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Wrong about the Pope’s past

22 March 2013

"Downbeat": from The Times report on Wednesday

"Downbeat": from The Times report on Wednesday

POPE not actually war criminal shock! The roiling confusion about the part played by the Pope in the Argentinian "dirty war" started almost immediately after he was named. I didn't catch up with it for a couple of hours, since I was busy rewriting the analysis piece to make clear that Cardinal Bergoglio had, all along, been the choice of the truly well-informed.

Imagine, then, my excitement on learning that a British newspaper's religion website (I think it would be quite wrong here to mention the word "Guardian" or to name the editor of that section, a wretch too obscure to pillory) had, two or three years ago, published a piece suggesting that the then Cardinal Bergoglio had behaved disgracefully in the dirty war.

This excitement was widely shared. It was then transformed into a variety of less enjoyable emotions in the course of a long night's telephoning and emailing across the Atlantic, as it became clear that the book on which these allegations were supposedly based didn't in fact say anything of the sort.

Anyway: what the book, The Silence by an Argentinian journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, did allege was that Bergoglio, when he was Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Argentina, had betrayed or otherwise let down two Jesuit priests who were kidnapped from their slum mission, imprisoned and tortured for five months, and finally dumped, drugged and half-naked, in a field.

So far as I can work out, this is simply not true. Bergoglio was not a fan of liberation theology, but he was not a collaborator with the junta, either. I spoke at considerable length with an Argentinian journalist who lived through the dirty war, and also with Margaret Hebblethwaite, in Paraguay, herself the widow of an ex-Jesuit.

Neither of these women could be called right-wing in either Roman Catholic or secular terms. Both were convinced, on the basis of personal acquaintance and experience, that Bergoglio had been one of the priests who had worked, quietly and courageously, to save whom he could from torture and death.

Others, especially the military chaplains, were deeply compromised. Probably a majority in the Church did nothing, or sided with the government against the Marxist urban guerrillas. But Bergoglio was among the heroic minority who acted.

Hebblethwaite's article in Friday's Guardian was unusual in its humanity. "A different picture has been painted by one of Bergoglio's friends, a radical feminist and Catholic called Clelia Luro, who is about as far to the left on the ecclesial spectrum as you can go. She married a prominent and respected bishop, Jerónimo Podestá - one of the leaders of the progressive reforms that followed the second Vatican council - and was sometimes seen concelebrating mass with him, the kind of thing that makes a Catholic cleric's hair stand on end. But Bergoglio reacted differently.

"Luro talked to me at length about her friend [Bergoglio], of whom she has the highest opinion, and told me how she would write to him almost weekly, and he would always reply by ringing her up and having a short chat. When Podestá was dying, Bergoglio was the only Catholic cleric who went to visit him in hospital, and, when he died, the only one who showed public recognition of his great contribution to the Argentinian Church."

THIS was not as startling as the best quote in Dominic Lawson's long interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Sunday Times magazine. It contained nice moments of Anglican understatedness:

"So you believe in the resurrection of the body? 'Yes.'

"So you believe that if things work out well, we're going to be up there, in some way physically incorporated? 'We will have a corporeal existence after death, yes.'

"You really believe that? 'Well, it's what the Creed says. I can say the Creed without crossing my fingers.'

"I tell the archbishop that I find it very difficult to be- lieve such a thing.

"'I find it very difficult. Join the club.'"

It also contains the Archbishop's first recorded flash of anger, at the memory of Bishop Jack Spong's supposedly saying that African Christians are one generation removed from barbarism. I find it hard to see Bishop Spong as a racist, though he is undoubtedly convinced of America's mission civilatrice. But this was as nothing to Welby's long quote about his father:

"Charming, volatile, unpredictable. You never knew what was going to happen. The experience of living with a parent who had a drink problem is . . . very shaping as to one's views of what human beings are like. And later it's very complicated when you discover [through the press] a lot of things you didn't know about them. . . For example, that he had been married before, that his name wasn't Welby. Quite basic things."

I can't think of another public figure who could say such things to a journalist with so little drama or self-pity.

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