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Understanding Pope Francis: The Need for a New Narrative Framework

(Image: Left to Right, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio; General Jorge Videla, dictator of Argentina from 1976 to 1981)

“Jorge Mario Bergoglio… has been a staunch supporter of  US imperial interests in Latin America for more than 30 years.”

 “…one of the main supportersof Argentina’s military dictatorship which came to power in a CIA supported coup in 1976.”

 “Jorge Mario Bergoglio not only supported the US sponsored dictatorship, he also played a direct and complicit role in the ‘Dirty War’ (la guerra sucia) in liaison with the military Junta headed by General Jorge Videla, leading to the arrest, imprisonment, torture and disappearance of progressive Catholic priests and laymen who were opposed to Argentina’s military rule.” 


The statements above were made in an online article by Michel Chossudovsky, a Russian-Canadian researcher, immediately after Pope Francis was elected. It should be noted that Chossudovsky is known as a purveyor of conspiracy theories, but he’s hardly alone in pointing the finger at the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires as a figure complicit in Argentina’s “Dirty War“. Argentinian left-wing investigative journalist Horatio Verbitsky has made similar claims. In 2005, Verbitsky published a book entitled, The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio: The Secret Relations Between the Church and the ESMA. (The ESMA was the naval academy-turned torture facility used by the Argentinian junta during the war.) Verbitsky’s book led to a lawsuit against Jorge Bergoglio, alleging that he was involved in the kidnappings of two Jesuit priests in the 1970s. After twice refusing to testify, Bergoglio took the stand in 2010. Start asking around among well-connected Catholics in Buenos Aires, and you’ll hear a consistent refrain: everyone has heard he was involved, nobody has been able to prove it, he always denied everything.

Though we may never know the real answers, the truth of the matter should be of extreme interest to any serious journalist seeking to understand the man who now reigns as one of the most controversial popes in history. But for now, I want to focus on the more fundamental question these allegations raise: Why don’t we already know more about who Jorge Mario Bergoglio is? 

And to understand the answer to that, you need to know a bit more about how such information is discovered and shared.

Are you wondering why no one ever heard about any of these rather serious charges from the mainstream press? Is it because they had already, the same day as the Chossudovsky article was published — March 14th, 2013 — launched their very public love affair with the “humble” new Argentinean pope? It seems unlikely. The quotes above were published the morning after Bergoglio had stood – an almost totally unknown figure – on the loggia and said next to nothing to the crowd.

That night, the press dove for their keyboards to Google his name and find something to say that continued their own safe and well-established narrative. In their minds at the time the notion was still lodged that the figure of the pope was equivalent to Catholicism’s “oppressive” views. It was the rare writer in Rome that night who was receiving — and paying attention to — the warning messages coming in from the new pope’s countrymen. Within several days, however, both the secular and Catholic media found things in this pope they could love, and the cautionary messages were drowned out.

I recently asked why journalists have been so eager to avoid digging into the more interesting questions about the pope’s past, implying that it was sheer laziness or ideological manipulation. This lack of interest seems quite strange on its face, given that Francis comes from a country whose recent history has been of such dramatic political interest. When I was a child, Argentina was synonymous with the “mess in South America” – grossly corrupt and murderous tin-pot military regimes brutally grasping power by applying both ends of their rifles to their own people and amassing personal wealth without the slightest regard for human life. I was ten when the military coup happened, and even at that age I could grasp that there was something horrifying going on down there.

Remember, this was one South American revolution that stood above the rest for its extreme brutality. This was the one where they “disappeared” political opponents by shoving them out of airplanes into shark-infested waters — after which, surviving witnesses testified to seeing bits and pieces of human remains floating amidst pinkish sea-foam.

