New pope theologically conservative, but with a common touch

New pope theologically conservative, but with a common touch
Buenos Aires, Argentina:  Like most of those in Argentina, he is a soccer fan, his favorite team being the underdog San Lorenzo squad. Known for his outreach to the country's poor, he gave up a palace for a small apartment, rode public transportation instead of a chauffeur-driven car and cooked his own meals.

The new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (pronounced ber-GOAL-io), 76, will be called Francis. Chosen on Wednesday by a gathering of Catholic cardinals, he is in some ways a history-making pontiff, the first from the Jesuit order and the first non-European to fill the post in more than 1,200 years.

But Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other leading issues of the day - leading to heated clashes with Argentina's current left-leaning president.

He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina's military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. As many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship that seized power in March 1976 and he has been widely accused of knowing about the abuses and failing to do enough to stop them.

Despite the criticism, many in Argentina praise Bergoglio as a passionate defender of the poor and disenfranchised. In 2001, for instance, he surprised the staff of Muniz Hospital in Buenos Aires, asking for a jar of water, which he used to wash the feet of 12 patients hospitalized with complications from the virus that causes AIDS. He then kissed their feet, telling reporters upon exiting that "society forgets the sick and the poor."

More recently, in September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. "No to hypocrisy," he said at the time of the priests. "They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation."

Though he is averse to liberation theology, a movement that he views as hopelessly tainted with Marxist ideology, Bergoglio has emphasized social outreach to the impoverished, and as cardinal of Buenos Aires he has overseen increased social services and evangelization efforts in the slums that ring Argentina's capital.

"I am encouraged by this choice, viewing it as a pledge for a church of simplicity and of ecological ideals," said Leonardo Boff, a founder of liberation theology from Brazil. What is more, Boff said in a telephone interview, Bergoglio comes from the developing world, "outside the walls of Rome."

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on December 17, 1936, to Mario Bergoglio, an immigrant from northern Italy, and Regina Bergoglio, a homemaker. He came relatively late to the priesthood, enrolling in a seminary only at the age of 21, after studying chemistry. He has had health concerns since his youth, having had a lung removed because of an infection.

By all accounts, he was a brilliant student who relished the study not just of theology but also of secular subjects like psychology and literature. He was ordained a priest a few days short of turning 33, and from that point on, his ascent within the church was rapid: By 1973, he had been named the Jesuit provincial for Argentina, the church official in charge of supervising the order's activities in the country.

He remained in that post through 1979, and his performance during the Dirty War has been the subject of controversy in Argentina. In 2005, shortly before the Vatican conclave that elevated Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy, Bergoglio was formally accused by an Argentine lawyer in a lawsuit of being complicit in the military's kidnapping of two Jesuit priests whose antigovernment views he considered dangerously unorthodox.

The priests, whom he had dismissed from the order a week before they disappeared, were discovered months later on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, drugged and partially undressed. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the cardinal's spokesman dismissed the accusations as "old slander."

The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the debate about the case has continued, with Argentine journalists publishing newspaper articles and books that appear to contradict Bergoglio's account of his actions. These accounts draw not only on documents from the period, of both the government and the church, but also statements by priests and lay workers who clashed with Bergoglio in the 1970s.

After the church had denied for years any involvement with the dictatorship, he testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Gen. Jorge Videla, the former head of the military junta, and Adm. Emilio Massera, the commander of the navy, to ask for the release of the priests. The following year, prosecutors called him to the witness stand to testify on the military junta's systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was also accused of knowing about but failing to prevent.

In a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship.

He said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country's military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.

In November 2005, he was elected head of the Argentine Conference of Bishops for a three-year term, which was renewed in 2008. At the time he was chosen, the Argentine church was dealing with a notorious political scandal, that of the Rev. Christian von Wernich, a former chaplain of the Buenos Aires police who had been accused of aiding in the questioning, torture and death of political prisoners.

The church authorities had spirited von Wernich out of the country and placed him in a parish in Chile under a false name, but he was eventually brought back to Argentina and put on trial. In 2007, he was found guilty on seven counts of complicity in homicide, more than 40 counts of kidnapping, more than 30 of torture, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Von Wernich was allowed to continue to celebrate Mass in prison, and in 2010, a church official said that "at the appropriate time, von Wernich's situation will have to be resolved in accordance with canonical law." But Bergoglio never issued a formal apology on behalf of the church, or commented directly on the case, and during his tenure the bishops' conference was similarly silent.

Only in November 2012, a year after Bergoglio had stepped down as head of the bishops conference, did the group address the issue of its role during the dictatorship. It came in response to remarks in which the former dictator, Videla, had, in the words of the statement the bishops issued, "attributed to those who then led the Conference complicity in criminal acts." The bishops' statement denied Videla's accusation, claimed that church leaders of the time "tried to do what was within their reach for the welfare of all, in accordance with their consciences and prudential judgment." The statement blamed both military and guerrillas for the violence, and called for a more reflective inquiry of what occurred during the Dirty War.

In more recent years, Bergoglio has clashed vehemently with the national government, particularly former President Nestor Kirchner and his successor and widow, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, about issues like gay marriage, abortion and the adoption of children by gay couples. In 2010 he described a government-supported law to legalize marriage and adoption by same-sex couples as "a war against God" and "a maneuver by the devil."

At the time, Christina Kirchner said, "Bergoglio's position is medieval." But on Wednesday, after he was announced as the new pope, she appeared willing to smooth over their differences in the past, congratulating him and telling him he had her "consideration and respect."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: March 14, 2013 07:49 IST

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