Pope Francis, Perón, and God’s People: The Political Religion of Jorge Mario Bergoglio


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A short bio of JMB in an Argentine Catholic Church publication, c. 1973

The thinking of Pope Francis has been shaped by two specifically Argentinian factors that may not be well understood in the rest of the world. One of these factors is a theological school that emerged in Argentina at the height of the revolutionary wave that swept Latin America and other parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary to the creation of (and in part opposed to) Liberation theology. This school has received various names: the National-Popular Line of Liberation Theology, Theology of the Popular Pastoral, Theology of Culture, and Theology of the People, which is how I will address it here. The other factor is the political heritage of the mid-twentieth century populist leader Juan Domingo Perón. Both factors are inextricably linked; in a sense, they represent the religious and secular sides of the same coin.

Both are also rooted in an older tradition — the uniquely Argentinian version of Catholic Integralism, the proto-totalitarian ideology originated in France during the conflict between State and Church at the turn of the 20th century and later expanded by Italian, Spanish and Latin American right-wing intellectuals. The most reactionary aspects of this ideology have long been dismissed by mainstream Catholicism, but some its fundamental traits — its rejection of Modernity and liberalism, the organicist conception of society, and a revised version of the supremacy of religious over secular values — are still very much in play in Francis’ worldview.

Historically, the development of that worldview can be described in three moments. The first moment, spanning the first four decades of the past century, includes the successful assimilation of Catholic Integralism in Argentina and the appearance of a full-fledged Argentine Nationalism. In the second moment, those ideas were absorbed and transformed by Perón and his followers into a national-populist doctrine that became the foundation of one of the largest political movements in Latin American history. In the third moment — a sort of re-elaboration of the old Integralism — a younger generation of Peronist theologians and priests would seek to reconcile their political beliefs with the ecclesiology of the People of God championed by Vatican II. In the following pages, I will flesh out this argument and show its connections with Francis’s thinking.

It is this amalgam of theology and politics what has informed Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s mindset since his stormy tenure as head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina four decades ago to his election as spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics in 2013. Above all, it provides the clues to understanding how he conceives his own mission as Pope and the mission of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

Peronism and Catholicism

On June 4, 1943, a military coup in Buenos Aires overthrew an unpopular president and closed down Congress. The two main goals of the June 4 Revolution, as it is known in Argentina, were to put an end to a decade-long fraudulent electoral system that had ensured the triumph of Conservative, pro-establishment candidates, and to keep the country out of World War II. Many of the conspirators were Axis sympathizers, and although it was by then apparent that Germany would lose the war, they still resented Washington’s efforts to rally the whole hemisphere against Fascism. They repudiated those efforts as an unacceptable interference with national sovereignty.

The new government had the immediate support of two unlikely partners: the Socialist trade unions and the Catholic Church. The latter received a stunning vindication when the military rulers, breaking away from a decades-long liberal tradition, established mandatory religious (i.e., Catholic) education in public schools. That seemed the harbinger of the New Order that Catholic intelligentsia had been advocating for since the 1920s, a regime in which the State would yield to the spiritual preeminence and moral guidance of the Church. Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal offered a contemporary model to Argentine revolutionaries.

Of course, there was nothing new to this kind of regime. In essence, it was the medieval doctrine of Papal supremacy over secular government that underpinned European politics until the Reformation and that was turned obsolete by the French Revolution. But Rome had never accepted the French Revolution, and still considered it, along with the Reformation and the Enlightenment, as the hideous enemies of the natural order created by God.

During the first decades of the 20th century, after the so-called Modernist crisis and the battles against secularism and its offspring — unfettered capitalism on the socio-economic side, liberal democracy and communism on the political one — , the Papacy devised a strategy to regain center stage in world affairs. In Argentina, this political-religious creed took the form of what Italian historian Loris Zanatta called “the myth of the Catholic nation”.

The basic tenet of this creed is that Argentina’s national identity is defined by Catholicism. From this point of view, the history of the country (and of the larger Patria Grande, or Great Country, Latin America) was indistinguishable from the history of evangelization, which started with the arrival of the Spaniards to the New World. The deeply-rooted Catholic faith of the traditional mestizo population and the newly arrived immigrants from Southern Europe was the deepest cultural manifestation of that identity. Modern ideas and customs, which the cosmopolitan middle classes were so eager to adopt and imitate, endangered national identity. Disseminated through an ever growing ecclesiastical network, this Catholic-National ideology reached every corner of Argentine society. With the June 4 Revolution, it also seemed to have reached its top.

