Even Secular Argentinos Who’ve Clashed with the Church are Celebrating (Irrationally)

The intensity of the news might be measured as: “Velocity of Spread” multiplied by “Amount of Contacts Weighing In.” The “Habemus Papum Argentino” story’s intensity can only be described here in Buenos Aires as a nuclear meltdown.

About three minutes after the news broke, my phone went hysterical, between the phone calls, e-mails, text messages, Whatsapp, and whatever other social networking systems people are using now. Friends, cousins, officemates, cab drivers, the people gathering outside the Buenos Aires Cathedral—suddenly there was nothing else to talk about. Before there could even be a conscious response, we all seemed to want to echo: Habemus Papum, with an emphasis on the “Habemus.”

He’s one of us, or at least, he seems as if he could be. A porteño (as Buenos Aires residents call themselves), a loyal fan of a local soccer team who is said to take the same subway we cram into every morning. In fact, since this announcement, it’s surprising how many people claim to have met him. If anecdotes are to be believed, he must have been one of the more social people in the city. The sincere, spontaneous outpouring of excitement, and joy even, was rather startling, as it enveloped not only the Argentine church establishment and its most faithful followers but also plenty of my progressive friends and associates who tend to spend more time opposing conservative social views than kneeling in Mass.

One typical email I received from a friend on the day of the announcement earnestly read: “I haven’t felt ‘Catholic’ in years, but I have a sudden urge to go to church. I wish I was kidding. I guess the fact that he’s from Argentina makes me feel closer to the church.” The bunting on the balconies throughout Buenos Aires these days speaks volumes about the national pride—Vatican yellow-and-white alongside the Argentine sky-blue-and-white.

Pope Francis admitted, as he was introduced in St. Peter’s Square, to coming from the end of the world, but, privately, we consider ourselves the center of the universe. And what more heavenly confirmation of this perception could anybody ask for? The endless formal news cycle—first words, what he wore, his messages (literal and symbolic) to the world—were also characterized by a general sense of bliss here at being somehow chosen. This was true even when passing notice was paid to critiques of Jorge Bergoglio’s history—including those having to do with what the Jesuit leader knew, and when did he know it, about the military dictatorship’s brutal Dirty War against opponents and civil society in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

For the moment, little can stand in the way of widespread euphoria at an Argentino making it on the global stage, especially one being lauded for his personal simplicity and charisma. Bergoglio’s ascension creates a formidable Argentine trinity on the global stage, joining soccer player Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest athlete, known also for his humble, unassuming personality; and Máxima Zorreguieta, the “commoner” who married a European (Dutch) prince. Who better to personify the “Argentine dream” than Bergoglio, born to immigrant parents in a humble Buenos Aires neighborhood and still able to rise to the very summit of world power?

But after the bunting is put away, and once the spontaneous gatherings at churches ebb, the question will remain: what will the impact be at home? How will a boost to the Catholic brand here affect national and local politics?

The role of the church in Argentine politics has never been a subtle one, though the population is increasingly secular and distanced from its Catholic heritage. The religion is constitutionally “sustained” by the national government, and until a 1994 reform, presidential candidates were required to be Roman Catholic. The church’s views have had considerable impact on public policy. The yellow-and-white draped muncipal buildings in Buenos Aires are a spontaneous display of state pride, but it’s hard not to see them as a declaration of support to a specific religion and the worldview it entails. The mayor of Buenos Aires declared Tuesday a school holiday, in honor of the papal inaugural mass. “The city,” according to a notification on a municipal website, “considers that the election of Pope Francis is one of the most important events in all of Argentine history, which amply exceeds the religious phenomenon.”

However well-intentioned, the celebration points in a troubling direction for those who hope to see progressive social measures continue to advance in Argentina. The fact is that the church has been losing more battles than it has been winning lately against the Peronist governments of the successive Kirchner presidents. It is hard to imagine any other country going from a late legalization of divorce (only in 1987!) to a national legalization of gay marriage (2010). Cardinal Bergoglio, not incidentally, called the gay marriage law “a maneuver by the devil.” Meanwhile, the creation of a national sex education policy has run afoul of traditional sensibilities and still has not been fully implemented in certain provinces.

While the progressive achievements of recent years, even where resisted, can no longer be revoked, the suddenly ubiquitous Francis memorabilia and papal yellow leads me to wonder about the fate of other uncertain measures floating around policy circles: regulation of surrogate parenting, assisted reproduction, and abortion.

Abortion is currently severely limited in Argentina, legally available only to mentally disabled women who have been victims of abuse or when the mother’s life is in danger. The church frequently condemns attempts to regularize access to abortions by victims of rape and minors. A recent and notorious example occurred in response to a Supreme Court decision last year, which determined that a 15-year-old victim of rape by her stepfather had not committed a crime by terminating her pregnancy.

These are, of course, polemic subjects in many countries, including the United States, where abortion is permitted on demand but hotly contested, and it would be unfair to claim that the conservative strain in Argentine society (which has stark regional contrasts, as you’d find elsewhere) can be blamed entirely on the church.

Nor could the Church be expected to support policies that are opposed to its theology. As a Jewish atheist, I have no desire to hold forth on Catholicism’s internal views. But insofar as these stances impact the national debate, I am concerned that a strengthening of support for the church might mean a step back from policies that have recognized important rights for minorities and women, and that could create a more equal and healthy society.

I hope that the new pope’s perspective on poverty gives a boost to political movements focused on economic distribution and the role of the state. I hope he inspires his followers to help others and to be better citizens. But I hope his influence remains in those areas, and that lawmakers follow other guidelines when it comes to determining policy.

As for the collective jubilation of this week, I am hoping it will turn out to be as fleeting as the tennis craze inspired by the late 1970s triumphs of Argentine pro Guillermo Vilas—a feel-good moment that has no lasting impact on the type of nation Argentina is becoming.

Jordana Timerman, a Buenos Aires native, is a member of the Centro de Estudios Perspectiva Sur, of Generación Política Sur (GPS). The views expressed in this piece are purely her own.
Primary Editor: Andrés Martinez. Secondary Editor: Joe Mathews.
*Photo courtesy of David Berkowitz.
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