Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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Pope Francis the Politician

BUENOS AIRES – Jorge Mario Bergoglio – not an Italian, not a European, but a Latin American from Argentina – has now been chosen as the supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. What, if anything, can Latin America expect from Pope Francis I?

For starters, it seems clear that Francis will try to assert political influence in the region, rather in the manner that Pope John Paul II used his authority in his native Poland and Central Europe in the decade leading up to the fall of communism. A former Jesuit, Bergoglio was raised in a religious order – founded in the sixteenth century to oppose the Protestant Reformation – that is known for its power inside the church and its desire for wider political influence. So it is no surprise that Bergoglio has always considered politics, even from a religious point of view, as central to his work.

For example, he has been very vocal in voicing discontent with the rule of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and that of her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. He was active in helping to create a coalition of opposition parties to balance the overwhelming power of Kirchnerism, which has steadily been gaining power over Argentina’s parliament, judiciary, and independent media.

Indeed, Néstor Kirchner once accused Bergoglio of being the head of the opposition coalition, and refused to attend a traditional mass – a Te Deum – because he was afraid that he would be the subject of the then-Cardinal Bergoglio’s sermon. He memorably declared that the church belongs to everyone, and that the devil sometime wears a cassock.

Kirchner’s widow, Cristina Fernández, was clearly unhappy with the papal conclave’s choice. When Pope Benedict XVI resigned, she shocked Argentine Catholics by joking that she would try to be a “papisa,” that is, if princesses of the church were allowed. When Bergoglio was selected, she sent a cold, formal letter of congratulations, expressing an aloofness that was entirely inappropriate for such a historic event for Argentina.

Kirchnerismo no doubt fears Francis I. Fernández’s supporters know that Bergoglio feels closer to the United States than to any other world power. This is not to say that they do not feel a similar closeness; but they presume that a good relationship with US President Barack Obama would help Bergoglio to wield even greater influence in Argentina and the wider region.

Bergoglio is decidedly conservative. He opposes civil unions for gay couples, and strongly defends the church’s prohibition of abortion and its ban on women priests. He is considered a misogynist, with views on women’s role in society identical to those propagated by the church in the Middle Ages.

At the same time, he is ascetic and sensitive to the suffering of the impoverished. He has always had very good relations with Argentina’s trade unions; indeed, he was a Peronist in his youth. He likes football and mate, a traditional non-alcoholic drink that one consumes by sharing with other people. But, lacking personal charisma, none of this may be enough to establish a strong rapport with common people.

The mere fact that Francis is Latin American is bad news for the region’s populist governments – not only Argentina, but also Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Cuba. John Paul II was one of the decisive forces in eroding the hold of communism on Europe. If Bergoglio’s Vatican is to succeed in rolling back the populist tide that gained strength in Latin America during late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s years, he will need to establish as strong a relationship with Obama as the one that John Paul II forged with Ronald Reagan.

Still, the moment may be ripe for him to exercise such influence. The start of his papacy finds the populist governments in a vulnerable situation, hit hard by Chávez’s recent death. They all, of course, have their own identities and strengths, but they will miss the protection of Chávez’s global influence, as well as his subsidies. Moreover, they rule countries in which Catholics are an overwhelming majority. Although the degree of their religious commitment varies, they share a strong emotional attachment to the faith, which will provide Francis I with considerable political leverage.

Latin America will no doubt be one of Francis’s priorities. But first he must reestablish the Catholic Church’s moral authority, which has been badly damaged by the scandal over numerous cases of pedophilia by priests, the Church’s attempts to cover them up,and dubious financial practices, among other problems. Only if he succeeds on the “domestic” front will he be able to exercise political influence “abroad.” If he fails in this task, the high expectations that he has raised after John Paul II (who addressed reports of pedophilia by dispatching them to the archives) and Benedict XVI (who was too feeble to act) will turn against him and his church.

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  1. CommentedLuca Arcangeli

    Unfortunately in Project Syndicate I have never read a good article about Catholic Church. Only bad opinions, never interesting reflections on the world of Catholicism. This is not a real service of free information.

