New Pope, Old Questions

white smokeThe white smoke announced Pope Francis, formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Since the announcement there has been a media frenzy. Cardinal Bergoglio was not on the short list, even though he was “runner-up” in 2005, so his background was not well-researched during the pre-conclave “sweet Sistine” coverage. Pope Francis is the first to take the name Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, and the first from Latin America. But, like his predecessor, he bears the weight of collective guilt for a war that took place around him.


Demonstrators in Argentina

Pope Benedict XVI faced criticism for his membership in the Hitler Youth and later conscription into the German Anti-aircraft Corps as a child soldier at the age of 16. It is well understood that refusal to serve was not an option. Membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory and dodging service in Nazi Germany was significantly more difficult than dodging the Vietnam draft. Mr. Ratzinger did desert his post shortly before the Allied victory, and despite the fact that his childhood home was used as an American base, he was still treated as a Prisoner of War because he served as a soldier.

The new Pope has been accused of failing to speak out against the “Dirty War” in Argentina. Between 1976 and 1983, thousands were killed and tens of thousands of others were “disappeared”. Father Bergoglio did not openly oppose the military junta but he this does not mean that he was a supporter. He claims that he worked behind the scenes advocating for victims. While Father Bergoglio didn’t openly oppose the junta, other priests did and many died for it including Bishop Enrique Angelilli.

These atrocities are your fault

“These Atrocities: Your Fault!”

What responsibility do bystanders have for atrocities committed in their presence? Who bears the greater burden of collective guilt– a child conscripted into an organization the perpetrates terrible crimes against humanity? or a priest who fails to fight against human rights violations as they occur, knowing that to do so would risk his own life? In retrospect it is easy to see that the Nazis and the Argentinian junta were “bad”, which leads to the conclusion that their opponents were “good”. I don’t want to argue the finer points of either of these wars but I think it is fair to say that war rarely leaves either side innocent. This blurring of ethics during times of war makes it difficult to assign all of the collective guilt to just one-side, though this is precisely what happens.

As we re-write history to eradicate gray gradients, we are left wondering why no heroes emerged to stop the evil-doers. The young Ratzinger should have been a hero and refuse to serve. As a priest, Bergoglio should have risked more to do the “right” thing. Much like Mark Walberg thinks he could have stopped 9/11, so do many people think they would have acted differentlyin circumstances of war. These would-be-heroes would have moved or been openly defiant or plotted armed resistance. These fantasies are based on a black and white version of history, where it was clear from the start who is good and who is bad. Unfortunately, war is not Spy vs. Spy and there are no assigned roles.

spy v spy

If only war was so straight forward

While I am willing to excuse individuals from bold actions, I do believe that institutions have more responsibility. I don’t know if Father Borgoglio should have done more to stop the junta but the church clearly had a responsibility to protect its members and speak out against wide-spread human rights violations–committed by both sides. We see a similar scene playing out in Syria. The institutions that have the power to act out often fail to but it is the ordinary people that in the end will carry theburden of collective guilt.


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