SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Although Pope Francis obviously isn’t on the ballot as Argentina heads to the polls tomorrow to choose a new president, there’s nevertheless a sense in which the race almost shapes up as a referendum on the Argentine pontiff and his social justice agenda.

In a rally closing the campaign Wednesday night, a supporter of front-running candidate Javier Milei, a radical libertarian hostile to state intevention in the economy, put the pope squarely in the spotlight.

“Argentina should suspend diplomatic relations with the Vatican as long as a totalitarian spirit prevails at the helm of the Church,” said economist Alberto Benegas Lynch, adding that “under the guise of traditional values, the influence of Marxism often acts within the Church.”

Although other spokespersons for Milei rushed to clarify that Benegas Lynch was expressing a personal opinion, there’s little doubt that Milei, who describes himself as an “anarcho-capitalist,” has made distinguishing himself from Argentina’s most famous native son a cornerstone of his campaign.

Last year, on social media, Milei not only rejected the pontiff’s defense of paying taxes as an instrument to protect the poor’s dignity, but also affirmed that Francis is “always standing on evil’s side.”

In a TV show a few years ago, Milei repudiated the pope’s social ideas and referred to him as “the imbecile who is in Rome.”

Milei, an economist inspired by Austrian thinkers such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, has called Francis a communist several times. In an interview with Tucker Carlson last month, he affirmed that the pontiff “has an affinity with murderous communists” and violates the Ten Commandments by defending “social justice.”

Most observers believe Milei’s appeal is less about an anti-Francis groundswell in his native country than a reaction to a serious economic crisis that’s leading Argentines to repudiate both establishment candidates, including Peronist Sergio Massa, who is the Finance Minister in the current center-left government, and Patricia Bullrich, who worked in the previous right-wing) administration.

Milei’s fierce criticism of the nation’s political system and his unusual suggestions for the economy, like adopting the U.S. dollar as the Argentinian currency and shutting down the Central Bank, draw many enthusiasts, especially among the youth.

Nevertheless, his war of words with Pope Francis has drawn a strong Catholic reaction.

In September, dozens of priests gathered at a small church in a slum in Buenos Aires to celebrate a reparation Mass for the offenses targeting Francis. The group was mainly formed by the so-called curas villeros (slum priests, in Spanish), a team of the Buenos Aires’s Archdiocese which works directly with the poor and is often involved with the distribution of social aid to them.

During the celebration, some of the priests emphasized that the idea of social justice is an integral part of the Gospel and is also a central concept in the Church’s social doctrine.

Pope Francis himself has indirectly criticized Milei on a few occasions. In an interview earlier this year, he affirmed that he was concerned with the progress of the far-right in the world and with the emerging “saviors without history ” in the political sphere. He apparently compared Milei to Adolf Hitler, saying that the dictator was initially presented as “a new politician, who spoke beautifully, who seduced the people.”

Earlier this week, in an interview to the Argentinian press, Francis declared that at times the people, especially the youth, believe in false Messiahs.

“The Messiah is only one, who saved us all. The rest are all messianic clowns,” he said, in what appeared to be an allusion to Milei.

After that, he said that he fears “pied pipers of Hamelin because they are charming” and end up making their followers drown, “people who believe that they can get out of the crisis dancing to the sound of the flute, with redeemers made overnight.”

After Benegas Lynch’s call for suspending Vatican ties, Archbishop Jorge García Cuerva of Buenos Aires took to a radio show to say he was embarrassed with the declaration.

“This is a moment in which we are asking for a united Argentina. We live in a violent moment, with wars, an aggressive moment. I think we have to build bridges, the culture of encounter, the idea that the pope works so hard on,” he said.

In the opinion of Father Pepe di Paola, one of the most famous curas villeros, many Catholics are upset about Milei’s aggressiveness against the Church and the pope and are not willing to vote for him anymore.

“Milei defines social justice as robbery. Many voted for him out of ignorance. But I think now most Catholics will take into account the Church’s social doctrine when they vote,” he told Crux.

Di Paola said that in the primaries many people were angry about the country’s economic hardships and expressed their sentiment through something like a vote of protest.

“Some people, like many young men and women, ignored the themes that were being presented and made their decision after watching a video on Tiktok. Now they know that it’s the future of the country that is at stake,” he added.

In his opinion, the attacks that are being launched against the state by Milei could backfire.

“The state is the one which takes care of the needist ones in society. It can not disappear,” he concluded.

On Oct. 12, the bishops’ conference’s Justice and Peace Commission released a statement concerning the elections in which it emphasized that “there is no real freedom without fraternity, social justice, and peace.”

For many, it looked like an allusion to Milei, who presents freedom as one of his dearest values.

The letter also called Argentinian voters and politicians to “create spaces of dialogue and encounter that make possible a political, social, and economic agreement for governability, beyond the electoral result.”

Lawyer Humberto Podetti, a member of the National Peace and Justice Commission, affirmed that Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ and his apostolic exhortation Laudate Deum are not only about ecological themes, “but demonstrate that taking care of the people is as important as taking care of the environment.”

“At times, politicians may not express such ideas. People are tired of so many economic problems,” Podetti told Crux.

He said that no matter which candidate wins the election, it will be necessary to build a wide pact between political, social, and economic forces in order to attain governability.

“It’s important to keep the wish of attaining justice and peace,” he said.