Curtain Raiser

The Unfinished Business Pope, Colltalers

In the end, Jorge Mario Bergoglio can’t complain. But after a fairly good run at the top, the extended honeymoon that greeted and insulated Pope Francis I, the first Latin American pontiff, is officially over. And it’s unlikely that he even cares about it.
Gone are the niceties; in are the heavy guns. Criticism that he’s been too liberal, or overzealous against the conservative right within the Catholic Church, however, won’t get our nod. But dark allegations about his past just might.
One of the stiffest tests of his papacy so far may be what comes out of the U.S. bishops conference, held last week in Baltimore. Despite public assertions that all is fine with Francis’s steerage of the church, there have been plenty of signs to the contrary.
Perhaps weary of those signs, just days before the conference, the pope took the unusual step of demoting a major critic of his policies, American archbishop Raymond Burke. He was summarily knocked out of his cushioned Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of Apostolic Signatura post to a ceremonial role, after characterizing Francis’s charting course as a ‘ship without a rudder.’
Still, as the religious press has been reporting, the pope’s facing an uphill battle with some segments of the church, comparable in its predicament to, say, what a certain Democrat president faces with a majority congressional opposition, or even an entrenched majority of supreme court justices nominated by previous commander-in-chiefs. Not a pretty picture, for sure.
Taken on the surface, Francis’s ascension to the Vatican has been an unlikely revolution, at least to his flock. After two popes bent on keeping a strict and tight lid on any hint of liberalism through the church’s rank and file, and who have all but prioritized the doctrine over social concerns, Bergoglio did bring in a breath of recycled air to the musty millennial institution.
Instead of disavowing the legitimacy of the Theology of Liberation in South America, as John Paul II did, or reinforcing the secrecy of files on priests accused of sexual abuse, as fashioned by Benedict XVI, in little over a year, Francis has managed to stir some of the church’s most sensitive subjects, from gay marriage, to celibacy, to women priesthood, to income inequality.
Nothing too substantive so far, it must be said, but still, even talking about these themes has been enough to conjure both hopes, to those long ostracized by the Catholic hierarchy, and downright disgust by traditionalists. To the latter, he’d do much better sticking with matters concerning pomp and ceremony, or even Vatican finances, which are reportedly ridden with irregularities.
On the other side, applause to the pope’s timid incursions into new territories has come from progressive quarters of the faith, to whom he could venture even further, perhaps turning some of his informal homilies into practical and more enforceable policies.
Both irreconcilable sides, however, are unlike to see fruition in Francis’s tenure, for reasons that go from well established procedures, carefully watched over by the Vatican’s inner circles, to ingrained beliefs still shared by the majority of Catholics around the world, to the more prosaic matter of his own’s political stability at the top of such a large organization.
But, even when taken into context and in their totality, these issues represent only a superficial, housekeeping approach to Bergoglio’s papacy, one that will be eventually settled, if some of them are not already, into a plateau of half-measures and crowd-pleasing compromises. Make no mistake, expect no earthshaking changes under this Jesuit’s skillful watch.
Potential for a real, destabilizing blow to his legacy, however, comes from a theme haunting his trajectory since his priesthood days in Buenos Aires and could shatter way more than his affable public image: his relationship with the brutal military juntas that ruled Argentina for the mid 1970s to 1983, a period roughly coinciding with his Society of Jesus’s Provincial Superior post.
As a high-ranked Jesuit, his critics have pointed to his past as an indictment to his alleged coziness with the militaries. And, an even more serious charge, that he somehow facilitated the adoption of children, whose parents had been killed and persecuted by the regime, by members of the military. He’s repeatedly refuted such claims ever since.
But they arise just often enough to throw a shadow over his sunny public disposition. The issue came up once again a couple of weeks ago when he hosted Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo President Estela de Carlotto and her recently ‘recovered’ grandson, Guido Ignacio Montoya Carlotto, who’d though that his parents were a couple of rural laborers.
Even though Guido’s is not the typical narrative of a baby from assassinated activists being given to members of the same institution that killed them in the first place, it took Estela 36 years to find Ignacio ‘Hurban,’ and tell him about how his real parents died. Other kids, with less serendipitous but equally sinister birth-to-adulthood trajectories, haven’t been so lucky.
It’s estimated that Argentina’s dictatorship killed up to 30,000 opponents, and so far, almost a hundred of their children have been recovered from adoptive parents, military families and/or their acquaintances. Most had no idea they were linked so dramatically to the so-called Dirty War, and numbers vary because many have chosen to remain anonymous or loyal to their adopters.
So it goes that the national trauma caused by the regime’s violent years has sown deep scars into the core of the Argentine society and, in many cases, on some of its survivors. A considerable group of individuals simply refuses to be part of this painful process of reintegration of their origins into their current lives, for reasons only they can explain.
But who can blame them? Many have led stable and productive lives, sheltered by extensive familial bonds, and the prospect of a rupture with the only identities they’ve ever known – which may even involve having to turn their backs to and point fingers at those who raised them – is not just daunting, but also deeply disturbing and in no way, guaranteed to be safe and sound.
Albeit the role Bergoglio may have played is hard to determine, and he may have done a lot of good since to somewhat compensate and redeem himself from past sins, there’s no doubt about the struggle and heroism displayed throughout that sad chapter and beyond it, by others, such as the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, and even the victims themselves.
In other words, he may not have to come clean on this matter, to justify being now the so-called pope of the dispossessed, as he wish, or at least, a pope with a different kind of social agenda than his predecessors. But true to his trajectory, he remains a deeply two-sided public figure, one whose foes include both the ultra conservative right and the revolutionary left.
Which one may finally overtake the other, when the time comes for biographers and historians to write about Pope Francis, remains a matter of scholarly, and more or less irrelevant, debate, at least for now. What seems important at this point is whether his public advocacy in favor of more equality for women, gays, and the dispossessed will ever be matched by his actions.
He may be the one to reset the Catholic Church back into a more humanitarian and ecumenical path, one once alluded to by Pope John XXIII and Paul VI. And in the process, to rechristen the institution as a more tolerant alternative to rising obscurantism and downright blood-thirsty doctrines. That could be good even to those not personally invested in that or any particular faith.
We can’t see any other way for the chief of over a billion people around the world to pursue a relevant, and transformative, course in the coming years. But it’d certainly be even better if, besides reaffirming his public discurse with real change within the church, the pope that came from the troubled South America could also find a way to be transparent about his past, warts and all.
After all, one of the dogmas that has run its course is the one about papal infallibility. He is, after all, human and flawed, and as such, deserves a second chance as much as any within or outside his realm of influence. Will he take the clue and follow a righteous path, or as any politician, will pick battles to suit and consolidate his position? Time will tell. Have a great one. WC


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