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A Social Conservative: Pope Francis Led Effort Against Liberation Theology and Same-Sex Marriage

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During the military dictatorship in Argentina, the new pope openly criticized liberation theology’s combination of religious teachings and calls for social justice. His social conservative streak continued when he was elevated to cardinal in Argentina. In 2010, he called the Argentine government’s legalization of gay marriage “an attempt to destroy God’s plan” and opposed adoption by gay couples. We discuss Pope Francis’ social conservatism with Ernesto Semán, a historian at New York University and former reporter for two Argentine newspapers, and with Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine investigative journalist for the newspaper Página/12, or Page/12. He has reported extensively on the church’s involvement in Argentina with the military junta that once ruled Argentina, specifically on the role of Father Bergoglio, who is now Father—who is now Pope Francis. Among his books, The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relations Between the Church and the ESMA. ESMA refers to the former Navy school that was turned into a detention center where people were tortured. Verbitsky also heads the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights organization. You can also go to our website at, where we broadcast from Buenos Aires several years ago, talking about these issues, including the children who were taken from dissidents who were then killed and handed to military families to be raised, which we’ll talk about.

Ernesto Semán is with us, as well. Semán, the historian at New York University, former reporter for the Argentine newspapers Página/12 and Clarín, where he reported on politics and human rights, as well as Father Bergoglio.

As we continue this conversation, Ernesto Semán, can you underscore what Horacio is saying, what you think we know at this point about Pope Francis, what we don’t?

ERNESTO SEMÁN: Yeah, I think that what Horacio Verbitsky wrote during these several years is he’s tried to uncover what is this kind of social conservatism, that you were trying to describe at the beginning of the program. It’s not—in terms of the discourse, it’s not the kind of Catholic conservatism that you’re going to find in the United States, with this emphasis on the individual salvation, on government crushing individual liberty and economic activity, and because it’s much more socially loaded. But the paradox—and I think that that’s the most important point of Horacio Verbitsky’s work—is how this same discourse, with a lot of emphasis on social justice and on equality, at the same time has worked to undermine the work who had tried to solve those same problems.

The case of this complicity of Bergoglio with human rights violations during the dictatorship is by far the most important episode. But during the last decade, he did, as the State Department implicitly suggests, the opposition to the government, in a decade in which Argentina lived the largest and fastest reduction of poverty and inequality, as in most of all Latin American countries. So that kind of paradox between the kind of social conservatism and an opposition to social agenda that has been pretty successful during the last years is very important.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about that, precisely, and the parallels, it seems to me, in terms of the cardinals selecting John Paul II, when he was elevated to pope, he coming out of Poland, where there was a Solidarity movement and in opposition to the previous government, that, in essence, his elevation helped to fortify that movement. I’m wondering whether there’s some parallel now with the changes in Latin America now to the elevation of a very conservative cardinal from that region, might help to bolster forces that are opposed to continuing this enormous change that’s occurring in Latin America.

ERNESTO SEMÁN: You might say so. The problem that you have there is to what extent that’s going to make the gap between the church and the Catholic followers even deeper. In the case of Argentina and some of the social issues that happened over the last decade, you see that in a country that 75 percent of people consider themselves Catholic, has been a strong support to some of the social decisions made by the Kirchner administration that Bergoglio opposed. The last and most important one was the same marriage law—that is, matrimonio igualitario in Argentina, egalitarian marriage.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, and let’s talk about this—


AMY GOODMAN: —because Bergoglio really took on the Argentine president in a major way. This was 2010. Then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio led the opposition against Argentina’s law that gives same-sex couples the right to marry and adopt children. Before the law passed, Bergoglio wrote a letter, and addressed the monasteries in Argentina, in which he asked monks to pray fervently about a, quote, “situation whose outcome can seriously harm the family. … At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development given by a father and a mother and willed by God. At stake is the total rejection of God’s law engraved in our hearts. … Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan,” he said—

ERNESTO SEMÁN: Yeah, yeah. I think—yeah, I think [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: —about what President Cristina Kirchner was pushing for, which was—


AMY GOODMAN: —legalization of gay marriage.

