Well, they didn’t give it to the Brazilian. But in the moments after Wednesday’s announcements there were three things that seemed radical about the choice of Cardinal Bergoglio. Not radical in the context of wider society in 2013, of course, but radical within the context of the papacy and its recent history.
1. Most obviously – he is from Latin America, not Europe. Even though he is really just an Italian once-removed, this is a very powerful message, and will give the Church someone who knows how to communicate with the Global South. Papers here in São Paulo called him “The pope of the poor.”
2. His name. Francis recalls one of the wildest, most radical, and widely cherished saints in the history of Western Civilization, Francis of Assisi. To get a picture of just how revolutionary (and wacky – in the good way) this guy was, check out this excellent New Yorker profile.
3. His lifestyle. He lives modestly, loves to take the bus (and perhaps, loves for people to see him taking the bus), is at home in the slums of Argentina, and has kissed the feet of AIDS patients. This is the kind of thing that people deeply respect in a religious leader.
Of course, he is the Pope. So he is staunchly against gay marriage and even the distribution of contraceptives, and it’s clear gay rights groups will likely consider him an enemy. And even within the Church he is from the conservative wing – but that was always going to be the case, considering the makeup of the cardinals appointed by the last two popes.
But despite the severe limitations, Francis seemed like as refreshing a choice as was possible.
But then came the rumblings about his relation to Argentina’s murderous dictatorship, which led the Vatican to explicitly deny claims today that he may have passively or actively allowed the government to arrest and torture two Jesuit priests who were working with the poor.
The details of what happened are far from clear, and will undoubtedly be the subject of much press interrogation in the coming months. But we may hazard that if there were two extremes of behavior under the military junta – on the one hand, dedicated and open opposition to government repression, or on the other, willing and active support – it seems Bergoglio can be accused of neither.
Where exactly he was in the middle will likely come out later, hopefully, but this much information has been enough to make the left oppose him.
“What I think is clear is that the church never came out and publicly denounced the disappearances and never aligned itself with the progressive forces, as it did in Chile and El Salvador,” said Iain Guest, founder and executive director of the Advocacy Project, a Washington-based nonprofit, and the author of “Behind the Disappearances: Argentina’s Dirty War Against Human Rights and the United Nations.” The church, he said, “was certainly not heroic in Argentina.” [LA Times]
But of course, the left was already already going to oppose him, as were groups in favor of gay marriage and abortion rights. The Pope story is really about his effect on the millions of faithful. And even though there are less than ever, there are still lots, especially here in Latin America. So despite the discussion about the crimes of the Argentine government – and it’s a discussion I’m very glad we’re having – I think the vast majority of the believers, here in Brazil and around the region, are giving him the benefit of the doubt.