The Vatican has made a statement on the rumblings about Bergoglio’s (in)actions during the Argentine junta, attributing the questions to “anti-clerical left-wing” forces who want to discredit the new Pope. The more things change, etc… Thinking about Margaret’s post below, it seems to me that a little bit of historical perspective is helpful.
As I said in my first post, Liberation Theology represented a sea change for a church in Latin American that had (for the previous five centuries) racked up a pretty consistent record of resisting any kind of social reform in the most economically and racially stratified region on the planet. Certain liberation theologians’ openness to Marxism has to be understood in light of the fact that (1) Marxists were the ones working with the most urgency to try to change that reality and (2) non-Marxist nationalists and reformers were routinely branded as communists even when they were not, and were subjected to persecution (along with actual Marxists). Needless to say, this shared experience reduced the hostility to Marxism on the non-Marxist left. In places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Argentina, right-wing military and paramilitary groups were routinely torturing and killing pretty much anyone who worked for political liberalization and economic reform, including many priests and even a few bishops.
In this context, to choose to actively criticize Liberation Theology was not just to fail to take a prophetic stance against state-sponsored terror. It was very much to take sides — to see departure from orthodoxy as a more pressing matter of concern than the abuses being perpetrated by the state on a daily basis. Indeed, deciding in that context to criticize Liberation Theology for being too political or too open to communism was (implicitly or explicitly) to adopt much of the point of view of the national-security states. From within that worldview, the political killings were unfortunate, but less problematic than the deeper, existential threat posed by global communism. Looking back, I can understand how it came to happen that John Paul II cracked down on Liberation Theology. Sitting at the Vatican, thousands of miles away, preoccupied as he was in the 1980s with the struggle against communism in his native Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, he seemed to view theologians in Latin America who were insufficiently hostile to Marxism primarily through the lens of that anti-Soviet project. They represented the possibility of the enemy within the gates. But for a bishop or provincial on the ground in Buenos Aires, or in Guatemala City, or in San Salvador, the impulse to view Liberation Theology in that light is somewhat harder to understand, if only because the complex reality of the situation was so much closer at hand and not as easily distorted in the haze of geopolitics.
Was Borgoglio just adopting uncritically the priorities of the Vatican? Was he toadying up to his bosses? Did he actually share the regime’s assessment of the political situation and the broad outlines of the extraordinary actions the regime justified on the basis of that assessment? Any of these possibilities is disquieting. And that is what is troubling to me about the stories about Borgoglio — even on the versions most favorable to him. What all of this means for the prospects for his papacy, I have not the slightest clue.
UPDATE: This story from the Guardian has some interesting details based on interviews with activists in Argentina and relatives of several people who disappeared who interacted with Borgoglio at the time. This post at New Republic by Michael Sean Winters defends Borgoglio’s criticism of Liberation Theology. But it utterly fails to understand liberation theology’s context or substance and therefore falls into a regrettable false equivalence between theocons writing about the wisdom of markets in North America and the opennesss to Marxism among theologians working with Marxists (and others) on the ground with some of the poorest people on the planet, subjected to constant threats of torture and death. Liberation Theology was always more than just a set of abstract theological ideas. It was a social movement rooted in the experience of the struggle against brutal violence and economic injustice. Say what you want about its theological purity, but it was not the mirror image of, say, Michael Novack’s ideological musings on how entrepreneurism can foster virtue. At the end of the day, the question is one of priorities, and what we can learn about Borgoglio’s by thinking about how he perceived Liberation Theology during a time of crisis in his country, a time when students were being thrown out of planes into the ocean and pregnant women were being warehoused so they could be killed after their babies were born and handed over to good Christian families. Remaining silent in the face of the obvious atrocities is one thing. The pressures were no doubt immense, and the stakes were high. It takes heroic courage to stand up to a government under those circumstances. But the decision, at that moment, from a vantage close to the killing grounds in Argentina (not from the Vatican or from 20 years later blogging for the New Republic), that the errors of Liberation Theology were a priority that merited vocal opposition, perhaps reveals something about a person’s values.
UPDATE II: I had not seen this until someone mentioned it in the comments, but this statement by Leonardo Boff is encouraging:
“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. What is more, Mr. Boff said, Cardinal Bergoglio comes from the developing world, “outside the walls of Rome.”
FINAL UPDATE (I PROMISE): It seems clear to me from the comments that I was not careful enough in writing this post. My point is not to condemn the new pope, but just to clarify what I take the stakes to be of the questions about his involvement in the Dirty War. And I think his attitudes towards Liberation Theology are likely to shed useful light on these questions. That said, I only know that he is reported to have been critical of Liberation Theology (like most of those promoted by the Vatican in that era). I’d like to hear more about how critical he was and how that criticism manifested itself. I think picking as pope someone who was actively involved in Church leadership in Argentina at that time necessarily raises many troubling questions. That said, the data here is sparse and my mind remains open. Emphatically, I did not mean to suggest that the questions I raised in the last paragraph of the post were the only possible explanations of Borgoglio’s behavior at the time, just that they are possible explanations and, if true, would be very troubling to me.