New Pope 2013: Francis' Argentine Past Could Haunt Him


The pope is rarely categorized as a particularly vociferous or verbose individual. Instead his prevailing image is that of an older, quieter man, whose Latin words are only made audible through the microphone into which he speaks. This subdued, humble, self-effacing nature of the Pontifex Maximus, however, has brought about early criticism for the Catholic Church’s newest leader, as his actions (or lack thereof) from Argentina’s "dirty" past begin to resurface.

Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is both the first Latin American and the first Jesuit to be elected to the papacy. He was elected on the fifth ballot with a total of 77 votes on Wednesday, the second day of the Vatican City conclave, to replace the recently abdicated Pope Benedict XVI. With his assumption to the throne as the new Bishop of Rome, however, come also particular charges against him for never having openly confronted the Church and the role it played in the 1976-1983 military junta of his native country, Argentina: charges which threaten to cast a shadow over the leader’s incandescent infallibility.

Most of the criticisms targeted at Pope Francis, 76, stem from his positions in the wake of recent Argentinian investigations seeking to expose those responsible for killing over 30,000 people and to account for the innumerable insurgents lost during this time and never found. Critics argue that the Jesuit has neglected endorsing, and has even cast down, such investigations so as to preserve the image of the Church. More specifically, activists and skeptics have questioned the validity of Bergoglio’s presumed protection of two younger priests who vied to keep alive the liberation theology movement in the Argentinian slums, suggesting instead that the Pope effectively delivered them to their deaths by failing to endorse their work. While the government of Argentina has, as recently as last December, denounced the complicity of the Church in human rights violations during this period of dictatorship, people still find Pope Francis largely at fault for his lack of personal ownership and condemnation of his country and of his Church’s ugly past.

However, as is typically the case, most of the recent criticism against the Supreme Pontiff also is accompanied by negating cries for sympathy and understanding.

Sergio Rubin, the Pope’s authorized biographer, argues that the Church’s neglect of the atrocities committed by the Argentinian government is collective, and that to place the entire burden of over half a decade of violence and almost half a century of oversight on one man is unfair and unjust. And there, with this single point, Rubin wins the entire debate.

Given the influence and the leverage that Pope Francis now has in his new position at the crux (pun intended?) of the entire Catholic Church, which expands across the whole world and is still the statistically most practiced religion in the world, it is easy to want, or even to expect him to take poignant stands on humanitarian issues. And in many ways he does have that particular obligation. But in the same vein of his dissension from marriage equality or from legal abortion, there are particular aspects of the Catholic Church that Pope Francis cannot evade and also cannot be held personally responsible for. The institution is too large, too powerful for him to take onus in making seismic change and, although we’d like to see him lash out against the Argentine Church for its compulsion with the country’s military junta and we’d like to see him talk about the skeletons in his own closet, we shouldn’t expect it, nor should we criticize him for not doing so.

So while, yes, he is now the Vicar of Christ, he is still only human, and we cannot criticize him for his position as such.