Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope

Francis and Argentine flag

Argentines celebrated last week when one of their own was chosen as the new pope. But they also suffered a loss of sorts. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a tireless advocate of the poor and outspoken critic of corruption, will no longer be on hand locally to push back against the malfeasance of the government of President Cristina Kirchner.

Argentines not aligned with the regime hope that the arrival of Francis on the world stage at least will draw attention to this issue. Heaven knows the situation is growing dire.

One might have expected a swell of pride from Argentine officialdom when the news broke that the nation has produced a man so highly esteemed around the world. Instead the Kirchner government’s pit bulls in journalism—men such as Horacio Verbitsky, a former member of the guerrilla group known as the Montoneros and now an editor at the pro-government newspaper Pagina 12—immediately began a campaign to smear the new pontiff’s character and reputation at home and in the international news media.

The calumny is not new. Former members of terrorist groups like Mr. Verbitsky, and their modern-day fellow travelers in the Argentine government, have used the same tactics for years to try to destroy their enemies—anyone who doesn’t endorse their brand of authoritarianism. In this case they allege that as the Jesuits’ provincial superior in Argentina in the late 1970s, then-Father Bergoglio had links to the military government.

This is propaganda. Mrs. Kirchner and her friends aren’t yet living in the equivalent of a totalitarian state where there is no free press to counter their lies. That day may come soon. The government is now pressuring merchants, under threat of reprisals, not to buy advertising in newspapers. The only newspapers that aren’t on track to be financially ruined by this intimidation are those that the government controls and finances through official advertising, like Mr. Verbitsky’s Pagina 12. Argentines refer to the paper as “the official gazette” because it so reliably prints the government’s line.

Intellectually honest observers with firsthand knowledge of Argentina under military rule (1976-1983) are telling a much different story than the one pushed by Mr. Verbitsky and his ilk. One of those observers is Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize. Last week he told BBC Mundo that “there were bishops that were complicit with the dictatorship, but Bergoglio, no.” As to the charge that the priest didn’t do enough to free junta prisoners, Mr. Pérez Esquivel said: “I know personally that many bishops who asked the military government for the liberation of prisoners and priests and it was not granted.”

Former Judge Alicia Oliveira, who was herself fired by the military government and forced into hiding to avoid arrest, told the Argentine newspaper Perfil last week that during those dark days she knew Father Bergoglio well and that “he helped many people get out of the country.” In one case, she says there was a young man on the run who happened to look like the Jesuit. “He gave him his identification card and his [clergy attire] so that he could escape.”

Ms. Oliveira also told Perfil that when she was in hiding at the home of the current minister of security, Nilda Garré, the two of them “ate with Bergoglio.” As Ms. Oliveira pointed out, Ms. Garré “therefore knows all that he did.”

Graciela Fernández Meijide, a human-rights activist and former member of the national commission on the disappearance of persons, told the Argentine press last week that “of all the testimony I received, never did I receive any testimony that Bergoglio was connected to the dictatorship.”

None of this matters to those trying to turn Argentina into the next Venezuela. What embitters them is that Father Bergoglio believed that Marxism (and the related “liberation theology”) was antithetical to Christianity and refused to embrace it in the 1970s. That put him in the way of those inside the Jesuit order at the time who believed in revolution. It also put him at odds with the Montoneros, who were maiming, kidnapping and killing civilians in order to terrorize the population. Many of those criminals are still around and hold fast to their revolutionary dreams.

For them, the new pope remains a meddlesome priest. In the slums where the populist Mrs. Kirchner claims to be a champion of the poor, Francis is truly beloved because he lives the gospel. From the pulpit, with the Kirchners in the pews, he famously complained of self-absorbed politicians. He didn’t name names, but the shoe fit. Nestór Kirchner, the late president and Cristina’s husband, responded by naming him “the head of the opposition.”

As Ms. Fernández Meijide observed last week, “I have the impression that what bothers the current president is that Bergoglio would not get in line, that he denounces the continuation of extreme poverty.” That’s not the regime’s approved narrative.

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal © 2013 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

Mary Anastasia O'Grady

By

Mary Anastasia O'Grady is a member of the editorial board at The Wall Street Journal and writes editorial columns on Latin America, trade and international economics. Ms. O'Grady received a bachelor's degree in English from Assumption College and an M.B.A. in financial management from Pace University.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bill.taylor.77985741 Bill Taylor

    Behind the campaign to smear the Pope are the bitter memories of the “Dirty War” and the role the Church played, or failed to play. Some bishops were actually complicit, most were silent, and the “disappeared” went on and on. Inevitably, this subject would come up with the election of an Argentine pope.

    • mally el

      Many Church people aalso disappeared at that time.

  • Barbaracvm

    I see many similarities between this Pope and Pope Pius XII.

    • Scott Waddell

      Such as?

      • Augustus

        May I speculate? Pope Francis is accused of “silence” during the “Dirty War” in Argentina. Pius XII was accused of “silence” during the Holocaust.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          Even before that, Pius XII was famously criticised by French Catholic philosopher, Emmanuel Mounier, for his silence over the Italian invasion of Albania

        • JCMR

          They are not even the same thing much less in the same category. “Dirty War” was not the same as WW-II. Get real !!

          • Augustus

            Calm down. I was responding to Barbaracvm who suggested that there were similarities between the two popes based on the story above. The similarity I thought she may have had in mind was what they were accused of doing or not doing. Their theology is beside the point. So is the gravity of the events each man lived through. You are criticizing claims that no one made.

      • Objectivetruth

        They’re both popes.

    • JCMR

      How ???? Both stem from two different types of theology and Catholicism (one authentic Catholicism, the other is Concilliar and Modernist). Francis I is the OPPOSITE of Pius XII.

  • GrahamCombs

    As our own civic culture and constitutional order decline, we might look at Argentina and see where we are going. It speaks of a feeble civic culture that one man’s departure is so important. When celebrities can refer to a particular president as “our lord and master” and “our father” without any irony, then we are in trouble. Caudillos, big daddies, the Boss, Players, these are figures that have contributed little to a robust civic life in the Western Hemisphere. I have never been more pessimistic about el Norte or the Global South.

  • JCMR

    Let the Argentinians have their lovers spat. That’s all it is. It gets the spotlight because the new Pope is Argentine. Other than that it is business and politics as usual in Argentina — and who really cares. It’s their drama.

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