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  • When the Pope Turned His Back
  • Jonathan Power (bio)

It’s no wonder Pope Francis is still riding a wave of adulation nearly three years into his job: He speaks out against child abuse within the Catholic Church and against homophobia at large; he renounces the panoply, regalia, and bureaucracy that repels so many; he condemns “the idolatry of money” and says “working for a just distribution” of wealth is a “moral obligation.” And sometimes, at midnight, he visits the homeless on the streets of Rome, wearing only a black cassock.

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But this is also the same man who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, refused to meet the grandmothers and relatives of infants who had been torn away from their imprisoned and tortured mothers during Argentina’s military junta in the 1970s and 1980s. The same man who apparently never said a word in public, even during a church homily, about the ugliness and evil enveloping the society around him.

Francis, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, ignored the example of many of the Catholic Church hierarchy in neighboring Brazil, who stood up to their military rulers and dulled the urge of the government to torture and murder. Indeed, many historians say the church accelerated Brazil’s transition to democracy.

We cannot know in what way the often rough-and-ready Argentine democracy would be different today if the church had spoken out, but it’s likely that if Catholic leaders had acted like their Brazilian counterparts, lives would have been saved, families kept intact, and many spared from torture. It’s also probable, while recognizing the country’s tumultuous past before the generals took over, that Argentina would be a less bitter and tormented nation today.

Andrea Tornielli shies away from these issues in his biography Francis: Pope of a New World. Tornielli is the long-time Vatican correspondent for the well-regarded Italian newspaper, La Stampa. He has written eight books on various popes. But his amnesia and ignorance of the wider context of the life of Francis is typical of many church observers.

In his book, he omits the history of the countries of the southern cone of Latin America and in particular overlooks the military regimes of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. When writing about Argentina, he is adept at giving the church’s case but closes his eyes to dissident opinion.

Yet if the 1.2 billion Catholics ignore the pope’s past, they are in danger of making a plaster saint, who might not weather well when scholars, theologians, and historians set to work on Francis’ legacy. If the pope could write a letter to the faithful and explain exactly what went on and what was done wrong by the leaders of the Argentine church, we might end up with a pope truly worthy of sanctification. For those who believe in the church, it would doubtless inspire them to think more profoundly about moral dilemmas in the political and human rights arena and, perhaps, even make them a bit more courageous.


In the 1960s—when the liberals, democrats, unionists, liberation theologians, and ultraleftists began their push for democracy, a free press, a reformed judiciary, economic and social equality, land reform, human rights, and, most sensitive of all, a decrease in military power—the generals of South America responded with an iron fist in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.

In Brazil, the generals took control in 1964 (and ruled until 1985). There was initially no U.S. connection, although Washington cooperated with the junta once they were in power. There was torture and persecution, though not on the same scale as Argentina. A big part of the reason was the forcefulness of the church. The senior cleric, Paulo Evaristo Arns, the cardinal of São Paulo, was extremely outspoken. When a workers’ movement in the car factories led to a series of illegal strikes, the cardinal took up their cause and held special services for them in the cathedral. Bishops, priests, and nuns marched with the strikers. The workers’ leader, Luíz Inácio “Lula” de Silva, as he told me...


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pp. 96-103
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