At special request from my father to “write a notparis about the Pope”, I have written a semi-obligatory “New Argentine Pope” article. So here is a self-confessed non-political scientist’s assessment of who exactly Pope Francis (née Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is and what he means for Argentina’s economic
Francis is the first Jesuit ever and first non-European pope in useful history (for almost 1300 years, more here you little detail monkeys).
He appears to take his vows of poverty seriously by living in an apartment (rather than a palace), taking the bus (rather than a limo), and doing keen things like washing the feet of AIDS patients and forcing the priests of Buenos Aires to baptize the bastard babies of unwed mothers.
He is quite the social conservative, strongly opposing birth control, abortion, and gay marriage and adoption. Shock, right?
As he was born in 1936, odds are he will not be with us for long, so I’m going to cut to why this matters in Argentina. Namely, I’m going to dig into his relationship with President Cristina Kirchner and accusations of ties to the baby-stealing leftist-kidnapping dictatorship of the 1970s. (hey at least he probably baptized them first.)
In seriousness, read this now. Kidnapping, torture, baby theft, and state terrorism are things we typically associate with generations far past, yet stained Argentina’s history from the 1970s into the early 80s.
Francis’s friction with the Kirchners has its roots in the battle for perception as champion of the poor. In 2004, he spoke out against the exhibition and strident announcements characterizing Argentine public life, a criticism of the Kirchners’ chatty but arguably ineffectual approach to curbing poverty. In 2005, the Kirchners dissolved the Obispado Castrense, the church’s organization that provided services to the Armed Forces, following a statement by the head that supporters of abortion should be tied to rocks and tossed to sea. Not the most tactful analogy as victims of the dictatorship were actually drugged and pushed from helicopters into the sea.
Since 2006, the Kirchners have snubbed Francis by attending the annual May 25 Te Deum Revolution Day Catholic Ceremony at any church that is not the Metropolitan Cathedral, where he presided.
In 2005, Horacio Verbitsky named him in his book “The Silence” as responsible for the kidnapping of two leftist Jesuit priests by removing church protection from them. Bergoglio was refused to testify in 2006, and in 2010 he testified, defending his behavior and claiming to have intervened and helped in multiple cases of protection (more here).
My conclusion on the alleged ties between Francis and the human rights violations is that they cannot be substantiated. He was a high-ranking member of the Catholic Church in Argentina during the dictatorship, and the Church was inarguably complicit in some of the most horrific elements of that era. He clearly did not publicly rebuke the government, as that would have landed him in a cell in a secret torture prison. It seems his role was passive at best, thus the media storm tying him to the kidnapped priests is more of an attempt to discredit the man and distract from his solid and non-hypocritical stance on poverty.
On the less serious but more fun to quote side, Cristina and Francis have butted heads on the following issues: [note – these quotes are taken shamelessly out of context to maximize humor]
Francis: “its an attempt to destroy God’s plan” … “a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God”
Adoption by gay couples:
Francis: “At stake are the lives of many children who will be discriminated against in advance, and deprived of their human development…” “a discrimination against children”
Cristina: It’s worrisome to hear phrases such as ‘war of God’ and ‘projects of the devil,’ which are things that send us back to medieval times and the Inquisition.”
Putting aside the emotionally stirring accusations and quote-worthy morality banter, the real issue is that the pope challenges the Kirchners’ (and more broadly leftist Latin American leaders’) claims to fighting for the rights of the poor.
Francis is a threat to Cristina Kirchner’s hold on the hearts and minds of the people because if you can manage to put aside his gay-bashing and anti-contraception stance, his lifestyle holds a very damning mirror up to a woman who rarely to never practices what she preaches. He doesn’t need photo-ops or massive throngs of chanting soccer fans to demonstrate to the world that his mission in life is to fight extreme poverty.
When Argentina defaulted in 2001, the church in Argentina supported debt restructuring that privileged social programs above tax repayment, arguing that “social exclusion, a growing gap between rich and poor, insecurity, corruption, social and family violence, serious deficiencies in the educational system and in public health, the negative consequences of globalization, and the tyranny of the markets” were the true problems in the Argentinean economy.
Francis was quoted saying “We live, apparently, in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least. The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers”
As an apathetic social liberal who was raised catholic, the redeeming fact that the Catholic Church is the largest giver of aid worldwide, as well as the most efficient (highest fraction of each dollar ends up in the hands of needy) giver is frequently thrown in my face.
And if Francis develops a reputation as the Latin American champion of global efforts to reduce inequality and poverty, that threatens to severely cripple Kirchner’s hold on power, which rests pretty heavily on
- Championing the poor
- Championing human rights
- Championing social liberalism
Knock off item one on that list and he opens the possibility of a competitor emerging that can capitalize on his popularity with Kirchner’s base.
The current administration gets away with running arguably the most slap-dash economy in the G20. Seriously – a dual exchange rate and black currency market, quota-based import restrictions, license-based export restrictions, price freezes on groceries – the list goes on and on. They get away with it on the grounds that these are necessary to achieve social equality and poverty reduction.
The existence of Pope Francis threatens to suggest an alternative. Very few poor Argentines support Cristina based on her stance on gay marriage or contraception.
In an act of political pragmatism, both Cristina and Pope Francis have taken strides to bridge this gap. He invited Cristina as his first official audience as Pope, where they exchanged traditional Argentine gifts. The Kirchner government has been papering the streets with posters tying Francis to Peronism and aligning themselves where possible with the Pope’s popularity. Francis’s actions have suggested that he will stay out of the divisive political battle and instead direct energy where possible towards aiding the poor. The question is whether or not this truce will last.
Or, less accurately, Cristina and Francis disagree on some key issues, but now it benefits neither to carry on feuding so they are both playing nice and business goes on as normal.
And that folks, is Bianca on politics. You’re welcome, dad.