SÃO PAULO – Catholics in Argentina appear both somewhat startled and also divided by the surprising recent success of a firebrand politician who’s termed the country’s most famous native son, Pope Francis, a “communist,” an “imbecile” and even a “leftist son of a b*.”

That politician, Javier Milei, was the big winner of the country’s Aug. 13 primaries, coming in first place with 30 percent of the vote, ahead of both the major right and left-wing coalitions, and despite lacking a strong party structure of his own.

Milei ended up ahead of Patricia Bullrich, whose right-wing coalition obtained 28 percent of the ballots, and of Sergio Massa, the current Economy Minister in Argentina’s center-left Peronist coalition, who got 27 percent of support.

Milei, a member of Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies, has expressed admiration for former U.S. President Donald Trump. His own politics have been described variously as radical libertarian, even, to use his own term, an “anarcho-capitalist,” and he has a history of run-ins with the country’s Catholic Church.

After working as an economics professor and as an advisor for various companies and authorities, Milei began to write for newspapers and to take part on TV shows a decade ago. His aggressive way of debating social and political topics made him a sensation, propelling him to congress in 2021.

Most of his attacks over the years have been directed to left-wingers in the government, especially to former President (and current Vice President) Cristina Kirchner and to President Alberto Fernández. He once described Kirchnerism as “the worst thing in Argentina’s history.”

But Milei also has targeted Pope Francis, whom he considered to be a “communist.”  Milei identifies as a Catholic, but he said many times that he has been accompanied by a rabbi, is studying Judaism, and that conversion is not out of the question.

In a tweet a few years ago, Milei called Pope Francis a “leftist son of a b* who is preaching communism throughout the world” and said that he was “the representative of the evil one in the house of God.”

In another tweet last year, Milei criticized Francis after the pontiff said citizens should pay taxes to protect the poor’s dignity. Milei asserted that the pontiff was “always standing on the evil’s side” and told him: “Your model is poverty.”

Once during a TV show, Milei was criticizing the concept of social justice and attacked Pope Francis for his defense of it, calling him “the imbecile who is in Rome.”

Voting in primaries is obligatory in Argentina, effectively making the result a dress rehearsal for national elections set for Oct. 22. Most analysts see Milei’s success as a reflection of widepread national discontent, with inflation currently at 116 percent and a cost-of-living crisis leaving four in 10 people in poverty.

The populist’s rise to relevance has not gone unnoticed by Pope Francis.

During an interview earlier this year to a progressive Argentinian journalist, Francis appeared indirectly to compare Milei to Adolf Hitler, saying that the Austrian-born dictator was initially presented as “a new politician, who spoke beautifully, who seduced the people.”

“Everybody voted for little Adolfo, and that is how we ended, right?” the pope said, adding that he fears “saviors without history.” He also declared that he was worried about the progress of the far-right around the world.

In general, observers in Argentina say that Catholic reaction to Milei’s verbal assaults on the pope break largely along political lines, with progressives expressing outrage but conservatives largely silent.

“Many [Argentine Catholics] were happy about [Francis’s] election as the pope in 2013, but disliked his ideas and the documents he released and ceased to approve of him,” said Father Lorenzo De Vedia, known as “Padre Toto,” a priest who works at a slum in Buenos Aires.

De Vedia is part of a clerical cohort known as curas villeros (“slum priests”) who live and work with the poor in Argentina’s large cities, and are intimately connected to Pope Francis’s ideas concerning social justice.

“There is a political divide in the church. The episcopate incentivizes actions to help the neediest in society, but many times such stimulus is not strong enough to become reality. We, the curas villeros, are the ones who most insist on that perspective,” De Vedia told Crux.

Although Milei’s political base isn’t necessarily in the slums, De Vedia said there are nevertheless many young people who “are also connected to social media, receive such contents and are captivated by that kind of opinion.”

De Vedia himself clearly is not a fan.

“It is very worrisome that somebody with his kind of thinking can get to the presidency,” the priest said. “He attacks the pope and the idea that the neediest in society must be aided.”

Many of Milei’s ideas are deeply controversial by Argentine standards, such as loosening gun control laws, allowing people to sell their organs and even their children, calling climate change a lie and describing sex education in public schools as a ploy to destroy the family.

However, Pablo Semán, an expert on the religious dynamics of Argentina, said such stances, and his public feud with the pope, don’t necessarily put Milei’s standing at risk.

“There is no ‘religious vote’ in Argentina,” Semán said. “People with religious values may be in conflict with things said by Milei, but they can downplay such conflict and keep supporting him,” he told Crux.

Semán thinks some Catholics, especially ones connected with popular movements, may organize a reaction to Milei’s electoral prospects, but he’s skeptical it will make a real difference.

“I do not consider that it would be enough to change the electoral situation,” he said.

Theologian Francisco Bosch, an activist in the Latin American base community movement, believes that broad Catholic resistance to Milei is unlikely given that part of the Catholic population actually backs him.

In part, Bosch said, that’s because Milei supports reviewing Argentinian legislation on abortion, which allows women to interrupt pregnancy till 14 weeks. That kind of stance makes him closer to conservative Christians in general.

On the other hand, as a libertarian, Milei also supports gay marriage, the legalization of drugs and an individual’s right to choose their own gender, all stands anathema to many religious voters.

Bosch pointed out that despite participation being theoretically mandatory, 30 percent of the population did not show up for the Aug. 13 primary. If that group does turn out in October, he said, it could affect the outcome, potentially setting up a run-off between Milei and the left-wing Peronist coalition.

To accomplish that, Bosch told Crux, would require “an anti-fascist front based on Christian humanism.”