Yet the other key element of the Revolution, its alliance with the unions, would take it in a different direction. The factotum of that alliance was Juan Domingo Perón, one of the most influential officers behind the scenes. An infantry colonel in his late forties who had spent a couple of years training in mountain warfare in Fascist Italy, Perón projected the seductive image of an outdoorsy man of action combined with a highly unusual — for an Argentine officer, in any case — intellectual background. The author of several books on military history and strategy, a gifted orator and an astute politician, Perón would go on to become Argentina’s central public figure until his death in 1974, a three-term president and founder of the movement that has dominated the country’s political life to this day.

The prestige he enjoyed among his colleagues would have enabled him to choose a flashy position in the new administration, yet in 1943 he chose to be Secretary of a rather obscure department of labor relations. It was a smart move. In that office, a large number of worker rights bills had been stalled for years. Perón promised the union leaders, most of whom were members of a Socialist Party that by the mid-1930s had already veered away from any leftist internationalist radicalism into a country-centered reformism, to fast-track those bills in exchange for their political support. It was a win-win deal: in less than three years, the Argentine social-welfare state was born and Perón was elected president in a landslide victory.

Perón, who always claimed that his government was the continuation of the June 4 Revolution, maintained at first a good relationship with the Church. A reinstalled Congress voted into law the military decree on religious education, and the Catholic hierarchy helped organize the 1947 European Good Will trip of First Lady Eva Perón, who visited Spain, France, Italy, and Switzerland and was received by Pious XII at the Vatican. But the hopes for a New Christian Order were soon dispelled.

Upon taking the oath of office, Perón started to reassemble the motley crew of British-Labor-type Socialists, Radicals (followers of the late populist president Hipólito Yrigoyen), Conservatives and Nationalists that had led him to victory into the Partido Único de la Revolución National, literally the Sole Party of the National Revolution. Pretty soon he did away with squeamish formalisms and renamed it the Peronist Party. The Party would be just the political branch of a broader organization, the Peronist National Movement, with the unions as its “vertebral column” and Perón as its undisputed leader.

The terminology was reminiscent of Francoist Spain, but instead of turning the country into a National-Catholic regime, Perón turned around the relationship between Church and State. The theological-political notion of a Catholic Argentina morphed into a secular National-populist ideology, the Peronist “National Doctrine”. This doctrine shared many ideas with Catholic Integralism, such as an organicist conception of society, a disdain for liberal democracy, and the denunciation of the evils of capitalism alongside an equally adamant rejection of class warfare. Perón would usually refer to Catholic Social Teaching as the inspiration for his labor reforms, and his paramount concept of international politics, the “third position” between Liberalism and Marxism, was picked up from Catholic political literature of the 1930s. Other characteristics of Peronism are common to Fascism and populist ideologies in general: a fervent nationalism, the collusion between State and political machine, and the identification of Party and Nation as one.

The centerpiece of this ideology was the charismatic relationship between Leader and People. In the mass demonstrations at Buenos Aires’ Mayo Square, carefully staged by the State and the unions, hundreds of thousands of workers congregated regularly to listen to Perón’s electrifying oratory self-praising his government’s achievements or blasting the enemies of the People — the oligarchy and U.S. imperialism — for opposing them. But the religious undertones of Peronism were perhaps better captured by Evita, the mediator between the Leader and the masses, to which she tended daily in her charitable work at the helm of the Eva Perón Foundation. When Evita died of cancer in 1952 at age 33 (the “Age of Christ”, as a popular saying goes), a saint-like cult of her memory rapidly spread across the country.

The Catholic hierarchy was seriously concerned. The increasing Peronization of all aspects of political, social, and even religious life was not only the reversal of the Church-supremacist ideal, but also a threat to the Church’s independence; this was the same kind of conflict that had soured the relationship between the Church and the Fascist State under Mussolini. By 1949, Perón’s ties with the hierarchy began to unravel, and the confrontation soon escalated into persecution and violence. On June 16, 1955, there was a bloody coup attempt against Perón. That same evening, enraged Peronist mobs burnt down several churches and the building of the Curia in Buenos Aires. Three months later, Perón was finally deposed in a civic-military uprising backed by the Church. He would go into exile and his movement outlawed for the next 17 years.

The conflict between Perón and the Church opened deep wounds in Argentina. However, a stunning turnabout would take place in less than a decade after Perón’s fall, when a younger generation of Catholics — many of them, the children of staunch Anti-Peronist parents — flocked en masse to the Old Man’s side. The rational for their “conversion” was the fact that the poor continued to venerate Perón and Evita, and the belief that only Peronism, which despite its proscription remained the most popular political force, could lead the country to a better future — or, to phrase it in the language of the day, could lead the country to National Liberation.

