Pope Francis’ role in Argentine politics (Part I)

9th January 2020

By Amadeo Gandolfo

Pope Francis’ role in Argentine politics (Part I)

When Argentine Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was announced as the new head of the Catholic Church in 2013, Argentines were just as surprised as the rest of the world, but had one additional issue in mind: how would the new global figure of Pope Francis play into the country’s 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 last years in charge and with Alberto Fernández during the first days of his administration have so far proven to be friendlier than those with Mauricio Macri in his four years in office.

</p> <p>A closer look at Francis’ ideology and personality, and a dive into his role in recent Argentine political history, might help illuminate the reasons behind his friendly approach towards Peronism, which has stood despite the latter’s support for causes historically opposed by the Church including gay marriage and abortion.</p> <h2><strong>Francis’ ideology: orthodox but popular</strong></h2> <p>Pope Francis is hard to pin down. For his followers, he’s an idol who arrived to revitalize the Catholic Church 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 secular detractors, he’s just another conservative priest who opposes individual freedoms and turns a blind eye to institutional abuses. And for some on the right, he might as well be indistinguishable from 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 longest-lived institution of the world, means his approach is not that different from that of Peronism in Argentine politics.</p> <p>Pope Francis traversed his formative years in the 1960s and 1970s when the 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, fully incorporated Marxist thought into their religious beliefs.</p> <p>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 one, 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, which is the first member of the order to become Pope, takes very seriously.</p> <p>Francis was never a big fan of Liberation Theology. 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 Marxist, but in the Argentine landscape it resulted in an acceptance of Peronism. Their rationale was: if Argentines 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 option for the poor, his intense work on 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 <em>The Peronist Pope</em>, “Bergoglio 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, which is never exactly the same agenda as any political group in Argentina, something which has put him at odds both with center-left and center-right governments.</p> <h2><strong>Contemporary politics</strong></h2> <p>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 “Argentine Dialogue”, a discussion roundtable which called on 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 a government that Bergoglio has been. Former President Eduardo Duhalde has <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/opinion/aquel-hombre-que-estuvo-en-las-horas-mas-dificiles-nid1564280">repeatedly praised</a> 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> <p>But Bergoglio’s “officialism” would be short-lived. The election of Néstor Kirchner to the Presidency in 2003 would shift his priorities. Kirchner wasn’t a particularly religious man; in fact, he was mostly irreligious and nearly an atheist in practice.</p> <h2><strong>A bitter enmity with Kirchner</strong></h2> <p>Their first confrontation would come early in Kirchner’s administration. In 2004, during the Tedeum that the Church organizes every 25<sup>th</sup> of May, Bergoglio took aim at the President criticizing his policy of reopening the trials against the military that acted in the dictatorship of 1976-1983. Bergoglio proposed a reconciliation, something which was anathema to Kirchner, who would never again set foot on the Buenos Aires Cathedral for a Tedeum.</p> <p>After that, Kirchner referred to Bergoglio as the real head of the opposition and even <a href="https://www.diario26.com/23250--kirchner-el-diablo-llega-a-los-que-usan-pantalones-y-a-los-que-usan-sotanas">said</a> 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 Kirchner a big political defeat. In 2006 Kirchner had planned an entire year of gubernatorial re-elections, as a way to pave the way for his own 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 Bergoglio to ask for him to get involved: he wanted a bishop on the ticket to oppose Rovira. Bergoglio acquiesced and commanded Joaquin Piña, an elderly bishop near retirement, to take the role. The ticket headed by Piña would <a href="https://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/elpais/1-75378-2006-10-30.html">go on to defeat Rovira</a>, dismantling all of Kirchner’s plans and making him chose his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as his successor instead.</p> <h2><strong>From de-escalation to open conflict</strong></h2> <p>Bergoglio had a better concept of Fernández de Kirchner, since she was Catholic and held similar positions around certain social issues, especially abortion, which she strongly opposed.</p> <p>The 2008 conflict around <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/12/26/century-long-farming-conflict-resurge-in-argentina-city-countryside-agro-industry-farmers-exports-protectionism">export duties</a>, only months after Fernández de Kirchner took office, put a stop to the rapprochement. Bergoglio met with the rebellious farmers more than once, <a href="https://www.clarin.com/ediciones-anteriores/iglesia-pide-cristina-llame-dialogo-campo-levante-paro_0_r1pWoxaATYe.html">asked</a> for a “magnanimous gesture” from the administration, and <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/cobos-se-reunio-con-bergoglio-en-medio-del-malestar-del-gobierno-nid1026313">held talks with Julio Cobos</a>, then vice-president, days before he broke with Fernández de Kirchner in a dramatic Senate session that Cobos’ shock vote against his own government’s proposal untied, delivering another crushing defeat to the Kirchners.</p> <p>The relationship remained coarse since then, although Bergoglio backed a new media law that the Kirchners saw as crucial during their conflict with the Clarín multimedia conglomerate, which was passed in October 2009.</p> <p>But not long after, the Kirchners promoted a same-sex marriage bill in 2010, in what the current Pope saw as a direct attack on the magisterium of the Church. That was the only law that Néstor Kirchner voted during his time as a lawmaker and, according to Zuleta, it was a vendetta in response to the 2006 and 2008 debacles. Although gay rights had not been at the center of Néstor Kirchner’s political beliefs, he did think of the law as a sign of <a href="https://www.ambito.com/politica/kirchner-celebro-la-ley-matrimonio-gay-y-pidio-la-iglesia-que-se-modernice-n3632457">modernity</a> and a way to breathe fresh air for the 2011 presidential elections, after his defeat in the 2009 midterms.</p> <p>A mere three months after the law was passed, Néstor Kirchner died. Bergoglio voiced a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3u1m4TAMfg">homily</a> in which he exalted the fact that the ex-president had been elected by the people and that he had carried a heavy burden, in what could be seen as an attempt to quench the enmity. For the next few years, however, the relationship between Kirchnerism and the future Pope would remain strained. 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 Bergoglio was elected Pope. And that, as they say, changed everything.</p> <p><em>(To be continued)</em></p> <p>

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Amadeo Gandolfo

Amadeo Gandolfo is an 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.