Is Pope Francis I's past enough to damn him?

Pope Francis flourished, occupying a prominent position in the Argentine church, at a time when its leaders worked hand in glove with one of the most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century. Is that enough to damn him?

When Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped onto the Vatican balcony as the new pope Francis yesterday evening, the world was instantly charmed by his gentle, unassuming manner and moved by anecdotes about his love of, and identification with, the poor. To many the first Latin American and the first Jesuit to become Pope looks like a breath of fresh air. While almost as old as Pope Benedict was when he was elected, he seems more approachable and down to earth than his austerely professorial predecessor; and while his views on sexual morality are as conservative as one might expect, he also looks set to prioritise questions of social justice over ones of ecclesiastical discipline. Even name Francis seems to point to a new humility – already his watchword – in the Catholoic Church.

But not everyone has given the new pontiff an unreserved welcome. In Argentina he is a divisive figure, not just because of his outspoken views on subjects such as gay marriage but, more pointedly, because of continuing questions over his and the church's role during the dark years of the late 1970s.

It was a time when a military dictatorship responsible for the abduction, torture and murder of many thousands of its own citizens looked to the Catholic Church for moral legitimacy. A time when the murderous General Jorge Videla cultivated a pious image and claimed to be restoring "Christian morals and values" to the nation, and when – according to the late Christopher Hitchens – the papal nuncio was a regular tennis partner of Admiral Emilio Massero, the regime's torturer in chief.

Finally brought to justice thirty years later, an unrepentent Videla described his trial as "one more act of service to the Lord our Father and to the country."

"It's appalling," the anthropologist Laura Agustín told me yesterday on hearing the news of Bergoglio's elevation. "Seeing his face takes me right back to a nightmare."

The case against Bergoglio is both general and particular. As leader of the church in Argentina since 1997, he stands accused of reluctance to properly face up to Catholic complicity with the regime. He twice invoked legal privilege to avoid testifying in cases resulting from the "Dirty War" of the 1970s. When he finally did give evidence in 2010, some observers found his testimony evasive and less than helpful. It wasn't until late last year that Argentina's bishops issued a collective apology in for the church's past failure to stand up to the dictatorship, and even then failed to satisfy critics. The statement acknowledged the role of some senior clerics in supporting the military junta, but fell short of accepting institutional responsibility for the church and had harsh words for Catholics who supported violent resistance to the dictatorship.

Such a belated and tentative acknowledgement of wrongdoing smacks rather of the "too little, too late" approach that has cost the Catholic Church credibility in its response to other scandals of recent years, notably the sexual abuse of children by priests. It hardly suggests that the new pope will be in a hurry to tackle the church's problems head on.

Bergoglio's eventual mea culpa went nowhere near as far as a statement offered by another priest at the 2007 trial of Fr Christian von Wernich, a former prison chaplain who was convicted of direct complicity in seven murders, 42 abductions and 31 cases of torture. On that occasion, Rubén Capitanio told the court that the church had been "scandalously close to the dictatorship. . . to a sinful degree." The church was "like a mother that did not look out for her children," he went on. "It did not kill anybody, but it did not save anybody either."

Argentina was not unique in Latin America for coming under military rule during the 1970s, but the role played by the Catholic church in supporting the regime was unusual. As in Spain under Franco, patriotism and Catholicism came to be closely linked in Argentina. There are even suggestions that bishops gave their blessing to General Jorge Videla and his fellow generals prior to the military coup of March 24th 1976. It's a matter of record that on the day of the coup, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires Adolfo Tortolo emerged from a meeting with the junta to urge his fellow citizens to cooperate "in a positive way" with the new government. He later went out of his way to deny that any human rights abuses were being committed in Argentina.

How much did senior clerics actually know about what was going on? According to the investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who is among the new pope's leading critics, declassified documents reveal that a meeting of bishops in May 1976 heard chilling details of persecution, arbitrary arrest and even torture, but nevertheless voted by a majority to issue a statement calling for understanding towards the military government. The bishops even justified human rights abuses by the regime, stating that "it was wrong to insist that the security agencies act "with the chemical purity of peacetime, while blood runs every day."

As leader of the Jesuit order in Argentina at the time of the coup, Jorge Bergoglio was in a tricky position. He never publicly supported the regime. Speaking out against it, meanwhile, would have carried real dangers: several priests, and two bishops, were among the victims of the Dirty War. But he is accused of more than simply keeping his head down while others sacrificed theirs. The most serious allegation, which formed the basis of a formal criminal complaint in 2005, is that he knew about and failed to prevent the abduction and torture of two fellow Jesuit priests.

The priests, Orlando Yokio and Francisco Jalics, had come under suspicion for their work in the Bajo Flores slum district and for their association with a group of activists that included Monica Mignone, daughter of a prominent lawyer, all of whom later disappeared into the regime's dungeons. The two Jesuits' work, and the liberation theology that inspired it, also attracted the critical attention of their superiors in the church, notably Bergoglio himself, who reportedly offered them a choice between leaving the slum or leaving their priestly ministry. Their licence to minister was withdrawn by the then archbishop a week before they were seized.

According to Verbitsky, whose book The Silence detailed the relationship between church and state in that dark period, the military took the church's action as a green light to have them arrested. What is undoubtedly the case is that there was a certain community of interest between the anti-communism of the military regime and the Church hierarchy's dislike of liberation theology.

Both men were released in October 1976 after five months of interrogation and torture in the notorious Navy Mechanics School, ESMA (where Fr Wernach served as chaplain). In The Jesuit, a collection of conversations between Bergoglia and the writer Sergio Rubin, it is claimed that, far from denouncing Yorio and Jalics, Bergoglio warned the two priests of the danger they were in and later intervened behind the scenes to secure their release. But this is contested. Verbitsky quotes Yorio (who died in 2000) as telling him explicitly that "Bergoglio failed to warn us of danger waiting to happen" and that "I have no reason to think he did something for our freedom, but rather the opposite".

Verbitsky also spoke to Monica Mignone's mother Angelica, who asserted that the two priests "were freed by the efforts of Emilio Mignone and the intercession of the Vatican, not by the actions of Bergoglio, who betrayed them". Another of his interviewees, Yorio's brother Rodolfo, described Bergoglio as "a politician who loves power." Much the same comment, seemingly at odds with the new Pope's modest demeanour, was made last night on Argentine radio by Eduardo de la Serna, coordinator of a left-wing group of priests, who described him as "a man of power [who] knows how position himself among powerful people."

The 2005 complaint did not, in the end, lead to charges being laid against Cardinal Bergoglio, and the truth may never be known. He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing, and has dismissed the allegations as "old slander." That Yurio and Jalics believed that Bergoglio had betrayed them does not of course mean that he did, nor were they in a position to know what private action Bergoglio might have taken on their behalf.

In some ways, the controversy surrounding the new pope recalls that over Pope Pius XII, accused by his critics of not speaking out against the Nazis, while his defenders counter that he did what he could behind the scenes to help individual victims. Bergolgio's own faults may have amounted to little more than naivety and holiness: the very humility that was so widely and instantly acclaimed when he stepped onto the Vatican balcony last night. Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about him is that he survived, and flourished, occupying a prominent position in the Argentine church at a time when its leaders worked hand in glove with one of the most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century.

The Pope appears on Colombian newspapers. Photograph: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.