Pope Francis’ role in Argentinian politics

. Jan 27, 2020
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, ex president of Argentina, with Pope Francis Cristina Fernández de Kirchner with Pope Francis. Photo: Casa Rosada

When Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was announced as the new head of the Catholic Church in 2013, his compatriots in Argentina were just as surprised as the rest of the world, but had an added question in mind: how would the new global figure of Pope Francis play into the country’s domestic politics?

As it turned out, the most common political speculations during the first days of his Papacy proved to be wrong: despite a history of clashes with the government throughout the Kirchnerite decade, the Pope’s relations with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in her final years in charge and with Alberto Fernández during the first days of his administration have so far proven to be friendlier than those with former President Mauricio Macri, throughout his four years in office.

A closer look at Pope Francis’ ideology and personality, and a dive into his role in recent Argentinian political history, might help illuminate the reasons behind his friendly approach towards Peronism—despite its support for causes historically opposed by the Church, including gay marriage and abortion.

</p> <h2>Orthodox but popular</h2> <p>Pope Francis is hard to pin down. For his followers, he’s an idol who arrived to revitalize the <a href="">Catholic Church</a> and take it back to its roots as a Church of the poor and the needy, with a critique of capitalism and an anti-consumerist bent. For his liberal and left-wing secular detractors, he’s just another conservative priest who opposes individual freedoms and turns a blind eye to institutional abuses. And for those on the right, he might as well be a Marxist revolutionary.</p> <p>In reality, the Pope’s indirect and often ambiguous style, his close contact with poverty and his stern will to power, which allowed him to rise up from a third world priest to the head of the world&#8217;s longest-existing institution, means his approach is not that different from that of Peronism in Argentinian politics.</p> <p>Pope Francis traversed his formative years in the 1960s and 1970s, when Liberation Theology was in full swing. Liberation Theology originated in Latin America and proposed that the Church had to be an active participant in the process of change and revolution that would free oppressed peoples of the continent, all the while fully incorporating Marxist thought into their religious beliefs.</p> <p>Pope Francis, on the other hand, is a Jesuit, an order founded to act as direct emissaries of the pope in the Counter-Reformation struggle. As such, concepts such as authority, loyalty, secrecy, and political acumen are paramount to him. While vying to protect the Church’s core beliefs, the Jesuits also responded to a strong request of believers during the Modern Era: the need for the Church to abandon venality, excess, and luxury in favor of poverty and spiritual reflection. They took vows of poverty, something which Francis—the first Jesuit pope—takes very seriously.</p> <p>Francis was never a big fan of <a href="">Liberation Theology</a>. Instead, he embraced the Theology of the People, which contrasts both with Liberation Theology and other conservative doctrines. The Theology of the People argues people are rarely wrong, and they are rarely evil, and that the Church should accept popular religiosities and customs and guide them, rather than trying to suppress them in order to return to an orthodoxy that isolates priests from their communities. This people’s theology was never strictly Marxist, but in the Argentinian landscape it resulted in an acceptance of Peronism. Their rationale was: if Argentinians are Peronists, then we should attempt to understand that phenomenon.</p> <p>His adherence to this doctrine and his history as a Jesuit explain many of the characteristics of Francis: his criticism of capitalism and the way it systematically discards people, his concern for the poor, his work in the slums of Buenos Aires, his desire to reform the Church; but also his adherence to orthodoxy in matters of belief, his rejection of abortion and same-sex marriage, his condemnation of communism and his sinuous ways of making his will be heard and felt.</p> <p>Francis is usually opaque and indirect when acting politically. As Ignacio Zuleta puts it in his book The Peronist Pope, “he invents (political) operatives (…) He exerts a special attraction over people who, in turn, have leadership capabilities.” He usually plays both sides of the aisle in every political discussion, and uses mysticism and pragmatism in equal quantities to advance his own agenda. And this agenda is never identical to any political group in Argentina, which has put him at odds with center-left and center-right governments.</p> <h2>Contemporary politics</h2> <p>Jorge Bergoglio became Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, just in time to play an active political role during the economic and social crisis of 2001. He was an avid participant of what was called “Argentinian Dialogue,” a discussion roundtable which called upon actors from different political and economic quarters, with the objective of laying down some basic common ground to take Argentina out of the doldrums.</p> <p>The provisional Peronist administrations from late 2001 to early 2003 were arguably the closest to the government that Archbishop Bergoglio had ever been. Former President Eduardo Duhalde has repeatedly praised his role during those days, saying the Church had an active role in taking a shattered country out of the crisis during its hardest hour.