In this turbulent environment, the core ideas of Perón’s National Doctrine and the National-Catholic creed would undertake one more, decisive transformation. This time, it would be a theological transformation, the peculiar blending of Peronism and the revolutionary ideologies of the 1960s with the renewed Catholicism brought forth by Vatican II, the ecumenical council summoned by Pope John XXIII for the aggiornamento of the Church.

A Populist Theology

When Vatican II closed in 1965, the Argentine Episcopal Conference — the assembly of all bishops, the country’s highest governing body within the Catholic church — established a task force to implement the council’s conclusions, the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral (COEPAL, for its acronym in Spanish). The COEPAL was a cross section of Argentina’s Catholic world: priests, lay people, scholars, and representatives of religious orders, avant-garde base communities, and traditional institutions (among them, a few women, a progressive sign of the times). It was the translation of Vatican II collegial procedures into an even more horizontal and politically aware environment. The COEPAL gathered from 1968 to 1974 to discuss how to apply the Vatican Council’s innovations to a society with the largest and most secularized middle class in Latin America but which was also impaired by growing pockets of poverty and marginalization. It was in these discussions, amid growing political unrest, violent social protests, and the rise of left-wing guerrillas, that the principles of the Theology of the People were formulated for the first time.

Those principles were systematized by three experts of COEPAL’s theological team: fathers Lucio Gera, Rafael Tello, and Justino O’Farrell. Gera and Tello had been advisors to the Catholic Workers Youth and were affiliated with the Movement of Priests for the Third World (MSTM), one of the radical clerical groups that sprung up in Latin America after Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio. O’Farrell was also the founder of the Chair of National Sociology, an informal network of intellectuals associated with what in those days began to be called National-Popular thought. Italian-born Gera is generally considered the most influential of the three; when he passed away in 2012, then Archbishop Bergoglio had him buried in the crypt of the Buenos Aires cathedral, an uncommon honor, in recognition to his contributions to Argentine theology.

This theology is based on a few basic ideas. First and foremost, of course, is the idea of the People. In Lumen Gentium, one of Vatican II fundamental documents, the conciliar fathers reformulated the doctrine of the Church around the notion of the People of God. This notion, which harkens back to the Old Testament and the Gospels, sounded in Argentine ears with a familiar tinge. In the same way that God incarnates in his Son, Jesus Christ, His People incarnates in a particular, historical people. In Argentina, those people prayed to the Virgin Mary and voted for Perón.

The long-established influence of German idealism in Argentine philosophy also played its part. In Pope Francis’ Revolution of Tenderness and Love, Cardinal Walter Kasper points out that during his doctoral studies in 1950s Germany, Gera “became familiar with…the Tübingen school (of theology), especially with Johann Adam Möhler and this teachings about the spirit of the people”, the volkgeist.

The ethnic essentialism associated with the notion of volk had a peculiar spin in Argentina, a country that received the second largest (after the U.S.) wave of European immigrants in History. The inhabitants of the country’s poorest rural areas and the villas miseria or shantytowns sprawling around the nation’s largest cities were mostly descendants of the mestizo population that had been displaced by those immigrants. The displacement of a lesser-skilled labor force by the gringos (as those immigrants, especially Italians, were called in Argentina) was the counterpart of Argentina’s incorporation to the global economy as an exporter of agricultural commodities. It was the downside of modernization. A majority of Argentine churchmen — including Bergoglio — were themselves first or second generation European immigrants; their awareness of, and in some cases, their feeling of guilt for the plight of the working class, help explain their support for Perón and their entrenched dislike of capitalism.

In this theology, the People are defined in a narrow sense as the poor and the dispossessed. Yet in contrast with the Marxist analysis of economic inequities deployed by Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff and other stalwarts of Liberation Theology, the Argentine theologians emphasized the study of national history. Their interpretation of Argentina’s past, however, was also polemical. It was a rebuttal of the mainstream storyline that celebrated Argentina’s progress as a triumph of the Liberal elite that had ruled the country from the second half of the 19th century to the rise of populism in the 20th century. Starting in the 1920s, anti-liberal intellectuals who called themselves Revisionists turned that narrative on its head. Their hero was the bête noir of Liberal historians, Juan Manuel de Rosas, a governor of Buenos Aires who exerted his power over the whole country from 1829 to 1852, when he was deposed by a former loyalist.

As a young priest close to the Iron Guard, a right-wing Peronist group, Bergoglio absorbed those ideas, which have stuck with him to this day. According to fellow Jesuit theologian Juan Carlos Scannone, Bergoglio’s “four principles” of good governance (Time is greater than space; Unity prevails over conflict; Realities are more important than ideas; The whole is greater than the part), were extrapolated by him from a letter Rosas wrote in 1835 to Facundo Quiroga, another powerful Argentine caudillo, explaining why he opposed the drafting of a national Constitution. Those principles are constantly invoked by Francis and constitute the mainstay of the fourth chapter (“The Social Dimension of Evangelization”) of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.

