Dr. Emilce Cuda is special for a number of reasons. First, she is a theologian at Buenos Aires’s Pontifical Catholic University, the think-tank of the pontificate, and like its rector and vice-rector, a follower of the Argentine school of ‘pueblo’ theology made famous by Francis. For many years she studied under its best-known pioneer, Father Lucio Gera. 

Then there is her expertise in politics, and notably the fashionable topic populism, and the fact that she straddles the north-south American divide: she has studied political science in Chicago’s Northwestern University, and is currently visiting professor at the Jesuits’ Boston College. Her first book was on Catholicism and democracy in the United States, and she is married to an American.

And then there’s the remarkable fact of being female and lay in a field dominated by clergy.

Cuda is the first lay woman to have a theology doctorate from the pontifical university, which takes at least 15 years. She is close to Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, the UCA’s rector, and describes herself as an “aligned and obedient Catholic” who follows Francis closely.

Her recently published book, Para Leer a Francisco (‘Reading Francis’), is a brilliant tour of the political-theological background of the pope’s thinking, combining Ernest Laclau’s insights into populism with the Argentine Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone’s development of pueblo theology.   

When she met Pope Francis on March 17 as one of a delegation of theologians from a network of ethicists and moral theologians, it was the first time she had been in his presence since his election. Rather than being struck by his disarming informality, she was overwhelmed by the power of the papal office.

“It was very emotional: beyond seeing a fellow Argentine as pope, it was being with a pope — whoever he is. When he appeared, I was paralyzed: there is a power in all that figure, in that office, in that regal aesthetic, which is imposing.”

Cuda has often been with presidents and statespeople, but none, she says, has the presence of a pope in an official audience.

The Catholic Theological Ethics in the World Church (CTEWC) was created in 2006 as a space for Catholic moral theologians and ethicists from across the world and of different tendencies to connect, united by loyalty to the magisterium, but rooted in local Churches.  

The network, whose founder and main driver is the Boston College ethicist James Keenan SJ, nowadays includes more than 1,500 theologians who meet together every few years in a different city — the next meeting will be next year in Sarajevo — and in the meantime exchange papers and ideas through its website.

The network’s regional presidents  — Cuda heads the Latin American and Caribbean  — met the pope to explain their work, and receive his guidance.

“The audiences with the pope seem to be measured by the time you spent with him. Considering he gave us 50 minutes and the Argentine president only 15, I think it was a success,” she laughs. 

She says Francis urged them to do theological ethics with a “hermeneutic of unity in difference,” an idea that the network has already embraced before his election. It’s a theme that recurs in the pope’s intellectual passions: creating processes in which the Holy Spirit forges new synthesis out of disparities and disagreements.

In the meeting, the pope jokingly likened this to the way the Holy Trinity functions. “Inside the Holy Trinity they’re all arguing behind closed doors,” Cuda says Francis told them, “but on the outside they give the picture of unity.”

Cuda says his comparison made her think of something more earthy attributed to Argentina’s famous leader Juan Domingo Perón. “In Peronism, when they hear cats shrieking, people outside think they’re fighting; in fact, they’re reproducing.”

Although they didn’t specifically discuss populism, the theme of immigration and bridges versus walls figured strongly — specifically the reaction of host countries to waves of newcomers. 

Cuda says Francis sees an important role for the Churches to insist on building bridges at a time of walls. The CTEWC’s choice of Sarajevo — 80 per cent Muslim, still being rebuilt from fratricidal conflict — as a place for their third international conference is a symbol of that effort. 

As well as immigration, Cuda also says Francis wants to see a focus on women. As she knows, the pope has been criticized for nice words and gestures in this area, but little concrete action. 

As a woman theologian, she is frustrated that people always want her to talk about the theology of women rather than her speciality, which is the ethics of politics. “We need more women theologians, but involved in other fields of theology.” As long as women theologians are writing only about gender and feminism, she says, “they won’t advance in other areas where they have a necessary contribution to make.” 

From a dogmatic point of view, says Cuda, the fact that Mary was the only human being conceived in a special way means that women should have a privileged place in the life of the Church. But she defends the Church’s record when compared with what she calls “the concert of institutions” in the contemporary world.

“The woman still doesn’t have a proper space in the Church, but nor does she in other spaces. I can tell you about what it took for me to get a place in the Faculty of Theology in the UCA, but it was the same to get a place in the Philosophy Faculty in the public university. So you have to ask if the place that women have in Catholicism isn’t the same as they have in other spaces.”