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="ó_a_la_misa_anual_por_la_educación_7091688691-1024x794.jpg" alt="pope francis argentina politics" class="wp-image-30871" srcset="ó_a_la_misa_anual_por_la_educación_7091688691-1024x794.jpg 1024w,ó_a_la_misa_anual_por_la_educación_7091688691-300x232.jpg 300w,ó_a_la_misa_anual_por_la_educación_7091688691-768x595.jpg 768w,ó_a_la_misa_anual_por_la_educación_7091688691-610x473.jpg 610w,ó_a_la_misa_anual_por_la_educación_7091688691.jpg 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Jorge Bergoglio (L) and Mauricio Macri in 2012. Photo: Sandra Hernandez/GCBA</figcaption></figure> <p>But Archbishop Bergoglio’s “officialism” would be short-lived. The election of Néstor Kirchner to the presidency in 2003 would shift his priorities. Mr. Kirchner wasn’t a particularly religious man; in fact, he was mostly irreligious and nearly an atheist in practice.</p> <h2>A bitter enmity with Kirchner</h2> <p>Their first confrontation would come early in Mr. Kirchner’s administration. In 2004, during the Te Deum that the Church organizes every May 25, Bergoglio took aim at the president, criticizing his policy of reopening the trials against the military that acted in the dictatorship of 1976–1983. The archbishop proposed a reconciliation, something which was anathema to Mr. Kirchner, who would never again set foot in Buenos Aires Cathedral for a Te Deum.</p> <p>After that, Mr. Kirchner referred to Jorge Bergoglio as the real head of the opposition and even said that “Our God belongs to all of us but the devil also comes to all of us, to the ones that wear pants and to the ones that wear robes.”</p> <p>This confrontation would only escalate, eventually costing Néstor Kirchner a big political defeat. In 2006, the president had planned an entire year of gubernatorial re-elections, to pave the way for his own triumph at the end of 2007. The plan would start in Misiones, where Governor Carlos Rovira was seeking a reform of the provincial constitution that allowed indefinite term renewals. Ramón Puerta, the head of the opposition in the province, went to Archbishop Bergoglio to ask for him to get involved: he wanted a bishop on the ticket to oppose Mr. Rovira.&nbsp;</p> <p>The archbishop acquiesced and chose Joaquin Piña—an elderly bishop nearing retirement—to take the role. The ticket lead Mr. Piña would go on to win, dismantling President Kirchner’s plans and making him choose his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, as his successor instead.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="pope francis bergoglio kirchner" class="wp-image-30868" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Then-Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio and Cristina Kirchner. Photo: Casa Rosada</figcaption></figure> <h2>From de-escalation to open conflict</h2> <p>Jorge Bergoglio got on better with Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner, as she was Catholic and held similar positions on certain social issues—especially abortion, which she strongly opposed.</p> <p>The 2008 conflict over export duties—only months after Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner took office—put a stop to this rapprochement. Archbishop Bergoglio met with the rebellious farmers more than once, asked for a “magnanimous gesture” from the government, and held talks with then-Vice President Julio Cobos, days before he broke away from Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner.</p> <p>Their relationship remained coarse since then, though the archbishop did back the Kirchners&#8217; new media law during their conflict with multimedia conglomerate Clarín, passed in October 2009.</p> <p>Not long after, however, the Kirchners proposed a bill legalizing same-sex in 2010, in what Archbishop Bergoglio viewed as a direct attack on the Church. Néstor Kirchner died three months later, and the relationship between Kirchnerism and the future pope would remain strained. Archbishop Bergoglio would never penetrate the dense circle around Cristina Fernández, and she, in turn, would continue to distrust and dislike him.</p> <p>But then, Jorge Bergoglio was elected as the new pope. And that changed everything.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="Pope Francis in St Peter's square. Photo: Vatican" class="wp-image-30872" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 2048w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Pope Francis in St Peter&#8217;s square. Photo: Vatican</figcaption></figure> <h2>Kirchnerites divided over Pope Francis</h2> <p>After the 2013 papal conclave elected the massively influential Jorge Bergoglio as the new pope, back in Argentina, Kirchnerites rapidly separated into two camps. The first was led by left-wing intellectuals such as Horacio Verbitsky, as well as important figures inside the country’s human rights movement, such as Estela de Carlotto and Hebe Bonafini.&nbsp;</p> <p>This camp stated that Pope Francis would be no different than during his time as Archbishop Bergoglio: a known rival of the center-left government, and thus should be treated as the head of the opposition. What’s more, many in this faction believed the archbishop had been somehow involved with the dictatorship-era repression of the 1970s, pointing to his alleged role in the disappearance of two priests. Ms. de Carlotto and Ms. Bonafini have since recanted this position, but Mr. Verbitsky has not.</p> <p>On the other hand, some Catholic Peronists, such as then-House Speaker Julián Dominguez—proposed that Jorge Bergoglio’s transformation into Pope meant that continuing this conflict would be counterproductive, as he was, in effect, the leader of Catholics all around the world.