The Pope and the Poor

The Pope and the Poor

Fresco of St. Francis giving his mantle to a poor man (Wikimedia Commons)

In November 2000, as Argentina’s economic crisis escalated, the country’s bishops, led by Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, emerged from a plenary conference with a statement that was hardly welcome news to proponents of economic neoliberalism. Arguing that the true debt of Argentina was not financial but “social,” it blasted the “growing gap between rich and poor,” the “negative aspects of globalization,” and “the tyranny of the markets.”

“We live in world in which the primacy of economics, without a base of reference in…the common good, impedes the resurgence of many nations,” the statement read. It further contended, “To accustom ourselves to living in a world of exclusion and inequality is a serious moral failure that erodes the dignity of mankind and compromises peace and social harmony.”

In a subsequent interview, Bergoglio charged “wildly economistic” ideas with manufacturing poverty.

Almost thirteen years later, Bergoglio has been selected as the new pontiff, Pope Francis I. Despite his statements about the global economy, Bergoglio is no radical. Indeed, figuring out what his selection represents for the Catholic Church, and what it portends for the future direction of the Vatican, involves reckoning with a number of contradictions.

Born in Buenos Aires, Bergoglio is the first pope in the modern era to come from a country in the global South, yet both his parents were immigrants born in Italy.

He is from a region (Latin America) where the Catholic Church was infused with a social justice ethos in the post–Vatican II period, yet he comes from a country within that region (Argentina) whose church remained among the most conservative.

He is from a religious order (the Jesuits) regarded as having progressive leanings, yet he has been a conservative force within that order.

He has made statements championing the interests of the poor against market fundamentalism, yet he has also been a strong opponent of the left-leaning administrations of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner.

Given all this, it is perhaps not surprising that the announcement of Pope Francis has elicited a divided reaction among two constituencies that normally overlap. Many progressive Catholics in the United States seem to be pleasantly surprised by the pick and happy with Bergoglio’s social justice overtures. Latin Americanists, on the other hand, have expressed horror at the role of the Argentine Church during the military junta’s rule and at Bergoglio’s place within that history.

Let’s begin with the first group. A pope that takes the name Francis is starting out on a good foot from a social justice perspective. At least that was reaction of many progressive Catholics. Jubilee USA executive director Eric LeCompte, for example, released a statement with the headline, “Pope Francis; Pope of Peace, Justice and the Poor.” LeCompte said:

Pope Francis will preach that we need to promote access to food, water, education, employment, and healthcare for every person, without discrimination….This Pope will stand up for the rights of poor people, migrants and, workers.

Sojourners CEO Jim Wallis (not a Catholic, but a prominent Christian progressive) was similarly hopeful, praising the cardinal’s warnings against “a self-referential church” and noting, “In Buenos Aires, the cardinal showed real compassion for HIV victims, and he sternly rebuked priests who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock.”

Those who share these sentiments also note Bergoglio’s personal humility. The cardinal lived in a modest apartment in Buenos Aires rather than the archbishop’s mansion; he took public transportation rather than using a church limousine; he cooked his own food. Yes, these are symbolic gestures. But symbolism matters.

A different strain of reaction has come from Latin Americans and solidarity activists disturbed by Bergoglio’s selection. They focus not on Pope Francis’s coming time in the Vatican, but rather on the Dirty War in the 1970s, when tens of thousands of leftists were killed or “disappeared” by the military. From this perspective, the symbolism of elevating an Argentine bishop is quite different.

In contrast to the Catholic Church in places like Chile and El Salvador, which played an important role in denouncing disappearances, death squads, and military abuses in the 1970s and ’80s, it is well known that the Argentine Church gave aid and comfort to the junta. Writing in 1987, scholar of liberation theology Phillip Berryman put it this way:

In Argentina…the bishops were notably silent even though at least one bishop and some ten priests were murdered. It was the [Madres de Plaza de Mayo], the mothers and family members of the disappeared, who challenged the military, while the bishops temporized and some even made pro-military statements.

My personal pick for the next pope, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, was also not a radical. (None were in the running.) But he distinguished himself by opposing the Brazilian dictatorship in the late 1970s and taking personal risks to support trade unionists and human rights activists.

Bergoglio earned no such distinction. What he did do is the subject of considerable controversy, accounts of which are now widely available in Spanish and in English. For Dissent, Flavia Dzodan has done a fine job of relating the charges against the cardinal. Most notably, critics claim that he failed to prevent (and tacitly green-lighted) the abduction and torture of two Jesuits identified with liberation theology. Not surprisingly, Bergoglio denies the charges; in recent years, he has claimed that he worked behind the scenes to free the two priests and to help other human rights defenders. His supporters characterize this approach as “pragmatic at a time when so many people were getting killed.”

Even if we take this defense at face value, it is a weak one. To the extent that such behavior was indeed pragmatic, it was the pragmatism of keeping quiet in the face of injustice for fear of being targeted yourself. And it was this type of behavior that allowed the military junta to benefit from the institutional acquiescence of the Catholic Church as it committed its crimes against humanity. There’s no heroism there.

That said, in the wake of Bergoglio’s selection as pope, Nobel Laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has stated that, while some bishops were truly accomplices of the dictatorship, Bergoglio was not among them. If we accept his judgment, the cardinal’s Dirty War sins are ones of cowardice, not of commission.

There was a figure in the hierarchy of the Argentine Church who had a profile more like that of the courageous and revered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. Enrique Angelelli was known as a progressive voice in CELAM, the Latin American bishops’ council, which played a pivotal role in making liberation theology into a region-wide force. In 1976, shortly after the Dirty War began, Angelelli was returning from a mass held in honor of two murdered priests when the truck he was riding in was run off the road. His death was labeled a traffic accident by the Argentinean regime.

Thirty years later, presiding over an anniversary mass, Cardinal Bergoglio celebrated Angelelli and obliquely held him up as a martyr, but he neglected to charge the junta with the bishop’s murder.

In the end, what can we make of the divided reaction to Pope Francis I?

The Guardian jumped the gun when (in a since-corrected gaffe) it labeled Cardinal Bergoglio “a champion of liberation theology.” A liberationist he is not. And, given that he was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, it basically goes without saying that has been horrible on issues like gay rights and abortion.

Still, in a field of very conservative candidates, Bergoglio was a relative moderate. It may not be saying much, but it looks likely that his tenure at the Vatican will be an improvement over Benedict’s.

I recently argued that, while it is often reported that the Vatican officially rejected liberation theology under the watch of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, that’s not entirely true. Core tenets such as the “preferential option for the poor” have in fact been mainstreamed within the church. Liberation theology’s positions on poverty, inequality, and the tyranny of the market are often echoed in statements like that released by Bergoglio and the Argentine bishops in 2000.

Neither Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, nor Archbishop Romero, who became a human rights icon, was brought into his position as a reformer. But each responded, in Catholic parlance, to “the signs of the times.” We can hope that, out of his many contradictions, Pope Francis will emerge with a ministry that emphasizes peace, social justice, and the rights of the poor, and that moves the church out of a state of reactionary self-isolation.

It’s a faint hope. But if you’re in the habit of looking to Rome for leadership, it’s probably the best you’ve got.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

You can follow Mark on Twitter (@markjengler) or on Facebook.