The Porteño Pope and That Hideous Strength

For this great Argentine [Peron]
Who worked tirelessly,
That there should rule in the people
love and equality.
— Hugo del Carril,
Marcha Peronista

The shadow of that hyddeous strength,
sax myle and more it is of length
— David Lyndsay,
The Monarche

The election of Pope Francis, the first ever Argentine Pope, has left commentators and normal people alike scratching their heads, desperately trying to understand what the new Pontificate may mean and what it might bring. His first few days in office dismayed many of the more traditionally-minded, and thousands scurried to download the Studies, In-depth explanations, and publications and interviews by Msgr. Guido Marini, Papal Master of Ceremonies, lest they vanish from the Holy See’s website under the blows of a resurrected Pontifical iconoclasm. Given the parlous state of the Traditional Mass in the new Pope’s former Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, such fears are understandable, and I would be lying if I said that on an emotional level I did not share them. But we are not creatures of emotion alone, and we must use our brains as well as our hearts to try to understand the man who now, in the Providence of God, commands our loyalty. To do so, we must try first of all to understand the land from which he has come — and about which most Americans know little more about than the Tango and Evita.

Argentina is a nation of incredible contrasts — in many ways it is more like a piece of Europe that got misplaced rather than a Latin American country. Buenos Aires in particular holds the same spell of love, envy, and hatred over the rest of the country that Paris does over France; even more so, in way, since the French capital never fought a war against the rest of the country. Just as with London, there are both a Claridge’s Hotel and a Harrod’s Department Store (both long since severed from their London counterparts). Both the capital and much of the country reflect the massive 19th and early 20th century immigration that came from all over Europe: France, Germany, England, Ireland, Spain, and many other places (including an unusual Welsh colony), but especially Italy — whose children had a huge effect on the local Spanish language.

In this as in a number of other areas, Argentina’s history parallels that of the United States. As with us, they have a proud colonial history, complete with missions of their own, Indian lore, and blacks from the slave trade days (who, however, have almost completely assimilated in the general population). As with our country also, such remnants of colonial days and the struggle for independence as Buenos Aires’ Cabildo are treasured, in much the same fashion as Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and Boston’s Old State House. As with us as well, Argentina had her Wild West, and her cowboys — the Gauchos. These in turn were the originators of the national dish, asado, and drink, yerba mate. As with us also, all of this history and culture contributed to a powerful variety of nationalism — nationalism baptized in blood by such conflicts all but unknown to North Americans as the Cisplatine War, the War of the Confederation, the Uruguayan Civil War, the War of the Triple Alliance, and the Conquest of Patagonia.

Just as the United States were faced with creating institutions out of whole cloth, so too were the Argentines. So the President of Argentina resides in Casa Rosada, the Pink House, smartly protected by both horse and foot guards, Congress meets in a lovely palace, as does the Supreme Court. But there is one major difference between the United States and Argentina, other than the linguistic chasm — the place of the Catholic Church in national life.

Until 1994, the Constitution required that he President be Catholic; Article 2 still requires the Federal Government to support the Church. The presidential chapel of the Christ the King in the Casa Rosada remains a reminder of the nation’s faith, as is the mausoleum of General San Martin in the cathedral of Buenos Aires and the annual Te Deum for independence. The Papal Nuncio is dean of the diplomatic corps, the Argentine Ambassador to the Holy See inevitably occupies an honored place in the life of the Holy See, and the country’s diplomacy is handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship — the latter section of which handles the government’s relationship with the Church and non-Catholic groups alike. The relationship is closest, perhaps, with the armed forces, as seen by the Military Diocese and the General Chaplaincy of the Armed Forces, as well as the veneration given the heavenly patrons of the army,cavalry, artillery, engineers, signals, medicine, navy, and air force. The shrine of Argentina’s national patroness, Our Lady of Lujan, and the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre continue to play enormous parts in the life of the country.

But all is not nor has been sweetness and light in the Argentine. One the one hand, the country has as refined an upper class as one might find in Europe — rooted originally in the country’s historic estancias, and finding expression in such institutions as Buenos Aires’ Jockey Club and the Club Hipico de Argentina. On the other, Argentina’s industrialization produced an enormous class of urban working poor — the Descamisados. The Great Depression destabilized Argentina as it did many other lands: governments rose and fell and after 1943 a series of military coups led to the gradual rise of General Juan Peron and his famous wife, Evita: from 1945 to 1956 (when he was deposed by another coup) Peron would rule the country; he then made a brief comeback in 1973 that lasted until his death the following year. His second wife, Isabel, would succeed him, only to be overthrown herself on March 24, 1976.

Understanding Peron (and his wives, for that matter) is as important to understanding modern Argentina (and our new Pope) as knowledge of FDR is to grasping the United States. Even as almost all major political currents in our country derive their views of governance from the New Deal, so too with Argentina and Peronismo — though as with us, the inheritors of the legacy are made up of many different and often rival strands. Peronism is frequently dismissed in this country as mere Fascism (a similarly poorly defined term). But the truth is that almost the entire spectrum of Argentine politics — socialist, “Kirchnerist” (the secularist, pro-gay marriage, pro-women in combat, liberal-North-America-and-Europe-imitating ideology of the current president and her late husband), and “conservative” — claims to be Peronist. Their differences are many, but what unites them is a sort of redistributionist statism that is often lofty in rhetoric (and often conformable to Catholic Social teaching), but has rarely worked in practice.