</p> <p>Cristina Fernández de Kirchner soon adopted the latter point of view, and the change of heart was reciprocal. From 2014 onwards, Pope Francis took the stance that the government of Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner had to be propped up. According to multiple media reports, the Pope feared that polarization, economic fragility and the growing dislike of her administration would see Cristina Fernández de Kirchner ousted before the end of her term, an institutional crisis he wanted to help avoid.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-youtube wp-block-embed is-type-video is-provider-youtube wp-embed-aspect-4-3 wp-has-aspect-ratio"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <span class="embed-youtube" style="text-align:center; display: block;"><iframe class='youtube-player' width='1200' height='675' src=';rel=1&#038;fs=1&#038;autohide=2&#038;showsearch=0&#038;showinfo=1&#038;iv_load_policy=1&#038;wmode=transparent' allowfullscreen='true' style='border:0;'></iframe></span> </div></figure> <h2>Cristina, Macri or Massa?</h2> <p>The Pope’s support for Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner also had to do with the political options of the time. Three major political figures were vying for the country’s leadership: Kirchnerism, led by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner; the anti-Peronist camp, led by the eventual 2015 winner Mauricio Macri, and the renegade Peronists led by Sergio Massa, who was on the rise after beating Kirchnerist candidates in the 2013 midterms.</p> <p>Despite his rising popularity, Mr. Massa had been intensely disliked by Pope Francis since his time as Chief of Staff during Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s first term.</p> <p>According to journalist Claudio Mardones, Mr. Massa had suggested the name of real estate developer Jorge O’Reilly as ambassador to the Holy See. Mr. O’Reilly had ties with the Opus Dei—a right-wing faction within Catholicism—and the plan to appoint him sought to take advantage of Néstor Kirchner’s rift with Archbishop Bergoglio to empower the more conservative factions of the Church in Argentina.</p> <p>Even after becoming Pope Francis, he never forgot that alleged conspiracy against him, and to this day Sergio Massa has been unable to secure an audience with the head of the Catholic Church, as opposed to most leading Argentine politicians. According to Diego Genoud, Mr. Massa’s biographer, Pope Francis calls refers to him as “a false prophet.”</p> <p>When it came to Mauricio Macri, the differences in political vision and style were just too many. Mr. Macri is a businessman that never had much of a “social view” of politics, or worked to have any close contact with the poor.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Macri and Pope Francis also have religious differences. The former president&#8217;s Cambiemos coalition is seen by the Pope as a generally frivolous bunch, and he rejects their attraction to New Age spirituality and other similar trends.</p> <p>With Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Pope could find more common ground. First, there was abortion, which they both opposed. The two also agreed on crime policies, a hot-button issue for the tough-on-crime Sergio Massa back in 2014. The Pope is a strong believer in reformation and recuperation, close to the majoritarian position within Kirchnerism which believes that social factors are the underlying explanation for crime.&nbsp;</p> <h2>Alberto and the Pope</h2> <p>As for President Alberto Fernández, there are several points of contact between the Pope and the current administration. First of all, there’s the support of social organizations, who form a part of Mr. Fernández&#8217; governing coalition and have close ties with Pope Francis.</p> <p>Another example is Caritas, the Catholic Church’s relief and social service organization which is expected to play a big part in the National Council Against Hunger, which Mr. Fernández proposed as a way to combat rising food prices and speculation. Monsignor Carlos Tissera, head of Caritas, has expressed a confluence of views with Mr. Fernández concerning the issue.</p> <p>Some even go as far saying that Pope Francis pushed for the reconciliation between Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner and Alberto Fernández, with the explicit aim of removing Mauricio Macri from office.</p> <p>But the relationship between the president and the head of the Catholic Church will be a challenging one. Mr. Fernández is a strong proponent of civil liberties, which include not only <a href="">LGBT+ rights</a>, but also abortion. Before he took office, he said that an abortion bill would be one of the first proposals to be sent for congressional approval.</p> <p>This might be the most contentious topic of Mr. Fernández’s first visit to the Pope next week. Will Peronism’s fame as a party of political tightrope walkers manage to keep both the Church and the rising Argentinian feminist movement as allies? Or is there a conflict between hard-to-reconcile factions waiting around the corner? We are sure to find out soon.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p style="text-align:center"><em><strong>This article was originally published at <a href="">The Essential</a></strong></em>

Amadeo Gandolfo

Amadeo Gandolfo is a historian, journalist, and researcher. He has worked at the CONICET (National Council For Scientific and Technical Research), writes at the Revista Crisis magazine and teaches at the University of Buenos Aires.

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