The anointment of reactionary Argentine cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francisco marks the intensification of the Vatican’s corporate military crusade in a region holding around half of the world’s Catholics. It is also a response to the continental upsurge of the left.
The advent of the Hugo Chávez-led Bolivarian Revolution in the 1990s has bolstered the Cuban Revolution and progressive or reforming governments have swept to power in Nicaragua, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Brazil and Pope Francisco's home of Argentina, which only last year began the re-nationalisation of its energy reserves.
Papalisation of an Italian-Argentine with established right-wing credentials seems a consummate political move to strengthen the prospects of an ideological reconquest. This is aimed to occur in tandem with global corporate designs on Latin America and builds on feverish Church opposition to nationalist, anti-imperialist or non-aligned regimes.
Popular opposition to neoliberalism and support for Latin American integration is palpable: Chávez and Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa recently won landslide re-elections. Abstention organised by the left won the Chilean mayoral elections last year.
US-backed coups by the local oligarchies were needed to oust the governments of left-wing Catholic bishop turned president Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and nationalist Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.
In Brazil (Dilma Rousseff) and Uruguay (José Mujica), former Marxist guerillas have been elected president. Rousseff now presides over the world’s fourth economy, consolidating initiatives by her predecessor Lula that challenge the domination of the global North.
There have been increasingly continental demands that Church assets be taxed like any other corporation, or nationalised and purged of parasitic strata.(1)
Combined with the decisive left turn described, all of this represents the most serious threat to the Church’s huge wealth and influence since Mexico's nationalist president Lázaro Cárdenas closed down Church schools and curtailed Church power in the 1930s.
Capital accumulation in feudal, semi-capitalist, capitalist and then neoliberal Latin America has, since the Spanish invasion 520 years ago, been politically and economically legitimised by the Catholic Church. The Church itself has been a key beneficiary of the process.
A doctrinal schooling system complemented by a severely anti-republican series of universities developed rapidly after Latin America's wars of independence (1808-1826). From the early 20th century, these were complemented by an organised political expression of the Catholic Church in the Christian Democrat parties.
These often began as a variant of Spanish fascist dictator Franco’s Falange movement, being both neocolonial in structure and pro-imperialist in policy.(2)
However, such was the popular rejection of the church’s politics by the 1960s, that radical liberation theology was able to flourish in Latin America for around 15 years.
Pope John Paul II was anointed in 1978 and worked to reverse this trend. He instructed Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero in 1978 to be tolerant towards the militarisation of his country and refused to condemn the slaying of Catholic clergy by death squads (including Romero himself shortly afterwards).
He also gave cameo public endorsements for military dictatorships during visits to Argentina in 1982 and Chile in 1987.
Economically, the Church is “structured much like a multinational conglomerate with subsidiary corporations spread all across the globe”, Sister Mary Kelly wrote in her 2004 book Taught To Believe the Unbelievable. “The Vatican is ... corporate headquarters (and) each diocese is also incorporated, acting as a branch of the parent company.”(3)
Argentine historian Luis Vitale once described this holy transnational corporation as also the sole global political party.
The Economist has called the US branch “as big as any company in America”, calculating its undeclared tax-free net wealth at US$170 billion.(4)
Still, across the world the sordid protection that the capitalist state has historically afforded the church’s institutionalised paedophelia has lately been confronted by scandal after scandal.
That protection applies systematically to Church assets, hugely bolstered by five centuries of collaboration in the pillage of Latin America’s unique riches. Since foreign capital and the CIA adopted the model of Brazil's 1964 military as its template for intensified corporate exploitation of the region, some of the world’s most repressive dictatorships have provided cover for the Church.
The concept of elections is meaningless in the tax-free, homophobic, misogynist refuge of institutional Catholicism. So it seems prudent to talk of an anointment in the case of the new chief executive of Vatican Inc. One that could only take place with the backing of its money-laundering mafia and the ultra-right Opus Dei.
But why a Latin American to now head this ancient Roman relic of Western imperialism?
Prominent Argentine human rights lawyer Marcelo Parilli has confirmed Bergoglio’s refusal to protect detained and tortured priests and his unflinching commitment to the Catholic hierarchy’s support for Argentina's military dictatorship of 1976-1982.
In recent testimony, priest Orlando Yorio said his internment at notorious detention centre ESMA, where thousands of people were tortured and disappeared by the regime, could only have come about by Bergoglio giving the junta a list of priests to detain.
From 1977 the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have searched for their children either born in detention — many as a consequence of rape-as-torture — or tortured and disappeared by the US-backed terrorist state.
Now that Bergoglio has become infallible, MPM’s president prefers to denounce his collaboration by faint praise, stating simply that “almost from the moment we began our struggle, we related only to Third World priests".
"We made a list of 150 priests assassinated by the dictatorship, which the official church silenced ... the official church is an oppressor, the Third World church a liberator ... As to this pope named yesterday, we say only: Amen.”(5)
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo seek their grandchildren, either abducted at the time of a parent’s sequester or born in military detention. Most were systematically adopted out to wealthy junta supporters, often military officers on a waiting list.
