Bergoglio — the bungled discernment

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio — Buenos Aires days

Maybe next papal election the Cardinals will know their man. Part III of a series.

By John Trungove

Early leaks following the 2005 Conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI suggested that “the Jesuit” candidate had run a distant second, gathering only a quarter of the votes in the final ballots.

In the immediate aftermath of the election of Benedict, many commentators assumed that the Jesuit in question was Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, then Archbishop of Milan and leader of the liberal elements in the College of Cardinals. The supposed wise-heads completely ignored another Jesuit, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, whose name had been mentioned among the papabile for the Conclave.

The real Jesuit

The Argentine Cardinal was said to have a good reputation among his Latin American peers and, seemingly, was not friendly to the Liberation Theology that had divided the Latin American Church in previous decades. To the English-speaking media, he was seen as slightly conservative but with a possible soft edge. His association with the “conservative” Italian lay movement Communione e Liberazione (CL) was noted but what the connection signified was not understood.

What few realised at the time was that Bergoglio was not only “the Jesuit” of 2005 but also that he had been the preferred candidate of the liberal Cardinals led by Cardinal Martini of Milan. This little anecdote illustrates the difficulty that many commentators have always had in pinning down just who Bergoglio was and what he stood for, let alone his preferences or leadership style.

Another forgotten factor was that the pro-Bergoglio rump from the Conclave of 2005 had grown by 2013 to become a blocking minority; something that had been beyond its reach in 2005. With more than one third of papal electors voting together, that minority could then, by means of forcing a deadlock, prevent the election of any Cardinal not to the liking of the liberals.

The pre-Conclave favourite among the papabile of 2013 was Cardinal Angelo Scola, the former Patriarch of Venice and the new Archbishop of Milan. Scola was clearly identified as a conservative and was well known for his affiliation with CL or Ciellini as they common called.

Ciellini handicap

There were many Cardinals associated with CL, so it’s friends were likely to feature strongly in the Conclave. But equally, CL had its opponents. Despite its size and successes in Italy – and to a lesser extent in Latin America – CL had met with strong opposition among Italian ecclesiastics for its allegedly pre-modern views on the relationship between religion and culture, Church and state. So Scola’s CL background actually split the bloc of Italian votes in the Conclave.

The problem then for Cardinal Scola was that the liberal blocking minority – joined by his Italian opponents — simply refused to accept him. He is said to have gained the largest number of votes in the initial ballots but from there he could only go downhill.

When the friends of CL looked for an alternative, once their preferred candidate began to falter, they naturally sought to identify other Cardinals with similar associations. Bergoglio, perhaps? However, not all in the Scola camp would have been aware of the caucusing by liberal Cardinals to promote their own candidate, Bergoglio, as it happened.

Rising star

Suddenly the uninformed cardinals could see a supposedly friendly candidate on the horizon, who had already gathered a solid number of votes in early ballots. A drift of votes to Bergoglio was thus inevitable, all the more so as the case against his candidature had yet to be made with effect.

The spectrum of positions within the College of Cardinals is more finely nuanced than a simple division between liberals and conservatives. As noted in my previous article, the St Gallen group of Cardinals had been extremely active before and during the Conclave in support of Cardinal Bergoglio. His own participation in the pre-Conclave meetings had put his name firmly in the minds of many Third World Cardinals. If ever there was a time to choose a Pope from Latin America, this was it – and the right candidate seemed to staring the Cardinals in the face.

How could a seemingly conservative Cardinal from South America be the favoured candidate of the radical liberals, yet remain under the radar?

Following the 2005 Conclave, Cardinal Bergoglio had a starring role in the 2007 Conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) at Aparecida. Bergoglio led the preparation of the final document from the Conference. His leadership and popularity at the Conference, along with exposure to many Cardinal electors, surely added to the number of future votes that could be accumulated during a divided Conclave.

