Pope Francis: Silence equals complicity

Far from being a new broom or ‘reformer’, writes Eddie Ford, the new pope is a reactionary to his marrow

Unless you possess a very strong stomach, mainstream media coverage of the new pope (aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio) has been truly revolting. A tidal wave of idiotic, euphoric banality. Then again, what else do you expect from the likes of the BBC, which always genuflects before anything that appears strong, powerful and ancient?

Clearly, the Argentinian-born former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis I, is the most holy and marvellous human being ever to have lived - or so it would seem if we swallowed the line emanating from a stupefied media. After getting the top job on March 13, coming first in the weird conclave elections, Francis declared that he would “like to see a church that is poor and is for the poor” - which was immediately presented as evidence of his profundity. As if littering your speeches and sermons with such references or with ‘peace’, ‘forgiveness’, etc is anything new - it just comes with the job description. All the previous 265 popes did the same.

Similarly, we were meant to be overwhelmed with awe by the fact that during his inaugural mass on March 18 he urged the 200,000 packed into St Peter’s Square - and the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide - to “defend” not just the poor, but the environment - to do everything they can to “protect creation”. Deep. A little bit of tenderness, Francis remarked, could “open up a horizon of hope”. Doubtlessly another sign of his theological genius and near divine humility.

In his inaugural mass, Francis told a slightly revealing anecdote. Whilst in conclave, with the votes being counted and things seeming, in his own words, a “bit dangerous”, the cardinal sitting next to him - an old friend from Brazil - embraced him and said: “Don’t forget the poor”. The new holy father added that the reminder had made him think of none other than St Francis, a man “who wanted a poor church”. According to a star-struck Guardian, adopting the name of Francis was a “clear signal” by Bergoglio of his desire to “reset the priorities” of the embattled Catholic church (March 16).

All this professed concern for the poor is pure hypocrisy. The official Christian attitude towards the oppressed and exploited, whether it be the Church of England or the Catholic establishment, is essentially encapsulated by the saying attributed to Jesus: “The poor will always be with us”. Of course, for communists this is an utter obscenity - both to believe that class society is eternal and also to ascribe such a wretchedly reactionary position to the apocalyptic revolutionary communist Galilean, Jesus - a Jewish Spartacus who wanted to abolish class society, not ameliorate it or appease the oppressors.

No, the Catholic church stands indicted - and so does Francis I. Just like the ghastly Mother Theresa, he needs the poor to permanently exist in order to elevate himself into the religious aristocracy. He would be out of a job if the poor disappeared. ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist’ - so goes a famous adage of the Brazilian archbishop, Dom Hélder Câmara. Acceptance, not questioning. Suffering is good for the soul.

The Catholic Church and Vatican City is groaning with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Unlike the Church of England, it does not publish any properly audited accounts, so trying to establish the exact size and magnitude of its wealth is extremely difficult - and many have tried. But what you can say with absolute certainty is that, while the CoE may have millions, the Catholic Church has many billions. Vatican City itself, a peculiar city-state, is wealthier than some countries. Redistribute all that wealth to the poor and needy? You must be joking.

New broom?

An absurd narrative is being built up, in which Francis is some sort new broom or ‘reformer’ with a radical agenda. He will sweep away the sex scandals, institutionalised corruption, etc. Also, a man who will turn his back on the ostentatious wealth and vulgar papal trappings of his predecessors. Someone who will be different. He is, after all, the first ever Jesuit to become pope.

To this end, we have been repeatedly told about his supposed modesty. How archbishop Bergoglio rode the number 70 bus several times a year instead of using the chauffeur-driven car. How he walked in normal priest’s robes through dangerous neighbourhoods to celebrate mass at the tiny makeshift church of the Virgin of Caacupé. How he gave up the church palace in favour of a modest flat, where he cooked for himself. How he told his fellow bishops in Argentina not to waste their money on travelling to Rome for his installation ceremony, but to give the money instead to the poor. How he even had a (female) sweetheart once. Just like us.

In case you had not got the picture yet, accounts of the inauguration ceremony emphasise his ‘radicalism’. When he was presented with his papal pallium made of lambs’ wool, symbolising his role as shepherd, he also received the ‘fisherman’s ring’ bearing the image of St Peter holding two keys. We are told that the ring is second-hand and made of silver-plated gold, not the solid gold worn by the previous holders of the post - presumably Francis is slumming it now. Actually, he must be because only a few days previously he walked on to the stage of the vast Paul VI audience hall still wearing the white cassock, plain crucifix and black shoes that have characterised his fledgling papacy’s “pared-down aesthetic” (The Guardian March 19). Man of the people.

Not only that: we learn that Francis apparently “thrilled” the crowd at the start of the mass by getting out of his popemobile to bless a disabled man in a display of papal magnanimity. The Guardian, once again indulging in popemania, described the event as a “gesture” from a man whose short papacy so far is becoming “defined by such spontaneous forays” and “concern for the disadvantaged”. Surely it is a bit premature to bestow sainthood upon Francis already. Getting beyond ridiculous, all it takes it is a cheap piece of theatrics and large sections of the media go into rapture.

