SÃO PAULO, Brazil – A group of 60 “slum priests” in Pope Francis’s native country released a Jan. 19 statement denouncing what they described as deteriorating living conditions for millions of impoverished Argentines, driven by rising food prices and decreasing earnings.
Though he’s only been in office for a little over a month, new Argentine President Javier Milei nervetheless came in for criticism by the “slum priests,” who asserted that his minimalist conception of the role of the government in society is contributing to the crisis.
“We declare in the letter that the current situation hasn’t begun with this administration. Drugs, poverty, hunger, and unemployment are not something new in the poor neighborhoods,” Father Pablo Viola, who works in a poor parish of Córdoba, told Crux.
“What’s new is that we believe that such issues can become even more complicated if the current administration really reduces the presence of the state in the slums,” Viola said.
Viola said the new administration’s libertarian ideology prevents it from seeing “the complexity of the interests of different social segments and the hardships faced by the middle-class and the poor.”
He also claimed that Milei’s program is at odds with Catholic teaching, not to mention Pope Francis’s own vision.
“Taking the state out of the role of working for social justice is something that opposes the Church’s social doctrine,” Viola said.
In 2023, inflation in Argentina reached 211 percent, a record in the South American nation since the 1990s, when it went through a number of hyperinflationary years. Poverty already encompasses more than 40 percent of the population.
“The excessive increase in prices, the anguish due to the growing unemployment and job insecurity, the problem of drugs that continue to trap many kids, and the small probability of having a more present state, which could take care of the weakest, [all] cause despair,” the document from the priests states.
The signatories affirm that they “had been warning about some of these issues during the [2023 presidential] campaign, sometimes alone.”
The letter mentions that the salaries are not being increased in order to keep pace with rising prices of food, cooking gas, medicines, and rents.
“These problems have been going on for years and can only be improved with state policies that seek justice, peace and harmony, in a climate of unity and sensitivity towards those who are left out at the table of life. This is not built overnight,” the statement said.
In the letter, the priests also opposed the idea of reducing the age at which someone can be tried for a crime as an adult from 16 to 14, a proposal announced by the Milei administration.
“Considering the drama of insecurity, we repudiate that, in the face of the criminal acts of our teenagers, the main response is to lower the age of imputability,” they said.
The document was signed by priests and missionaries from several Argentinian cities, all of them connected to the pastoral attention to slums and poor neighborhoods – a ministry more intensely promoted since the 1960s, especially in Buenos Aires, where such group became known as the curas villeros (“slum priests” in Spanish.)
The curas villeros have an ancient connection with Pope Francis and were one of the major church forces to campaign against Milei during last year’s presidential race. Not only did they object to several offensive statements by Milei directed at the pope, but they also criticized his radical ideas concerning the role of the state in society.
Buenos Aires’s curas villeros even promoted a Mass in reparation for Milei’a offenses against the pontiff, and some directly criticized Milei’s ideology during interviews with the press.
The curas villeros offer several public services in the slums, part of them funded by the government, part maintained with Church money.
In Viola’s neighborhood, called Villa Angelelli 2, the parish keeps refectories for the poor and a long-time work of rehabilitation for drug addicts. He said that the government department that deals with drugs has already told him that this year’s budget will be the same as in 2023.
“With the gigantic inflation, that means we’ll already begin the year with only half of what we need,” he lamented.
Father Leonardo Silio, a cura villero in Moreno, in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, told Crux that priests who work with the poor have been “feeling every day that the social situation is deteriorating, with more and more people looking for our refectories and other kinds of assistance.”
“The devaluation of the Argentinian peso [applied by Milei over the past month] has rapidly deepened the crisis among the poor,” he said.
Milei hasn’t cut the social assistance that many in the slums receive from the government, but its value hasn’t been adjusted.
“Many people can only buy cooking gas, but not food,” Silio said.
The rent prices have increased so much that many people are moving to distant districts or joining their extended families.
“A house where four people used to live now has eight or 10 residents,” Silio said.
He said the priests’ hope in the Jan. 19 statement was to “express our worries about those situations, and maybe prevent them from getting even worse.”
“If the government intervenes to change those circumstances only in four or five months’ time, it will be too late,” Silio said.
In a Jan. 14 interview with an Italian television program, Pope Francis confirmed his desire to visit Argentina in the second half of 2024, where, he said, “the people are suffering a great deal.”