The problem is that the wavering Cardinals in 2013 simply did not know their man. How could a seemingly conservative Cardinal from South America be the favoured candidate of the radical liberals, yet remain under the radar? It is hard to believe that veterans of the 2005 Conclave did not know who was backing Bergoglio then when the conservatives solidly supported Cardinal Ratzinger. There has to be another explanation for how Bergoglio could have appealed to cardinals of such diverse backgrounds.


The clue is that, as commentators both favourable and hostile to Pope Francis have agreed, and as the world has seen since his election, Bergoglio knew very well how to disguise himself. At home, he was an admirer of the Argentine strongman Juan Perón, who led the country through most of the young Jesuit’s formative years. Perón was a master of saying just the right thing to suit his particular audience and his willing imitator soon learned how to do just that in his dealings, especially with churchmen in other countries. It is this that explains his curious connection with CL.

This is not to say that Bergoglio fooled everyone, particularly in his home country. There he had many enemies, especially among his fellow Jesuits, but also among traditional Catholics frustrated at his opposition to the relaxation of restrictions on the use of the old Latin Mass by Benedict XVI in 2007.

As we have since learned, there was plenty of evidence to be found in Argentina to cast the former Cardinal-Archbishop in a completely different light. His time as Argentine Provincial of the Jesuits led to considerable animosity against him among his own, some of which has never been satisfactorily explained. How could a priest blackballed by the General of the Jesuits and tagged as unfit for episcopal appointment subsequently ascend the hierarchical ladder to the very summit?

Henry Sire’s hostile work on Francis, The Dictator Pope, may provide some answers. Other accounts, some emerging only in recent weeks, reveal even more. Sire argued in his book that, had the Cardinals in 2013 known more about Bergoglio’s record in Buenos Aires, “they would not have voted for him”.

Know your papabile

Bergoglio was Archbishop of Buenos Aires for 15 years before leaving for Rome in 2013. He was an auxiliary bishop and later Coadjutor Archbishop (this involves the right of automatic succession to the Archbishopric) for many years before that. As Pope, Francis has said that he never had to confront the issue of clerical sexual abuse while Archbishop. Yet now reports have emerged of a history of complaints of abuse in the Argentine church, just as we have seen in the United States, Germany and Australia.

In one allegation, concerning events in 2002, the mother of an abuse victim complained of being unable to see the Archbishop about her complaint that he was protecting the abuser and of being ejected by security officers when she attempted to visit the Archbishop’s residence. Another parent, frustrated at a lack of action by the Cardinal, was then shocked to hear of Bergoglio publicly denying that there was any similar problems in the Archdiocese.

The sexual abuse crisis, together with the emerging tale of cover-up reaching very high in the Church hierarchy, is not the only shadow on the record of Cardinal Bergoglio. Henry Sire reported on financial scandals in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, with Bergoglio, in one instance, allegedly protecting the person involved, the Monsignor who had “rescued” him from Jesuit internal exile. There were other reports of Bergoglio protecting high ranking officials in the Archdiocese who were the subject of serious accusations of misconduct.

Away from home, Cardinal Bergoglio cultivated everyone he dealt with, somehow persuading conservatives, neutrals and those who normally lived far from the European and North American hubs of civilisation that he was a safe choice. Combined with his dedicated base of liberal Cardinals, who knew all along what they were getting, Bergoglio soon developed an unstoppable momentum at the Conclave.

When Cardinals consider their choices during a Conclave, they are often voting for someone who is well-known, such as a Cardinal who works in the Vatican, or for someone from far away, with little on the public record. It would be safe to say that, before any future Conclave, considerable research will be undertaken on likely papabile from the “periphery”, lest the errors of 2013 be repeated.

This should not be the province of wealthy vigilante Catholics, as we learned this week with news of a so-called Red Hat Report, which seeks to profile every Cardinal in a deep analysis. On the contrary, it is the responsibility of all Cardinals to know their brethren fully.

Next up: Le Rouge et Le Noir




  1. Anthony

    Vatian watcher

    Excellent analysis in all three articles.
    Well done.

    Anthony Staunton
    Buderim, Qld

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