Friday, March 15, 2013

Fr. Eduardo de la Serna on Pope Francis: "He handles power very well"

By Pedro Lipcovich (English translation by Rebel Girl)
March 14, 2013

"Jorge Bergoglio knows how to handle the reins of power very well," says Father Eduardo de la Serna, a member of the secretariat of Curas en Opción por los Pobres ("Priests with an Option for the Poor" - OPP). That political capability would be the thread that links the many different facets De la Serna points out about the new Pope: his conflict with right-wing sectors of the Church in Argentina, such as Archbishop Hector Aguer and the Instituto El Verbo Encarnado ("The Incarnate Word Institute"), but also his "active participation" in the disappearance of two priests during the military dictatorship, and on the other hand,"his ability to approach the people, his insistence that priests go into the barrios, to the villas ("slums")" while at the same time "it's not likely that he'll push for changes in matters of doctrine, such as the place of women in the Church and communion for divorced people" but, however,"it may well be that, without changing the doctrine, there would be overtures to divorced people or even transvestites." Early indicators of his management should be discerned in "whether or not changes take place in the Roman Curia and, in Argentina, the appointment of the new archbishop of Buenos Aires."

Why do you think the cardinals elected Jorge Bergoglio?

"Bergoglio knows how to handle the reins of power very well. He had already received a lot of votes in the previous conclave, when Joseph Ratzinger was elected, and in 2007, all the Latin American bishops elected him chairman of the committee that drafted the Aparecida document. As for the criteria the cardinals prioritized with this choice, from now on he probably won't be a pope of advances [in the church]. There are things that concern many people and I don't think are major issues for him, such as communion for the divorced, the issues of homosexuality and abortion. Instead, we can expect gestures of warmth from him. To imagine an example: It wouldn't surprise me on Holy Thursday if he were to wash the feet of a group of transvestites -- I'm not saying he will, but he would be capable of something like that, to make clear that in no way is he excommunicating them, even though he doesn't applaud their actions. So, I don't think he'll promote significant changes at the doctrinal level, but there may be significant gestures at the pastoral level," responded the OPP representative, who a few months ago questioned the bishops for accepting the link between the Church and the last military dictatorship.

Could you give us an example of this difference between the doctrinal and the pastoral?

The official doctrine of the Church says that those who live together without being married can't take communion, but, for many theologians, this has no basis. Well, it wouldn't surprise me if Bergoglio were to designate a group of theologians to study those arguments -- at a pastoral level, it would be a gesture of warmth with respect to those people who can't receive communion today, but creating that commission in itself wouldn't imply a change in Church doctrine with respect to it. Nor do I think with Bergoglio there will be changes in the role of women in the Church.

What will the impact of Bergoglio's nomination be on the Church in Argentina?

I'll begin by recalling the importance of the nuncios in the Church. The nuncio is the ambassador of the Vatican, but he's a lot more -- he ends up deciding which candidates for bishop appear on the lists that are sent up to Rome. Until a year and a half ago, the nuncio was the Italian Adriano Bernardini, who proposed many candidates close to Héctor Aguer, the archbishop of La Plata. But something interesting happened: When Bergoglio was nearly 75 and was supposed to tender his resignation as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the nuncio changed. At the beginning of last year, the Swiss Emil Tscherrig came in, who had a different disposition. I suspect the change in nuncio was one of Bergoglio's moves because, otherwise, when he would resign, Bernardini would appoint Aguer archbishop of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio knows how to use power. And it would be ingenuous to think that, as pope, he wouldn't take decisions concerning the Church in Argentina into his hands. In fact, he has shown a critical attitude with respect to very right-wing groups such as the Instituto El Verbo Encarnado. But at the time he was stopped by the Vatican Curia which shouldn't be able to stop him now.

What was Bergoglio's conflict with the Instituto El Verbo Encarnado?

That group was born in San Rafael, Mendoza, founded by Father Carlos Miguel Buela, who had come from Buenos Aires. It's a terribly right-wing order that, however, has a lot of priestly vocations -- everywhere, the right-wingers usually have many, many vocations. But this group is so far right that it had confrontations with almost all of the Argentine bishops, to the point that the full Bishops Conference went to see John Paul II to ask him to act on this Institute. But an Argentine layman, the former ambassador to the Holy See during the Carlos Menem administration who had a lot of contacts in the Roman Curia, and the [Vatican] Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, not only ignored the bishops' request, but in San Rafael a bishop was appointed who was a friend of the Instituto, priestly ordinations from this group were authorized in Buenos Aires, which were performed by Aguer, and José Luis Mollaghan, the only one who hadn't condemned the group, was named archbishop of Rosario. In the Bishops Conference, Bishop Estanislao Karlic and Bishop Guillermo Rodríguez Melgarejo, who was secretary of the Conference, had to resign. I don't think those of El Verbo Encarnado are celebrating Bergoglio's appointment.

What others pros and cons would you point out in the new pope?

