Surprising Appointment of Controversial Pope

Source: Télam

The selection of Argentine national Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the new world leader of Catholicism has revitalized the simmering debate over the Church’s alleged tainted role during the succession of military regimes in Argentina during the Dirty War (1976 – 1983). During the second presidential term of Juan Domingo Perón (1951-1955), the Church became outraged by the president’s radical social reforms, such as his attempt to legalize divorce and increase state regulation of religious education. In September 1955, the Church backed the army and navy uprising, which led to the overthrow of Perón and his forced exile in Paraguay. This military coup plunged the country into three decades of totalitarian rule. These mainly military-run dictatorships marked the start of long-standing tense relations between the Church, the Argentine state, and civil society over political injustices and systematic human rights violations committed by the government and backed by the military against its own citizenry. During Argentina’s Dirty War many leaders of the country’s upper clergy openly supported the military junta, first led by General Jorge Rafael Videla (an ultra-conservative Catholic), and thereby became complicit in serious human rights violations. Moreover, the church failed as an institution to protect Argentina from the more than 30,000 instances of torture, murder and disappearances.

Just days after the election of Bergoglio to the papal office, discussions of the Church’s controversial role during the Dirty War resurfaced across Argentina. Furthermore, international critics have once again began to question Bergoglio’s purported involvement in the 1976 military junta, given the fact that he was the head of the country’s Jesuit order, la Compañía de Jesus, from 1973 to 1979. In 2010, Bergoglio testified at his religious sanctuary about his alleged collaboration in the kidnapping of two priests while they were carrying out charity work in the Bajo Flores slum. Despite a number of invesigative efforts, there is currently not enough evidence available to prove that Bergoglio actually helped the military carry out the kidnapping. At a time when much of Latin America rejoices that the first ever non-European pope comes from the Western Hemisphere, it is important to take a step back and place this allegedly apolitical appointment in the context of domestic Argentine politics, the country’s troubled modern history, and even Latin America geopolitics.

Argentine Popular Opinion

The reaction of the general public within the southern cone country differs greatly from the global media’s focus on the relationship between Bergoglio and the military government. In off the record interviews with COHA, several Argentine citizens expressed mixed feelings about the cardinal’s election to the papal office. The majority of these people, mostly porteños, articulated comments such as, “this election has been received with joyfulness and excessive emotion among Argentines.” To this effect, on national radio stations, such as AM Continental 950 and Mitre 950, there has been an endless string of calls by people saying how ecstatic and proud they were, in addition to wishing the new Pope Francis I the best of luck. Furthermore, countless numbers have been spontaneously flocking to the churches across the South American nation. When asked why they are so pleased with Bergoglio’s announcement, several Argentines have said that “this nomination brings a uniting hope to [our] society that until today has been enormously fragmented by current governmental officials, who do nothing more than try to divide the general population.”

But it is not simply because of his national origin that Argentines seem to support Bergoglio so intensely. The cardinal is generally well liked in his country due to his stature as a humble and simple person, as well as a modest pastoral Jesuit, a formulation that many people believe is the way forward for the Church today. However, it is important to note that these Argentines have realistic expectations regarding the new Pope, recognizing that a great challenge lies in front of him, especially given that a number of prominent anarchists and leftist groups that are far from happy with Bergoglio. Specifically, Bergoglio is known for his conservative tendencies, and, on a number of occasions, he has energetically declared himself against such social reforms as gay marriage and the legalization of abortion. Along these lines, another citizen highlighted Bergoglio’s role as the “world’s” pope, explaining that the Pope is much more important than the country’s current crop of national troubles. His appointment doesn’t necessarily imply that his ideas or beliefs are progressive. In spite all the hopes held by the Latin American people, Bergoglio’s daily policies lack liberal marrow, as compared to the mainstream perspective of more temperate religious prelates. For example, the prelate repeatedly has spoken out against same sex marriage, reforms aimed at legalizing abortion, and the promotion of contraceptive measures and artificial insemination. In 2010, Bergoglio argued that adoptions by homosexual couples discriminate against children; President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) compared his tone to “the medieval times and the Inquisition.” [1]

