When the word went out that the Roman Catholic cardinals had picked Jorge Bergoglio to be Joseph Ratzinger’s successor, many conservative Argentines wept tears of joy, while their left-leaning compatriots, among them Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, made little effort to contain their fury. However, despite the efforts of some of her favourite ideologues, Cristina quickly recovered from the shock and – after deciding it would be best to let bygones be bygones – set about turning Bergoglio into a political ally.
Cristina may not have realised it at the time, but she had no need to feel worried by the unexpected promotion of the man her late husband had warned her was an emissary of Satan in clerical garb. To the bewilderment of many who assumed that, as Pope Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires would join them in condemning from his bully pulpit in Rome the industrial-scale corruption that was sponsored by the Kirchnerites, he soon went out of his way to be nice to people like Milagro Sala, Hebe de Bonafini and a host of others associated with the old order, sharing photo-ops with them in the Vatican, handing them rosaries and saying he would mention them in his prayers.
As for Mauricio Macri, he has treated him and all his works with disdain. He evidently clings to the notion that the president is a frivolous rich kid who would greatly like to make the poor even poorer than they already are. Macri’s taste for “new age” cults, Hindu gurus and Buddhist wisdom cannot have helped him get on the right side of the world’s top Roman Catholic. Even more galling from the point of view of Bergoglio and local churchmen has been Macri’s eagerness to pit them against feminists, leftists and progressives by asking parliament to debate the decriminalisation of abortion.
Despite his advancing years, Bergoglio has been as peripatetic as any previous pontiff, but he has ostentatiously steered clear of his native land. Some snidely suggest it is because he is reluctant to give Macri a chance to win some brownie points by playing host to the man who happens to be the leader of the biggest Christian denomination, but it would appear that what he fears most is getting sucked deeper into the local political swamp.
As he is surely aware, his reputation would not be improved if, once here, he found himself surrounded by crowds of exultant Peronists noisily begging him to lead a crusade against that satanic neoliberal Macri.
Luckily for Bergoglio, in much of the world Argentine politics is considered such a murky business that few outsiders have shown much interest in his past links with the Peronist Iron Guard. Just what role, if any, he played when a young Jesuit in an organisation that named itself after a notoriously ferocious and blatantly Fascist Romanian original is a matter of dispute; his friends say is was tangential at most while aggrieved leftists insist in describing him as “a soldier” who, along with his comrades, had been on good terms with the military dictatorship that seized power in March 1976 and institutionalised State terrorism. There is so much at stake that the truth about the future Pope’s behaviour during that bleak period in his country’s history has become elusive, but there can be no doubt that it is something he would rather not see discussed in public.
To judge from what has been written about the first five years of Bergoglio’s stint as Pope, thoughtful Catholics remain in two minds about him. Many feel he has been too keen to butter up progressives who care little for religious matters and suspect he is abandoning long-defended positions for no better reason than that they have become unfashionable. Non-Catholics applaud him when he is kind to homosexuals and, up to a point, divorcees, but think he has been far too soft when it comes to confronting clerical paedophilia, as he certainly was recently when in Chile where, if the lack of public enthusiasm for the papal visit is anything to go by, Catholicism is fading a fast as it did a generation ago in such traditional strongholds as Italy, Spain and Ireland.
Progressives also approve of his efforts to help large contingents of Muslim refugees to move into Europe, but his devotion to their cause has cost him the support of millions of others who think their continent is being invaded by hordes of individuals with outlandish beliefs who would be only too happy to slaughter them. Bergoglio’s emollient approach has also angered the rapidly dwindling number of Catholics and other Christians who live in predominantly Muslim countries; his papacy could well coincide with the definitive end of the Christian presence in Iraq, Syria and other places their remote forefathers began to live in almost 2,000 years ago.
Equally controversial, especially in the US, has been Bergoglio’s dim view of capitalism; he thinks it is a loathsome disease that is corrupting mankind. A hearty dislike of the excesses of consumerist materialism is all very well, but were the faithful suddenly to stop buying things after the Holy Father convinced them it was bad for their souls, the most probable result would be a quite devastating economic depression in which huge numbers of already desperately poor people would starve to death. Like it or not, liberal capitalism if the only system that has proven capable of making and distributing the goods society needs for it to function and to afford the welfare institutions needed to care for the many who would be hard put to fend for themselves. Until something better comes along, asking people to have nothing to do with it is worse than useless.
So too has been the Roman Catholic Church’s attempt to reconcile its fierce opposition to abortion with its hostility toward contraception, a stance that has added to the problems faced by countries in Africa in which population growth continues to outrun an ability to feed the tens of millions who are born every year. As well as political turmoil and extremely cruel civil wars, the resulting situation has led to mass migration, with Europe as the favourite destination of people who are fleeing hunger, dismal economic prospects and persecution for tribal, ethnic and sectarian reasons.