We Argentines are a credulous people. Perhaps 9 out of 10 of us believe in some God; most of us certainly believe that that God is Argentine.
True, most of the evidence we have used to support this suspicion has come from soccer: our most famous player, Diego Armando Maradona, once won a World Cup game thanks in part to an illegal handball that went down in history as the “Hand of God” goal. And today’s biggest soccer hero, Lionel Messi, is also an Argentine. But now we have even better confirmation, in the form of an announcement from the Vatican.
On Wednesday, the Roman Catholic Church chose as pope a non-European for the first time in the modern era, the first from the Americas and an Argentine to boot: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio. God may not play dice with the universe, but he certainly laughs a lot.
A 76-year-old Jesuit, Cardinal Bergoglio became the archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998. But early in his career, in the 1970s, he was the national boss of the Society of Jesus — a time that overlapped with the most violent years of military dictatorship in Argentina.
The hierarchy of Argentina’s Catholic Church was complicit with the military genocide. Some researchers, like the journalist Horacio Verbitsky, have linked Cardinal Bergoglio with the “desaparición” — the disappearance, in May 1976, of two Jesuit priests, Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, who worked in the slums of Buenos Aires. Both were kidnapped and tortured. The cardinal has always denied involvement, but many Argentines remain convinced that he “withdrew protection” from the priests, allowing the military to prey on them.
Leading up to the conclave, the Catholic Church was busy worrying about the appalling issue of the sexual abuse of children by so many of its priests. Cardinal Bergoglio did not awaken any such suspicion. But one could perhaps compare his record with that of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who was a teenage member of the Hitler Youth. It seems the church does not follow the precept of that Roman Julius Caesar, who upon divorcing his wife said she not only had to be innocent, but had to appear it, too.
The new pope, who has taken the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, has done much to leave those accusations behind him. Everyone who knows him says he is serene, kind, modest, austere and — apparently — devoid of personal ambition. They point to his attitude during the previous conclave, eight years ago, when he reportedly rejected the possibility of being anointed. It seems the Holy Spirit was more adamant this time.
They highlight as well his words and deeds in service of the poor. These social stances often led to clashes with Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the back-to-back presidents of Argentina since 2003. Several times he publicly denounced their policies on poverty and inequality, and accused them of enriching themselves while pretending to serve the needy.
Another battle emerged in 2010, when, after opposing it for many years, Mrs. Kirchner endorsed the gay-marriage law that made Argentina the first country in Latin America with marriage equality. Cardinal Bergoglio called it a devil’s move and demanded a godly war. Mrs. Kirchner later accused him of attempting to re-enact the Inquisition.
So she was relieved when, in 2011, his term as head of the Argentine Catholic Church expired. She probably would never have guessed — did anyone? — that he would be made the master of the kingdom, God’s representative on earth. It is a paradox that Mrs. Kirchner’s administration, so fond of nationalist exploits, is now unable to showcase what could have been presented as a major national triumph: the election of Our Pope, the Argentine who made it abroad, the final confirmation that, yes, God is Argentine.
This week, Habemus papam — we have a pope — became an Argentine idiom. His election underlines the assumption that the center of Catholicism is shifting to the world’s poorer regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America. And yet in his own country, the poor are migrating en masse to Pentecostal and other Christian churches that are more charismatic and less institutionally compromised than the Old Lady from Rome.
Perhaps Pope Francis’ election will reverse that shift. In fact, I dread the effect that this unexpected divine favor will have on my country. We are a society that turned to tennis once Guillermo Vilas won a Grand Slam in France; grew obsessed with basketball when Manu Ginobili made his mark in the American N.B.A.; started raving about monarchy when an Argentine-born princess married the crown prince of the Netherlands; and has persisted in doubting Jorge Luis Borges’s value because he never won the international honor of a Nobel Prize. The fact that “one of us” is now sitting on St. Peter’s throne may have a huge effect on the weight of Catholicism on our lives.
Catholicism has never excelled at letting nonbelievers live as they believe they should. The right to legal abortion, for one, will be a ruthless field of that battle: “our” pope will surely never allow his own country, where legal abortion remains severely limited, to set a bad example. Here, as everywhere, the Vatican is a main lobbying force for conservative, even reactionary, issues. An Argentine pope can bring this power to uncharted heights.
Or perhaps not. I hope I am wrong: it has often been my lot. For infallibility, please ask for el Papa Francisco.
Martín Caparrós is the author of the novel The Vanishing of the Mona Lisa.