May 22, 2013
Ex urbe ad orbem II
Perhaps nothing in the papal début gripped the world ‘s imagination more than the words: “How I would like a poor Church and for the poor” — here in this region these words of Pope Francis ring out as not only raising the bar for himself but also as a challenge to an increasingly populist Latin America. Paradoxically, the progressive Church envisaged by Francis lays the seeds for a potential rivalry with populism by speaking the same language to the same constituency. Thus the above words plus the concept: “Real power is to serve” from his inaugural sermon places the Pope on the same page as the rhetoric of the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration but how much of that rhetoric is borne out by the practice or reality of Argentina’s governance? Any populist leader picking up this gauntlet faces an uphill battle because the Papacy enjoys superior prestige without either the need to sacrifice any budget for electioneering or the onus of having to translate words into earthly reality.
And yet the same overlap leading to potential rivalry should not altogether exclude partnership — perhaps this notion of a “Peronist pontiff” plastered on posters all over town in the last week is not as nonsensical as it sounds. For very different reasons both the Church and populism seem to be premised on poverty as a permanent reality rather than as a problem to be solved — in the eyes of the Church, “the poor are always with us” is a Biblical truth while for a populist leader poverty persisting indefinitely into the future is a dream come true because it is synonymous with perpetual power. There is an alternative vision of the poor as tomorrow’s middle class gaining the economic and educational independence to build a civic identity free of either organized religion or the “organized community” of Peronism — along the lines of a secularized and prosperous Europe in the last generation which is now starting to ask itself whether such giddy heights are sustainable. Between these two alternative progressive approaches to poverty, Pope Francis seems definitely closer to the “Peronist pontiff,” an impression definitely reinforced by his mass charisma, but we should be careful — his unusual ability to mingle with crowds and the keen political instincts of the Jesuit are fully balanced by respect for institutions and the individual (whose soul is the core unit of Christianity).
Committing the Church to the poor is a noble idea but in an ideal world the former should enjoy far more eternity than the latter.