THE ELECTION of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope is a good moment to reflect on the Catholic Church. While still very small by European standards, the number of Catholics has been growing in Finland. Traditionally the Catholic community, which today numbers slightly over twelve thousand, has not been in the spotlight. After the name of the new Pope was revealed last week, the role of the church in his native Argentina has entered the spotlight.
In the ensuing debates, Bergoglio himself, now Pope Francis I, has been accused of various doings. Some of the accusations are related to atrocities that took place during the military dictatorship between 1976-1983. Others have to do with his position on women’s rights and non-traditional sexuality.
As there are many solid reasons to criticise Bergoglio from a human rights perspective, it is unfortunate that some of the accusations heard over the past days have been based on unfounded rumors or Internet gossip. If we analyse different aspects of his public life, it is not always easy to classify him in black-and-white terms. It is possible to brand his sexual ethics as those of a reactionary patriarch, but some of his commentary on economic policy may paint a more progressive picture. With regards to the military dictatorship, the new Pope may have to fight some of the shadows of the whole Argentine church.
Much evidence exists of both direct and indirect involvement of the Catholic Church leaders in grave human rights violations in Argentina during the dictatorship. Apart from abundant information gathered by human rights organisations, the involvement was confirmed by one of the former dictators, Jorge Videla, in a 2010 interview with the magazine El Sur. The interview was supposed to be published only after Videla’s death, but the magazine decided to break the deal after Videla had given related interviews to other media.
The complicity of the church with violent crimes has thus been clearly established in Argentina. In a regional comparison, the church in Argentina was more involved in human rights violations than the church in some of the neighboring countries.The overall numbers of people killed and missing were much higher in Argentina than in Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, or Brazil. Therefore, for statistical purposes, a higher number of priests involved in human rights violations did not necessarily mean a higher percentage of involved priests per victim.
Apart from the catholic priests who aided torture, there were those who bravely defended human rights during the military dictatorship in Argentina, themselves at times becoming victims of persecution. Some of these priests had already been active in Movimiento de Sacerdotes para el Tercer Mundo, which formed part of the more general Latin American left-leaning Catholic tendencies boosted by the 1968 regional meeting of the continent’s bishops in Medellín, Colombia. Some of these tendencies have been known as liberation theology.
The record of the new Pope in this regard is not clear. Having been ordained as a priest one year after the Medellín meeting, he never subscribed to the leftist tendencies within the church. One of the main points of controversy around his actions during the military dictatorship comes from reports on his role in the torture of two fellow Jesuit priests linked to liberation theology. One of them, Francisco Jalic, accused Bergoglio “of effectively handing them over to the death squads by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work”. On the other hand, Bergoglio seems to have played a role in getting them out of prison. The interpretation of the incident became more complicated when Jalic later stated that he had reached a reconciliation with Bergoglio.
For gay activists and feminists, Bergoglio is likely to remain yet another reactionary Pope. His prominent role in opposing gay rights is clear, though less violent than the role of some of his African colleagues. With regards to women’s rights, it is not reasonable to expect any major initiatives that would please feminists. Apart from the standard patriarchal position taken by the church, some particularly misogynist statements have been attributed to him.
One of the messages carries his picture, with a quote that “Women are naturally unfit for political office. Both the natural order and facts show us that the political being par excellence is male; that Scripture shows us that woman has always been the helper of man who thinks and does, but nothing more.”
I find it likely that this quote is a hoax and its wide circulation immediately after his election is an example of the power of electronic media in spreading dubious information. Why would the feminist organisations of Argentina not have made more noise about such a statement, supposedly made some years ago about the current president Cristina Fernández?
Bergoglio’s relationship with the current government in Argentina has included moments of tension that reflect his ambiguous politics. He has on occasions taken a conservative position (gay rights) and at other times sounded like a leftist opponent of the government (distributive concerns of economic policy). Despite the tensions, some human rights activists have accused the current government of an uncomfortably close alliance with Bergoglio and the church.
While the conservative politics of the new Pope on gay rights, women and many other questions is obvious, his economic policy inclinations are less clear. Based on my initial reading of his earlier comments on distributive justice, social debt and other economic-policy issues, for lack of a better term I have been playing with the “Keynesian Pope” label.
For Keynesians and other left-leaning economic-policy observers, a promising sign in Bergoglio is that the Cato Institute folks seem worried. Cato Institute is one of those places where people defend privileges based on property rights and call themselves economic liberals. It is headquartered in Washington DC, but has affiliates in different parts of Latin America and elsewhere.
One of the affiliates is Alberto Benegas who has chaired the economics sections of the National Academy of Science in Argentina. Last week I read his comments from December 2011 on Bergoglio’s speech given when the current Pope was still the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
For Benegas, Bergoglio seemed a well-meaning priest who expressed a significant lack of understanding of the meaning of property rights and free markets. One sign of Bergoglio’s economic-policy ignorance, according to Benegas, was that he attributed the causes of the economic crisis to “neoliberalism”. For Benegas, the concept of neoliberalism is never used by true intellectuals and is mostly used by the enemies of open society. Benegas was also worried about Bergoglio’s tendency to use the concept “social debt”.
Other concepts used by Bergoglio and detested by Benegas were “social justice” and “speculation”. Together with neoliberalism and social debt, all are concepts that we can often find in the discourse of different kinds of left-leaning social movements. Criticism of “speculation” is also a central tenet of the Keynesian approach in economic analysis.
“Speculation” terminology can also be used by others than Keynesians, especially Marxists. Unlike some of his Jesuit colleagues, however, Bergoglio was never part of those radical tendencies of the church that used Marxist theories as the basis of their social and economic commentary. Reading his commentaries from different times, it is easy to conclude that he is clearly not Marxist. So should we settle for calling him a Keynesian? Populist perhaps?
These kinds of labels obviously simplify, and I do not claim that the new Pope would have a deep appreciation or understanding of Keynesian economic theories, or any other economic theories for that matter. It can also be somewhat limited to focus on a priest’s politics without truly delving into his theological arguments. Then again, he does play a politically influential role. His constant contributions to political debates in Argentina have been associated with his Jesuit background.
Beyond economic-policy labels, many have described the Pope as pro-poor. This makes some sense when one listens to his sermons against inequality. At the same time, his stubborn denial of reproductive rights for women can be considered a violent attack on poor women. In many countries where the Catholic Church is influential, rich women can get a safe abortion relatively easily, whereas the poor have to face more serious consequences.
This does not mean that all Catholics would blindly obey the Pope’s instructions. I have always been impressed by the number of people in different parts of the world who claim to be devout Catholics but deviate from the anachronistic teachings of the church in various ways, the use of condoms being one of the most famous examples. His voice, however, still counts.