Pope Francis I: The First Latin American Pope

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

What will the first Pope from Latin America mean for that region, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics?  Leading scholars – several of them participants in a multi-year research project at American University* – offered insights recently in The New York Times.  Among many factors that they point to as conditioning the leadership of the newly elected Pope Francis – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires – are how the Church meets the challenge of Evangelical Protestantism and deals with its own past in the region.

With their remarkable rise in recent decades, Evangelicals have broken centuries of Catholic monopoly and made Latin America far more pluralistic religiously than ever before.  Professors Virginia Garrard-Burnett and Daniel Levine underline the limitations of the strategies for renewal employed by the last two Popes – the return to traditional pieties, the adaptation of Pentecostal spiritual practices by “charismatic” Catholics, and the embrace of what Garrard-Burnett calls “neotraditional” organizations such as the elite, secretive Opus Dei.  Levine singles out various Evangelical strengths: churches that “work well with new media, have local leaders close to the community and provide expanded roles for women and minority groups.”  Perhaps the Evangelicals’ most fundamental advantage is their success in making religious faith relevant and real to the millions of Latin Americans that have swelled the region’s violent cities and experienced wrenching social change.

Latin American Catholicism will also be shaped by how it faces its own past in a region where democracies have replaced the dictatorships of old.  The personal story of Pope Francis illustrates different dimensions of that past: an “option for the poor” that took hold after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) together with a long history of ecclesiastical accommodation with repressive regimes.  The Argentine hierarchy as a whole was seen as supportive of the military dictatorship during the massive violation of human rights in 1976‑83.  Bergoglio’s personal role is unclear.  His supporters hold that he combined pastoral concern for his flock with quiet humanitarian diplomacy toward the junta. His critics argue that he failed to protect several left wing priests and his silence constituted complicity with the regime.  Like many other clerics who rose to dominate today’s Latin American hierarchies, he did not publicly defend human rights.

As Pope Francis, Bergoglio’s personal style and pastoral simplicity already mark an important signal to his Church that it must be committed to the poor.  In Latin America it has a historic opportunity to stand for their dignity and foster their empowerment.  Public identification with their cause is vital, but so is living and working with them to overcome the poverty and violence of their communities.  John XXIII, Paul VI and notable Latin American bishops after Vatican II saw this as a matter of securing their fundamental human rights.  This is an enduring legacy of their leadership during dictatorships that Francis and his Church should build on in the democracies of today.

* 2012-13, with the support of the Religion and International Affairs Initiative of the Henry R. Luce Foundation

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  1. You say “like many other clerics who rose to dominate today’s Latin American hierarchies, he did not publicly defend human rights.” That is quite untrue. Many churches including the Chilean, the Salvadorean, the Brazilian etc defended human rights saving thousands of lives in the process. The Chilean Cardinal Silva Henriquez created the first human rights organizations first COPACHI and then when it was attacked they created the VIcaria inside the church itself. Archbishop Romero was assassinated due to his defense of human rights. The Argentine Church stood alone in its silence and often close relationships with the junta. The Papel Nuncio played tennis daily with Admiral Massera, who has been said to have had a close relationship with Bergolio too. Moreover Bergolio sanctioned the priests, who worked in the poor neighborhoods, and they were picked up the next day and tortured. At least one blamed his arrest on Bergolio and his niece still does. Moreover, the mother of a disappeared young woman and a kidnapped daughter appealed to him for help and he told her the girl had been placed with a good family and there was nothing more to do. Bergolio was called three times to testify and refused twice, and was said to have been evasive the third time. Even if he was working behind the scenes to save some, it is further acknowledgement that he knew what was happening to tens of thousands, and yet never said a word of criticism of the junta and its policies, or did anything close to what the church in Chile did. The Church in Chile has nothing to be ashamed of in its behavior during the dictatorship. The Argentine Church has already apologized twice.

  2. Alexander Wilde

     /  March 20, 2013

    It is to the enduring honor of Latin America’s Catholic Church that its sons and daughters – courageous bishops, priests, nuns and lay people – defended human rights in so many places during the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, the Church played an important role in mediating peace processes (notably in Central America) and fostering democratic transitions and historical memory (Chile is an exemplary case). Much more could be said, but like Ms. Schneider, I admire enormously what they did.

    She is mistaken in giving the impression that this was the whole story. Argentina may have been the most egregious example of complicity and silence, but the response of many other national Churches to violence and repression was less than inspiring.

    She also mistaken if she believes that Church hierarchies in Latin America today embody anything like the vigorous commitment to social justice visible in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. Most of the clerics promoted within the Church structures by Popes John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013) – the bishops that make up national hierarchies – have a very different conception of their faith, more socially conservative and concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy.

