Mater si, Magistra no?: Pope Francis I and the Latin American Left

When the white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney on March 13th, the Catholics who clustered around the Vatican’s St Peter’s square erupted in joy. Much to their surprise, the pope was not Italian or European.  In the 2000-plus-year-long history of the Catholic Church, Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now named Francis I, became the first Latin American pope and first pope from the Jesuit order. Once his papacy was known to the world, much speculation was raised as to whether the Pope will oppose the policies of left-leaning countries of the region he hails from, just as he has spoken out against Argentinean President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s policies.

Before becoming the 266th pontiff, Francis I was Archbishop of Buenos Aires and led Argentina’s Conference of Bishops. During his tenure, Bergoglio was a staunch critic of Kirchernismo, or the political ideologies of both Fernández de Kirchner and the late Nestor Kirchner, who once called Bergoglio “the true representative of the opposition.” In some of his homilies, Bergoglio underscored Argentina’s socioeconomic maladies and corruption. The Bergoglio-Kirchner feud reached its peak when President Fernández de Kirchner signed a law that allowed same-sex marriage. He was also a visible figure against the Kirchner’s liberal positions toward abortion and female ordination within Argentina’s Catholic Church. Conversely, Kirchner supporters have accused Bergoglio of being a right-winger who allegedly maintained close ties with President Jorge Rafael Videla during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

The positions he took against the Kirchners raises questions about Francis I’s future role in Latin American politics. Some experts believe that Francis I will be a vociferous critic of Latin America’s left-leaning countries in the same fashion that John Paul II (Polish-born Karol Wojtyla) was before the fall of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s—an event in which Wojtyla’s role was considered instrumental. John Paul II also paid very close attention to Latin American affairs; in fact, John Paul II visited Mexico five times during his papacy, more than any other country.  Two of the most memorable visits of John Paul II to Latin America involved Communist-leaning Cuba and Nicaragua. In March 1983, as John Paul first set foot in the Managua airport, he became visibly disgruntled with the presence of the Sandinistas--among them revolutionary priest Ernesto Cardenal due to his participation in the Sandinista revolution. John Paul II refused to pray for the Sandinistas who died during the Contra military operations and required priests to abandon public office. In 1998, John Paul II became the first pope to land in Cuba. Greeted by Fidel Castro, John Paul II visited the landmark Revolution Square to deliver his central message to a country with no official religion: “Don’t be afraid to open your hearts to Christ.” He also criticized the U.S. embargo imposed on Cuba and asked Fidel Castro to open Cuba to the world.

In the last 15 years, the clergy has been at loggerheads with Latin America’s left-leaning governments. Hugo Chávez maintained a 10-year-long feud with the Venezuelan clergy, as the latter criticized the Bolivarian Revolution. Chávez referred to the Catholic Church as a “cancer” and threatened to break bilateral ties with the Vatican.  Interim President Nicolás Maduro administration is also bumping heads with the clergy because it has sided with the opposition by calling for fair elections in April 2013.  Likewise, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s relationship with the Catholic Church has deteriorated during his tenure. In the 2007 elections, he mentioned that the Church “no conoce de Dios (does not know God)” after the Church encouraged the “oligarchy” and the Ecuadorian enterprise to vote against him.

In the same way, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Bolivian President Evo Morales have had a bumpy relationship with the Church (Morales once said that the Catholic Church must disappear from Bolivia).  Francis I will also find in left-leaning Uruguay some of the most liberal pieces of legislation in the Western Hemisphere. Uruguayan President José Mujica--an atheist--legalized abortion; marijuana production and consumption; and marriage among same-sex couples—positions to which Francis I is strongly opposed.

It is too soon to know whether Francis I will influence Latin American politics. The Vatican is rife with problems of corruption in the Vatican Bank, as well as the string of pedophila cases in the church. Some experts believe he will have neither the influence nor the energy of John Paul II as Bergoglio is 76 years old.  Time will tell whether Francis I will soften his conservative views and approach or if the left-leaning governments will have better relations with him now that he is the first Pope from the Americas.