In 1960 and 70s Argentina, the Rosas-Perón parallels were a truism of political debate — a popular leader who fought for the country’s wellbeing against all-powerful foreign interests and their treacherous local representatives. For Revisionists, the antithesis People vs. Anti-people is indeed the driving force of national history. The Anti-people encompasses all historical and present-day forces that thwart the People’s way to its Liberation: the political and corporate establishment, the anti-Peronist middle class, and an old enemy of Catholicism: the culture of the Enlightenment, the uprooted intellectualism of those who worship abstractions such as Liberty and Democracy and are always looking abroad for inspiration instead of embracing the originality of their own national experience.

The theologians of the People added to the mix a few more elements of the zeitgeist — anti-Imperialism, anti-colonialism, dependency theory and its center-periphery dualism — and wrapped it all up in the revolutionary language of the era. But their most lasting contribution was the justification of popular faith, another of Francis’ recurrent themes.

Popular Faith vs. Liberation Theology

Until the late 1950s, the popular expressions of Latin American Catholicism were largely considered as distortions of the true faith, a suspicious mélange of pre-Christian beliefs, half-baked Catechism precepts, and outright superstitions. Gera and his colleagues were the first Catholic theologians to develop a positive view of this popular piety and to highlight it as key to the spiritual renovation of the Church.

A rich tradition of religious festivities and devotions going back to the Spanish conquest offered the source materials; Vatican II provided its conceptual framework. The anthropological definition of culture that opens chapter II of Gaudium and spes, the other fundamental document issued by the council, provides a flexible mold in which to cast almost all byproducts of human activity. “By culture”, elaborates Gera on this point, “we basically understand the ‘cultural ethos’, i.e., the way in which a human group organizes its own conscience and value system, and therefore, its aspirations” [“Pueblo, Religión del Pueblo e Iglesia”, in Teología XII, 27–28 (1976) 104–105, my translation].

In other words: culture is how the People manifests itself in History, the specific practices, beliefs, etc., that shape their everyday life and hopes. This popular culture is imbued with religious meaning — it is indeed the sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in that community, transmitted through baptism and passed down by generations of faithful through their shared historical experience.

The ultimate justification for this almost gnostic view of popular religiosity is the doctrine of sensus fidei fidelium, or faithful’s sense of the faith, outlined in the First Epistle of John (2, 20–27) and described in Lumen Gentium as a preeminent feature of the People of God: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief” (LG, 12). Francis has called it “the faith instinct” of the people: “The presence of the Spirit gives Christians certain connaturality [sic] with divine realities, and a wisdom which enables them to grasp those realities intuitively, even when they lack the wherewithal to give them precise expression” (Evangelii Gaudium, 119). This vindication of popular Catholicism was included in the conclusive document of the second conference of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), celebrated in 1968 at Medellín, Colombia (see Chapter VI, “Popular Pastoral”). Gera had an active role in drafting that document. (Most of Gera’s and his fellow theologians work remains untranslated. An essential reference book for the study of the “Argentine school” of theology is Marcelo González’s La reflexión teológica en Argentina (1962–2004), Editorial de la Universidad Católica de Córdoba, 2005. For an overview of Catholic Church political teachings in Argentina, see Gustavo Irrazábal’s Iglesia y democracia, Ediciones Cooperativas, 2015).

The Theology of the People is usually presented as the Argentine version of Liberation Theology, but in those days they were seen as competing interpretations of the preferential option for the poor, the guiding principle adopted by the Church after Vatican II. The accusations of reactionary conservatism leveled against the Theology of the People go back to this time.

Between Medellín and CELAM’s 1979 third conference at Puebla, Mexico, a tragic backlash took place in Latin America. By the mid-seventies, all but a couple of democratically elected governments had been overthrown by military dictatorships. A savage repression descended on the continent, and priests and Catholic grass-root activists were among its first victims. At the same time, the Papacy distanced itself from Liberation Theology, condemning some of its thesis as incompatible with the teachings of the Church.

With its humanistic approach to the issue of poverty, the Theology of the People — or Theology of Culture, as it was increasingly called — , offered a perfect alternative to the more radical Liberation Theology. In his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI reproved the use violence to attain social change and endorsed popular religiosity as a prime tool for evangelization. Four years later, it was clear that the Theology of the People had won the day. Puebla’s conclusive document includes a lengthy exposition on popular religiosity (see paragraphs 444–469), a synthesis of Gera’s ideas.