    Berdoglio seems to have this side, but together with a strongly pastoral vocation – above all, toward the poor and their struggles in this world. He inherits the leadership of a Church beset by serious sexual and financial scandals and in need of significant institutional reforms. He cannot avoid tackling those. But one senses that he is profoundly drawn to renewing a lived commitment to what the Latin American bishops called at Medellín, Colombia in 1968, a “preferential option for the poor.”

  3. Dr. Fortunato Mallimaci

     /  March 25, 2013

    By Dr. Fortunato Mallimaci, Professor, University of Buenos Aires and Researcher, National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET)

    The crisis of an integralist Roman Catholicism [one that insists on Catholicism pervading all aspects of life and does not recognize the autonomy of other spheres of life] with multiple scandals provides the necessary background for the election as Pope of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who is best understood as somewhere between conservative and ultraconservative. The conclave excluded actors and ideas with ties to the world of the poor and the forgotten of history. They had been accused of misinterpreting the Second Vatican Council. The conclave favored someone able to personally confront the “dictatorship of relativism, of subjectivism and constructivism, especially in regard to gender” which – it is affirmed – seeks “to destroy the values of Catholicism.” Pope Francis fits this line of thought.

    An individual’s life history can provide insights in to what they are likely to do in office. There has been much controversy about Cardinal Bergoglio’s relation with Argentina’s last military regime [1976-1983]. Argentina’s recent dictatorships have been a blend of civil, military and Catholic elements, with powerful ties between an integralist Catholicism and a nationalistic and anti leftist military. The superior of the Jesuits at that time (Bergoglio) is widely held to have been complicit in the arrest and torture of the priests Yorio and Jalicks, a judgment that I share. Orlando Yorio and Emilio Mignone (recognized national and international leader in the defense of human rights) shared with me their conviction that this is so. No legal charges have ever been brought, but at the same time, there has been no statement of public repentance by high Church officials for complicity with the terrorism of the state against its victims. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires and president of the Argentinian Bishops’ Conference. Bergoglio’s administration provided a noteworthy contrast to the scandals of his predecessor. His life style was simple and austere, and various priests describe him as a very approachable person. At the same time, he has consistently reaffirmed Catholic identity in unquestioned certitudes. This made for an absence of theological and pastoral innovation and open confrontation with the demands of expanding social and cultural rights, especially those of women, of sexually diverse groups, and of new forms of family life. He was sensitive to the suffering of victims of catastrophes with strong public repercussions.

    His understanding of the character of modern Catholicism associates it with national identity in ways that lead him to value ties with the state and with power elites, which he sees as essential to carry forward the mission of the Church. This is politicization of religion and catholicization of politics at the same time. In this he is very much Roman Catholic. As Pope, Francis will need to set clear priorities. He can be the interlocutor of the world powers of globalized capitalism. Alternatively, he can resolve the theological and pastoral problems of many institutionalized Catholics who tend to believe “on their own account” and look for more openness and pluralism in their relations with the Church. Finally, he can move to institute structural changes in the roman curia to leave behind once and for all the contemporary Vatican state with its apparatus of nuncios, banks, and its pervasive secrecy. Or he can move on all fronts at once.

    His humility, simplicity, and personal asceticism are valued signs just as they were with John Paul II. These individual gestures may or may not translate into urgent and much needed changes in the structures of the Church. The figure of Francis, the first Argentine and Latin American pope, opens the way for new scenarios the region. Rigid stances on controversial issues about sexuality, the body, and gender, may create new conflicts between society, the state, and the Catholic Church. A sign of hope would be action that opened Church archives and directed members of the church to provide any and all data about the repression, in particular about children kidnapped during the dictatorship. A further sign of hope and change would be for Pope Francis to do something no Argentine church authority has yet undertaken, to make an official visit to the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who are living witnesses and voices of the victims in Argentina. This would be a great event.

  4. Pedro

     /  April 2, 2013

    Sorry, Dr. Mallimaci, but I don’t think Bergoglio is “somewhere between conservative and ultraconservative”. I can understand you don’t like him much and your position as a progressive catholic, but ultraconservatism is much more extreme in Argentina. Look at Plaza, for instance. The gesture of disregarding him as Archbishop at Buenos Aires (prophesized by the unofficial spokesman, Sergio Rubin) is in itself a positioning towards ultraconservatism. Of course, it does not make him a left wing liberal, but it points out a difference. Something quite similar happened with the discussion on gay marriage, even despite the famous letter to the Carmelitas.


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