By Pablo Ava, professor, Universidad de Buenos Aires School of Law and 2008 Americas Project Fellow
The election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church has noticeably affected politics in Argentina. While the church has always been important in Argentina’s political life — the country's constitution specifically supports it — the church’s role has been limited to defending specific doctrinal positions in civil life, usually with the support of conservative groups, since the return of democracy in 1983. The elevation of Cardinal Bergoglio as the first pope from Latin America has been somewhat of a game-changer in Argentina.
Jorge Bergoglio began leading Argentina’s Jesuit order at age 36, carrying out this duty during the country’s military dictatorship. Elected a cardinal in 2001, Bergoglio became a major figure in Argentina’s political scene, given that 77 percent of the population belongs to the Catholic Church. Through his sermons and written documents he criticized the country’s inequality and corruption. He also exercised his influence by supporting a variety of social groups, including those that fought human trafficking and opposed gay marriage laws. By mixing a progressive and conservative agenda, his role in the political arena was not perceived as neutral. His positions were considered controversial by the media and political actors close to the government of then-President Nestor Kirchner. Bergoglio was referred to as the leader of the government opposition.
The 2013 election of Bergoglio as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, therefore, impacted his influence in Argentina’s local politics. He became, to Argentine leaders, "one of us." Once widely disparaged, his critics are now a small minority, and there are many who have changed their attacks on Bergoglio into admiration for Pope Francis. This transformation from critic to supporter has become a ruler by which the public now measures Argentine politicians. Having the pope’s “recognition” is now a political asset.
It has now become a political duty for politicians to go on a pilgrimage to Rome and bring back a photo and a papal blessing. This visit to the pope acts as a transfer of charisma, which has a spillover effect on electoral opportunities and public opinion. At the beginning, politicians who secured an audience with the pope and were pictured with him were considered to have a close and personal relationship with the highest ranking authority in the Catholic Church. However, Pope Francis’ openness and generosity in receiving almost all Argentines who visit him diluted the impact of this effect in politics. So new measurements and categories of proximity to the pope were created. For example, was the papal audience public or private; was it a group photo or just the two of them? In this framework, whoever achieves a lunch in Santa Marta, the Pope´s residence, is considered a "man of the pope."
This superficial political analysis has limited the discussion of Pope Francis’ real impact in local politics. His universal messages, homilies and personal gestures focus on social and political issues such as support for victims of social violence, drug trafficking, immigration, and apartheid. This work represents his real influence in the public arena.
As a priest in the 1960s and 1970s, Bergoglio did not support liberation theology, which was very popular with the progressive side of the church in Latin America. Liberation theology focuses on social change and direct political intervention and is based on Marxist theory. Bergoglio was more involved with the theology of the people, which articulates a strong embrace of Christianity, coupled with locally initiated, non-paternalistic ways to help the poor. In Argentina, the latter school of thought is led by Juan Carlos Scannone, a Jesuit and Bergoglio´s teacher. Though they have different origins, both theologies focus on the relevance of social issues in the pastoral task, particularly as it relates to the poor and those excluded from society.
Pope Francis promotes issues that should also be of concern to politicians. His theology and influence have already had concrete effects in Argentina — for example, all political parties have agreed on policies to fight drug trafficking, including the designation of a priest as the current Secretary of Drug Enforcement and Prevention. The influence of the pope’s political theology should not be understood as an overreach of political power or as a challenge to secularization; it should instead be seen as a pope engaging his flock as the shepherd. The shepherd does not choose political candidates, but he may guide his flock.
It remains to be seen whether the pope’s influence in Argentina is welcomed in the long term. His theology and leadership might be felt in the 2015 elections, as Argentina’s presidential candidates will be challenged to respond to the pope’s call for improvements on issues such as social inclusion and exclusion.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.