Argentine cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as the new pope this week. But coverage often glossed over the most intense political controversies about him.
On NBC Nightly News (3/13/13), the network's Vatican analyst George Weigel told viewers that Pope Francis was "a man of God… a man who is a great defender of democracy in a country where democracy is under real stress right now in Argentina."
He went on:
He is a very, very warm gentleman. I spent an hour with him in Buenos Aires last May. I was touched by his intelligence, by his manifestly deep interior life, his spiritual life. Got a very clear-eyed view of the troubled politics of his own country.
It's hard to know exactly what Weigel means by the "stress" and "troubled politics" in Argentina. The major political dispute Bergoglio was involved in was his fervent opposition to gay marriage, which he called a "destructive attack on God's plan." Argentine democracy thought otherwise, and the senate passed a marriage equality law.
Weigel called him "a reformer his whole life," saying, "I think the world is going to get to love this man very quickly."
"Reformer his whole life" is a strange way to describe Bergoglio, given the intense controversy over his actions during the military junta that seized control of the country in the late 1970s. Thousands were killed, tortured and disappeared. According to his critics, Bergoglio–as head of the Jesuits in Argentina–failed to stand up to, or even conspired with, the brutal dictatorship.
A USA Today report (3/14/13) also touched lightly on that history, noting that Bergoglio was known for "tangling with the powerful leftists who have run Argentina for years." The paper explained that he
never shared the political activism of some of his fellow Jesuits, especially during turbulent times in the '70s. He fought fiercely against the left-leaning liberation theology movement that swept Latin America
As USA Today puts it, "He tried to repair the reputation of a church that lost many followers by failing to openly challenge Argentina's former dictatorship." The paper noted, "Under Bergoglio's leadership, Argentina's bishops issued a collective apology in October 2012 for the church's failures to protect its flock."
Little more is mentioned. This is striking, because much of the piece comes from an Associated Press report (3/13/13) by Brian Murphy and Michael Warren that thoroughly discussed the accusations against Bergoglio. Right after the preceding comment about the apology, the AP reporters summarized some of the criticism of Bergoglio, including accusations that he refused to support two priests who were kidnapped in 1976, and that he was "accused of turning his back on a family that lost five relatives to state terror"– a story that involves the theft of a baby.
Whatever the specifics, the role of the church was vital in supporting the dictatorship. As human rights attorney Myriam Bregman put it, "The dictatorship could not have operated this way without this key support."
USA Today omitted this damning information, but did include this characterization from Bergoglio's official biographer:
Bergoglio almost never granted media interviews, limiting himself to speeches from the pulpit, and was reluctant to contradict his critics, even when he knew their allegations against him were false, he said.
While Pope Francis may be inclined to avoid speaking about his critics, that's no reason for media not to speak with them. For a critical take, you can check out Democracy Now!'s March 14 broadcast.