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David Agren
David AgrenDecember 08, 2023
Argentine President-elect Javier Milei addresses supporters in Buenos Aires on Nov. 19Argentine President-elect Javier Milei addresses supporters in Buenos Aires on Nov. 19 after winning Argentina's runoff presidential election. Milei has derided Pope Francis as a "filthy leftist," though some weeks ahead of the election he softened his tone to win more centrist voters, according to analysts. (OSV New photo/Agustin Marcarian, Reuters)

Two days after he swept into power in Argentina following a run-off election on Nov. 19, president-elect Javier Milei received an unexpected phone call. He interrupted a television interview to speak with Pope Francis, a fellow Argentine he previously had maligned as a “filthy leftist” and “the imbecile that’s in Rome.”

The two men spoke for roughly eight minutes. Pope Francis congratulated Mr. Milei on his victory. The president-elect extended an invitation to the pope to visit his native country.

The Argentine church received a message with the call Pope Francis made to Javier Milei: ”Lay off this guy” and “contribute to social peace.”

Details of the call are scant, though media reports describe Mr. Milei as enthusiastic, even calling the pope, “Your holiness.” But church observers say the call sent a clear message for Catholics in Argentina after the election of a controversial president by an overwhelming margin, whose rise provoked enormous disquiet for many of the priests and laity working with the poor.

“The Argentine church received a message with the call to Javier Milei: Lay off this guy,” and “contribute to social peace,” said Fabián Calle, a professor of political science at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.

Stepping back from the extremes

An anarcho-capitalist with a vituperative persona who campaigned with a mock-up of the chainsaw he pledged to take to state bureaucracies and services, Mr. Milei trounced the ruling Peronist coalition candidate in the runoff, the economy minister Sergio Massa, winning in 20 of Argentina’s 23 provinces.

Mr. Milei was able to capitalize on Argentine voters’ weariness with recurring economic crises in an election year that saw inflation head north of 140 percent and with poverty afflicting 45 percent of the population. The president-elect channeled the electorate’s intense anger with what he branded “the political caste,” the country’s entrenched politicians.

“He was the only economist who in a constant, systematic and disciplined way was in the media criticizing the inflationary [economic] model and proposing something different: dollarization,” said Sergio Berensztein, an Argentine pollster and political analyst, explaining Mr. Milei’s appeal to many Argentines. “He presented society with a coherent, consistent and clear alternative.”

But as his Dec. 10 inauguration draws near, Mr. Milei, 53, has started walking back some of his more controversial positions, like swapping out the beleaguered Argentine peso for the U.S. dollar and shutting down the nation’s central bank. The likelihood of those proposals becoming real policy has diminished after Mr. Milei announced more mainstream appointments in government ministries for overseeing finance rather than the radicals he associated with during his campaign.

The Argentine church “is divided, it’s fragmented. … It has a limited influence politically and people vote how they want.”

He has also sidelined wilder ideas like legalizing the sale of organs, expanding gun ownership and cutting relations with countries he considers unfriendly, most prominently among them China—the world’s biggest consumer of soybeans, one of Argentina’s main agricultural exports. An economist and eccentric figure with a fondness for cosplay, Mr. Milei had also promised to begin mass privatization of government holdings and the closure of government ministries like the Ministry of Women, Genders and Diversity but to continue spending on health, education and anti-poverty efforts.

The attempt to soften his image began ahead of the run-off election in November. Mr. Milei erupted less often, picking fewer fights and muzzling surrogates like one lawmaker who called for suspending relations with the Vatican. The rhetorical moderation has stoked questions over what kind of government Mr. Milei might actually oversee after his inauguration.

“The question that remains is: ‘Who is Milei?’ Is he an actor? Or is he a guy, as the Peronists said, who is crazy?” asked José María Poirier, editor of the Argentine magazine Criterio. “What’s happening is that he’s suddenly presenting himself as a pragmatist, [someone] much more interested in dialogue.”

Milei’s presidential makeover

Mr. Milei’s rebranding effort appears to include his attitude toward the Catholic Church and the personal animus he appeared to have for Pope Francis, though local political observers credit the pope for handling the president-elect deftly by consistently taking the high road and not responding to Mr. Milei’s provocations.The phone call particularly “was a very smart move because it forced Milei to have an exchange of words with a person [the president-elect] has characterized as the devil,” said Mariano De Vedia, religion writer at the Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación.

“The most important signal” would be whether or not a visit by the pope to Argentina is actually confirmed, Mr. De Vedia said.

Pope Francis has not visited Argentina since his election to the papacy in Rome in 2013, defying expectations he would visit his homeland early in his pontificate. Vatican observers say the pope has stayed away from Argentina because of the messiness of its politics. All sides in Argentina’s deeply divided political culture would have likely attempted to appropriate the pope for their own purposes. But many Argentine Catholics see a papal visit as an important means to address those divisions.

An anarcho-capitalist with a vituperative persona, Mr. Milei trounced the ruling Peronist coalition candidate in the runoff.

An organization for fighting drug addiction sponsored by the curas villeros—the priests who minister in Buenos Aires’ shanty towns who were close to then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio—organized a Mass on Nov. 10, urging the pope to pay a visit.

“His words, his gestures, his presence will do us good because we desire a country full of love and social justice,” organizers said in a statement.