Today, those ideas constitute the mainstream of Latin American Catholicism. In 2007, CELAM’s fifth conference at Aparecida, Brazil, defined Catholic tradition — in the same “Catholic nation myth” vein — as the foundation of “Latin American and Caribbean identity, originality, and unity”, and popular religiosity as “a spirituality incarnated in the culture of the lowly” (258–265). Not surprisingly, the drafting commission of the conference’s final document was chaired by an Argentine bishop: Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Peoples of God and World Religion

In the almost fifty years since its appearance, the Theology of the People has become the Argentine theological school by default. The generation of its founders was followed by a second generation of disseminators, the most prolific of whom is father Scannone, who is now in his eighties. A third generation is represented by the likes of Carlos María Galli and Víctor Manuel Fernández — the main authorities on Gera and Tello, respectively — , and a fourth is already up and coming. Scannone, Galli, and Fernández are among Francis’ closest theological advisors.

Galli expanded the original nationalistic scope of Gera’s theology into a global perspective of multiple Peoples of God, a perspective much more attuned to the World Church envisioned in the late 1970s by Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner. Galli’s theology provides that best framework to explain the mission of Francis’ pontificate.

Bergoglio himself has always been regarded as more of a pastor than a theologian, a description some critics use as a barely disguised way of dismissing him as an intellectual. But although he was never a theologian in the sense of a Ratzinger or even a Gera, it is his theological thought that binds together his pastoral work, his speeches, and his writings into a single, coherent whole.

There is a seamless continuity between the publications of the COEPAL experts in the 1960s and 70s, CELAM’s major documents of the past half century, Bergoglio’s homilies and books, and Francis’ apostolic statements. The common thread is the set of ideas articulated by the Theology of the People.

Night and Fog in Bajo Flores

At this point, a short biographical excursus is fitting. It is the most well-known episode in Francis’ life, and the one that has cast the darkest shadow over his reputation.

In 1973, a 36-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio was appointed provincial superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina and Uruguay. He had a mandate from the general of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (the man credited with having coined the phrase “option for the poor”), to restore normalcy into a religious order that had been shaken to its core by the revolutionary winds of the time. A strict disciplinarian, Bergoglio reintroduced rules and formalities that had been discarded by his predecessor, enforced prayer schedules, and even instructed that the Jesuits’ seminary chapel, which had been rebuilt in a freewheeling communitarian style, be turned back to a more conventional look.

Above all, he revised the novices curricula, expunging all vestiges of Marxist-inspired Liberation theology, and launched a stern supervision (some would say a purge) of the Jesuits’ pastoral work in the Buenos Aires slums. This was the source of his conflict with his Jesuits priests Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, who ended up being expelled from the Society and kidnapped by a Navy task force shortly after the 1976 coup. They were first held captives and tortured at the most infamous clandestine prison of the last Argentine dictatorship, the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA, for its acronym in Spanish), and freed five months later.

It is impossible to describe here in full detail the Yorio-Jalics case. A thorough account can be found in Austen Ivereigh’s The Great Reformer and Paul Vallely’s Untying the Knots, which provides a controversial hypothesis of Bergoglio’s ultimate motives. With all its theological and canonical-legalistic intricacies — not to mention the obscurities that still hover over the sequence of the events and their moral implications — , this case epitomizes the complexity of the abrasive debates that split the Church into irreconcilable factions during those years. Worldwide, the Society of Jesus was at the center of those debates. As head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina, Bergoglio was at the center of the center of the conflict in his own country.

Because of his direct involvement in this case, he has been accused of collaboration with the military dictatorship. The first to raise this accusation was human rights activist Emilio Fermín Mignone in his 1986 book Iglesia y Dictadura (Catholic Church and Dictatorship in Argentina) (Mignone’s daughter Mónica, an educational psychologist, worked with Yorio and Jalics in a their community of Bajo Flores. She was arrested by another task force at her family home a few days before the priests’ kidnapping, and remains a desaparecida.) A decade later, those accusations were picked up by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who wrote a series of books on the Church’s complicities with dictatorships throughout Argentina’s history.

After their liberation, Yorio and Jalics took different views of their ordeal. Until his death in 2000, Yorio remained convinced that Bergoglio denounced them to the military. Jalics, who is now retired in a monastery in Germany, says that for a long time he believed that too, but that he eventually came to think that those suspicions were unfounded. He marked his reconciliation with his former superior with a mass they co-celebrated in Buenos Aires some years ago.

In 2010, Bergoglio was called as a witness in the trial against the Navy personnel who commanded ESMA’s detention center and decided on the torture, execution, and disappearance of their victims. In his deposition, Bergoglio states that he personally intervened before two of the members of the then ruling Junta, Army chief and President Jorge Rafael Videla and Navy chief Emilio Eduardo Massera, to demand the liberation of the priests (Bergoglio’s testimony is summarized in Sergio Rubin’s and Francesca Ambrogetti’s Pope Francis: His Life in His Own Words). However, Yorio’s sister Graciela, also a witness in the trial, reiterated in her deposition his brother’s suspicions and recalled his frustration at feeling abandoned by the Church.