What is left of the Right-wing opposition to Peronism is a bit like Royalism in France: marginalized, fragmented, ineffective, and despised by those who count in Church and State. It is from their ranks, however (as in France) that much of the support for Catholic Tradition comes — rather as though the remnants of the anti-New Deal Old Right in this country were Tridentine Mass supporters rather than libertarians and evangelicals.

As superior of the Argentine Jesuits and later as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was, to put it succinctly, a right wing Peronista. An opponent of Liberation Theology (which earned him the dislike of many of his fellow Jesuits) and Socialism, he could not help but be distrustful of the remnants of Peron’s opposition — and perhaps unconsciously — engage in a certain amount of class struggle in addition to a genuine concern for the poor. Moreover, as a member of the Vatican II generation of clerics, shredding symbols of reverence and authority in search of “authenticity” was perhaps second — and unthinking — nature to him. So it was doubtless inevitable that he would nurture a disregard for the Traditionalists he encountered — and their view of Tradition, encompassing as it does not only the immutable teachings and ancient practices of the Church, but also Hispanidad, Carlism, and other traditional tenets of the various strands of the Argentine Right (lest this author be thought to downgrade those things, he agrees with them — as he does with French Royalism).

At the same time, however, the future Pope was forced to do battle with the Kirchners in their never-ending battle to reduce Argentina to a cut-rate version of Europe and/or the United States. Their constant struggle to impose contraception, abortion and gay marriage upon their subjects garnered sharp opposition from the Archbishop: in the latter case he notably declared: “Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just its form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God. . . . Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment. . . .May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.”

Now this man formed by influences so peculiar to his own country is head of the Universal Church. His choice of name, his informal pontifical and liturgical style, his acclaim by the media as “humble” — all of these have brought a shiver of fear to Traditionalists across the globe; a fear that after eight years of slow but gradual progress and reform, the Church may be headed back to the darkest days of Bl. John Paul II or even Ven. Paul VI. At worst case, regardless of his own views, the new Pontiff is hardly likely to try to revoke Summorum Pontificum or Anglicanorum Coetibus — though further active enforcement of them may have to wait until the next Pontificate. It would be difficult for Pope Francis to simply canonize the “hermeneutic of rupture” so eloquently condemned by his predecessor, even if he wants to. Those entering the priesthood and the religious life today tend to share the vision of Benedict XVI; whatever happens, the future is not 1968.

But it is far from certain the Church shall have to endure — in this respect — the worst case. Many were disappointed, to be frank, by this Pope’s somewhat anodyne homily at his inaugural Mass. It was compared unfavorably with Benedict’s challenge to the great ones of this world concluding his sermon at the same occasion back in 2005: “At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in Saint Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!’ The Pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in, if they were to allow the faith to be free. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased. But he would not have taken away anything that pertains to human freedom or dignity, or to the building of a just society.”

But a few days after his own inauguration, in his first speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, Francis warned: “…there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism,’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”

He is aware, and perhaps events shall make him ever more so, that his longtime opponents in the Casa Rosada are only a local chapter of a much greater fraternity — that of the great and powerful who despise the Church and all she teaches, and who are centered in Washington, Brussels, and every major capital across the globe. Practically speaking, it matters little whether one blames or denies a grand design encompassing the Freemasons, B’nai Brith, Bilderbergers, Club of Rome, CFR, Round Table, UN, EU, World Economic Forum, Mont Pelerin Society, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and on and on, determining the course of events in some central fortress of solitude. What is undeniable is that there is a broad consensus of opinion on the part of most of those who matter that opposing the Church’s teaching not only blasphemes God but, of its own nature, works toward what C.S. Lewis called “The Abolition of Man.”

Against “That Hideous Strength” (to borrow another phrase and title from Lewis), the Pope has — humanly speaking — precious little in the way of strength to muster. (We hasten to add that in this struggle, the Angels, and Saints, the Blessed Virgin, and God Himself will all struggle by his side.) Against it he can throw the Swiss Guard, the Papal Diplomatic Corps, the resources of Vatican City and the bureaucracy of the Holy See, the Orders of Malta and the Holy Sepulchre, and whomever of the Catholic Hierarchy, the Religious Orders, and the recognized Catholic lay organizations will stand by him — and no doubt the Prince of Liechtenstein. Perhaps some of the Eastern Orthodox shall launch themselves into the fray, as they have declared themselves ready to do.

As with Bl. John Paul II, Pope Francis has already begun to “shape his Papacy,” an effort that, regardless of other considerations, is fraught with peril; it would be so at any time, but never more than now. After they begin to realize the kind of man they have on their hands, the media will attack him with such canard’s as being the “Junta’s Chaplain.” It remains to be seen if, under such circumstances, His Holiness has the desire to seek the aid — little of it though there may be — of the Traditionalists; and, if sought, if they have the humility and the wisdom to give it to the best of their ability.

Realistically speaking, all of this combat is and shall be over the heads of the vast majority of us, condemned by our lack of numbers, wealth, and influence to have little say in religious or political affairs. But what we can do, we can do. First, we can pray for the Pope, that God give him the wisdom and strength he needs to captain the Church in this hour. We can use — to the best of our respective abilities — the tools Benedict XVI gave us at our own level to continue the work of reform and restoration. What happens in Rome or Washington is beyond our abilities, save through prayer, to help or hinder — which makes our work in our parish and our diocese, our town and our county all the more important. To our Pope is given the fight to win or to lose, according to Providence and his own abilities, at the very summit of the Church. To us is given, according to those same elements, that same fight at our own level. Please God, both the Pope and our poor selves shall triumph in His Name.