A Sign of Contradiction, New Bedford Standard Times, March 19, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Conclave Series for the New Bedford Standard Times
March 19, 2013

We in a culture with a deep internal contradiction. On the one hand, we long for heroes and lament that there are so few. On the other, we’re cynical about whether anyone can live up to heroic status.

One of the ways we often seek to lift ourselves up is to try to bring our potential heroes down.

We see this pattern among children. Ask any diligent kindergartener; rather than being respected and emulated by fellow students, the teacher’s pet is often subjected to envy, teasing and worse.

It continues throughout adolescence. How many teenage movie plots are based on jealous nastiness toward the good?

And it extends into adulthood, in our cultural addiction to character assassination. We can’t get enough of print and video tabloids that capitalize on destroying the lives of others through sensationally publicizing their apparent and real disgraces.

Once upon a time we were taught that if we couldn’t say anything nice about another we shouldn’t say anything at all. Now we’re treating vilification as a virtue.

Nowhere, I believe, is this defamation more dishonorable than in the attacks against those who are manifestly good. And nowhere is our cultural cancer more apparent than in the way we treat this slander as worthy of our attention.

When atheist Christopher Hitchens attacks Mother Teresa as a publicity-seeking megalomaniac, when a communist playwright pretends Pius XII was Hitler’s Pope, when long-time critics of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger tar him as a Nazi, somehow these absurd accusations not only make the news, but make it repeatedly.

The same fact-checking mechanisms used to evaluate politicians’ claims against their opponents, or even to confirm columnists’ factual claims, are seldom employed — as integrity would dictate — with regard to mudslinging against religious leaders.

Likewise the same benefit of the doubt that most of us try to give to the accused until we hear the other side of the story we regularly suspend.

Over the last few days we’ve been exposed to the fiction that Pope Francis, when he was a Jesuit superior in Argentina in the 1970s, conspired with the ruling military junta in the kidnapping and torture of two young Jesuit priests.

Where does this story come from? One man, Horacio Verbitzky, an advocacy journalist and leftist militant, who repeats the same discredited accusations any time the former Cardinal Bergoglio makes the news.

When he did so prior to the last papal conclave in 2005, John Allen, CNN’s papal analyst, debunked it with one phone call to the Argentine headquarters of Amnesty International, which denounced the allegations as baseless.

The facts of the story, rather than vitiating the new pope’s character, actually show his valor.

The two priests in question had publicly attacked Fr. Bergoglio for not supporting their promotion of Marxist violence against the junta and disobeyed his commands — for their own good — not to go to the barrios lest they be arrested. One of the two priests, upon release, maintained that if Fr. Bergoglio had simply stated they were acting with his blessing, they probably wouldn’t have been incarcerated and subsequently tortured.

He was being faulted, in other words, for not lying.

Fr. Bergoglio, however, didn’t abandon the priests who had disobeyed and defamed him. Rather, putting himself in danger, he told a priest whom he knew celebrated Masses for the family of General Jorge Videla, the leader of the junta, to call in sick so that Fr. Bergoglio himself could take his place. After Mass, Bergoglio spoke with Videla privately and inquired about the condition of the two priests. That was all it took in the unspoken diplomacy of the time: the two priests were released shortly thereafter.

The priest inaugurating his papal ministry today in St. Peter’s Square is not the villain Señor Verbitzky wants us naively to believe.

He’s actually valiant, willing to lay down his life to save the lives even of those who hated him — kind of like a carpenter from Nazareth who once called a fisherman from Bethsaida to be the first pope.