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The pope, ‘The Wig,’ and Argentina’s Catholic voters

Libertarian Javier Milei took the world by surprise this summer, when he won the Aug. 13 national primary election, the PASO, which serves as a barometer for the presidential elections.

Now, with the presidential elections to be held this Sunday, Milei – who before the PASO was second or third in virtually all the polls – is the overwhelming favorite to win the elections, even without the need to go to a runoff.

But despite his popularity, Milei is dogged by controversy.

“Milei became famous for being an economic analyst on television, in particular for his extremely turbulent style and for his hairstyle, or rather, the lack of hairstyle. He insulted people, got emotional, shouted, and always attacked socialism,” Joaquín Núñez, an Argentine journalist, told The Pillar.

Milei, nicknamed “The Wig” for his eccentric hairstyle – which he says he styles with Adam Smith’s invisible hand – was elected deputy to Argentina’s national legislature in 2021 and launched his presidential candidacy this year.

Milei is a former youth goalkeeper for a local soccer team, and a singer in a Rolling Stones cover band. He is also a Catholic — albeit one who has periodically said he’s considering a conversion to Judaism.

He is a character. A walking meme, many in Argentina say.

And between his often-outrageous flair, his bombastic Argentine style, and a political and economic environment that favors him, he has taken the lead in the presidential elections.

With a libertarian platform with conservative overtones that supports reducing taxes, dollarizing the economy, reducing the government’s footprint, opposing abortion and gender ideology, “The Wig” could become the new president of Argentina.

But his abrasive style has had among its targets the most well-known Argentine today, Pope Francis – whom Milei has called a “disgusting lefty,” among other epithets.

That led the villero priests of Buenos Aires — who pastorally care for the most vulnerable areas of the city — to say a Mass in reparation for attacks against the pope. 

Milei may have also jeopardized the possibility of Francis returning to Argentina next year.

But what complicates things more is that Milei enjoys the support of many Catholics, even among the villa slums – traditionally left-leaning and Peronist – and has many Catholics among his possible ministers and candidates for Congress. 

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‘A filthy leftist’

Even before the rise of his political career, Milei has had a lot to say about Pope Francis.

In 2017, Milei said, referring to the pope, that social justice was “shit,” and that Francis was a “idiot,” a “filthy lefty” and an “unpresentable communist” who “promotes ideas of envy, hatred, resentment, unequal treatment under the law, theft and genocide.”

In an interview that same year, Milei said that Francis “is the representative of the devil on Earth. In 2020 he said that the pope was a “fool,” in 2021 he said that the pope “always stands on the side of evil” and that “[his] model is poverty.” 

“These videos are from when Javier was not yet in politics,” said Santiago Santurio, professor of Catholic social doctrine at the Austral University, and a candidate for the legislature of  the Buenos Aires province with Milei’s coalition, La Libertad Avanza — Freedom Advances. 

Santurio said he believes the attention paid to Milei’s remarks are a matter of political opportunism.

“It is noteworthy that they raise it in the middle of the campaign, after four years.”

But Santurio said he sees in Milei’s comments an opportunity.

“We must defend and vindicate the figure of the pope, he is the pope of all Catholics and we must take advantage of these opportunities to make known and explain who the pope is for Catholics, why he is important and why Catholics have a pope,” he told The Pillar.

Last month in an interview with Tucker Carlson, Milei said that the pope “has an affinity for murderous communists.” Earlier this week at a campaign event, Alberto Benegas Lynch, one of Milei’s primary advisors, proposed that Argentina suspend diplomatic relations with the Vatican “as long as the totalitarian spirit prevails in the head of the Vatican.”

Thousands of Milei's followers responded with applause, chanting “freedom, freedom” although only a day later, Milei appeared to distance himself from that idea, saying in an interview that such a proposal would be “irresponsible.”

But despite the rhetoric from the Milei camp, Santurio told The Pillar that he does not believe Milei is anti-Catholic, as such. 

“Just because Javier has some personal criticisms of the pope – which I do not share – does not mean that he has anything against the papacy or the Church. In fact, Javier is a great admirer of John Paul II, Javier has nothing against the Church, and has practicing Catholics proposed in several positions in his cabinet,” Santurio said.

