The announcement in March that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was to become the new pope was almost too much for some of us to bear. It was surely a coup de grace for the hopes of a billion or so Catholics, dominated, regimented, patronised and on occasion fleeced by wily clerics in Rome as the latter went about feathering their own baroque and rococo nests in the Eternal City and letting the poor go hang.
Now Paul Vallely, best known for his contributions to the Independent, has done us all a favour by setting out in a masterful way and with no little expertise the career of the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now bishop of Rome in all its chiaroscuro. Vallely’s biography, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots was published last month by Bloomsbury. One hopes that his optimistic view of the authoritarian pontiff will be borne out by the Argentine’s conduct and that he will turn out to be the talented but humble man that the Vatican’s public relations men rushed to present him as.
The new Pope’s appointment was surely the end of the expectations which John XXIII, the son of peasants and a wise, holy and great man, had ignited when he called the Second Vatican Council to breath new life into a limping institution in the 1960s. John’s successors—the temporiser Paul, the brief John Paul I, the all too permanent Pole John Paul II, hammer of modernisers and Liberation Theologians and Russophobe guardian angel of the White House and the State Department—had all done what they could to abort Vatican II. After an unexplained resignation by Joseph Ratzinger who had occupied the papal throne in a halting but wobbly manner since 2005 how had the cardinal-electors sitting in conclave in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican gone so far out of their minds to choose an Argentine cleric as the latest Servant of the Servants of God?
Had they had no idea that Argentine Catholicism which I observed on the spot over the decades at first hand stank in the nostrils of many in Latin America and beyond? After all it had produced little original thought, its leaders the bishops were enthusiastically supportive of the drive by the Vatican to bury the last elements of Vatican II. Successive archbishops and cardinals had shrugged when a series of officers of the armed forces—who were as politically inept as they were cowardly, corrupt and incompetent—tortured and murdered priests, nuns and members of the faithful. The drugged bodies of some of them were thrown out of planes over the River Plate. Victims of Argentine terror included at least one local bishop Enrique Angelelli, who favoured trade unions and who was murdered by the military in a fake road accident in his diocese of La Rioja.
Western governments did not criticise the Argentine military dictatorships, General Onganía, General Videla, Admiral Massera and scores more kept quiet. The West was selling them arms. The Argentine Catholic church also kept its mouth shut. There was none of the culture in that sad country to produce heroic people I saw such as Archbishop Romero in San Salvador or the six murdered Salvadorean Jesuits or Cardinal Raúl Silva, Pinochet’s bête noire from across the Andes in Chile.
Nothing much was heard from Bergoglio as he climbed up the ladder to become provincial of the Argentine Jesuits and then to the archbishopric of the capital. What news he generated was of a piece with the thinking of the conservative Argentine leaders such as Cardinal Antonio Quarracino of the Argentine capital who wanted homosexuals “to be locked up in a ghetto.”
After the military putsch of 1976 he was caught up in the tragedy surrounding two Jesuits, Franciso Jalics and Orlando Yorio, whom the regime seized, stripped naked, manacled and tortured implacably for five months in the ESMA, the large barracks in the centre of the city, the Argentine precursor of the Lubyanka or Abu Graib. They had gone to live in and minister to the inhabitants of one of the many slums, living witnesses to the spirit of Vatican II and the practice of Liberation theology and the fury of conservatives in and outside the church. Bergoglio was incensed and ordered them to leave the slum. When they did not they were forbidden to say mass publicly, effectively abandoned by the Jesuits and turned over to the torturers.
In his new book Paul Vallely simply and clearly tells of the sinister background of the new pope. Yet he goes on to pursue Francis’s redemption over succeeding decades from the ranks of the evil-doers in Argentina to emerge after the Cold War sorrowful and chastened when he came to realise the crimes he had committed or ignored in the post-Cold War world before the excesses of the Reagan and Bush eras were revealed, condemned and possibly one day punished. In Argentina at least those most responsible responsible for supporting military terror, such as Videla were unmasked and imprisioned.
Confessing his past mistakes the pope has come round to the task of humble atonement for them, taking up a position of repentance for his past grievous errors. If Bergoglio pursues such a policy—and the author thinks that he will—he may end up reforming a church along the lines of humbler, less monarchical and modern lines. If that does prove to be the case it would be an enormous benefit and would dispel a great deal of hypocrisy.