Monday, March 18, 2013

Digging for Dirt

It didn’t take long after Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope before the world lined up on one side or another, loyalists singing his praises, and those with a less sanguine view of the Catholic Church digging for dirt.   Most people seem to be advising a wait-and-see approach, and expressing optimism that here, at last, we may have in Francis a pope who will do as he says he wants to do, turn the church away from corruption and denial to what the majority of Catholics would like it to be.  A home to be proud of.  A place of love and charity.

No less visible, however, are the dirt-diggers, people calling attention to the fact that this man was in fact elected by a profoundly conservative bunch of cardinals packed into the curia during the reigns of the last two profoundly conservative popes to advance the task of mitigating, if not undoing, the reforms of Vatican II. 

The word of the day during Vatican II was aggiornamento – “updating”, modernizing the church, making it more accessible, more relevant to people increasingly accustomed to democracy and a sense of morality based on the concept of human rights, without regard for man-made distinctions of race, creed, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Today, a full generation after Vatican II, the church is back in the hands of the conservatives, most of whom long for the days of a unity of doctrinal belief, and absolute, unquestioned loyalty to the pope and the hierarchy.  To these people the church is the hierarchy and constancy, not reform, should be the church’s most notable feature.  Jorge Bergoglio, for all his talk of a new start, is very much the poster boy for this school of thought.

Bergoglio comes from a country where the church has made many enemies through its lust for power.  All over Latin America the church is associated with silks and satins and jewel-encrusted rings, and limousines, and images of cardinals and archbishops and nuncios at banquets with uniformed dictators, and perhaps particularly in the countries of Argentina, Brazil and Chile, where the dictatorships have been the most far-reaching.  Argentines are reacting with mixed emotions to the election of one of their own to the throne of St. Peter.  Some see the Holy Spirit at work.  Others are simply happy to have an Argentine raised up in world consciousness, and couldn’t care less what the man’s ideas are all about.

My concern is that we are making a terrible mistake in overlooking those ideas and dwelling on the symbols, the fact that he cooks his own meals, takes the bus and not a limousine to work, dresses more simply than others might in his position and kisses the feet of modern-day lepers, the victims of HIV/AIDS.  I am also concerned that in all the noise about his alleged participation in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” we are losing sight of what his rightwing approach to human rights can lead to today.

I think trying to dig up dirt on Bergoglio, while it may thwart the efforts of those who would put a halo around his head, is a red herring.  There is no doubt the Argentine Catholic Church is – or at least has been – a pretty nasty institution.  Bergoglio may have helped the wheels go round, but he was probably small potatoes during its lowest ebb in modern times as great enabler of the dictatorship.  I’m afraid we will end up crying wolf and concluding only that this was all an unfair attack by leftist fanatics, that the man should be given a clean bill of health and sent happily on his way with our best wishes.  If that were to happen we would be missing the woods for the trees.

Background: The Dirty War and the Church

Just to get those charges out of the way, let me give a little background on the attempt to paint Cardinal Archbishop Bergoglio as anything but saintly.

First off, let’s separate him from his predecessor’s predecessor, Cardinal Aramburu, who was Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1975 until 1990, from just before the start of the period of State Terrorism known variously as the time of the “dictadura” (the “dictatorship”), or “the dirty war,” or officially as the “Proceso de Reorganización Nacional” (the “National Reorganization Process”) and continued in this role as head of the Argentine Church for seven more years until 1983 when the generals were expelled for taking the country to war with England and losing, the year before.  According to the current Argentine Ministry of Education’s own official treatment of the period, it was a time in which all political activity was suspended, Congress and all political parties were dissolved, thousands of books were burned and political opponents of the regime were tortured and killed.  30,000 is the official figure for the “disappeared”, many of whom were known to have been dropped from planes and helicopters into the ocean, and many were buried in mass unmarked graves without identification. 

And what did the good Cardinal Archbishop Number One Man of the Church have to say about all this?

He denied it was happening.