The Vision of Argentina’s Politicians vs. Bergoglio’s Conservatism

The critical question to be asked is whether the popular acclaim for Bergoglio is sincere or more politically motivated. For instance, Mauricio Macri, Buenos Aires’s conservative mayor and renowned opposition figure to CFK, expressed, by way of his Twitter account, his “immense happiness and pride” at the nomination of an Argentine cardinal to the position of Pope. Macri’s move eerily resembles that of an opportunist, especially given that his apparent joyous current support for Bergoglio is inconsistent with his very strong pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage stances. Furthermore, in January 2013, the mayor announced that he wants to be President of the Argentine Nation and that he considers himself to be a good alternative to Kirchnerism in Argentina’s 2015 elections. [2]

Moreover, President Kirchner traveled to the Vatican along with other Latin American heads of state to attend Bergoglio’s ceremony as he took over the papacy yesterday. [3] This move, along with the support for the Argentine cardinal, is ironic, since in the past Kirchner has not had anything like a good relationship with Bergoglio. The popular consensus is that the papal nomination will significantly impact the entire political domestic spectrum of the country, given that Bergoglio is from Argentina.

Public Opinion in the Hemisphere

The papal appointment of Bergoglio has certainly captured the attention of the international community regarding the role of Pope Francis I during the military dictatorship; he was both victim and collaborator in Argentina’s notorious Guerra Sucia. While liberals and radicals have criticized him for collaborating with repressors, 85 percent of U.S. citizens hold a favorable opinion of Bergoglio. [4] Moreover, 57 percent of Catholics see the new Pope as having a very close relationship with the Catholic clergy in the United States. [5] In addition, several other American leaders, including those of Perú, Honduras, Bolivia, Cuba, México and El Salvador, have applauded the election of the first ever Latin American Pope, as well as believe that Bergoglio will be more successful in the Vatican than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. For instance, 7 out of 10 Mexicans believe that the new Pope will bring more attention to issues important for the American continent. [6] Also, Salvadoran clergy are hopeful that Bergoglio will push toward the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed on the altar while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980, during El Salvador’s bloody civil war.

The Future with Pope Francis I

Argentines hope that the inauguration of Buenos Aires’s Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio will bring about some dynamic change regarding their country’s political system. However, apart from almost unilateral exuberance and an increase in national pride, Pope Francis I is after all the world’s Pope, not just Argentina’s. Thus, his actions will reflect not just on himself or Argentina, but also the global Catholic Church. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that his papal position will effect any political change within Argentine borders, given that his conservative policies not only clash with the ideology of CFK but also that of her political opponents. It can be assumed that this week’s CFK-Vatican meeting was a pro forma diplomatic action to raise Argentina’s standing in the international society, but will probably not be repeated anytime soon.

Kimberly Bullard, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

This article was written with the collaboration of Senior Research Fellow W. Alejandro Sánchez and Research Associate Pamela F. Izaguirre.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.

For additional news or analysis on Latin America, please go to: Latin News


The author of this COHA analysis contacted several Argentine citizens to learn more about their sentiments regarding Bergoglio’s papal appointment. With their permission, we are anonymously posting some of their comments below.

#1: Esta elección ha sido recibida con mucha alegría y emoción entre los argentinos. Ayer la gente fue espontáneamente a las iglesias a rezar por el nuevo Papa. En la radio no dejan de pasar llamados de la gente que dice estar muy feliz y con muchos deseos de éxito para el nuevo Papa. Hace unos minutos escuché el mensaje de una persona que dijo que era judia, y dijo un mensaje muy emotivo a pesar de ser judía. Yo creo que esta nominación trae esperanza de unión para nuestro pueblo que hoy está bastante dividido por culpa de los gobernantes de turno que no hacen otra cosa que intentar dividirnos. Hace poco la presidente dijo que la diabetes es una enfermedad de ricos… porque comen mucho y son sedentarios. “Divide y reinarás” dice el dicho… Vos sabés que los argentinos nos creemos superiores, etc, etc, y que muchos piensan que el Papa fue elegido por los argentinos, y en realidad no necesariamente es así. Creo que el Papa tiene un gran desafío por delante y es mucho más importante que el desafío en Argentina.

