ROME—Pope Francis has rejected a $1 million donation from the Argentine government of President Mauricio Macri, who wanted to give the sum to a pontifical foundation for school-aged children called “Scholas Occurrentes.”
Though many observers have taken the papal “no, thanks” as a snub to the Argentine president, the government says the foundation requested that amount of money and Macri was just trying to be responsive.
Scholas is a pet-project of sorts for Francis, an initiative he began when he was still Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Its aim is to build bridges of dialogue and encounter in schools around the world, through culture, sports, and technologies.
According to long-time Vatican watcher Elisabetta Pique, who writes for Argentina’s La Nación newspaper, the argument Francis gave to the heads of Scholas, José María del Corral and Enrique Palmeyro, to reject the donation was that the local government should focus instead on the needs of the people.
Francis has rejected public money for Church initiatives before. In 2015 for instance, he sent a letter to the Argentine bishops urging them not to ask the previous administration to pay the bill of the National Eucharistic Congress, taking place this week.
While he was archbishop of Buenos Aires he had a similar attitude, always going to businessmen (or women) to ask for donations.
The pope reportedly chastised Scholas, saying they don’t have the right to ask for even “a cent” from public funding, urging them instead to seek out private organizations.
On Thursday, Vatican Insider published sections of the letter from Francis to Del Corral and Palmeyro, where he expresses fears over the project being tainted: “As a father and brother [I fear] you’ll begin to slide on the road to corruption,” the pope wrote.
Del Corral and Palmeyro, after receiving the note from Francis – who learned of the donation from Argentinian newspapers – have sent a letter to the Argentine government saying that in the end, they wouldn’t accept the money, that was supposed to cover personnel and infrastructure expenses.
However, in the letter dated June 9, the directors of Scholas say that the reason for refusing the donation is “interpretations made by some who want to undermine this gesture,” aiming to generate “confusion and division among Argentines.”
Although several reports signal that Francis is actually the principal reason for the refusal to take the money, there’s truth behind the claim of the Scholas organizers.
Soon after it was made public that the government was donating US$1 million, which works out to be 16,666,000 Argentinian pesos – and yes, there are those suggesting the pope rejected the offer because it contained the number 666 which is associated in the Bible with the Devil – opponents of Macri’s government accused the center-right president of trying to buy the pope’s good will.
For months now, Argentines have been talking of “the crack,” meaning the social divisions between those who support the current government and those who align with the previous one, led by leftist Cristina Kirchner.
Francis has become a key component, with both sides trying to claim his support, demanding he intervene or stay away, whatever seems most convenient to one party or another.
Since Macri was elected last November, Argentines have been trying to gauge where the pope stands with regard to his center-right government. Some believe Francis is anti-Macri, perhaps because Macri is generally conservative, perhaps because Buenos Aires’s former mayor didn’t do enough to stop a gay marriage bill, while others point to friendly e-mails and phone calls reportedly made by the pontiff to insist Francis has nothing against the president.
Whatever the case, many Argentines at the grassroots believe Pope Francis is the only one who could help mend fences, hoping for a specific signal towards his home country, while others are asking him to stay out of the fray.
Marcos Peña, the chief of staff of the current government and the liaison between Macri and Scholas, released a statement saying that it’s important to keep in sight the “enormous job at a global level” being done by Francis.
“This should make all of us Argentines proud,” he said.
Referring to the donation, he said “we need to stop overreacting. They asked for economic help, and then they decided it was best we didn’t give it. There’s no problem. We will continue working together as we have for so long.”
Speaking to a local radio station, Del Corral said that the backtrack in the donation was all part of a “political misunderstanding,” and expressed frustration towards those who claimed it was an attempt by Macri to buy off the pope.
“It’s unusual, everything in Argentina is devoured by a fictional war,” he said. “As the famous saying goes, the pope is suffering because ‘No one is a prophet in his own land.’”
He also said that claiming Francis has problems with Macri is “an absolute lie,” and stressed that such a spat doesn’t exist.
“Everything is intentionally misinterpreted,” Del Corral said.
Julio Bárbaro, a highly respected Argentine political leader and commentator, met recently with the pope. Writing at InfoBae, a news site under the aegis of The Washington Post, Bárbaro claims that when the two spoke about Macri, Francis said that during the eight years they coincided in Buenos Aires- one as mayor, the other as archbishop- they had one argument, perhaps two.
“I don’t really understand that question,” Bárbaro says the pope told him, about a hypothetical rift with Macri.
The commentator also said he told Francis that the tendency the country has to distort and misconstrue whatever the pope does, or doesn’t do, is “part of our eternal mediocrity.”
“He became someone the world admires, and we can’t help but be original and refuse to accept it,” Bárbaro wrote.