The best sources on this period of Argentine history include the books and articles of Horacio Verbitsky, a regular writer for the Buenos Aires daily, Pagina 12.    Verbitsky is not without his own critics, many of whom insist his active participation in a terrorist organization, the Montoneros, should give one pause.  Verbitsky, on the other hand, argues that the thugs who overthrew the legitimately elected Peronist government (Isabel, this time, not Juan or Eva) ran a reign of terror which had to be overthrown by any means necessary.  And besides, he himself never actually killed anyone.

Amy Goodman had Verbitsky on her program, Democracy Now, a few days ago (the 15th of this month), and the interview is worth listening to. Verbitsky gives both sides of the story he told in his book, El Silencio, that is at the center of the controvery over Bergoglio’s involvement in the Dirty War.   Bergoglio was the Provincial Superior of the Jesuits at the time and two of the priests under his charge, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, claimed he abandoned them and allowed them to be captured by the police and tortured.  Bergoglio’s version of the story is that the contrary is true, that he warned them of the danger, urged them to leave their work in the slums, and when they ignored his advice, he actually went to General Videla and tried to get them free.  Verbitsky presents both sides of the story.  For a version of the story which presents facts which put Bergoglio in the worst possible light, see Brett Wilkins, of the Digital Journal.   

Adolfo Scilingo is a former Argentine naval officer who was sentenced to 640 years in prison for crimes against humanity, twenty-one years for each of the thirty people he threw from a plane to their death between 1976 and 1983, five for torture, five for illegal detention.  In 1996, Scilingo sat for interviews with Verbitsky which Verbitsky turned into a book with the title, El Vuelo – ‘Una forma cristiana de muerte’.*  The “Christian form of death” referred to comes from Scilingo’s explanation of how he was able to get himself to engage in such unspeakable crimes.  He went to the chaplain at the Naval School of Mechanics, (the man was Father Alberto Ángel Zanchetta) he says (p. 38), with a guilty conscience, and was told that since these men had to be eliminated – war is war, after all – at least this was “a Christian death, because they didn’t suffer.”

Verbitsky is also known for his dogged pursuit of the story on the priest Christian von Wernich, who justified participating in torture for all the usual utilitarian ethical reasons of the day – he was fighting communism.  When he was done, Cardinal Archbishop Juan Carlos Aramburu sent von Wernich off with a new name to hide in a parish in Chile, in order to protect him from justice, once the generals were overthrown.  The same Aramburu who knew what was going on and denied it from the start.  The same head of the church in Argentina who routinely denied death and suffering, routinely gave communion to the torturers.  The same head of the business-as-usual church in whose obituary it is recorded that John Paul II sent a telegram of condolence, declaring himself “profoundly saddened” at the news of a “pastor who served his people and his church with such pastoral charity.”

No mention by John Paul of all the talk surrounding this man and his work as Great Enabler of the Dictatorship.

Verbitsky is arguably Argentina’s leading investigative journalist, winner of the 1995 Latin American Studies Association Media Award, and author of a dozen books.  Verbitsky also heads Argentina's main human rights organization, the Center for Legal and Social Studies.   Available only in Spanish, to my knowledge, is his 2005 book El Silencio, mentioned above.   It contains the subtitle “Catholic, Military Argentina” and includes the following synopsis:

Cuando la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos visitó la ESMA en 1979 no encontró ni rastro de los prisioneros. Con la ayuda de la Iglesia, la Armada los había escondido en la isla "El silencio", el lugar habitual de recreo del cardenal arzobispo de Buenos Aires. No se conoce otro caso en el mundo de un campo de concentración en una propiedad eclesiástica. 

(When the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights visited ESMA [the Naval School of Mechanics] in 1979, it found no sign of prisoners.  With the aid of the Church, the Army had hidden them in the “Island of Silence,” a vacation retreat that belonged to the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  There is no other known example of a concentration camp on church property.)