The Past is Prologue Irrelevant 

Immediately after that chilly, damp night in Rome when the Church was given her 266th pope, I remember seeing some brief comment here and there about “questions” over Bergoglio’s involvement in the Dirty War. But since no one really knew what it was all about, it got no traction. And so, these questions dried up almost instantly, lasting no more than a couple of days post-Conclave, until the secular media decided to change tracks. Only a scant few weeks later, Bergoglio himself started the game, distracting the media with his “Who am I to judge?” plane presser, and the lot of us have been running barking after his trail of carefully deposited breadcrumbs ever since. One thing the man knows how to do magnificently, we have learned, is bait the press. And the press was only too willing to go along for the ride. They suddenly realized they’d found a friend, a fellow-traveler proposing the same cultural ret-conned reboot.

But still…

Body parts… sharks… once you’ve heard it, that kind of thing sticks in your head.

Given that Jorge Bergoglio, SJ, was the Provincial Superior of the Jesuits of Argentina, he was also a major figure in the Church right smack in the middle of the whole messy, brutal, blood-soaked festa. Which, one would think, should make the rapidly-diminished lack of interest in his past a little more inexplicable.

Except…not really.

If horror and brutality were the metrics by which we remembered history, Argentina should be on the same plane as the Killing Fields and Gulags. But for some reason, Latin American horrors just don’t count, and I think the reason is the nature of modern journalism. No one today knows anything about the present, let alone the past, that writers on the internet are not willing to tell them. The horrors of the Holocaust of World War II is useful to the narrative; the horrors of the Gulags less so; the Dirty War not at all.

The fact is that most readers at present are in their 20s and 30s, and to this supremely solipsistic demographic anything that happened before they were born, in some country they’ve never been to, is irrelevant. We live in a time when teenaged SJWs shrieking obscenities on Twitter are considered sober and informed political analysts. A fifty year-old, like me, whose memory of the world’s political affairs stretches back before Return of the Jedi was in theatres might as well be a dinosaur. And it would be useful to remember that most of the journalists working the Vatican beat are younger than I am.

To understand how the narrative is being developed around Pope Francis, therefore, we have to understand how journalism works.

I would like to propose three reasons that Francis’ rather colourful past has not come to light either in the secular or Catholic mainstream press:

  1. Time and space constraints
  2. Poor political and philosophical education
  3. And most importantly, the transformation of the role of news media into a political narrative-generator divided according to rigidly defined, almost sacrosanct – and totally useless – factional categories.

Since journalists are now in the reality-generating business, they must decide what is and isn’t real. And for the chosen narrative, nothing outside those categories can be acknowledged to exist.

Time and Space in the Internet Vortex 

In fact, I will defend my colleagues on both sides of our ideological divide, and say this failure is not really completely their fault. They are presented with a nearly impossible task, the need to make complex political and social issues simple enough for an ordinary non-expert to read and digest in no more than 20 minutes with his morning coffee.

Actually, no. Let me amend that. 20 minutes was in the days of print journalism. Now the writer has about 150 words to grab someone’s attention from his TwittFace feed. (To give you an idea how long that is, this paragraph and the one before it are exactly 154 words.) Buzzfeed is perhaps the venue to have most successfully grasped that most “journalism” is now read on phones on the subway. The “daily news cycle” has been reduced from 36 to no more than about 6 hours (give or take time zone differences).

The bottom line is that a news-cycle writer has no more than a few hours to produce copy, and that copy has a shelf life of about six hours. I used to tell my contacts that they had three hours to return my emails requesting comment or I would have to go on to the next person on my list. And one of the reasons I finally quit the daily grind and went indie was that I had realized I was losing touch with the issues I was covering under the sheer pressure of producing copy every day. I had no time to read or digest or even really figure out what was going on.

Frankly, one does not get into journalism in these times because of a need to inform the public. Once you have done this a few years, you will have realized that “the public” cannot really be informed. And if you try, you will go mad with despair. If you keep going in the job at all it is most likely because of your own personal desire to know what’s going on.

Bad Education

There is a reason journalism has reached its current state.

