After a failed effort to legalize abortion in Argentina, the relationship between the government of Pope Francis’s homeland and the Catholic Church continues to be a complex one.

Though with sectors clearly aligned to the current government, the Church has continued to be critical of many of the economic measures taken by President Mauricio Macri – as was the case with his predecessor, Cristina Kirchner – warning against rising inequality, poverty, organized crime and corruption.

Amidst growing poverty, the government knocks on the Church’s door

Much as it was in 2001, when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – better known today as Pope Francis –  tried to lead a dialogue with the government of then-President Fernando De La Rua and different social actors amidst a growing economic crisis, the Catholic Church is once again front and center, as the Macri government faces another devaluation of the Argentine peso.

Despite the rift created between the two over a bill to legalize abortion on demand that was allowed to proceed by Macri – and which the Senate voted against – the government is today working on having the Church as an ally.

Poverty levels are on the rise in the country, which is also facing a food crisis due to the peso devaluation, inflation and the adjustment program proposed by the government.

In the face of the growing economic problems, two of Macri’s most trusted ministers met with Catholic and Evangelical leaders.

Maria Eugenia Vidal, governor of Buenos Aires, and Carolina Stanley, the national government’s Development Minister, met with Christian representatives to address the issue late last week in two meetings, one with each religious denomination.

Both women were in the Vatican in June, where they had a private meeting with Francis.

An estimated one to three million Argentines today don’t have enough food, despite the fact that the country of 44 million produces enough food for 440 million people. According to the latest statistics, 30 percent of the country lives under the poverty line, and that will likely increase during the ongoing economic crisis, the 10th in the past seven decades.

The Catholic Church in Argentina runs hundreds of soup kitchens through the local arm of the papal foundation Caritas, and the charity’s leadership was among those who met with Vidal and Stanley. Though there’s little information available on the content of the meeting, it’s a widely acknowledged fact that at a national level, no institution has better infrastructure to reach those on the margins than the Church.

On Sunday, Caritas Argentina organized its yearly collection, called “More for Less,” and the majority of that money is distributed in soup kitchens and various social initiatives. Though the numbers for this year are not out, in 2017 people donated close to $3 million.

Ahead of the collection, Bishop Damian Santiago Bitar of Obera, one of the country’s poorest dioceses, called on the faithful not to let the “times of [financial] adjustment, cause fear … when people fear having enough for their own subsistence, it make our hearts go cold.”

After abortion, gender ideology

Despite the cultural rift generated by the debate over the legalization of abortion, one thing most Argentines agree on was the need for sexual education, something even members of the Catholic hierarchy have agreed on.

However, proposed changes to the bill for an “Integral Sexual Education” being debated is objected to by the Catholic Church and several other actors because they “go too far.”

The curricula teaches a 12-year old how to masturbate and tells children in kindergarten that they can choose their own gender. The modified bill would see teachers instructing children not to be constricted by “gender stereotypes.”

Though the national government “allowed” the abortion debate – with Macri insisting he was against it but wouldn’t veto the bill if it passed, when it comes to reforming the sexual education curricula the education ministry has openly said that they’re not involved with it. “It’s a matter of implementation, there’s no need to reform it.”

The Federation of Religious Educational Associations of Argentina released a statement saying that the problem is not the current law, but the fact that it’s never been implemented, and those attempting to change it want to do so heading towards a “monopolistic and uninformative” ideology.

Archbishop Eduardo Eliseo Martin of Rosario, who heads the Argentine bishops’ office of Catholic Education, had similar words, warning against groups that want to impose “only one perspective,” that of “gender ideology,” and prevent parents from deciding how they want to educate their children.

If the changes to the bill were to be implemented, parents would have no right to veto the content, nor challenge what their children are being taught in school.

The Church, Martin said, wants to promote sexual education in Catholic schools, but with a “Catholic ideal, because we know that there are groups that want to erase this and impose only one perspective.” If it were to happen,” he said, “it wouldn’t be democratic, nor pluralistic, but impoverishing because Christian values would be lost.”

When the decision to reform the bill was announced, the Federal Network of Families released a document called “I do not authorize,” and they’re collecting signatures from people, opposing not the bill but the amendments.

The group said they don’t oppose a “real education that includes aspects related to sexuality, but framed in principles, virtues and values. What we oppose is the early and systematic erotization of children, which confuses and corrupts them.”

“Our family is guided by principles such as: Human life is sacred in all its stages and it begins at conception; AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases usually have their origin in promiscuous behavior, and sexuality must be exercised naturally, be open to life and within the family based on marriage, admitting only the natural methods to regulate birth, because they do no harm [to the woman’s] health” says a section of the group’s letter.

Not one to openly comment on the ongoing debates in his country, Francis on Friday did speak about education and the fact that parents are the first educators and should have the freedom to determine what their children are taught in school.

Referring to his Apostolic Exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, Francis said: Schools do not replace parents, but complement them. This is a basic principle: “all other participants in the process of education are only able to carry out their responsibilities in the name of the parents, with their consent and, to a certain degree, with their authorization.”