It continues:

Las relaciones secretas que este libro revela después de casi tres décadas de silencio incluyen la seducción que el almirante Massera ejercía sobre el papa Paulo VI, el doble juego del ahora cardenal primado Jorge Bergoglio, la colaboración del nuncio Pío Laghi y del secretario del vicariato castrense Emilio Graselli con el programa de reeducación de prisioneros de la ESMA.

Con la prosa apasionante de un thriller, Horacio Verbitsky describe la fascinación del mal sobre una institución cuya finalidad declarada es hacer el bien.

(The secret relations that this book reveals of almost three decades of silence include the [power of] seduction Admiral Massera exercised over Pope Paul VI, the con game of the present Cardinal Primate Jorge Bergoglio, the collaboration of the nuncio Pio Laghi and the secretary of the military vicariate, Emilio Graselli, and his program of reeducation of the prisoners of ESMA.  With the passionate prose of a thriller, Horacio Verbitsky describes the fascination with evil of an institution whose espoused goals are to do good.)  For another Spanish language source, see here.

Verbitsky is by no means alone in his criticism of the Church.  There are voices within the church itself arguably more critical than Verbitsky's.  Father Eduardo de la Serna, for example, whose Wikipedia page describes him as "the Argentine church's strongest critic".  He heads up an organization called the Grupo de Curas en Opción por los Pobres de Argentina (Clergy Group for the Rights of the Poor of Argentina) and was outspoken at the time of von Wernich's trial in 2007 and in favor of his sentencing.  And Rubén Omar Capitanio, from the Neuquén Diocese, who also testified at the Christian von Wernich trial in 2007, and who has listed some of the charges which have been made against Aramburu.  Aramburu is accused of:

  • giving the chief of the Federal Police the place of honor at the funeral mass for five priests of the the Palotine Society (whose founder,  Father Palotti, was declared a saint by John XXIII during the time of Vatican II) and accepted his condolences, in full knowledge of the fact it was this same federal force that had murdered the five priests.      (One should note, by the way, that it was Father Bergoglio who, in 2006, initiated proceedings to canonize the five as “martyrs to the faith.”)
  • accepting false excuses expressed by the Ministry of the Interior and not demanding they use their influence to stop the excesses
  • closing of the Metropolitan Cathedral as a place of refuge
  • accepting at the communion rail the leaders of horrendous public crimes
  • declaring, at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, that “in my country there are no clandestine graves,” that everyone receives a Christian burial, even though it had become public knowledge that thousands of such burials had taken place at dozens of cemeteries
  • making no efforts to act as father and pastor to the priests, religious and lay people detained, disappeared or jailed
  • not knowing what was going on at the Navy School of Mechanics (the ESMA, Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada,) which was within his jurisdiction and for not knowing in general what the whole world knew of the horrors going on in Argentina
(See also this report on Capitanio’s participation in the von Wernich trial in the New York Times.) 

Bergoglio’s involvement

The story of Bergoglio’s awkward relationship (for lack of a better word) with Liberation Theology priests working with the poor, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, make up the strongest case against him.   But there are others.  Eighteen officers who had worked at the Naval Mechanics School during the dictadura finally came to trial in 2010.  Bergoglio was asked to testify and took clerical privilege to be able to be questioned in his own office when he gave testimony about his own involvement.  Some of that testimony is available in Spanish at the "Abuelas" site (the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo).

Luis Zamora, a human rights lawyer who did most of the questioning, described Bergoglio as “reticent” and added , "when someone is reticent they are lying, they are hiding part of the truth."  Zamora found it suspicious that Bergoglio was able to arrange meetings with Videla and Massera, the two military leaders.  The implication is if he was just a lowly figure, as Bergoglio maintains, this would seem highly unlikely.  Bergoglio maintains that he kept no record of those meetings, “because the time pressures were so great” and “he had to move too quickly to write anything down.”

At one point Zamora asked Bergolgio, "In these thirty-four years what was the reason that you never approached the courts to give all of the information that you knew and that you are now giving us?"  The court did not allow the question, and Bergoglio did not answer. 