After Bergoglio’s election as Pope, the old accusations were revived in the international press. Some notable human rights activists, such as Nobel Prize Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Bergoglio’s old-time friend Alicia Oliveira — a former associate of Mignone’s at the legal human rights organization he founded — came immediately in his defense. Former left-wing activists that had remained silent over the years came out to provide evidence that Bergoglio had helped them flee the country in the thick of the repression. Italian journalist Nello Scavo compiled those cases in his 2013 book, bombastically entitled Bergoglio’s List. It also became known that throughout the dictatorship Bergoglio stood in close contact with some of the most conspicuous representatives of the progressive wing of the Church, some of whom, like the aforementioned Scannone, never stopped teaching at the Jesuit seminar. Those testimonies paint an image of Bergoglio and of the Argentine Catholic church — of their tensions and contradictions, and of how their inner confrontations ended up engulfing the whole Argentine society — that is much more nuanced than what some would like it to be.

Despite the fact that the courts did not establish any responsibility on Bergoglio’s part for the kidnapping of the priests, the doubts are likely to survive in many minds. Bergoglio himself fueled those doubts — not so much of having committed a crime as to not having done as much as possible to prevent it — when he referred to his moral failings during his tenure as provincial superior. In Argentina, as elsewhere in times of oppression, the sins were not only of commission but also of omission.

The Pastor and the Presidents

By the time he was appointed Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, Bergoglio had already softened the belligerent nature of some of those ideas, such as the Manichean opposition between People and Anti-People, which he replaced with a plea to harmonize the different parts of the national community through dialogue — an illustration of his principles “unity prevails over conflict” and “the whole is greater than the part”.

It was this moderation what put him at odds with the late president Néstor Kirchner and his widow and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the Peronist political couple in power since 2003 (Kirchner died in 2010, after concluding his term as president, and Fernández must hand over the presidency in December, after completing her second term). The Kirchners made of the friend-or-foe divide within Argentine society the engine of their political strategy and pushed for a constitutional amendment that would have enabled them for unlimited reelection. As the highest Catholic prelate in the country, Bergoglio challenged that agenda.

Argentine political commentators have credited him with frustrating the Kirchner’s ambitions when he encouraged the late Joaquín Piña, a Jesuit and former bishop of Puerto Iguazú in Misiones province, to run in 2006 against the incumbent governor, an ally of President Kirchner’s who also wanted to establish indefinite reelection in that province. Piña trounced the governor in the popular vote, forcing the Kirchners to discard their own re-election project.

But Bergoglio’s most spectacular triumph in his confrontation with kirchnerismo was his election as Pope, an election against which the Argentine government actively lobbied in the Vatican. A few days after the conclave, and in view of the extraordinary popularity of the new pontiff, Cristina Kirchner overcame her initial embarrassment and embraced Francis. Since then, they developed a close, even affectionate relationship, and to everybody’s surprise, Francis turned out to be an emotional and political supporter for a President who had tried so hard to undermine him in the past.

As in the 1950s Perón-Church conflict, the fact that Bergoglio and the Kirchners partake of the same populist worldview was no obstacle for their confrontation (that may reappear if and when a profound change in the political landscape calls for it). Rather, it explains it. To say it in economic theory terms: they are competitors in a monopolistic market, the market of the People’s allegiance. Ultimately, a populist caudillo cannot accept sharing that allegiance with anybody else, especially the Church; and the Church cannot accept bending in submission to secular power or allowing its flock to submit to adoration of anything but God.

The same delicate balance between ideological affinity and independence from political power helps us understand Francis relationship with the other populist leaders that emerged in Latin America in the past decades. During his July pastoral trip to the continent, Francis kept a prudential distance from Presidents Correa of Ecuador and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, even delivering some non-confrontational but unambiguous criticism to some of their most authoritarian policies through his usual appeal to dialogue among all social actors. (He has also tried to serve as a bridge for that dialogue between government and opposition in Venezuela, so far to no avail.) And his handling of the hammer-and-sicle crucifix presented to him by Evo — one of the most awkward moments in the history of contemporary Papacy — provides an unexpected window on Francis’ PR skills. Dazzled by the more spiritual aspects of his personality, people tend to forget that Bergoglio is also a very down-to-earth, shrewd politician.

Francis, Cuba, and the U.S.

Nowhere have those political skills paid off so much as in his contributions to the negotiations that led to the historic reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. The back-channels between the Vatican and Havana were never completely closed, and the Catholic Church has been instrumental in securing some human rights solutions with the island’s government over the years. But Francis will probably receive a huge share of the acclaim for the reconciliation of the two nations, and for a very good reason too.

