Jorge Mario Bergolglio, now Pope Francis I and formerly head of the Catholic Church in Argentina, flirted with the violent wing of Peronism and the military dictatorship, says Fortunato Malliacci, lecturer in society and religion in the University of Buenos Aires. In an interview with Adriana Carranca from the Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de S. Paulo, he said that Bergolglio was chosen as the new Pope, not for any leadership he might show in the ‘renovation’ of the Church, but because of his political skill and his ability to block the expansion of the left. “Rome is convinced that the left in Latin America went too far and is responsible for the decadence of the Church”, he said.

 Here are excerpts from the interview: 

Adriana Carranca: Why did Rome chose the Argentine Jorge Bergoglio as Pope, in your opinion?

Fortunato Malliacci: The crisis we are living in the Catholic Church was a very important factor. The resignation of the Pope showed that the old type of Roman Catholicism, the fundamentalist, politicized type, is terminally ill. But it would be difficult for an outsider to achieve a profound renewal, because he would need allies. I think that the focus right now is not to achieve change. All the conclave were chosen by Ratzinger [the out-going Pope Benedict XVI]. The conservative and ultraconservative wings of the Church are totally hegemonic throughout the world-wide Catholic Church. Bergoglio is a conservative just as the candidates from Brazil, Mexico, France and Italy were conservatives. But he is an Argentine-Italian, he speaks very well the language of Rome, he knows Latin America and the Curia very well. Above all, he is a very skilled politician. He knows very well how to manipulate, to seduce, when to talk and when not not to talk. His peers are well aware of this quality in him. And he is hugely ambitious for authority. 

AC: Bergoglio’s sister, Maria Elena, told reporters that he did not want to be pope …

 FM: And I didn’t want to be a sociologist, nor you a journalist (laughter). What we know is that this is Bergoglio’s way of doing things, of getting recognition. He says he wants nothing but he wants everything, everything, everything!

 AC: Why does Rome consider it important that the new Pope know Latin America?

 FM: Rome believes that the fact that evangelicals are taking over is the fault of Liberation Theology. Ratzinger is convinced that Latin America has become for too leftist and that is why the Church has lost authority, has lost prestige. The example he always gives is Brazil, but it is also a reality in Argentina, Uruguay and Chile.

 AC: According to research, 76% of Argentines were baptized Catholics but only 6% are practicing, few than are atheists (11.3%). How do you account for this?

 FM: It’s a problem throughout Latin America, a process of de-institutionalization, perhaps the result of the years of military dictatorships that were very Catholic. In Argentina, there is a strong presence of the Church in the state – it never really disassociated itself from the state – political parties, business groups and the media. It is a church that is very articulated with power groups. Argentine Catholicism is strongly present in the symbols which are recognized institutions: the military, police, unions, businessmen.

 AC: On the morning after after the name of the new Pope was announced, the city was covered with posters of the Pope, with the phrase: ‘Francis I, Argentine and Peronist Argentine’ on them. What does this mean?

 FM: Bergoglio calls himself a Peronist When he was young, he joined the Iron Guard (the youth group of the National Peronist Command). He was associated with both the violent groups of Peronism and the radical groups of the dictatorship. His disagreement with the Peronists only started with Néstor Kirchner.

 AC: Do you believe that Bergoglio supported the Argentine dictatorship?

 FM: He already had a high position within the Church and his stance was conservative. Other Jesuits, especially those living in slums, criticised him. And these were detained and tortured, and they denounced Bergoglio for betraying the Jesuit order. Today, he presents himself as the priest of the people, but then he did not defend these priests and was not a champion of the poor. It is difficult to state categorically that he helped the dictatorship, but his way of understanding what was happening in society was very similar to that of the military.

 AC: What do you think of his first acts as pope?

 FM: Rome is not used to someone who rejects episcopal luxuries. It’s an important gesture. But we have to assess whether such gestures actually represent change in the Church. He did the same here, but mo theological or pastoral renewal occurred in Argentina.

 AC: What will be the impact of an Argentine pope?

 FM: In Argentina, the link between church and state is strong. Most politicians and businessmen have always looked for a friendly bishop to help them. So you can imagine just how keen they will be to call the Pope their friend? (Laughs) We do not have Catholic Church parties, but the vast majority of parties call themselves Catholic. He will be a pope who will speak about Latin America, but it’s hard to say what will change as a result. It may be that at first Catholicism will become stronger among the poor.