Last week, the New York Times ran an important editorial, “The Peronist Roots of Pope Francis’ Politics,” that raised some important issues about a recent piece in The Economist on Pope Francis. The editorial, by Uki Goñi, does an excellent job in contextualizing why The Economist’s portrayal of Francis as “Peronist” is incomplete in its understanding of Latin American history (sadly, not a first for The Economist). The Economist’s take is basically that Francis’s rhetoric is drawing as much (if not more) on the politics of Juan Peron than it is on Catholicism. The problem is, the article does not consider either Argentine politics, social movements, or Catholicism prior to Peron. Fortunately, Goñi does much to correct this historical scope:
Less known is that Perón took his cue from the politicized Catholic leaders of ’30s Argentina. Church leaders back then sought the integration of Argentina’s new working class by promoting radical labor reforms. Bishops addressed some of the country’s first large rallies of workers, and Perón cut his teeth speaking at meetings of the Círculos Católicos de Obreros (Catholic Worker Circles).
“Neither Marxists nor Capitalists. Peronists!” was the chant of Perón’s supporters. And it was borrowing from the church’s political thinking that enabled Perón to found his “Third Way.”
It is also important to extend this understanding not just temporally, but geographically. Argentina was far from the only country where Catholicism had begun to embrace and consider social issues in the first decades of the twentieth century. In other parts of Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s (and even before), there was a growing progressivism among important sectors of the Latin American Church, as Catholicism attempted to navigate a path that advocated social democracy and reform that countered both Marxism and unfettered capitalism. The forthcoming book Local Church, Global Church: Catholic Activism in Latin America from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II, looks at the various ways in which Catholics turned toward reform movements in the first half of the twentieth century, be it institutionally or among the laity. Be it in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, or elsewhere, the sense of Catholics’ place in the world, and the direct engagement with social issues, was not infrequent, even if it faced critics from within the Church and elsewhere. In my own research (which is included in one of the above book’s chapters), such language served as the foundation for Catholic student activism in Brazil in the 1950s, and while students would take that activism and worldview in different directions in response to the Cuban Revolution and the Brazilian military dictatorship, the fact remained that they were drawing on and transforming what was at that point decades of Catholic social rhetoric, just as Francis is today.
Put another way, despite historical narratives that always view Peron as the crucible of historical transformation in Argentina, Francis isn’t doing his best impersonation of Peron; he’s sincerely deploying language that was a part of Catholicism in Argentina (and Latin America) throughout much of the twentieth century. Just as the social inequalities that capitalism spurs have continued, so does Francis continue to raise a line of criticism that has a rich (pre-Peronist) history in the region.