Why Pope Francis Has Become A Political Lightning Rod In Argentina

While the Pontiff has been a divisive figure in the Catholic Church, Francis’ popularity in his homeland is waning.

<p>Pope Francis. Argentinian lawmakers and journalists often view Pope Francis and his statements through a political lens. RICARDO STUCKERT/PR.</p>

The Argentine people have a series of notable figures that most admire and revere. They include soccer idols Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi, activist and politician Eva Peron and tango star Carlos Gardel.

A notable absence from that list these days is Pope Francis.

While this pontiff has been a divisive figure in the Catholic Church (especially in the United States and Western Europe), Francis’ popularity in his homeland is also waning. It’s a departure from the fervor of a decade ago when Jorge Bergoglio, the then-cardinal of Buenos Aires, was elected pope. Much of the country celebrated. These days, Francis, who became first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church in 2013, generates divided opinions.

“It’s clear, there are people who are angry at him,” said Argentine journalist and author Sergio Rubin to the Associated Press. The journalist recently co-wrote a book about Francis called “El Pastor” with Francesca Ambrogetti, 

Pope Francis. Argentinian lawmakers and journalists often view Pope Francis and his statements through a political lens. RICARDO STUCKERT/PR.

Lawmakers and journalists often view Pope Francis and his statements through a political lens. As a result, voters increasingly internalize such sentiments and are motivated at the ballot box against what the pope says publicly on a given issue.

As a result, Francis hasn’t made it a point to visit homeland while pope, although he is scheduled to make a visit next year along with a stop in Brazil. Even without setting foot in Argentina, Francis has found himself at the center of political fights between those who back the populist Vice President and former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and those who support center-right ex-President Mauricio Macri.

In 2016, Francis was photographed with a blank look on his face when he met with then-President Macri at the Vatican. Some read as a sign the pope wasn’t happy with how Argentina was being run. Not known for his poker face, the pope had a similar expression when he met with President Trump and his wife Melania at the Vatican a year later.

The pope has not been a fan of populist governments — especially those on the political right — and in doing so has alienated Catholics who may vote that way in local and national elections. Francis has shown solidarity, for example, with migrants, talked about climate change and espoused Catholic Social Teaching that sometimes finds itself at odds with some parts of capitalism.

And running against this pope has shown some positive results for candidates who embark on such a road. Catholics in Argentina, for example, appeared divided by the surprising recent success of a firebrand politician who called Francis “a communist,” and “leftist son of a b—-.”

Those were the words used by Javier Milei, who emerged as the winner of the country’s Aug. 13 primaries. He came in first with 30% of the vote, ahead of both major political coalitions.

Pope Francis. Argentinian lawmakers and journalists often view Pope Francis and his statements through a political lens. RICARDO STUCKERT/PR.

Milei, a member of the country’s Chamber of Deputies and a Catholic, has expressed admiration for Trump in the past. He has been described as a libertarian.

National elections are set for Oct. 22 and many believe Milei has a shot at winning.

“Many [Argentine Catholics] were happy about [Francis’s] election as the pope in 2013, but disliked his ideas and the documents he released and ceased to approve of him,” said Lorenzo De Vedia, a priest who works with the poor in Buenos Aires, to Crux.

De Vedia agreed there is a “political divide in the church” across Argentina.

“The episcopate incentivizes actions to help the neediest in society, but many times such stimulus is not strong enough to become reality,” he added.

Poverty increased to 39.2% of the population in the second half of 2022, a three percentage point increase from the first six months of the year, according to Argentina’s national statistics agency INDEC.

Inflation, meanwhile, continues to skyrocket in a country where that issue isn’t new. It has gotten so high — it reached 100% earlier this month — that people are using U.S. dollars to buy high-priced items and goods.

But Francis’ message against the accumulation of wealth — including criticism of an “economic system that continues to discard lives in the name of the god of money” — has been seen by some voters as an endorsement for Peronism, which some could argue is left-wing populism in the style of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The Argentina-Francis divide doesn’t end there. A 2019 national poll on religious beliefs showed the lack of fervor for Francis when only 27% described him as a global leader who denounces injustices. Some 40% said they were indifferent to the pontiff, according to the survey conducted by the CONICET institute.

In December 2020, Argentina’s abortion law was liberalized after the Voluntary Interruption of Pregnancy Bill was passed by the National Congress. Evangelicals, a growing segment of believers in South America, had teamed up with Catholics to combat the bill — much like they have in the United States — but the pope was not involved in those very public debates.

Francis being averse to Argentine politics is understandable. In May 2020, the pope said that when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires more than a decade ago, the Argentine government wanted “to cut my head off” by backing false accusations that he had collaborated with the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

“The situation (during the dictatorship) was really very confused and uncertain. Then the legend developed that I had handed [two priests] over to be imprisoned,” Francis added.

No public rebuke of the abortion bill on the part of the pope while it was being debated seemed odd at the time — but observers now agree that the pope is trying to stay out of Argentina’s politics. Nonetheless, he remains a big reason why some are voting the way they are in one of South America’s biggest and most-influential nations.

Produced in association with Religion Unplugged

Edited by Judy J. Rotich and Newsdesk Manager