This intriguing piece by Claudio Ivan Remeseira is a (very) long read, but (very) well worth it. It underlines yet again how much Pope Francis remains shaped by the intellectual and religious traditions of his homeland. That might be disappointing for anyone who wants to slot him into the neat categories of the American political debate (Francis is neither liberal nor conservative) and it will disappoint anyone who might have hoped that a pope might be a little less, well, parochial, but there we are.
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”.
…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.
And (my emphasis added):
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….
Seen from this perspective, the fact that capitalism has done so much for so many counts for very little with a pope who continually–and with somewhat unbecoming ostentation–humblebrags that he is a pope for the poor, heading a church for the poor. And that church needs the poor to remain poor if they are to continue to be its foot-soldiers in the long war against modernity.