This all looks bad, but one has to recognize the lack of certainty in the charges and the fact that it’s not the whole story.  The dictatorship ended not with a bang, but a whimper, and for years an official policy of denial and whitewashing dragged on.   To fight this forgetfulness and apathy, a group of children of the disappeared known as the H.I.J.O.S. (hijos = Spanish for “sons and daughters”) Hijos por la identidad y la Justicia contra la Olvido y el Silencio (Children for identity and justice in opposition to forgetting and to silence) formed to find alternative ways to bring the criminals to justice.  These include a popular form of protest peculiar to Argentina, known as the “escarche,” in which the crimes of an individual are exposed in order to shame him or her, when all the normal procedures of bringing a criminal to justice fail. 

Some of what’s happening to Bergoglio at the moment has the appearance of an escarche.   Since Aramburu is dead and gone, those still unsatisfied with the church’s denials and refusals to be more forthcoming are now taking their anger out on Bergoglio.  The church in Argentina has been given a free pass, and it’s not an idle activity to probe more deeply for Bergoglio’s personal involvement.

Although Bergoglio was much farther down the totem pole than Aramburu during the dictadura, he was nonetheless, as Jesuit Provincial Superior, a member of the clergy leadership class, and he had a voice, if he had chosen to use it.  The question today is the larger philosophical question of who is to blame when an entire system is corrupt.  How far does one go down the line in punishing Nazis and their collaborators, or hardliner communists in the East Bloc countries.  Or villagers in mafia-controlled Sicily, for that matter?  Must one speak out at the cost of losing one’s place as an insider, where one can do more good than if one “does the right thing” and takes a clear stand against evil? 

Is Bergoglio one of these?   Is he innocent enough?  There are a lot of people scratching for dirt, and I am concerned that Bergoglio might not be getting credit where credit is due.  In Amy Goodman’s interview with Verbitsky on Democracy Now, for example, Verbitsky gives a response which may surprise us, considering his damning statements about how Yorio, one of the priests under his charge, blamed Bergoglio for his arrest.  The several lines of Q and A are worth reading in their entirety:

AMY GOODMAN: ... We’re talking to Horacio Verbitsky, a leading Argentine investigative journalist, well known for his human rights investigations. I wanted to ask you about this issue of hiding political prisoners when a human rights delegation came to Argentina. Can you tell us when this was, what are the allegations, and what was the role, if any, of Bergoglio, now Pope Francis?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: No, in this episode, Bergoglio has no intervention. The intervention was from the cardinal that in that time was the chief of the church in Buenos Aires. That is the position that Bergoglio has in the present. But in that time, he was not archbishop of Buenos Aires. When the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came into Argentina to investigate allegations of human rights violations, the navy took 60 prisoners out of ESMA and got them to a village that was used by the Cardinal Aramburu to his weekends. And in this weekend property were also the celebration each year of the new seminarians that ended their studies. In this villa in the outskirts of Buenos Aires were the prisoners during the visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And when the commission visited ESMA, they did not find the prisoners that were supposed to be there, because they were—
AMY GOODMAN: ESMA being—ESMA being the naval barracks were so many thousands of Argentines were held. So where were they?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes, but Bergoglio has no intervention in this—in this fact. Indeed, he helped me to investigate a case. He gave me the precise information about in which tribunal was the document demonstrating that this villa was owned by the church.
AMY GOODMAN: He said that they were hidden in a villa that was owned by the Catholic Church?
HORACIO VERBITSKY: Yes. And the prisoners were held in a weekend house that was the weekend house of the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires in that time. And Bergoglio gave me the precise information about the tribunal in which were the documents affirming this relationship between this property and the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The real story

