Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires is now Pope Francis, and Thursday's New York Times front-page "Man In the News" profile by Emily Schmall and Larry Rohter, "A Conservative With a Common Touch," opened respectfully. But after a dash of local color and historical context, the Times quickly mounted its old hobby horse: the Church's positions on liberal issues like abortion and gay marriage.
But Cardinal Bergoglio is also a conventional choice, a theological conservative of Italian ancestry who vigorously backs Vatican positions on abortion, gay marriage, the ordination of women and other major issues -- leading to heated clashes with Argentina’s left-leaning president.
He was less energetic, however, when it came to standing up to Argentina’s military dictatorship during the 1970s as the country was consumed by a conflict between right and left that became known as the Dirty War. He has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them while as many as 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured or killed by the dictatorship.
Despite the criticism, many here praise Cardinal Bergoglio – who likes the more humble title of Father Jorge -- as a passionate defender of the poor and disenfranchised.
In 2001 he surprised the staff of Muñiz Hospital in Buenos Aires, asking for a jar of water, which he used to wash the feet of 12 patients hospitalized with complications from the virus that causes AIDS. He then kissed their feet, telling reporters that “society forgets the sick and the poor.” More recently, in September 2012, he scolded priests in Buenos Aires who refused to baptize the children of unwed mothers. “No to hypocrisy,” he said of the priests at the time. “They are the ones who separate the people of God from salvation.”
After complimenting the liberal strands of his career, the Times dwelt on Bergoglio's alleged conduct during Argentina's military dictatorship that ruled between 1976 and 1983 and the "dirty war" it waged against left-wing opponents.
He remained in that post through 1979, and his performance during the Dirty War has been the subject of controversy. In 2005, shortly before the Vatican conclave that elevated Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy, Cardinal Bergoglio was formally accused by an Argentine lawyer in a lawsuit of being complicit in the military’s kidnapping of two Jesuit priests whose antigovernment views he considered dangerously unorthodox.
The priests, whom he had dismissed from the order a week before they disappeared, were discovered months later on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, drugged and partially undressed. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the cardinal’s spokesman dismissed the accusations as “old slander.”
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but the debate has continued, with Argentine journalists publishing articles and books that appear to contradict Cardinal Bergoglio’s account of his actions. These accounts draw not only on documents from the period, but also on statements by priests and lay workers who clashed with Cardinal Bergoglio.
After the church had denied for years any involvement with the dictatorship, he testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Gen. Jorge Videla, the former head of the military junta, and Adm. Emilio Massera, the commander of the navy, to ask for the release of the priests. The following year, prosecutors called him to the witness stand to testify on the military junta’s systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was also accused of knowing about but failing to prevent.
In a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship. He said that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others.
Rome bureau chief Rachel Donadio contributed a front-page "news analysis," "For Outsider, Big Challenge – Changing Vatican Ways Tough Pastoral Task." The online headline was harsher: "Entrenched Troubles at Vatican Await a New Pope."
By choosing the first pope from the New World, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church sent a strong message of change: that the future of the church lies in the global south, and that a scholar with a common touch may be its best choice to inspire the faithful.
But it was not yet clear whether that mandate will extend to the Vatican, whether Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis on Wednesday, will display the mettle to tackle the organizational dysfunction and corruption that plagued the eight-year papacy of Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Bergoglio never spent time here dealing with the bureaucracy, the Curia, and after he finished second to Benedict in the 2005 voting, he expressed relief at not having to face that prospect.
Donadio kept up her old criticism of the former Pope Benedict XVI with a backhanded compliment for the new one:
In many ways, Cardinal Bergoglio – the first to take the name Francis, after the beloved saint who took a vow of poverty -- seems to be the anti-Benedict. He is a warm, pastoral figure known as a good communicator, one who might have more success reversing the church’s sagging fortunes than did Benedict, even without a major change in church doctrine. It seemed almost as if the cardinals were trying again.
“The reign of the doctors is over, and this is the kingdom of pastors, a move away from theologian pope,” said Alberto Melloni, the author of many books on the Vatican and the Second Vatican Council. “The fact is that he was a minority candidate in the 2005 election, and it was like saying, ‘Last time we went wrong, so let’s pick it up before it’s too late.’ ”