The fact that this reconciliation occurs during the pontificate of the first Latin American pope adds an extraordinary philosophical value to it, a value of yet unpredictable consequences for the relations between the Americas. The Latin-American ideology we mentioned in passing at the beginning of this essay, the notion of a Great Hispanic America reaching from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, was forged at the end of the 19th century by Latin American writers like Cuban José Martí, Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó and Argentinian Manuel Ugarte, among others. They were inspired by Simon Bolivar’s vision of a community of nations unified by a common language and religion. What made those ideas coalesce into a supra-national ideology that has dominated the hearts and minds of millions of Latin Americans ever since (what Cuban scholar Enrico Mario Santí has called “Latino Americanism”) was Cuba’s war of independence, known in the United States as the Spanish-American war.

Most Americans are unaware of the galvanizing effect that the outcome of that war had in the Hispanic world. Almost a century after most Latin American countries had obtained their independence from Spain in another, even more terrible war, they rallied back to Spain, and to Cuba, enraged by the humiliating defeat of the former and the submission of the latter to Washington’s interests. Rubén Darío, the greatest Spanish-language poet of the period, gave that rage its most inspired expression. In his Whitmanesque poem “To Roosevelt,” he wrote: “You are the United States/ the future invader/ of the naïve America with Indian blood / that still prays to Jesus Christ and speaks Spanish … Beware! Spanish America Lives! / A thousand Spanish lion’s cubs roam free”. The Latin American patriotism that blossomed over the hemisphere after 1898 was by definition an anti-U.S. patriotism. Even more than the annexation of Mexico’s Northern provinces after 1848, it is to this moment that we should trace the origins of the fault line in U.S.-Latin American relations.

As I mentioned before, this continental nationalism is inextricably linked with the nationalistic ideology developed in Argentina in the 1920s and 1930s, incorporated into Peron’s National Doctrine, and finally transformed into the political substratum of the Theology of the People. It will be interesting to see how Francis deals with this ideological background during his trip to Cuba and the U.S. — whether he elaborates on the dichotomy of a “Spiritual” Latin bloc pitched against a “Materialistic” Anglo-Saxon bloc (a dichotomy laid down by Rodó in his classic Ariel, the manifest of Latino Americanism) or whether he moves on from that ideological stance and plants the seeds of a new agenda, as he did when he put aside the People-Anti People dichotomy, hinting at a new sense of hemispheric unity that should prevail over the past and present conflicts.

A Papal Agenda: Modernity, the Third World, and the future of Catholicism

This battle for the soul of the Americas will play out against the backdrop of a larger, truly Catholic — that is, universal — battle. It is a battle that the Church, to a great extent, has already lost. Francis surely hopes his main legacy would be that he was able to set in motion a reversal of that loss.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born at a time when the Catholic Church was regrouping throughout the world in an implausible effort to win back the centrality it had enjoyed during the Middle Ages, the Golden Age of Catholic Integralism. He grew up in a devout household in a nominally Catholic country, in which that religious-political creed ended up being coopted by a secular political movement, and he came to age when this secular movement was re-signified in a religious key by Peronist theologians. But the Theology of the People was not a revival of the Catholic supremacist ideal. In his writings, Francis dismisses the “nostalgic” forces within the Church; this is his way of saying that such an ideal is dead.

Yet other aspects of that worldview are very much alive in his thinking, like harmonies deeply interweaved in the fabric of a multi-voiced counterpoint, pushing forward a melody of a certain pre-modern flavor. They are the sounds of anti-Modernism.

The Modernist crisis was the most serious crisis Catholicism faced since the Reformation. It was the confluence of the intellectual forces unleashed by the scientific revolution of the past centuries and the emancipation of reason and morals from the tutelage of Church. It wasn’t exclusively a Catholic phenomenon; in fact, it first struck in the Protestant world, courtesy of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This crisis is summarized by one word: secularization. For or against secularization was the war cry of the opposing sides. It is impossible to have a correct assessment of Francis’ thinking without taking into account the importance that tradition had in his intellectual and spiritual formation. It is a reactionary tradition, and it helps understand Francis’ apparent contradictions.

Many people still wonder whether he is a true progressive or a conservative camouflaged with soundbites and gestures that please the liberal crowds but that in the end have little or no consequence for the real life of the Church. The truth is that he is a little bit of both.