Here’s what I’m getting at, though.  While we fuss over whether Bergoglio was one of the dirty guys, or merely a man of little power trying honestly to follow his vow of total obedience to his superiors, or actually one of the good guys trying to clean up the church in recent years, we must not miss the more troubling fact that this newly elected pope has other things in his history besides the dirty war.  Most recently, he fought tooth and nail against the move in Argentina to  allow same-sex marriage.  Although he lost, and Argentina joined the group of eleven nations where same sex marriage is legal, he described the efforts he opposed as “a ‘move’ of the Father of Lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”  Satan himself, apparently, came to Argentina and made them do evil things. As many have pointed out, this is hate speech, pure and simple.  (And if you don’t think so, then you were not paying attention when they taught you to pray for the destruction of the Devil and all his works.)  One can't help but remember the testimony of Father Christian von Wernich, who insisted in court that the prisoners he tortured admitted to being "the tools of the devil."   The Argentine Church has never taken away Father von Wernich's right to say mass and forgive sins, by the way, while at the same time it has excommunicated all kinds of people for other reasons.

The question today is to how consistently will Francis’ work at the Vatican be a continuation of his work as Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires.  In another Democracy Now interview the other day, this time with Argentine historian Ernesto Semán, Semán tells of an incident where Bergoglio gave some indication of where he stands on the political issues of the day.   The current government of Cristina Kirchner is a liberal progressive one and, to no one’s surprise, Bergoglio and Kirchner locked horns over a number of issues in addition to same-sex marriage.   At one point, a military chaplain suggested openly that, because of his progressive views on contraception, the Minister of Health of the current government should be “thrown into the sea.”

It doesn't take much effort at all to imagine what that must sound like to the ears of an Argentine with any sense of history.  The government demanded the chaplain’s resignation.   Bergoglio, however, refused to comply.  His preferred course of action was to wait for the priest to retire when his time came, thus demonstrating a “hands off” policy reminiscent of the decisions by many church authorities not to take action in priest abuse cases, but to protect instead the priest and the institution.

There are other questions, too.  About his membership in the Jesuits, for one, and how that may affect his role as pope.  We know that the Jesuits saw themselves originally as the pope’s most loyal of subjects.  That a Jesuit could become pope was at one time virtually unthinkable.  Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, composed eighteen “Rules for Thinking with the Church.”  Number 13 of those rules has gone down in history as the quintessence of blind obedience to authority.  It reads, in part, “if she (the church) shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.”  

We also forget that the modern conflict over ultimate authority between those who would put the pope at the center of the church and those for whom the center is more properly “the people of God” is not a new conflict.   A similar conflict was present in the 17th and 18th centuries between the “conciliarists” who wanted the church run by ecumenical councils and “ultramontanists” (from “over the (Alps) mountains, i.e, not Germany, not France, but Rome) who wanted nothing to do with the idea of national churches or any diffusion of authority.  Jesuits were, from the beginning, associated with the ultramontanists and behind Pius IX’s efforts to settle the question once and for all with his doctrine of papal infallibility.

At the same time, Jesuits have been notoriously independent.  Many have taken theological positions that are anathema and at odds with central authority.  There are Jesuits and there are Jesuits, in other words.  We have a pope who, whatever he may do about the poor and about the choice between taking a limousine and taking a bus,  is totally committed to doctrines established and fostered by his immediate conservative predecessors.  Female priests?  Not on your life.  Making celibacy voluntary?  Don’t bet on it.

Another question, and a heartbreaking one for Catholics interested in the social gospel, is Bergoglio’s attitudes toward Liberation Theology, the view that the church should focus on the poor and on working toward greater distribution of wealth and elimination of class distinctions, so often taken for granted by the world’s power structures with which the official church has worked hand-in-glove.   Various liberation movements throughout Latin America have been put down, sometimes ruthlessly, with the church hierarchy’s open-eyed support.   See Robert Parry’s account of his struggle against the Church’s efforts to crush the Nicaraguan freedom movement, for example, and for the part the Argentine junta played on the side supported by Reagan and the CIA.  

