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22/03/2013 | Pope Francis and the Argentinian Junta: Has He a Case to Answer?

David Prosser

Pope Francis has undoubtedly made a good first impression in his first days as leader of the Catholic Church. His much remarked upon simplicity and humility have been a hit, as has his liking for speaking off-the-cuff as distinct from always sticking to a text.


It is been remarked that he is leaving behind the "monarchical" style of papacy. In fact, the last pope to be enthroned was Blessed John XXIII.

Pope Benedict may have been more formal and less spontaneous than the new pope, but he was undoubtedly a gentle, humble and courteous man who was also naturally shy and retiring.

Blessed John Paul II was not shy and retiring, but he had no love of ostentation either. When he took up his first parish posting in Poland many years ago, the first thing he did was to give up the few things he owned to embrace poverty.

We have been lucky, or rather blessed, in the personal qualities of the last three popes, although it is obviously very early days in this pontificate and we are still getting to know Pope Francis.

Indeed, there is already something from his past that threatens to dog his papacy, and it is not the child abuse scandals, but his own action or inaction when he was Jesuit Provincial in Argentina during that country's military dictatorship. (The same dictatorship, or junta, which invaded the Falklands.)

It governed Argentina from 1976 until 1983 and during that time waged a brutal war against its enemies killing in the region of 30,000 people. The scars of that time are still raw and inevitably anyone who was in a position of authority or influence then will be asked what they did to resist the regime?

The new pope is accused of not doing enough -- or even worse, of paving the way for the military to kidnap and torture two of his fellow Jesuits who were involved in the political resistance to the regime.

The Times of London for one has demanded that Pope Francis give a full account of his involvement in that episode. But in fact he has already denied that anything he did or didn't do led to the kidnapping of the two Jesuits and no-one has been able to stand up an accusation against him in a court of law.

Indeed, according to John Allen, the well-known Vatican correspondent, Amnesty International in Argentina says the Pope has no case to answer.

In fact, even bringing up this very serious allegation (it has been raised in the first instance by a former Marxist guerrilla), and then demanding answers is equivalent to asking the question journalists are said to ask when they want to smear someone, namely, "Do you still beat your wife?"

Having to answer a question like this at all taints you even if you are completely innocent. A question of this sort should only ever be asked if there is good evidence, as distinct from hearsay, that you might be guilty.

However, there is another accusation made against Pope Francis that is fairer, namely that he didn't do enough to oppose the junta.

This brings us into "Hitler's Pope" territory. When John Cornwell wrote that book about Pius XII he made the terrible accusation that if Pius was not exactly pro-Nazi, then he was Hitler's stooge.

At a minimum, Pius has been accused of being too passive in the face of Nazism and of not being sufficiently outspoken in the face of the Holocaust.

Francis was certainly not the "junta's Pope," but he was not an active, public opponent either.

What are we to make of this? It is in fact very difficult to say at this remove both in space and time from the events in question.

Perhaps a quick look at what Church leaders did during the communist era in Eastern Europe will be instructive.

Take, for example, the very different stances adopted by Hungary's Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty and Poland's Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski toward the communist governments of their respective countries.

Mindszenty chose outright and open confrontation (although never encouraged violence) and was tortured and imprisoned for his pains.

Wyszynski chose the path of compromise and negotiated an 'agreement of mutual understanding' between the Government and the Church. He signed the document in 1950 even as other priests, who choose a more hard-line path, were still in prison and therefore felt betrayed by what they saw as collaboration.

In her book "Iron Curtain," Anna Applebaum finds it hard to decide whether Mindszenty's tactics or Wyszynski's were better in the end.

We can only guess at the motivation of Pope Francis while he was Jesuit provincial during the years of the junta. Maybe be believed open confrontation would make things worse.

Maybe the support of some priests for armed rebellion made him feel very uneasy. As mentioned, not even Mindszenty advocated that approach.

He was also having to deal with liberation theology in that period, when some of his own confreres were confusing the preferential option for the poor with the Marxist option for the poor, and indeed were trying to make the Gospel itself a quasi-Marxist Gospel.

We must also consider the stance Jesus adopted toward the Roman dictatorship of his day. He never openly opposed it although his message was obviously deeply subversive of Roman ways over the long-term. Indeed, Jesus was criticised by the Zealots for not openly opposing the Romans. They were hoping for a political Messiah who would lead the Jews in rebellion against the Romans.

Does this mean that if Jesus was alive on Earth today and lived under a very unjust regime (there are still many to choose from) he would be attacked for not openly opposing that regime? It's an interesting question.

From a Christian point of view, however, it certainly seems to mean that open confrontation, much less violent opposition, against an unjust regime is not an absolute duty. If it was, then Jesus would have been obliged to follow this path.

On the other hand, confrontation -- and under certain circumstance, armed resistance -- is not forbidden either.

It appears to come down to a prudential judgement. What is the best thing to do under a particular, concrete set of circumstances? There will always be disagreement about this, sometimes very angry and bitter disagreement.

Our new pope did not choose the path of open confrontation. That may or may not have been the right path, but it was certainly not an immoral path. If it was, then so was the path Jesus chose.

This article first appeared in The Irish Catholic.

The Huffington Post (Estados Unidos)


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