SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Although Pope Francis appeared to play down perceptions of a rift with new Argentine President Javier Milei in a recent interview, dimissing some of Milei’s anti-papal broadsides as mere political rhetoric “used to create a bit of attention,” that hasn’t stopped his top lieutenant in Argentina from firing a shot across the bow.
Archbishop Jorge García Cuerva of Buenos Aires used an interfaith celebration which was part of Milei’s inauguration cermony Dec. 10 to issue fairly pointed criticism, if not necessarily of the new administration, then of many of its key political ideas.
Although García Cuerva’s speech received some enthusiastic applause on social media, some analysts nonetheless say that the atmosphere among progressive Catholics in Argentina at the moment is one of depression and demobilization, and that it will take time to come up with a new lease on life.
Milei defeated Peronist candidate Sergio Massa on Nov. 19 after a highly controversial campaign, in which the self-defined anarcho-capitalist economist vowed deep budget cuts and pledged to reduce the state’s presence in the economy.
With a platform based on radical individualism, Milei also criticized Pope Francis, his most famous countryman, for the pontiff’s advocacy of concepts such social justice, equality, and solidarity. His attacks on the pontiff were seen by broad segments of Catholicism, especially progressives, as an attempt to combat the Church’s social doctrine.
Several Catholic movements and organizations campaigned against Milei, including a group known as “slum priests” (curas villeros in Spanish), referring to dozens of clergymen who work in the poor communities of Buenos Aires and other cities. Some had a close relationship with Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.
García Cuerva, 55,who was named by Pope Francis to Buenos Aires in May, himself was the vicar of a low-income community for years. He is widely seen as a prelate aligned with the pontiff in doctrinary and political terms.
During the interfaith celebration on Dec. 10, García Cuerva directly challenged some of Milei’s signature positions.
The ceremony gathered leaders of the major religious traditions in the South American country, including Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish, who Milei defines as his spiritual mentor. The president is Catholic but on several occasions has declared he has been studying the Torah every week and is on the verge of converting to Judaism.
García Cuerva mentioned several social problems which have been impacting Argentinians over the past few years, such as a high inflation rate, social exclusion, and political divide, and called the attendants to rebuild fraternity.
“The wounds and the urgent needs of our people demand that everyone, especially the ruling class, commit to social fraternity,” he said.
García Cuerva added that all religious leaders at the celebration believe in a “liberating God,” a God “that wants to liberate us from oppression, from greed and avarice, from injustice and iniquity, and from all forms of violence,” a God “that makes us free, yes, but for being more dignified and solidary” and to “commit especially to those who suffer the most.”
“As Pope Francis tells us: true freedom is fully expressed in charity. There is no freedom without love,” the archbishop went on, making direct reference to Milei’s major campaign slogan, “Viva la libertad, carajo!” (“Long live freedom, damn it!,” in Spanish).
Many progressive Catholics saw García Cuerva’s words as a rallying cry.
“García Cuerva has been the only person to say to Milei’s face that the market is not the solution for everything and, citing the pope, that the poor must be at the center,” Francisco Bosch, a lay theologian who coordinates basic ecclesial communities, told Crux.
Bosch said that the fallout from the election has been a “moment of doubt and unbalance for many Argentinians,” given that Milei’s platform was supported by many in the poorer social segments.
“But Christian faith can function as a source of basic humanism,” he said. “Milei absolutizes the individual, while we know that the only absolute is God, which we experience as a community of faith.”
Marcos Carbonelli, a researcher at Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (known by the Spanish acronym “Conicet”), who specializes in the country’s religious dynamics, said García Cuerva’s words have certainly been the most incisive challenge from a church leader up to this point, but it’s not possible yet to know how other faith leaders may respond.
“What we do know is that lay people put pressure on their bishops all over Argentina during the campaign and asked them to take a clear position against Milei, but the episcopate didn’t [do so] before the elections,” Carbonelli told Crux.
There is no political consensus among the Argentinian bishops, nor the disposition to act in a political way against the new president, Carbonelli said.
The fact that Milei preferred to stage an interfaith celebration for his inauguration, and not only a Catholic Mass, suggests that he may have wanted to neutralize potential criticism coming from the church, said sociologist Pablo Seman, also a Conicet researcher and a professor at the National University of General San Martin.
“He probably counted on more positive words coming from the Jewish leader. He has been receiving support from part of the Evangelicals as well,” Seman told Crux.
Seman believes progressive Catholics will be in a better position in the future, given that “Milei’s administration will most probably cause much poverty, providing empirical evidence of the reasons why they dislike him.”
Bosch agreed, saying that the new president has promised that “implementation of his new policies would not be a gradual process, but a kind of shock,” so negative effects will be felt soon, possibly injecting new strength in progressive Catholic movements.
“Despite the atmosphere of depression, we have been discussing those issues with the communities in order to be able to rebuild ourselves,” Bosch said.