Last year, ex-dictator Videla was sentenced to 50 years in jail, partly for what Federal Oral Tribunal Nº 6 described as a “Systematic Plan for Baby Robbery.”(6)
Its president has described the church as a junta collaborator, publicly-silent since. Bergoglio was “under a shadow” from the time one grandmother sought his support to locate her disappeared granddaughter, and was allegedly told that she should be forgotten, was now in good hands, and that “lots of money” had been paid for such children.(7)
In 1977, Bergoglio, representing the Jesuit’s private Universidad de San Salvador, conferred an honorary doctorate on Admiral Emilio Massera, by then head of ESMA and later a junta member. Massera helped mastermind the “dirty war” in which about 30,000 Argentines were “disappeared”.
Since 1972, Bergoglio had been a member of the paramilitary organisation Guardia de Hierro (Iron Guard), which later appropriated assets of the disappeared.(8)
National intelligence archives also incriminate Bergoglio in an attempt to purge “left Jesuits” from the order. Chávez, Lugo and Correa all identify as Christians, but theirs is rooted in the liberation theology practised by Romero, Colombian guerilla priest Camilo Torres and archbishop Helder Camara in Brazil's miserable slums.
However, the liberation wing of the Church never represented more than 15% of Catholics, a fact reflected in the preponderance of reactionary popes.
Papal baton-passing from a former member of the Nazi Youth to a key collaborator with Argentina’s fascist dictatorship is entirely consistent with the historical mission of the Catholic Church.
The capitalist press has gone into overdrive to bury Bergoglio’s ugly past in a sea of working-class metaphors, as if walking or catching a bus were revolutionary pursuits that expunged the Church’s key role from feudalism to capitalism of ideological support to the status quo.
Spectacular reminders of the new spring in Latin America, such as 2 million Venezuelans filing past Chávez’s body in the first seven days of his resting in state, can only have underlined the Church’s slide from grace.
These can be contrasted with the popular response to Bergoglio’s election in Buenos Aires. Argentine journalist Andres Figueroa, who lives in the centre of the capital, told Green Left Weekly that there was “no public demonstration, small or mass. Just an activity performed in the cathedral ... where the traditional political class poured out views 'of convenience and opportunity'.”(9)
Indeed, the Argentine constitution commits the state to financially sustain the church. Although in practice, the Catholic empire has perfected its parasitic relation to capitalism, most Latin American constitutions enshrine the separation of church and state. The Venezuelan constitution, a key popular gain of Chávez's government, accords all religions, including indigenous, equal rights.
Bergoglio is merely another corporate director dressed in gold-adorned robes instead of Gucci suits, advocating for absolute capitalism while posing as a defender of the people.
The most recent popes have been anti-socialist crusaders whose real constituencies are the financial institutions and global corporations with which the church has been historically integrated and richly blessed.
Violeta Parra, Chilean co-founder of the Latin American New Song movement last century, rhetorically sang: “what says the Sacred Father, who lives in Rome, as they behead his doves?” Based on Pope Francisco’s history, “god bless the beheaders” may remain the riposte.
[Robert Austin is editor-coauthor of Imperialismo Cultural en América Latina: Historiografía y Praxis (2007) and was visiting professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in 1995. Its rector famously refused a posthumous mass in the early 1990s for PUCC academics and students executed by the Pinochet dictatorship. He later threatened Austin with expulsion from PUCC were he to repeat his public support for a monument to Salvador Allende, reported but distorted in ‘Retos y aportes recibieron agentes de la colecta por monumento a Allende’, La Segunda (daily newspaper), Santiago de Chile, 19 April 1995.. That monument now stands behind La Moneda, the presidential palace in the capital. Translations throughout are by the author]
1) Álvaro Ramis, ‘¿Deben pagar impuestos las organizaciones religiosas? Le Monde Diplomatique, Chilean Edition, July 2012, p. 12.
2) Salvador Allende, Discursos, Havana, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1976, pp. 9-20; Renato Cristi, El Pensamiento Político de Jaime Guzmán, Santiago de Chile, LOM, 2000, passim.
3) Sister Mary Kelly, Taught to Believe the Unbelievable: A New Vision of Hope for the Catholic Church and Society, Lincoln NE, iUniverse Star, 2004, p. 47.
4) ‘The Catholic Church in America: earthly concerns’, from The Economist (print edition), 20.8.12, at http://www.economist.com/node/21560536
5) ‘Declaraciones de Hebe de Bonafini sobre el papa Francisco”, 13.3.13, at http://www.madres.org/navegar/nav.php
6) Gerardo Aranguren, ‘Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo celebran hoy 35 años de lucha por la identidad’, in Tiempo Argentino, 22.10.12, at http://tiempo.infonews.com/2012/10/22/argentina-88971-las-abuelas-de-pla...
7) Estela de Carlotta, audio interview 13.3.13, at http://www.abuelas.org.ar/
8) Hans Hansen, ‘Los testimonios que apuntan a Bergoglio en violaciones a los DD.HH. y muestran su complicidad con la dictadura militar argentina’, El Mostrador, 13.3.13 at http://www.elmostrador.cl/noticias/mundo/2013/03/13/los-testimonios-que-...
9) Andrés Figueroa, email to author, 15 March 2013.