Francis’s thinking proceeds like a musical fugue. In a fugue, a melodic line shifts its place among the different voices, which are played simultaneously by the performer. The upper voice is the most easily recognizable, the melody running atop the ensemble of sound. When Francis says that he is nobody to judge a gay person, or when he asks forgiveness for the crimes committed by the Church during the so-called Conquest of the New World, or when he forfeits excommunication to women who had had an abortion, he is playing the liberal voice; it is the progressive line singing. When he ratifies the Vatican’s traditional teaching on contraception, priest celibacy, same-sex marriage and female priesthood, it is the conservative voice that comes up front. The important thing to keep in mind is that, as in counterpoint — a fugue’s central devise — both voices are playing at the same time, only at different parts of the score.

These contradictions are the reflection of an unresolved conflict at the heart of Catholicism. For all the efforts made after Vatican II to find an accommodation with contemporary world, there is something at the core of this world that rejects those efforts, a radical incompatibility. In the last analysis, the issue continues to be secularization. The challenge for the Catholic Church is how to accommodate to today’s world without being assimilated into its secular values.

Francis’ mindset straddles this divide. One Anti-Modern trait of his thinking is his mistrust of Liberalism. Despite his constant appeals to political tolerance, Francis’ political thought is rooted in a pre-modern, organicist view of the community as foundation of social and political life. Liberal democracy and the modern doctrine of human rights are the antithesis of that view. In Evangelii gaudium, the word “people” appears 164 times; the word “democracy”, not once.

Another trait is his hostility toward capitalism. Far for being inspired in any left-wing or Marxist philosophy, Francis’ anti-capitalism comes down from the European right-wing writers of the early 20th century, who in turn found their source of inspiration in the Middle Ages. At the final stage of the Cold War, John Paul II made a timid move towards accepting the market as an autonomous social force. In the age of the anti-globalization movement, Francis would have none of it. His critique of capitalism seems to go even further than the objections traditionally made by Catholic Social Teaching since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. It is when indicting the world’s economic woes that Francis strikes his most prophetic tone (which, by the way, is another characteristic of Argentinian theology). The encyclical Laudato si, his great jeremiad against the evils of capitalism, has established Francis as one of the world’s foremost critics of Neoliberalism.

But, did the old adversary of Liberation Theology really turn into a radical leftist, as some critics on the right say? A quarter of a century after the demise of the Soviet Union and when the other world-Communist power, China, has morphed into its own kind of State-steered Capitalism, there is more room for the Pope to openly condemn social injustice without raising the suspicion of being a revolutionary. In any case, what Francis probably has in mind is not a socialist but some sort of populist economic system — something, perhaps, closer to a 21st-century update of the Peronist social-welfare state. Some of his initiatives, such as the World Encounter of Popular Movements, seemed to have been conceived with the intention of becoming the Solidarność of a post-Industrial era.

That era, already unfolding before us, has in Francis’ view one preeminent protagonist: the masses of the poor and the excluded, the disenfranchised of the world. They are the Peoples of God, the pilgrims of the Trinitarian God’s journey on this planet. To Francis, the mission of the Church is indistinguishable from them — it must be a Church of poverty and for the poor. Herein lies his true radicalism: an uncompromising identification between the suffering of the poor and Christ, and his determination to persuede the world to join in that mission.

It is a mission impossible to realize in today’s Western society. But this does not deter Francis. The Catholic Church might have lost the battle against secularization in the developed world, but it is willing to soldier on in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and at the same time remain a powerful moral voice in the international arena. Francis’ recent pastoral trip to Latin America and his upcoming visit to Cuba and the United States, as well as his presentation before the United Nations, fifty years after Paul VI became the first pope to address the General Assembly, are the most recent peaks of this two-pronged strategy.

At the heart of this strategy is the celebration of popular faith as the pillar of evangelization — the preaching of God’s word and the conversion into true Christians. That is, in Francis’ view, the Church’s ultimate mission: to get out of itself and to put aside all its institutional trappings in order to lead the march of the People of God to Salvation. In doing so, the Church must share the lot of the poorest and most neglected of all, among whom a merciful Christ reenacts his Passion daily. A few months ago, Frances closed his second trip to his native continent in Paraguay, the epicenter of the Jesuit evangelical mission in the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries and the country of origin of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who over the past century have crossed the frontier into neighboring Argentina. Many of them live in the derelict neighborhoods where the curas villeros (slum priests), Bergoglio’s spiritual sons, follow in his pastoral steps. Those immigrants, brothers and sisters of the immigrants pouring into Europe from Africa and the Middle East at this very moment, are the flesh and blood of the Theology of the People. Francis’ homily at Caacupé, Paraguay’s national sanctuary, encapsulates the gist of his message: the undying hope that one day the last will be the first and the poor will inherit the Earth.

Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based journalist and writer. Editor of “Hispanic New York” (Columbia University Press, 2010). He is currently working on a book on Jorge Mario Bergoglio and the political violence in Argentina during the 1970s.

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