J-schools in our times are mostly leftist ideological indoctrination camps. The critique of university “education” that has suddenly burst onto the public screens since the Trump election has for at least 60 years been infinitely multiplied in faculties of journalism.

Way back in 1998, I re-started my college education in the Classics department of Dalhousie University. Officially, I was studying Latin. Unofficially, it was Boethius and Augustine. At the time, I started writing for the campus newspaper, which consisted mostly of just attending campus events and producing modest five-paragraph pieces. It was my little hobby.

But I started thinking I would like to write for a living. I was reading Edmund Burke and becoming interested in Hannah Arendt’s investigation into human and political evil. (I also attended a few public lectures at the philosophy department and learned all about why no one at university could think straight. Seriously? … Derrida?…)

I visited the j-school at Kings, my college at Dalhousie, and just what I saw on the student bulletin board was enough to put me off. I discovered after examining the syllabus that these kids weren’t learning anything of substance. They were being drawn into a self-referential and totally enclosed bubble-verse, to be used as political activists – pawns essentially – by their older, more deeply ideologically-entrenched professors.

A working journalist I contacted said that in her experience, a j-school ticket was nothing more than an ideological merit badge, and editors even then were avoiding them. Not only were they all vicious little Marxists, unable to play nicely with others, but they weren’t being taught even the rudiments of composition. In other words, they couldn’t write.

To expect people who have never read anything but ideological pamphlets, who can’t construct simple sentences in English, to have a sufficiently broad worldview to tackle the complexities of the Great South American Tangle, is, quite honestly, asking too much.

“Bias” and the Narrative Framework: the Big Blind Spot

Because it is their job to tell stories, journalists have to start by looking for a coherent structure, a comprehensible framework within which the topic they’re covering can be understood. This is where we come into the world of “editorial bias”. But even a novice in the field will quickly realize that every single news outlet is biased. The difficulty comes when they try to claim to be “objective” and unbiased. When they try to hide what they really think for the purpose of hoodwinking the public. Hidden bias – bias that claims not to be biased – is a vice. But without a “narrative framework”, journalism could not exist.

In the case of journalists working for established outlets, whether the BBC or the National Catholic Register, this means they have to work within the framework that has already been created by their predecessors and editors. Something the public generally doesn’t know – because newspapers don’t like to tell anyone – is that these “biases” or narrative structures are even at times set in stone in an outlet’s organizational charter. It’s written into the founding charter of the Toronto Star, for instance, that the paper was established specifically in order to promote a leftist political viewpoint.

But acknowledged or not, a narrative framework is an absolute necessity, and it is the job of the individual writer to try to discern honestly the truth of the one within which he works. This work is usually done early in one’s career.

In certain cases (cf. Malcolm Muggeridge) an individual will discover that he has been working for the “wrong side” and switch, sometimes quite dramatically. But these instances are exceedingly rare, and can be likened to a sort of ideological religious conversion. (And if we’re wondering where most of the paying journalism jobs are found, it should be remembered that Malcolm Muggeridge, one of the most respected voices of his time, had a heck of a time finding a paying gig after he switched.)

The simple fact is that even if they are not writing for the AP or the BBC, but for a niche audience like First Things or The Federalist or the Spectator, they necessarily must write something that their audience can understand — and are willing to accept.

And South American politics is hard. It’s complex. It defies our Star Wars-derived political metaphors. The more nuanced national character of Argentineans, Paraguayans, Chileans, and Brazilians is something most of us have little to no experience with. It’s all tangled up with 16th century Spanish colonial aristocrats, Marxism, the CIA, drugs, vicious power struggles, military coups, disappearing civilians, and the Catholic Church – none of which a normal, WASPy North American j-school graduate is going to have the first notion about.

We balk when we can’t figure out where the key players fit into our categories. When we hear it said that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, whom we are told is a “liberal,” with the support of the Jimmy Carter-era CIA, was helping the “right wing” military regime disappear “progressive” priests, our wiring gets crossed and our ears get a little smoky. It’s why so few have dared to tackle the meaning of his “Peronism”. It just defies our attempts to mash it into our paradigm, so we turn to easier subjects.