The reference to social justice was not accidental. Mr. Milei derided the idea of “social justice”—a concept embraced by the Peronists that suggests a government obligation to human services like free education and access to health care for all—using a vulgar expression for excrement, drawing a sharp response from the curas villeros in the barrios. His free market ideas have also drawn criticism from barrio priests and economic justice advocates who worry about market impacts on Argentina’s most vulnerable people.

“He thinks above all that the market is going to order the entire life of a society, and this has been proven to not happen even in the United States,” the Rev. José María di Paola, a prominent cura villero known as “Padre Pepe,” said, prior to the election.

“It’s part of a fallacy and spread as conviction, as if it were real. … People who don’t know much end up being seduced by this guy.”

Some curas villeros and other priests spoke out against Mr. Milei’s candidacy and even campaigned against him. In September the curas villeros celebrated a Mass of reparation in a Buenos Aires shanty town after Mr. Milei attacked the pope.

But the Mass proved controversial. Many Argentine Catholics objected to its obvious political intent, and many clergy stayed away, preferring to remain silent on Mr. Milei. Father Di Paola took issue with criticism of the gesture, telling America, “They tell us sometimes that talking about an issue is engaging in politics. But I think that silence is also engaging in politics.”

Vatican observers say the pope has stayed away from Argentina because of the messiness of its politics.

And some comments from the barrio priests raised even more hackles. The Rev. Francisco Olveira, a Spanish-born priest in suburban Buenos Aires, asked for “coherence” from Mr. Milei’s slum supporters, warning them, “Don’t come to the soup kitchen or any other service” operated by a foundation he was involved with if they voted for the populist.

The Diocese of Merlo-Moreno issued a statement distancing itself from Father Olveira’s comments, saying its services are open to all, adding, “Jesus doesn’t set conditions, only the hunger of the [most humble] brother.”

A spokesperson for the Argentine bishops’ conference declined to comment on the election, but the bishops did issue a brief, 59-word statement two days after Mr. Milei’s election, expressing congratulations and offering prayers for the nation.

Church observers here say some of the curas villeros openly sympathize with a strain of Peronism known as “Kirchnerismo” and that they worked with Kirchnerismo politicians in the Province of Buenos Aires, the Peronist heartland. Argentina’s most populist province, it incorporates the industrial zones and shanties of suburban Buenos Aires.

The movement is named for Presidents Nestor Kirchner (now deceased) and his successor and wife, Christina Fernández de Kirchner (the outgoing vice president), who developed vast patronage networks and heavily influenced Argentine politics over the past 20 years.

“Pope Francis doesn’t have much weight in Argentine politics. It was a big mistake on the part of a lot of clergy and the Catholic hierarchy, which thought by confronting Milei they could change votes.”

But now that the pope has reached out to Mr. Milei, “It shows that the church is not, as some say, openly Kirchnerista,” said Mr. Berensztein. He added that the Argentine church “is divided, it’s fragmented. … It has a limited influence politically and people vote how they want.”

In fact the absence of an outcry after Mr. Milei’s attacks on Pope Francis in September highlighted the somewhat ambiguous feelings of Argentines toward Francis. Peronists have tried to claim him as one of their own, and some anti-Peronists indeed view him as a political opponent.

“Pope Francis doesn’t have much weight in Argentine politics,” Mr. Poirier said. “It was a big mistake on the part of a lot of clergy and the Catholic hierarchy, which thought by confronting Milei they could change votes.”

A president for the peublo?

Mr. Poirier raised another uncomfortable issue for the curas villeros: Many of them draw inspiration from what’s known in Argentina as “theology of the people.”

The theology—tricky to translate from the original Spanish “teología del pueblo”—imagines “the church in dialogue with the people,” according to an interview in Crux with the late Juan Carlos Scannone, S.J., an Argentine theologian. “It’s not putting the faithful people of God ahead of the hierarchy, but building a relationship between the people of God and the peoples of earth.”

But during at least this election, the theology of the people “really didn’t have much weight with the people,” Mr. Poirier said. “The question that’s being asked: Is the pueblo what the priests and bishops say it is or is the pueblo the ones who voted in the elections? Because the two don’t match.”

Ironically, though he is portrayed as a fellow traveler with them, Cardinal Bergoglio had a frosty relationship with the Kirchners when they were in power. Nestor Kirchner in fact branded the cardinal the “spiritual leader of the opposition.” The bad relations extended to Mr. Massa, Nestor Kirchner’s cabinet chief and the Peronist candidate bested by Mr. Milei in the election, who, many church observers say, sought to oust Cardinal Bergoglio from the Buenos Aires see.

But despite that history, Francis found a way to mend fences with Ms. Fernández de Kirchner—to the dismay of her political opponents back home. Now it remains to be seen if Pope Francis can fully mend fences with Mr. Milei and if the Argentine church is able to work with the new government—especially in areas where priests and religious work with the poor, sponsoring pastoral and service outreach like soup kitchens and day care and drug rehabilitation centers.

“I believe that there will be a cordial coexistence in some things, but great difficulty in everything [related to] the services or social activities provided by the church,” said the Rev. Roberto Ferrari, a priest in suburban Buenos Aires, who is part of the group Priests for the Option for the Poor.

“Within all the places where Catholic Church services are provided, and there are many, if there are cuts … then we are going to have problems,” he said. “But I think we are going to have more problems with [Mr. Milei’s] discourse.”

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