There are two things that the biopic The Two Popes,
released by Netflix this summer, state about Pope
Francis’ supposed relationship with Argentina. One
is that he is full of clichés about his national condition, from forcing Pope Benedict XVI to love football
or dancing tango to telling a trite joke about Argentines and
their relationship with their own ego.
The second is that the fictional Jorge
Bergoglio feels remorseful about his
management of the Jesuit order he led
during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Both things are fairly documented in
real life. Speech wise, the Pope has profited from coming from “the end of the
Earth,” as he presented himself in his
opening salute after he was elected in
March 2013. And he has indirectly spoken
about his ambiguous and complex position during the dictatorship and how he
clashed with two of his priests, who were
later abducted and tortured.
But the past does not fully explain a present nuance: why
Francis has not yet come to Argentina, almost seven years
into his papacy. Since he ascended to the helm of the Catholic
Church, Pope Francis has visited 49 countries, 10 of them in
the Americas and six in South America. But unlike his two
non-Italian predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict, who
rushed to go back home in the first year of their papacy,
Francis has not set foot on Argentina. Why hasn’t he?
And will he?
Alberto Fernández, just over a month
into his presidency, is plac i n g relations with
on his foreign policy agenda. He’s got at least two reasons to
do so. Firstly, the Pope wields considerable influence over many
local leaders, most notably on social movements who represent
the unemployed and are connected with grassroots Catholic
priests who play an important role in containing poverty. But
secondly, the president also wants to take advantage of the
pontiff’s global reputation for his economic project’s own benefit – mostly notably
the thorny renegotiation of the country’s
debt with private creditors and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Casa Rosada confirmed this week
that Fernández will call on the pontiff at
the Vatican on January 31, as part of his
first trip abroad as president. Six days
later, the Vatican will host an event on
“New Forms of Social Fraternity and Inclusion” that will be attended by two key
collaborators in Fernández’s circle: Strategic Affairs Secretary Gustavo Beliz and
Economy Minister Martín Guzmán. And,
notably, the event’s line-up also includes the managing director
of the IMF, Kirstalina Georgieva, right at a time when the administration needs to open talks with the creditors.
Call it a coincidence but, as Einstein would say, God does not
play dice. In May 2019, Guzmán’s mentor, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, met in the Vatican with the Pope and, through
the pontifical foundation Scholas Occurrentes, they agreed to
work together in order to “work on the education of alternative
systems that do not worship money.” Their memorandum of
understanding warned about “the problems of certain forms
of market economies that encourage individualistic behaviour
and in which markets do not end up serving the people but
rather the people end up serving the markets.” Guzmán was
As with most things in his still-incipient administration,
Fernández is aiming for a difficult centre-ground with his
fellow countryman at the Vatican. While he shares the
Pope’s international economics agenda regarding a
staunch criticism of the financial sector, he is not so enthusiastic about Francis’ emphasis on the environmental – as
a recent conflict over mining in the western province of
Mendoza shows. Also, the Fernández government is on a
collision course with the Church over legal abortion, which
the president has promised to push in Congress this year. As
an indication of the difficult prospects of the relationship, this
week the Vatican rejected the government’s proposed nomination for ambassador to the Holy See, Luis Bellando, a career
diplomat who happened to be divorced and remarried.
If everything goes well, Fernández’s tightrope act may convince the pope to fly back home before the president’s term
ends in 2023. Every time he is asked why he has not returned
to Buenos Aires since he left to unexpectedly become the leader
of over a billion Catholics worldwide, Francis says his schedule is too tight – and that he does not control it. Of course, nobody believes he could not arrange it. The Pope might not play
dice either, but he excels at political poker.