ERNESTO SEMÁN: Cristina—Cristina Kirchner promoted this, but it was a movement by the LGTB movement that had been going on for many years. It’s an extensive social movement that the government took and put into law. And after that, Bergoglio called to a holy war, una guerra de Dios, against this evil’s move.

AMY GOODMAN: Is he saying that President—

ERNESTO SEMÁN: In the same level.

AMY GOODMAN: —Kirchner represented that evil?

ERNESTO SEMÁN: That the law was an evil’s move. So, some degree of ambiguity. But it was clearly that kind of conservative message in relation to a law that, A, was passed overwhelmingly after two months of very open and public debate, and, B, that polls suggested that between 60 and 70 percent of people had no problem whatsoever with this kind of law. So that shows you—and he was personally involved and clearly involved in leading the opposition to this.

It was the last point of several other issues, including abortion and contraception, in which Bergoglio took the side of an opposition to the administration. The most important, one of the most—one of the most famous ones was when the military chaplain in 2005 said that the minister of health, because of the contraception policy, had to be thrown into the sea. And the government—

AMY GOODMAN: Bergoglio said the—

ERNESTO SEMÁN: No, no, no, no, the military chaplain—

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the military chaplain.

ERNESTO SEMÁN: —said that the government immediately asked for his remotion, and Bergoglio refused to do so and has just waited until the priest had to retire because of his age. But this shows you the kind of—how this emphasis on social justice and equality goes along with the very, very conservative stance in cultural and social issues that makes the work of the church and the relation with the followers much more, much more difficult. And it’s a challenge for them in Latin America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Horacio Verbitsky, I’d like to ask you—you’ve interviewed the former Cardinal Bergoglio many times. You have a sense of him, not only his political role, but his personality. Do you have any expectations that, now that he’s been elevated to pope, that he may have some change in his perspectives on some of these issues? Or do you expect him to maintain the same populist conservatism that you say have marked his rise through the church hierarchy?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: I do believe that he is a man—he is the man he is, and he will not change. His first days as a pope show perfectly this attitude of humility. He refused the limousine and took the bus. He asked the people to pray for him, instead of praying him for them. These kind of gestures would be common in his tenure as a pope. And it’s possible that he would be revered by the masses because of this different attitude that seems more democratic and less monarchical than that of the former Benedicto XVI.

But in doctrinary questions, he would be tied to conservative, and this is the thing that I wait. And I believe that he can play, concerning Latin America and the populist governments of the region, the same role that Pope John Paul played against East Europe during the first years of his tenure.

AMY GOODMAN: Horacio Verbitsky, do you think that Cardinal Bergoglio would have become Pope Francis if he hadn’t played the role he did during the dirty wars, if he had sided with these two Jesuit priests, who were speaking up for the poor at the time and who were great proponents of liberation theology?

HORACIO VERBITSKY: He was against liberation theology. He was a man, during his tenure in the Jesuit company—the publication of the Jesuit company are full of articles, of pieces, against liberation theology. Being among the poor doesn’t mean to be for the poor. I remember a very funny thing that happened during the trial to the first military junta in 1985. The French government sent in 1979 an emissar to investigate the disappearance of French citizens in Argentina. This man, François Cherome, talked with Almirante Chamorro that was the chief of the main concentration camp of the navy, ESMA. And this Admiral Chamorro told François Cherome, who told the story to the justices in 1985, that also the church was infiltrated by communism. And as a demonstration, he cited that the new pope was Polish. Well, in the same meaning, Bergoglio is a Third World pope. He comes from the Third World, but he is not a partisan of the liberation theology, in the same sense in which John Paul came from Poland but wasn’t communist.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to have to leave it there. We want to thank Horacio Verbitsky for spending this hour with us, Argentine investigative journalist for Página/12, or Page/12, the newspaper in Argentina, has reported extensively on the church’s complicity with the military junta during the dirty wars in Argentina. And Ernesto Semán, historian at New York University, former reporter for the Argentine newspaper Clarín, as well as Página/12, where he reported on politics, human rights, as well as Bergoglio.

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