Bluntly, this is all propagandist crap. The 76-year-old Francis was not chosen because he was Argentinian or Latin American, let alone due to his claimed piety and modesty. Rather, they chose him precisely because of his age: he will do nothing and change nothing of substance - even if he can knock up a tasty paella within minutes. We are also meant to forget the inconvenient fact that Francis was chosen by cardinals who had mostly been appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both ultra-reactionaries. He obviously follows in that tradition.

Interestingly, despite waiting very nearly five centuries to see one of their own on the papal throne, many Jesuits have been lukewarm at best about the pontiff - even deeply suspicious. Much of the distrust stems from Francis’s six years as Jesuit leader in Argentina, a time marked by a highly authoritarian and conservative outlook that did not go down too well with many in an order that traditionally has had a large degree of autonomy from the Vatican hierarchy - which it has clashed with on many occasions. Nor has it gone unnoticed that Bergoglio allowed it to be known that he chose his papal name to honour St Francis of Assisi rather than the Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier.

Naturally, like his predecessors, the new incumbent is fiercely opposed to liberation theology and an outspoken opponent of abortion, divorce, contraception, women’s rights and euthanasia. On the question of abortion, Francis has sternly lectured pregnant women that, according to science, the “entire genetic code is present from the moment of conception” and therefore abortion is not only a “religious issue” than concerns Catholics, but also about constructing a “scientifically based morality”. Any woman who terminates her pregnancy will suffer “giant dramas” of conscience, he warns (or hopes) - so don’t do it.

Francis defends the withholding of communion from divorcees. It almost goes without saying that he abhors the very notion of gay marriage, not to mention homosexuality itself. Masturbation is heavily frowned upon, as is all ‘non-procreative’ sex. And fun. In other words, Francis I is a reactionary to his marrow.

Dirty war

We are also meant to forget the fact that from 1973 to 1979 he was head of the Argentinian Jesuits, a period that coincided with the ‘dirty war’ waged by the military junta between 1976-83 - euphemistically described by the dictatorship as the “national reorganisation process”. As part of this “reorganisation”, at least 30,000 lefts and progressives were butchered - with countless others tortured, traumatised and sent into exile. Here is the greatest stain on the name of Francis I.

On 15 April 2005, a human rights lawyer filed a criminal complaint against Jorge Bergoglio, accusing him of “conspiring” with the junta in 1976 to kidnap two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics. The pair were held and tortured for five months at the notorious Naval School of Mechanics. After their release, the priests accused Bergoglio of “abandoning” them to the military junta by effectively withdrawing his protection after they refused to stop getting involved in various social movements that operated out of the slums and ghettos (some priests, inspired by liberation theology, actually advocated the violent revolutionary overthrow of the military dictatorship).

The charge against Francis is plausible. For example, a priest named Christian von Wernich was chaplain of the Buenos Aires province police and in 2007 he was found guilty of complicity in seven homicides, 42 kidnappings and 32 instances of torture, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Meaning that there were Catholic priests actively assisting the military dictatorship’s violent suppression of progressive forces in Argentina - especially the Montoneros urban guerrilla group - as well as those who openly sided with the left. Bergoglio, it should be noted, refused to defrock Wernich.

Feeling the pressure, papal spokesman Federico Lombardi hit out on March 15 against the “anti-clerical, leftwing” campaign against Francis. Lombardi said the allegations against Bergoglio “must be clearly and firmly denied”. Indeed, he continued, there has never been a “concrete or credible” accusation in this regard. Yes, he admitted, the post-dictatorship Argentinian justice department interrogated Bergoglio on the matter, but he was “never charged with anything”. So that’s okay then. As for Bergoglio himself, he has dismissed the allegations as “old slander”. Far from abandoning Yorio and Jalics, he did everything he could to save them - even “interceding on their behalf” with the Argentinian dictator, Jorge Rafael Videla. What form this ‘intervention’ took is left unexplained.

Bergoglio’s chief accuser is journalist and former Montoneros member Horacio Verbitsky, whose book El silencio paints a disquieting picture of Bergoglio’s relationship with priests who sought his protection. Verbitsky believes the then head of the Jesuits in Argentina played a Machiavellian double game, “aiding” Yorio and Jalics while “expressing concern about their activities to military officers”.

If proof was needed, the ‘dirty war’ underlines the close connections between the Catholic hierarchy and the military junta in Argentina - and all manner of other dictatorships elsewhere on the continent. Yet it is the disgraceful role played by Bergoglio that stands out like a sore thumb. When trials against former junta members reopened in 2006, he actually suggested in a public sermon that it was not a good idea to churn up the problems of the past - “wretched are those who are vindictive and spiteful”. We are all sinners, after all. Bergoglio’s silence on the terrible crimes committed by the Argentinian military dictatorship, then and now, makes him complicit in the horrors inflicted on the Argentine people. Unlike the Good Samaritan of the New Testament, praised by Jesus, Francis I kept quiet and walked on by.

However, his actions - or inactions - are perfectly in accordance with the past practices of the Catholic church. During the Spanish civil war, Catholic Action actively mobilised in support of Franco. Even when Jews were being deported from Rome, the Vatican kept a diplomatic silence.

The entire history of the official Catholic church is a thoroughly inglorious one of appeasement, compromise and collaboration with the forces of tyranny, oppression and exploitation - something that would have disgusted the revolutionary Jesus.