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The Catholic Church's Long Struggle over Accommodating to Authoritarian Regimes

Cesare Orsenigo, Pope Pius XII's nuncio to Nazi Germany, meets with Adolf Hitler and Joachim von Ribbentrop in early 1939. Photo Credit: German Federal Archives.

The announcement last Wednesday that the College of Cardinals selected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, as the successor to Pope Benedict XVI, made headlines around the world. Most focused on the “simplicity” and “modest touch” of the new pope, who will reign as Pope Francis.

But allegations that the new pope cooperated with Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, during the so-called Dirty War in which nearly 30,000 Argentineans were tortured or killed by the government, have tarnished his transition.

The controversy is centered around two Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, who were ministering in the slums of Buenos Aires in 1976. Advocates of liberation theology -- a controversial social justice-orientated approach to Catholic teachings (Benedict XVI condemned it as tinged by Marxism) -- the pair were arrested by the military government as part of a broader campaign against Communist “subversives.” Yorio and Jalics were jailed and tortured for five months, before being released, drugged and half-naked, into an open field. In this, they were lucky – many victims of the regime were “disappeared’ by tossing them out of airplanes, still alive, over the Atlantic Ocean.

Bergoglio has said he warned the pair to cease operating in the slums lest they put themselves in danger of arrest and that he interceded with dictator Jorge Videla, a move which probably saved their lives; Yorio blamed Bergoglio for refusing to publically support their work, but Jalics later reconciled with the now pontiff.

On Friday, Vatican spokesman Feredico Lombardi spoke publically for the first time about the charges, implying that the allegations stem from lingering left-wing anticlericalism.

Horacio Verbitsky, who wrote about the Yorio/Jalics case in his 2005 book El Silenco, belonged to the far-left terrorist group Montoneros during the 1970s.

Still, there are others in Argentina deeply critical of Bergoglio and the Church's perceived passivity in the face of the military regime. Elena de la Cuadra was five months pregnant when she was kidnapped by the regime in February 1977, eventually giving birth in prison.

Elena's mother Alicia, the co-founder of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group dedicated to finding forcibly adopted babies and reuniting them with their biological families, has said that she spoke with Bergoglio in 1977 to solicit his help in finding the baby, but he was told by a subordinate that the child had already been adopted by a politically influential family and could not be returned.

In 2010, Bergoglio said he hadn't heard of the stolen babies while the regime was still in power. Estela de la Cuadra, Elena's sister, told the Argentinean newspaper Pagina12 his denials were "lies and hypocrisy" and that his election to the papacy is a disaster. It's total impunity."

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 and was a victim of the regime, was more supportive of Bergoglio, telling the AP on Thursday, "Perhaps he didn't have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship."

The Catholic Church has long struggled over how much to accommodate when operating under authoritarian regimes.

In the 1930s, Pope Pius XI signed concordats with both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, guaranteeing the rights of the Catholic Church in those countries, but also providing international prestige to those regimes.

During the Spanish Civil War, nearly a fifth of the Catholic clergy in Spain were killed in the fighting between Francisco Franco’s and the loyalist forces mainly consisting of republicans, communists, and anarchists. Most of the priests were killed by loyalist mobs and are officially called “Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War” by the Church. But in his 2012 book The Spanish Holocaust, historian Paul Preston related the story of Fernando Huidobro Polanco, a 34-year-old Jesuit chaplain in Franco’s army who was killed in 1937. A decade after his death, he was nominated for canonization, but a subsequent investigation revealed was shot in the back by his own troops. “When it was discovered that Huidobro had been killed by the Francoists and not the reds,” Preston writes, “the Vatican shelved his case.”

Catholic lay support was also an important component in the so-called "clerical fascist" regimes in Portugal, Austria, and Brazil during the first half of the twentieth century.

During World War II, some Croatian priests and bishops supported the Ustashe, a fascist political movement that ruled Croatia as a German client state. Three hundred thousand people, mostly Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Romani, were killed by the regime. Archbishop of Zagreb Aloysius Stepinac openly welcomed the Ustashe when they came to power in 1941, though he became critical of the regime when their atrocities became widely known and was involved in efforts to save Jews and Serbs.

The Vatican itself has also been criticized for failing to condemn the Holocaust during World War II -- Pope Pius XI in particular has become a lightning rod for criticism and debate. British journalist John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope charged that Pius failed to speak out against the Holocaust, partly due to Pius’s own anti-Semitism. American academic Daniel Goldhagen made similar arguments in his 2003 book A Moral Reckoning. Both books were criticized for their scholarship, even by other critics of Pius XII like Michael Phayer. Historian Philip Jenkins went further, suggesting that Goldhagen and Cornwall were motivated in part by anti-Catholic animus.

In Poland after World War II, on the other hand, it was the Church that was the victim of intense repression by the new communist government – only in 1956 did the worst persecutions end, as part of the ongoing post-Stalin thaw throughout the Soviet bloc. In exchange for refraining from politics, the Church enjoyed a degree of freedom over its own affairs unprecedented in the communist world. That agreement did not stop priests and bishops from criticizing government policies, and in the 1970s and 1980s -- especially after the election of the Polish John Paul II as pope in 1979 -- the Church became a cornerstone of the peaceful anti-communist movement in that country.

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