  2. CommentedJosip Jež

    At the religon lecture I learned as a child, what does mean the 6th commandment:
    “ You must not murder”.. It is a very big sin.
    So I don´t understand, nobody comes to this view of the problem with Jose Mario Bergoglio - pope Francis.
    During the “Dirty War” times in Argentina (1976 – 1983 ), the military junta maintained its grip on power by cracking down on anybody whom they believed was challenging their authority. Casualty counts from this war range from 10,000 to 30,000 people.
    In that time was Jorge Mario Bergoglio the top provincial of the Jesuit family in Argentina .
    Once a year the top of military junta attended a traditional mass a - Te Deum – and then they received the Holy Communion.
    It is true, after the Second Vatican council, decides the person´s conscience what is a death sin.
    But when the conscience of military junta says, to kill all those people in all those years is not a death sin, so it was the duty of the priest Bergoglio to say them:
    What you have been doing for years it is a death sin and it is not possible for you to receive the Holy Communion.
    He was not only a big coward but he gave the Holy Sacrament to the people who have been living in a death sin.
    The 3rd commandment is.
    “You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”
    The Lord will not let you go unpunished if you misuse his name.
    It is even a bigger death sin, than the 3rd Commandment

    While it is so simple for the catholic Church to ignore the God´s commandment,
    So it is easy too, to make this man, with such big sins, to top of the Catholic church, to pope Francis.

  3. CommentedJustin Joseph

    I am not sure if you hate the whole Catholic church or just Pope Francis personally.

    Anyways the entire article is just a claim that Pope Francis is politically motivated but that claim is not substantiated at all . You do not even tell why he would even have a political inclincation. The only reason I see in the entire article is he is a Jesuit. Which is just a plain silly to say the least. Jesuit order is one of the most respected within the Church and even outside for their work among poor and their own modest life practices.

    The other point I see reading between the lines (which I believe the reason why you wrote this article) is that you are afraid communism in the region might have a bad impact. But history has shown it again and again that communism sound so great in papers and books than in practise. In real life, once they have the power, communist governments (or some leaders within that) keep forgeting how they got into power and what their original goals were.

    They also keep on trying to fight the Church even after so many failed attempts. Part of the reason is both Church and communism aims to better the life of the poor and is competing against each other. As I said earlier, comminism practically fails once their political motivations are materialised (or when it realise they will never be materialised). Since Church do not have any political motivatations or expect material benefits, it do not have this weakness.

    So, communism failing again and again has more to do with their own internal problems than anything particularly to do with Church. But since communism always consider Church/religion and Capitalism as their competition, they try to blame one or the other.

  4. CommentedJustin Joseph

    If those Governments are really populist (as in the majority supports them), as you claim them to be, they do not have anything to worry about. But if they are not so populist now as they once were, they will be afraid of any changes that can have an impact on their political career.

  5. CommentedJustin Joseph

    You say Jesuit order is famous for its power inside the church but you forgot to mention why.

    They are known for their ascetic/simple/poor life style and their work among poor people. You are making it sound like they are a power hungry organisation. In reality, if any power comes to them, it is because the clergy/people feel the need for a 'poor Church to work for the poor' just like Pope Francis said.

    If anything being a Jesuit is one of the best qualities for a pontiff. It is revolutionary and is very needed to work among the poor and to bring the Church back to its roots.

  6. CommentedJ. T. G.

    From Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's Encyclical 'Deus Caritas Est'

    "The Church's social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church's responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically."

  7. Portrait of Michael Heller

    CommentedMichael Heller

    "Fernández’s supporters know that Bergoglio feels closer to the United States than to any other world power". If true it's an immensely positive development. Rather like the effect of Alberdi's admiration for the workings of the USA, partly as a result of which Argentina grew like crazy for 30 years and became a world power. I'm a bit obsessed by the Alberdi angle. But I'm also conscious of the boredom and indifference, the effect which religion has on my mind, and of the frustration I feel when these factors of religion become so prominent in the public mind, or in politics. Such a waste of opium, as Marx might have joked.

  8. CommentedZvonimir Miletić

    First when you write column like this one you should realize that Pope's new name is not Francis I, but Francis. That shows your knowledge of new pope.

    The whole column is missed and contaminated with angry with Catholic Church. When you see Pope Francis you see grace, kindness and humility which are emanating around him. We should talk about his deeds the first day he was elected. They are really revolutionary and represents the great progress in socialization of Church and the impoverished i ordinary citizens. We should talk about him kissing the AIDS ill people. He can do and surely he will do more for the society and the world tham any other politican, including you favorite Chavez, Kirchner etc... We have to stand by him and try to do in our society what he is talking and doing.

    Also, his modesty is astonishing. When would some politican you like do something like that? Perhaps onlyone who comes to mind is Jose Mujica, president of Uruguay, but the difference is that Pope is at the helm of 1 200 000 000 people.

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