New Pope seeks to heal divisions in Latin America

A small bronze plaque on the pavement of a central avenue in Buenos Aires marks the spot where two French nuns, Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon, were snatched by the security forces in December 1977

A small bronze plaque on the pavement of a central avenue in Buenos Aires marks the spot where two French nuns working in Argentina were snatched by the security forces in 1977.

The nuns, Leonie Duquet and Alice Domon, were never seen again.

Like many thousands of Argentines, they were "disappeared" during the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983 - in their case apparently because they were working for the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group.

Many other priests and members of religious communities working with the poor or for human rights in Argentina suffered a similar fate.


At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church's local hierarchy - including the new Pope Francis, who at the time was head of the Society of Jesus of Argentina - were accused of not raising their voices in protest at the massive abuses being committed, or of not protecting the victims.

Image caption Pope Frances was instrumental in the Church's apology for its actions during the "dirty war"

The Argentine military authorities, led by General Jorge Videla, regarded themselves as true Catholics. They even presented their repression as the fight between "Western, Christian values" and those of atheistic communism.

This view was apparently shared by many in authority in the Argentine Catholic Church at the time.

Not only were members of the junta welcomed at Mass, but several priests have since been convicted of involvement in murders and cases of torture at secret detention camps.

The then Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was accused of withdrawing the Jesuit order's protection of two priests who were working in slum areas of Buenos Aires in 1976. The two men were later picked up by the security forces, tortured, and imprisoned for five months.

Pope Francis has defended himself by saying that he worked behind the scenes on behalf of the families of the regime's victims. As archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was also instrumental in issuing a public apology by Argentina's Episcopal Conference for failing to stand against the generals during the "dirty war".

Liberation theology

The silence of the Argentine Catholic Church over the horrific human rights abuses during those years has been contrasted with the very different attitude of its Chilean counterpart.

Image caption In El Salvador, priests aligned themselves with left-wing revolutionary groups

During the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet between 1973 and 1990, the Archbishop of Santiago, Raul Silva Henriquez, was quick to set up the Vicaria de la Solidaridad (Vicarate of Solidarity), which played a far more positive role than the Church in Argentina in supporting relatives of political prisoners and torture victims.

The split between the conservative higher echelons of the Catholic Church in Latin America, and priests and religious orders determined to try to improve poor people's, can be traced back to the Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia in 1968.

In the wake of Pope John XXIII's opening up of the Church with the Second Vatican Council in 1962, many in Latin America wanted to go further, and launched the idea of "liberation theology".

This put an emphasis on trying to fight the social inequalities which were particularly evident in Latin America, and spoke of committed clergy taking a "preferential option for the poor".

In countries such as Nicaragua, El Salvador and Colombia, this led to priests aligning themselves with left-wing revolutionary groups attempting to overthrow dictatorships or repressive regimes.

The authorities in Rome were always uneasy about liberation theology and any close involvement by members of the Catholic Church in political struggles.

Image caption Ernesto Cardenal was admonished by Pope John Paul II for his role in the Sandinista government

During a visit in 1983 to Nicaragua, where the triumphant government of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) included several Catholic priests, Pope John Paul II publicly admonished Ernesto Cardenal for his role as a government minister.

In more recent years, both Gustavo Gutierrez in Peru, one of the founders of liberation theology, and Leonardo Boff, the outspoken Franciscan priest from Brazil have fallen foul of Rome.

Father Gutierrez, whose 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, helped launch the movement, was also criticised by Pope John Paul II and by the Catholic hierarchy in his own country.

Leonardo Boff was silenced for a year by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) for his book Church, Charisma and Power, which accused the Church hierarchy of abusing their authority and of being out of touch with ordinary Catholics.

Further attempts to restrain Fr Boff led to him leaving the priesthood in 1992.


This tension between the two wings of the Catholic Church has greatly damaged its position in Latin America.

In Argentina, for example, although according to recent estimates some 90% of people regard themselves as Catholic, less than a quarter attend church regularly.

Evangelical Protestant churches, which have a less hierarchical structure and appeal more directly to poor people, have been making great inroads not only in Argentina but in many other countries in the region.

Pope Francis has said that the world's poor should not be seen as "objects", but as "subjects" for whom "state and society [must] create conditions that promote and protect their rights and allow them to build their own future".

Although the military regimes have now gone from Latin America, the new Pope will need great determination to ensure that the Catholic Church truly identifies with this aspiration.

Image caption From a humble background in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio has risen to the head of the Roman Catholic Church as Pope Francis. We look at key moments in his life and career so far.
Image caption Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born on 17 December 1936 in Buenos Aires. His father was an Italian immigrant railway worker. He became a Jesuit priest at 32, a decade after losing a lung due to illness and abandoning his chemistry studies. He became a bishop in 1992 and was made Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998.
Image caption 1970s: Human rights groups have raised questions about his role under the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 - and particularly about the kidnap of two Jesuit priests. The cardinal's office has always denied his involvement. He told Perfil magazine in 2010 he had helped some dissidents escape the country.
Image caption 1982: Pope Francis has been a strong supporter of the veterans of the war in the Falkland Islands - referred to in Argentina as Las Malvinas. He has spoken against attempts to "demalvinizar" or gloss over the history of the war.
Image caption 2001: The Archbishop of Buenos Aires became a cardinal in 2001, as the Argentine economy was in crisis. Speaking in Buenos Aires as thousands joined rallies against government austerity plans, he highlighted the contrast between the rich and "poor people who are persecuted for demanding work".
Image caption 2005: Cardinal Bergoglio was seen as a strong contender to become Pope at the 2005 conclave to elect a successor to Pope John Paul II. He was reported to be the chief rival to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was duly elected and became Pope Benedict XVI.
Image caption 2009: As cardinal and archbishop, he stood out for his humility, living in a modest apartment, rather than his luxury official residence. In his sermons, he often stressed social inclusion and criticised governments which did not help those on the margins of society, describing poverty in Argentina as "immoral and unjust".
Image caption 2010: Although Pope Francis is strong on social justice, he is extremely conservative on sexual matters. He voiced staunch opposition to gay marriage when it was legalised in Argentina in 2010. He said: "Let's not be naive: this isn't a simple political fight, it is a destructive attack on God's plan."
Image caption 2012: Cardinal Bergoglio preferred life outside the bureaucracy of Rome and he criticised those "who clericalise the Church". In a sermon to Argentine priests, he attacked those who would not baptise children of single mothers. "Those who separate the people of God from salvation. These are today's hypocrites."
Image caption 2013: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was not seen by the media as one of the front-runners to succeed Pope Benedict. But he is now the first non-European Pope for more than 1,000 years and the first from Latin America, home to 40% of the world's Catholics.

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