Except, of course — I point out — this issue is clouded by clericalism, which tends to confuse power of governance with sacramental power, meaning that tasks that could or should fall to lay people are often done by clergy, a fact that tends—artificially — to accentuate the absence of women.

“We have to refine categories,” she agrees. “We shouldn’t confuse the hierarchy of the Church with the Church as the people of God.” 

I ask her what she makes of the Vatican consulting women, as the Pontifical Council for Culture now does with its women’s forum to provide a “female point of view.” She thinks it’s a good idea for Rome to test out its messages to see how they will be received, but why just women? “We have to be a bit careful in exacerbating particular identities,” she says. “When a woman is badly treated — paid less, for example — because she is a woman, we have to remember the cause: the problem is in the system.” 

Focusing on particular identity battles, she thinks, dilutes the concentration on the real issue — a mistake that she says Francis never makes. The pope relentlessly keeps his focus on the real cause of injustice, and doesn’t get distracted in the debate about its effects. 

“He is absolutely clear that behind the exploitation of women, of black people, and migrants is a system which takes advantage of these categorizations to pay low salaries. The true target is the economic system.” 

I am curious, given her expertise in the field, what she made of the pope in his El País interview in January, when he distinguished between good and bad populisms.  

Part of the difficulty, she says, is that there isn’t an agreed definition of populism. But what’s clear is that it isn’t a new form of government like republic or monarchy. Nor is it a kind of corruption of representative democracy that can be corrected. Nor is it the kind of mass politics of the twentieth century typified by Perón in Argentina. 

Cuda argues that it is a 21st-century phenomenon, and cites the definition of Ernest Laclau that populism is a form of reaching government that dispenses with the existing party structure and institutions.

In populism, the party no longer selects its leader and offers him or her to the electorate; the leader comes from outside the party and eliminates that process of selection. Cuda quotes Laclau’s definition of populism as participatory, rather than representative, democracy. 

At the heart of populism is a discourse of unsatisfied demands. When an opportunist such as Donald Trump is able to identify those demands and creates a discourse that offers to satisfy them, he can attain power.  It is the discourse, not the party, that brings a populist into government. (In Trump’s case, he wasn’t recognized by the Republican Party until the night of his election.)

What Trump detected was the rejection of the Democrats as an out-of-touch elite that no longer articulated popular demands. Because the U.S. is the capital of political correctness, “nobody said they didn’t want immigrants or feminism. But when Trump appeared saying what nobody dared to say, they flocked to him, and loaded onto him a whole series of demands.”

She points out that the U.S. was one of the few places left in the western world where the two-party system, the fruit of a twentieth-century industrialized world, still prevailed. 

Its collapse, she believes, is linked to deeper changes in the economy: the absence of the structure of work, the fact that workers no longer work alongside other workers nor are organized into unions, and the changes in communication, above all social media. 

The new political world, says Cuda, has become de-centered: what’s lacking are forces and figures capable of constructing what Francis calls “big politics.”

The pope, she believes, is the political personality of our age, one who not only has a vast capacity for politics but who believes in it. “He even defends conflict, because he knows the attempt to eliminate conflict leads to totalitarianism. Politics is antagonism in the best sense.”

Francis she repeats, always insists that the problem is the system. 

“He’s a theologian, a political philosopher — he says the system produces a culture of death, and he permanently insists on the importance of work, because a man who doesn’t work is de-humanized because he loses his public space — he doesn’t have a mechanism for talking to others.” 

On this, says Cuda, “the pope is incredible —or the Holy Spirit is speaking through him.”

Populism is appearing because of rising inequality: low-skilled jobs are fast vanishing, not because of immigrants taking them driving down wages, but because of automation. The Economist reckons 5m jobs will be lost to technology over the next three years alone. 

A politics that fails to come to grips with this is condemned to fail. A politics that hears the cry from below will have a future. “We have to see that the way of doing politics has changed, and that correcting will not be the solution.” 

Cuda believes that Trump is not aware of the role he is playing, and that tomorrow he could lose popularity as fast as he won it. Many populists surge but then fail to win elections. Populism is deeply unstable, because “there is no center.”  

Francis is calling for a new politics that can build that center, one capable of building bridges, including and integrating into the public space, not just into consumerism.

“It’s the task of forging unity out of differences without annulling them,” says Cuda. “As the Americans say: in pluribus unum. Every generation has to rediscover this for themselves.”