Abby Ohlheiser posted an article in Slate on March 14,  in which she discusses Bergoglio’s negative attitude toward Liberation Theology.  She mentions claims offered by the National Catholic Reporter that his reason for opposing their efforts had to do not with opposition to their working with the poor, but with keeping them out of politics.  When it comes to politics, after all, this is a church that wants to speak with one voice.  It does not want a thousand points of light or a thousand political perspectives from its underlings.  I'm in no position to engage in the debate going on within the church over Liberation Theology but the argument that Liberation Theory is Marxism simply won't fly.  At the same time, it is also true that many priests associated with Liberation Theology have lost their lives because governments too, in their own way, not the church this time, couldn’t distinguish between liberation theology and Marxism, and Bergoglio’s argument he was just trying to save Yorio and Jalisc from that fate certainly has surface believability.  It is not an area where one can draw conclusions with certainty.

All of this supports Ernesto Semán’s point that the real problem we have to contend with in Bergoglio is not evil, or even bad policy, but a culture of social conservatism. A preference for pietism over activism.  An embrace of eternal certainties over an ever-evolving morality that grows with the benefit of human experience.

For the Abuelas, the Grandmothers and the Mothers who marched every day in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the president’s palace demanding information about the disappeared, and for anybody else haunted by a lack of final justice against the criminals who ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983, getting at the question of whether the current pope had his fingers in the dirty work of the Dirty War is a nagging question that won’t let go.  They deserve to have their questions addressed.

But for the rest of us focused more on the present than on the past, and those, like the Liberation Theologists, who believe God helps those who help themselves, we need to be concerned about business as usual in the Vatican.   American women and others who find their rights to control their own bodies repeatedly threatened by old men with stunted sexual imaginations, those of us in California who had our right to marry the partner of our choice taken away by the Catholic Church in Proposition 8, an imposition of the church's will on the lives of non-catholics as well as catholics, it must be noted, those fighting AIDS in developing countries thwarted by Catholic insistence that condoms, the single most effective preventative, are an instrument of the devil – we too have a stake in what this Jesuit from Argentina now assuming his new duties chooses to do with his power.

In my view it’s not the man who failed to sway General Videla to free two of his priests in the 1970s we should worry about.  It’s not even the Cardinal Archbishop who tried to defeat the same-sex marriage rights of his fellow Argentines we should worry about.  In that battle, he was outweighed by his political opponent, President Cristina Kirchner, about whom he declared, "Women are naturally unfit for political office.  The natural order and facts tell us that man is the politician par excellence. The Scriptures show us that women are there to support men, who are the thinkers and the doers, but nothing more than that."  **

Ms. Kirchner proved him wrong and won handily.  Today, however, she is meeting her former opponent and paying her respects in her role as a head of state to the new ruler of the world’s Catholics in Rome.  She will be showing him considerably more deference.

It’s what he does with that deference that we need to worry about.

*Verbitsky, Horacio, El Vuelo – “Una Forma Cristiana de Muerte” Confesiones de un oficial de la Armada.  2004.  Editorial Sudamericana S.A., Página 12, Debolsillo.

** (update - next day) - and then again, maybe he didn't make that statement.  My face is red.  I should have checked that out, as one checks out urban legends, before posting.  A church source attributes this statement to an Argentine commenter on Yahoo Respuestas who posted it under the name of Bumper Crop.  It was then picked up and posted on a Mexican Facebook site where it got 18,000 hits, a Costa Rican picked it up, etc. etc., and it went viral.   It is almost certainly a false attribution, because a google source finds no trace of it before March 13th, according to this church source.   Bergoglio's moves to keep women in their place are real.  We don't need to make things up.  Shame on these overzealous feminists, if that's even what they are.  Their heart may be in the right place, but their methods suck.  And shame on me for being suckered.  I apologize for my carelessness.  (I leave this in as a reminder to myself that no matter how tired I get and no matter how much I want to post something to be done with it, you gotta check your sources!)

picture credits:

putting the finishing touches on the pope -
pope kissing feet -
damning statement document -
mujeres ineptas - 

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