In recent years, his clashes with the husband-and-wife tag team who have led this nation of 40 million created a rift between the Casa Rosada — Argentina’s White House — and the church as Bergoglio challenged the moral authority of elected leaders. Now, as he enters the crisis-plagued halls of Vatican City, his years in Argentina show that when he sees fit, Pope Francis can be a combative leader unafraid to challenge entrenched authority.
What is less clear, however, is his record during Argentina’s 1976-83 “Dirty War,” when a right-wing junta unleashed a reign of fear on this country that reached into the ranks of Bergoglio’s clerics. Some here have suggested that Bergoglio may have stood aside as the military government hunted down those it viewed as subversives, with published accounts suggesting he allowed the arrest of two left-leaning priests who were drugged and taken by helicopter to the junta’s most notorious prison in 1976.
This is the side of the new pope “that he doesn’t talk about,” said Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine journalist and author of “The Silence,” a book chronicling complacency — and worse — during the Dirty War.
Yet Pope Francis, who has strongly denied those allegations, also has defenders who say that he not only resisted the military but also actively helped those seeking sanctuary.
“There were bishops who were complicit in the dictatorship,” Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Argentine human rights activist, told the BBC’s Spanish-language service on Thursday. “But not Bergoglio.”
Taking on the Kirchners
Whatever his role in that chapter of Argentine history, his political role in a country polarized between President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government and a beleaguered opposition became a central theme here a day after Bergoglio was named pope. Bergoglio, observers say, has not been shy about energetically taking on the president or her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner.
“It was never a good relation,” said Oscar Aguad, a deputy in Argentina’s congress from the opposition Radical party. “There were scraps between Bergoglio and the Kirchner governments, to the point where Nestor Kirchner even said that Bergoglio was the head of the opposition.”
Tensions between Bergoglio and the Kirchners increased during the 2000s as the couple began to guide Argentina out of an economic collapse. The Kirchners rode a wave of popularity, which critics say they used to intervene in the economy and adopt a take-no-prisoners approach to the opposition and the press. Eventually, they tussled with the Roman Catholic Church.