Meet the New Church, Same as the Old

Pope Francis’s progressive rhetoric obscures his past and the role the church still plays throughout the world.

Pope Francis during mass on June 2.

The recent visit of Pope Francis to Cuba and the United States has boosted the social and political profile of the Catholic Church, which seeks an increased role in world politics.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in March 2013, and his arrival to the Vatican generated high expectations that he would bring change to the position. The image of a “pope of the poor” who denounced corruption (even at the Vatican Bank) and Bergoglio’s attempts to position himself closer to the problems of “the people” has helped build an image of a social church.

Before being named Pope Francis, Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio was and continues to be known for his talent for politics, and is famous for his 2013 declaration that “a good Catholic takes part in politics.” From his early days in the Argentine Catholic Church to his arrival at the Vatican, Bergoglio has affirmed his will to rebuild the authority of the institution and recover the influence it has lost.

Ties to the Dictatorship

Bergoglio was ordained as a priest in 1969 at the age of thirty-three. Shortly thereafter he joined the Iron Guard — an organization tied to the right wing of the Peronist movement. Bergoglio had a close relationship with Admiral Emilio Massera, and acted as a liaison between the Iron Guard and the ESMA (Mechanical School of the Navy), which was used as a secret detention center during the dictatorship.

The future Pope Francis had such warm ties with the dictatorship that there are reports that he personally handed members of his congregation over to the military. In May 1976, Bergoglio failed to protect the priests Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who carried out community work in the slums of the Bajo Flores neighborhood in Buenos Aires, from the dictatorship. As Daniel Satur and Miguel Raider point out in La Izquierda Diario, “both were kidnapped and tortured in the ESMA, together with four catechists and two of their spouses. They were the only survivors of the operation when they were freed five months later in the Cañuelas marsh.”

Beyond Bergoglio’s actions in particular cases, it is important to highlight the complicity he and other members of the Catholic Church showed toward the violence being carried out by the dictatorship. Family members of the disappeared — like Estela de la Cuadra, the aunt of Elena de la Cuadra, who was disappeared while pregnant in 1977 — denounce the documented role that Bergoglio played in Elena’s death and the kidnapping of her infant daughter, Ana Libertad.

Ana was raised by members of the military and was finally located last year by the Abuelas de Plaza Mayo(grandmothers of children born in captivity during the military dictatorship). Estela de la Cuadra tells of a meeting between her father (Ana Libertad’s grandfather) and Bergoglio in 1977:

It was October 1977 when my father finally met with Bergoglio in San Miguel at the Jesuit center. In that meeting Bergoglio gave a letter to my father referring him to Mario Picchi, the Auxilliary Bishop for the city of La Plata. Picchi was second in command to Monsignor Plaza, the confessor to Ramón Camps and the highest-ranking member of the dictatorship in La Plata. With the letter in hand, my father met with Picchi and told him of our family members who had been disappeared.

Since his arrival in the Vatican, the mainstream media has kept silent about Bergoglio’s actions during the days of the dictatorship. Now that he is pope and has reconciled with the government of Cristina Kirchner, Argentina has joined the “pope fever.” But the proven reports of the complicity of the church, and of Bergoglio in particular, with the dictatorship remain.

Talk But No Walk

Some people think Francis is a progressive pope. His declarations and quotes, such as, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” are repeated by journalists and politicians as proof of the church’s supposed modernization.

Despite this rhetoric, the doctrine of the Catholic Church has not changed. It rejects same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and transgender people, and opposes a woman’s right to abortion. As part of the open discussions with the Synod of Bishops on the family, which began in December 2014, Bergoglio moved ahead with his objective of restoring the church’s image. But he promised that “no aspect of church doctrine on marriage would be changed” to calm the worries of conservative sectors. The synod ended without any novel or significant changes.

Pope Francis’s real opinion on same-sex marriage is apparent simply by recalling his fierce opposition to the marriage equality law passed in Argentina in 2010. At that time, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he led the opposition to the law. “Let us not be naïve,” he stated, “[this] is not a simple political fight, but is an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” and went on to proclaim the need to defend the “identity and survival of the family: father, mother, and children.”

Though their response was more moderate, US Catholic Church authorities rejected the recent Supreme Court decision that secured the same right, declaring, “It is profoundly immoral and unjust for the government to declare that two people of the same sex can constitute a marriage.”

This rhetoric, along with actions such as issuing pardons for women who had abortions, does not represent a real change in church policy. The Catholic Church maintains its visceral opposition to abortion, and the pope has been consistent in his uncompromising opposition to a woman’s right to choose.

Only a few years ago, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he strongly opposed a Supreme Court case of abortion for a fifteen-year-old girl that had been raped. Bergoglio declared that rape cases do not justify abortion and since “laws shape culture, legislation seeking to legitimize abortion does not protect life and encourages a culture of death.”

Women’s and LGBTQ organizations in Argentina know the opinions and politics of the Catholic Church, a major actor in the public sphere, all too well. The church’s involvement in the modification of the civil code was crucial to obstructing legislation in favor of the right to an abortion, declaring that “human life begins at conception” (a definition even more retrograde than the nineteenth-century definition).

This same institution prohibits the use of birth control, blocks the distribution of condoms, and imposes religious education in public schools in the provinces governed by Kirchner-allied politicians.

Preserving the Church’s Power

The pope’s speeches calling for a solution to urgent social problems like climate change or the huge migrant crisis in Europe appear to be unprecedented for the Vatican, which had been increasingly losing legitimacy because of rampant sexual abuse and numerous cases of corruption.

But in the US, pope fever is based more on Francis’s political profile than on the religious doctrine of the Catholic Church, whose reactionary character remains intact. This explains the sympathy created by the pope’s meetings with some involved in the fight for an increase in the minimum wage, who are primarily young and Latino. His pro-immigrant and pro-refugee discourse is an attempt to open up a dialogue between these sectors and the church.

A few months ago, Francis said, “I see clearly that what the church needs today is the ability to heal wounds and strengthen the hearts of the faithful. I see the church as a hospital after battle.” His objective is clear — to recover the church’s terrain lost due to its outdated ideals and sordid past. But we should not confuse these objectives with a supposed modernization or change of the institution. Its patriarchal essence remains unchanged, as the pope himself has recognized.

Bergoglio has explained the reason for reforms to the church’s rules: “The pressure for reform from an enormous number of faithful,” who, according to him, “[are] too often alienated from the juridical structures of the Church.” Mild reforms include things like easing the process of marriage annulment by making it free — a gesture of the church’s “generosity” according to Francis.

Since Francis’s visit to Brazil in 2013 — his first as pope — with the famous “Hagan Lío” (“Make yourselves heard loudly”), to the Synod of 2014, and with the latest tour of Latin America, Bergoglio has made it clear that the church seeks to play a more active political role.

For example, Pope Francis has become a key actor in the warming of relations between the US and Cuba; this strengthens the church as an intermediary in the process of capitalist restoration on the island. He not only took part in secret meetings between both countries but also became a central player in the negotiations.

Increased activity, announcements, and gestures like these illustrate Francis’s desire to change the face of the institution within a context of global economic and social crisis — where the politicians of the ruling class are portrayed as an elitist caste, are plagued with corruption, and are increasingly criticized for their banality and frivolity.

But we should not confuse the gestures of Bergoglio — even those resisted by the church’s most conservative sectors — with a revolution within the church. His measures are designed to recover the pacifying role of an institution that seeks to contain any potential social unrest that concerns the ruling class.