DENVER – When you’re talking about the Catholic Church, you need to be awfully careful about using the word “unprecedented” to describe any new development. This is an institution with more than 2,000 years of history, which has seen just about every vicissitude imaginable, and its opposite, over that span.
As the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago memorably put it, “In the Catholic Church, everything has happened at least once.”
Yet even with that caveat, the outcome of Sunday’s presidential election in Argentina looms as a fairly singular event – a seemingly direct rebuff to a sitting pope by his own home country, through the choice of a president who’s pretty much on the opposite end of the spectrum from Francis on virtually every issue.
It’s not just that self-described “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei has a different social and political agenda from his country’s most famous native son. Milei has also verbally assaulted the pontiff on multiple occasions, referring to him as an “imbecile,” a “Communist” and a “son of a bitch.”
For bonus points, Milei’s running mate, Victoria Villarruel, is a devotee of the traditional Latin Mass who reportedly has links to the Priestly Society of St. Pius X, the body founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre that broke with Rome over objections to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) — reforms which are, of course, the lodestar of the Francis papacy.
Frankly, if a group of church affairs junkies were to sit down in a bar and try to sketch a ticket on a cocktail napkin that would amount to a rejection tout court of a sitting pope’s agenda, it’s doubtful they could have come up with anything more vivid than what actually happened.
Milei and Villarruel didn’t just squeak by, either. They won 56 percent of the vote, in one of the largest margins of victory in Argentina’s recent political history, despite the fact that many Argentine Catholics, especially the corps of “slum priests” favored by Francis, actively campaigned against them.
Consider the irony: Francis is an avowed populist, who’s repeatedly insisted that leaders should take their cues from the people. In this instance, however, it would seem his own people didn’t take their cues from him.
Have we ever seen a situation before in which a pope’s home country delivered quite such a stinging rebuke in a democratic election?
There are a few scattered examples that come to mind, though none quite on-point.
During the middle of the 19th century, amid the push for national unification in Italy, there were a series of 15 plebiscites staged between 1848 and 1870 to determine whether people wanted to join the new Kingdom of Italy, which, in effect, would mean the end of the Papal States.
In each case the vote was overwhelmingly against Pope Pius IX, and by crushing margins: An 1870 vote in Rome, for instance, produced a 98.8 percent majority against papal rule.
On the other hand, historians today question exactly how free and fair those votes actually were, since many papal loyalists refused to participate, and the voting process of the era didn’t really ensure secrecy so many people were afraid to be seen as on the losing side.
More recently, one could point to a 1981 abortion referendum in Italy, which upheld limited legalization by a wide margin, and was certainly seen as a major defeat for the Church. Yet by that stage the pope was John Paul II, so it didn’t actually come in his home country.
A closer parallel would be a 1991 decision by the Polish parliament to delay action on a bill to outlaw abortion after the collapse of Communism, which had been expected to represent a sort of homecoming present to John Paul during his trip to the country in June.
Failure to pass the law in time left the Polish pope visibly angry on that trip: “I cannot but be hurt,” he said at one point, adding, “You also should be hurt.”
On the other hand, that wasn’t a democratic election, it was an act (really, a non-act) of parliament, and anyway, by 1993 abortion de facto was outlawed in virtually every circumstance, belatedly giving the pontiff his present after all. Moreover, it’s not as if the Poles elected a president who had publicly ridiculed the pope.
During the Benedict XVI years, the pope was not an especially popular figure in his native country of Germany, so a political candidate might have been able to score some points by appearing to take him on. In fact, however, between 2005 and 2013, federal elections were won by a conservative coalition under Angela Merkel, so there’s not really a precedent there either.
Of course, one could cite the 2016 election in the United States, when voters chose Donald Trump despite Pope Francis famously suggesting at one point that his stance on immigration was “not Christian.” Obviously, however, that didn’t happen in the pope’s own country.
Bottom line: While popes have not always played to positive political reviews at home, and there certainly have been times when voters haven’t gone the direction a sitting pope might be perceived to favor, there really isn’t anything that quite compares, at least directly, to the Argentine results.
What all this means for church-state relations in Argentine remains to be seen, but no matter what, we appear to be in fairly uncharted territory – and for the Catholic Church, that alone is saying something.