Bergoglio has very negative aspects. On the human rights issue, the shadow of the two Jesuits who disappeared at the ESMA weighs on him -- there are strong suspicions that he actively participated in that, as has been detailed in news stories by Horacio Verbitsky (in Página/12).* This doesn't seem to have mattered to the cardinals. Nor can we expect Bergoglio to promote liberation theology. But, however, in the diocese of Buenos Aires he knew how to be a pastor. After archbishops who were "princes of the Church" like Caggiano, Aramburu and Quarracino, Bergoglio was willing to approach people -- he has washed the feet of AIDS patients, of pregnant women in the Sardá Maternity [Hospital], he has blessed the ragpickers in Constitution Plaza. They are positive things after a pope as removed as Benedict XVI, who never saw a poor person in his life. Politically, Bergoglio comes from the Peronist Guardia de Hierro ("Iron Guard") group. Unlike Aguer, he can drink mate with the people, he insists that priests go into the barrios, he puts in curas villeros ("slum priests"). Now we have to pay attention to two things. One: Who Bergoglio will appoint in the Vatican curia, which is a mafia den -- what usually happens is that those who are already there are initially confirmed, but maybe there will slowly begin to be changes. The second question is who will be appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires -- hopefully Hector Aguer has finished his ecclesiastical career.


*Translator's Note: Before anyone calls me on it, it should be noted that Pope Francis has denied responsibility for the disappearance of the Jesuits. The Vatican issued a statement on March 15, 2013, that said:

"The campaign against Bergoglio is well-known and dates back to many years ago. It has been made by a publication that carries out sometimes slanderous and defamatory campaigns. The anticlerical cast of this campaign and of other accusations against Bergoglio is well-known and obvious."

"The charges refer to the time before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became bishop [of Buenos Aires], when he was Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina and accuse him of not having protected two priests who were kidnapped."

"This was never a concrete or credible accusation in his regard. He was questioned by an Argentine court as someone aware of the situation but never as a defendant. He has, in documented form, denied any accusations."

What seems clear is that the family of one of the Jesuits who was kidnapped and tortured and who passed away in 2000, Fr. Orlando Yorio, still hold Bergoglio responsible for not standing up for them. The second priest, Fr. Francisco Jalics, has since reconciled with the pope and is living in an monastery in Germany. He gave a terse statement to the press in which he said that "years later ...we had the opportunity to talk with Father Bergoglio ... to discuss the events. Following that, we celebrated Mass publicly together and hugged solemnly. I am reconciled to the events and consider the matter to be closed."


  1. thanks for doing all you do to provide these translations to make Boff's work more accessible to those of us for whom Portuguese is not our native tongue. with sincere thanks

  2. Rebel Girl: are there church reform groups in Argentina? How did Jorge Bergoglio run his diocese? Did he make decisions alone or did he decide together with others? Did he have altar girls? Did women do readings and distribute communion in his diocese? Did he appoint women to senior positions? Did he maintain contact to reform groups? Did he give communion into the hand or into the mouth? Did he censure and punish those that had different opions? Was he open to plurality? Did he ever express criticism of the all male Vatican hierarchy? Does he believe in the pope as a monarch or does he believe in synods as the highest authority? If Jorge Bergoglio continues all that medieval, God-above-in-the-heavens theology and monarchical church structure, then all his words will not be credible. Look at him wearing cuff links. Did he do that in B.A. as well? Anybody in B.A. who I can contact to answer these questions? May the love of Jesus be with you. Bernie

  3. Bernie, there is theoretically a chapter of "We Are Church" in Argentina but I haven't found anything by them yet. A lot of your questions come from a European perspective which has very little to do with the reality of the Church in Latin America which tends to be more conservative -- I'm talking about the majority of the faithful, and that's how they like it (I worship with the Hispanic community in my parish in North America -- Central and South American immigrants -- and while they are on the same page as the Americans in my progressive parish on peace and justice issues, they are more conservative on what you would call church reform questions and matters of sexual morality). For example, Latin American Catholics tend to prefer communion in the mouth which they consider more respectful so I doubt there would have been an issue there.

    I think our hopes for reform will depend on the issue. I think we'll have a good shot at optional celibacy with this pope, for example. I base this on his friendship with Clelia Luro de Podesta, the widow of an Argentine Catholic bishop who is very active in the married priests movement and who has said that Bergoglio, unlike other bishops, went out of his way to help priests who left the priesthood to get married to get settled in civilian life. That is huge, given the Church's history of shunning those men. I don't think we're going to see women priests or even women deacons with this pope, though I do think we'll continue to see more women integrating the higher positions that they are able to occupy under existing canon law. I don't think we'll see the level of persecution of dissident theologians that we saw under John Paul II and Benedict XVI simply because it won't be a high priority for this pope and it won't be an area where he will want to waste political capital. Symbolism is very important in the early stages and I think the fact that we aren't seeing the imperial mozzeta and red shoes, and the fact that after being named pope he got right back on the bus like just another cardinal gives an idea of stepping back from the monarchic image of the papacy. We've already seen some movement on ecumenism in the presence of prominent leaders of other faiths at his inaugural Mass and in his willingness to curtail his public activities during the inaugural of the new Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury so as not to draw media attention away from the latter.

    I can tell you what the people in my parish who are from Argentina (Buenos Aires specifically) had to say about Bergoglio last Sunday. What was important to them is that unlike any archbishop before him, he went into the slums (what they call the "villas") and met the poor people there. It was also very important to them that he plainly denounced government corruption. The woman who testified about this is a lector in the parish. As I find out more -- and especially if I see anything from any organization I would identify as a church reform group in Argentina -- I'll try to share it on this blog. Stay tuned and God bless you too.