at large, have also been very keen in promoting the forgetting of the past that is proposing reconciliation in Argentina among victims and perpetrators, that is a sort of letting the past go away by ceasing to inquire about it.

Francis shares the same conservative position as the two previous popes. But he was much more than then they were, a cold warrior on the ground. His early pastoral actions were footed in the dirty war which the Argentine church considered above all a central battle of the Cold War against communism and more generally secularism. Unlike his predecessors, Francis was an adult with a certain degree of influence and power at that Argentine time of mass atrocity. John Paul II participated in the resistance against Nazism and Benedict was a child during his engagement with the Nazi party. As a child of the most conservative Church in the  Americas, and if he continues to be who he was and is, Pope Francis will not be a game changer but an enforcer of tradition.

  • Federico Finchelstein is an Argentine historian and Associate Professor of history at The New School in New York.  He is also the Director of the Janey Program in Latin American Studies. Professor Finchelstein is the author of 4 books on fascism, the Holocaust and Jewish history in Latin America and Europe. His forthcoming book is The Ideological Origins of the Dirty War (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press)

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