Our dichotomous left/right North American political paradigm has been out of date even in secular politics for decades. This is perhaps particularly true for we Catholics whose political training was in the Reagan/Bush era of the American Culture Wars. Our worldview consists of two mutually opposed political camps, cleanly divided by the “political fence”. One can live very close to the fence, perhaps, having “moderate” views on immigration, war, poverty and the environment (Left) and contraception, abortion and “gay marriage” (Right), but the fence is still the central image of our now hopelessly outmoded political paradigm.

The Culture War-era attempt to paste this paradigm onto the internal struggle in the Catholic Church since the advent of the Social/Sexual Revolution has become even more hopeless. This or that prelate is still regularly defined in the secular press as a “liberal” or a “conservative,” disregarding completely even the most superficial understanding of actual Catholic social teaching.

Writers on Catholic subjects will often decry the use of these labels (and prelates will be even more offended by their designated categories, but for different reasons) as next to useless. But they will say that since their audience, Catholic and secular, are in the main entirely innocent of even rudimentary knowledge of Catholic teaching, the labels are what we’re stuck with.

The problem in both realms is that it creates a state of nearly total blindness for everything that does not fit the predetermined categories. One must shoehorn everyone into one camp or another. It is like saying that in the animal kingdom there are only two categories, cnidaria and ungulates; if one is not either a jellyfish or a grass-eating quadruped, one simply cannot really exist. Or at least, having only two possible categories, that the wolves, ants, crows, fish, seals and polar bears must in some as-yet undisclosed way be classifiable as some form either of jellyfish or cow.

A New Way Forward

This poverty of categories among the rather narrowly educated journalists, working to their daily deadlines, was the problem we had when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope in 2013.

The media immediately dove in and started to position him in relation to their paradigm-defining fence. And sure enough, some of the first things we heard about him, on that very night, were that he was “a conservative” because he had opposed “gay marriage” and been “very strong” against abortion in Argentina.

Presto! He fit the paradigm in time for an aperitivo! By nine o’clock, everyone had clicked “send” and gone out to dinner in the Borgo to celebrate a narrative well-maintained. That none of that narrative could be demonstrated as true after five minutes of Googling did not deter its journalistic curators one bit.

About three days later, without batting an eye, they had read his signals and retconned him as a hero of their cause, and here we sit today, with this Peronist wrecking ball playing the press like the chumps they are. Like tossing fish to a pool full of trained seals. But in all this, the confusion has grown and grown. The journalists are losing their audiences as they continue to parrot their narrative while the pope carries on defying all the categories. The one thing in Bergoglio’s mind — his all-consuming passion — is the one thing they’ve missed: his single-minded and scruple-free lust for power.

To understand this, what we need is a new narrative framework. I suggest that because we are not limited by the constraints of the daily deadline and the big operating budgets, the work of clarifying the narrative framework could be undertaken by bloggers and other kinds of independent researchers, making our living as we do by direct-to-customer sales.

But crucially, the public must start to use their own rational faculties. If a journalist talks about “humble Pope Francis,” the reader must start asking whether this characterization fits the facts. If we are told by the Tablet that Cardinal Burke or Matthew Festing (the former Grand Master of the Knights of Malta) are liars and cheats, we must look at what kind of publication the Tablet is, and at what we know about the character and intentions of such men.

When the Independent or the Tablet or the Guardian or the Washington Post tells us that Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been cleared of any suspicion of wrongdoing in his involvement in the atrocities of the military junta of 1970s Argentina, we must ask what kind of writers these are, and how they have covered other issues related to the Church. And we would do well to compare it with what we know about Bergoglio’s current behaviour, and ask what is plausible and likely.

We cannot know the truth by blindly accepting a given narrative framework. But we also have to remember that no journalist can possibly tell the truth without one.

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