#2: Sinceramente creo que a todos los Argentinos nos enorgullece ser protagonistas del mundo. Maradonna, Messi, el Papa.
 Nos sentimos reconocidos y nos da fuerzas para creer quee podemos dejar de ser un país en constante crisis y pasara ser un modelo de país. La gente siente que puede ser la noticia más importante de la historia de Argentina. Luego dependiendo del credo e ideología las opiniones pueden diferir, los más conservadores y religiososo están felices, los anarquistas y gente de izquierda no tanto. Es como todo. Es sabido que nuestras presidenta no tenía una buena relación con Bergoglio con lo cual eso puede tener algún impacto político en el país

#3: Me siento orgulloso como católico y como argentino que el nuevo encargado de guiar a los miles de millones de fieles sea de acá! Creo que en latinoamérica el catolicismo es la principal religión por lejos, por lo que también es un orgullo y una reivindicación para America latina toda. Bergoglio tiene fama de ser una persona humilde y sencilla, como buen jesuita, y considero que esa es la actitud que tiene que tener la iglesia en estos días, de humildad y sencilles, tal como lo fue Jesucristo. Esa es mi opinión. Te mando un beso enorme.

#4: Es una alegría enorme como latinoamericano el contar con un Papa de la región. El hecho de que sea argentino le otorga un plus cuasi pueblerino de saber que Su Santidad ha transitado por los mismos lugares que nosotros. Su formación integradora de las filosofías de oriente y occidente lo resaltan como un hombre formado para el entendimiento de los pueblos y consecuentemente para la paz. Rezamos porque su misión pueda ser cumplida para la mayor gloria de Dios.

 #5: La verdad yo soy bastante joven y el tema del rol de la iglesia durante la dictadura es medio confuso, porque mucho no se conoce, ya que no quedaron muchos testigos y por otro lado porque la iglesia es una institución enorme y antiquisima que siempre se ha encargado de cubrir o enmendar sus errores. Sé que Bergoglio es bastante conservador y duro es algunos aspectos, pero también esta muy comprometido con causas humanitarias, como la pobreza y el nivel de paises subdesarrollados. Por un lado me siento orgullosa de que sea el 1º papa no europeo, y argentino y pretendo no juzgarlo por algo que bien no sé, sino juzgarlo por el papel que desempeñé de ahora en más. Ojalá no se mande ningun lío!!!

#6: Acá es una revolución, todo el mundo muy emocionado. En general, todo el mundo está muy feliz, hay una fuerte cultura catolica aqui y es un hombre sencillo, un buen pastor. Creo que será un gran comunicador con llegada a la gente; ha sido opositor al gobierno pues denuncio el hambre, la pobreza y la corrupción de hecho los últimos dos presidentes/as no han ido a los Tedeum. Recien vi en un programa que estaba sesionando el Congreso de la Nación cuando fue el anuncio y el bloque oficialista se quedó mudo como si fuera un velorio. Asi que despues empezaron a circular por las redes sociales todo el tema de la dictadura. Y que sé yo, siempre somos tan malas personas los argentinos no soportamos que nadie llegue a numero uno que enseguida nosotros mismos lo hacemos mierda. Cualquiera que tenga más de 45 años tuvo que vivir y sobrevivir a la epoca de la dictadura. No sé como hablan personas que no lo vivieron. Más allá de eso, creo que se escribirá una historia nueva y que se conocerá que no todos los argentinos somos iguales. Ojalá Dios lo ilumine para cambiar algunas cosas de este mundo. Y sabés que Francisco por San Francisco de Asis que ademas es patrono de los animales.



[1] “The Surprise Pope: Humble and Ascetic with a Murky Past,” Europe Voice, March 14, 2013,

[2] “Argentina: Mauricio Macri se lanza a la conquista del liderazgo antikirchernista,” Infolatam, May 14, 2012,

[3] “La Presidenta irá al Vaticano para la asunción del Papa,” Cadena 3, March 15, 2013,

[4] “Muy buena imagen de Francisco entre los estadounidenses,” Clarín, March 13, 2013,

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Mexicanos avalan elección de papa Francisco, señala encuesta,” Terra, March 15, 2013,,4a93b6d016e6d310VgnVCM4000009bcceb0aRCRD.html.