“I wish to join my voice to yours in calling for land, lodging and labor for all our brothers and sisters. I said it and I repeat it: These are sacred rights. It is important, it is well worth fighting for them.” The combative-sounding message of Pope Francis last month on his South American tour resonated deeply in a region where poverty continues to be the most pressing concern.
In Ecuador, an estimated one million people turned out to greet the Argentine pontiff. In Bolivia, where these words were spoken, Francis held an open-air Mass for hundreds of thousands beneath a giant sculpture of Christ the Redeemer. He asked an audience in Paraguay “not to yield to an economic model which is idolatrous, which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”
The pope’s strong words against the excesses of capitalism may have made conservatives wary in the run-up to his visit to the United States next month. But if Francis appears to some as a revolutionary in pontifical robes from a continent where a series of populist, left-wing governments have held power for the past decade and a half, that characterization fundamentally misunderstands the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church in South America that have shaped the pope’s political thought.
The Economist recently called Francis “the Peronist Pope,” referring to his known sympathies for Argentina’s three-time president, Juan Perón. In the 1940s and ’50s, the populist general upended Argentina’s class structure by championing the country’s downtrodden.
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).
Perón’s alliance with the bishops was sealed when the 1943-46 military regime, in which he was vice president, made Catholic education obligatory in Argentina’s previously secular public schools. The process culminated in 1944 when Perón decorated a statue of the Virgin Mary with a military sash and appointed her a “general,” accompanied by a 21-gun salute.
“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.”
Today, the church in South America is threatened not by Marxism but by the gradual drift of its faithful toward evangelical Protestantism, which offers a more direct relationship with God. With the largest slice of the world’s estimated 1.2 billion Catholics, about 28 percent, living in South America, this is a slide the Vatican can ill afford to ignore.
It comes naturally, then, to Francis, who became a priest in Argentina’s politically engaged church hierarchy, to adopt a populist political tone to combat that drift. He speaks directly to the region’s poor with a fire found in the “liberation theology” that inspired South America’s leftist revolutionaries of the 1970s.
Pope Francis, who firmly disapproved of armed resistance, was not at first a supporter of liberation theology. But his thinking evolved. “If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist,” he said in 2010, when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires (and still known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio).
The catalyst for the fusion of ’70s liberation theology and ’30s conservative church activism that underpins Francis’ worldview can be traced to his encounter with a single extraordinary person. In about 1953, as a young apprentice at a pharmaceutical lab, he met Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, a chemist in her mid-30s who had campaigned for farm laborers’ rights in Paraguay and founded that country’s first women’s movement. “She’s the person who taught me to think,” Francis told Ms. Careaga’s daughter, Ana María, when the two met last month during the papal tour.
“When I hear him speak today about the poor, the excluded, about everybody’s right to work and a roof over their heads,” she says, “I hear my mother’s influence.”
Francis and Ms. Careaga remained friends during Argentina’s 1976-83 junta, when thousands of opponents were murdered by the military, but each dealt with the dictatorship in different ways. She went on a collision course with the generals. He reportedly worked behind the scenes to save whomever he could from the carnage. Nevertheless, their friendship lasted until Ms. Careaga’s murder in 1977 at the hands of the regime.
Francis has been criticized for failing to take a more public stand — other church leaders paid with their lives for denouncing the crimes of the regime. Bishop Enrique Angelelli of the northern province of La Rioja was killed in 1976 for investigating the murder of two priests. But if Francis did not make himself a martyr, neither was he one of the many collaborators within the church hierarchy. When proceedings began this April to make Angelelli a saint, Francis came out in support.
Although forged in the fiery crucible of the region’s politics, his outlook disavows the confrontational nature of most South American political thought — divided between Peronists and anti-Peronists, liberals and anti-imperialists, left and right. Francis’ blend of thought and tradition isn’t simply middle ground.
The friendship with Ms. Careaga holds the key. He did not share her ideology, but he adopted those values he found humanistic, universal and consistent with Christian teaching.
Uki Goñi is the author of The Real Odessa: Smuggling the Nazis to Perón’s Argentina and a contributing opinion writer.