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Milei’s popularity

After years of dictatorship, Argentina returned to democracy in 1983. Since then, almost all of its governments have been Peronist, a catch-all ideology created by the military leader Juan Domingo Perón in the postwar period, as a nationalist third way, which tends towards economic statism.

Since 2003, the political landscape has been dominated by Kirchnerism, a branch of Peronism launched by Néstor Kirchner, president between 2003 and 2007, and his wife, Cristina Kirchner, president between 2007 and 2015, and now vice president of the country. 

Kirchnerism combines Peronism with the form of socialism originally promoted by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

But Argentina is in the middle of an economic crisis, and many in the country blame Kirchnerism for a spiraling economy: More than 100% inflation in recent years, currency devaluation, 45% of people in poverty and 6 out of 10 children in Argentina living in hunger. 

The result has been a turn against the political left, in the form of Javier Milei, a self-confessed anarcho-capitalist.

“I see two fundamental factors,” Núñez told The Pillar

“The economic situation, and people fed up with the Argentine political class.”

Milei has channeled those frustrations into widespread support in poor communities across the country, Núñez said, even those traditionally associated with Peronism. 

“The economy in Argentina is a historic disgrace. Argentina has all the resources you want, all the [agricultural] climate you want, it has oil, it has gas, it has industry, especially agribusiness. It has everything to be an [economic] power. From the return of democracy to now, all governments have had high inflation, even hyperinflation, and have increased our debt, with the exception of the Menem government in the 90s,” he said.

“People’s purchasing power is at rock bottom, the country is a factory of poor people,” he added.


The villero priests

Despite his popularity, and his support among many Catholics, the reaction to Milei's criticism of Pope Francis was immediate.

The villero priests of Buenos Aires, many of them ordained by Francis during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, organized a Sept. 5 Mass in reparation for attacks against the pope, led by the auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires, Bishop Gustavo Carrara. 

The priests came to the Mass from villa slums spread across Buenos Aires — improvised neighborhoods with little or no access to public services, where drug trafficking and poverty are rampant.

Since the 1960s, priests have moved to those slums to pastorally care for the people living there. Those priests live in small houses, launch parishes from scratch, and offer numerous social services. On many occasions they become advocates for their communities. 

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, established the Vicariate of Emergency Villas, and was known for regularly visiting the villas of Buenos Aires.

In a document read at the end of the September Mass, the villero priests said they oppose the insults "that affect the person of Pope Francis, which range from vulgar attacks inappropriate for someone who seeks to represent our country to lies about the pope’s ideas, and calling him a communist."

“We were motivated [to make the statement] because a presidential candidate made pejorative statements, almost bordering on insults, toward Pope Francis,” Father Pedro Baya, a villero priest from Buenos Aires, told The Pillar.

“It seemed to us that we had to say something different. There are many of us who love him, respect him and live trying to be faithful to his teaching. So, showing this contempt for the figure of the pope is also showing contempt for those of us who love and value him,” he added.

“In a pluralistic society, there are those who exercise the right to publicly criticize the pope, and we exercise our right to say that we do not like that and we do not support him,” Baya said.

Facing pressure from the priests, among others, in a September presidential debate Milei heaped on apologies for the remarks, aiming to walk them back. 

“I have no problem repeating that I am sorry,” he said. 

““If [Francis] wants to come [to Argentina], he will be respected not only as head of state but as leader of the Catholic Church,” he added. 

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Catholics and Milei

Despite undergoing a marked process of secularization, Argentina remains a Catholic country, especially outside the city of Buenos Aires.

“If you leave the city, there is a very marked Christian feeling, even though the country is secularizing,” Núñez told The Pillar

Furthermore, Milei, surprisingly, has gained support among the country's largest political  blocs — Catholics and working-class Peronists. According to some polling, Milei would have 21% support among those under 25 years of age in the slums of Buenos Aires, just 4% less than Sergio Massa, the Peronist candidate.

“Probably some advisor will have told him to moderate his positions a little due to electoral strategy issues, so as not to alienate this support,” said Núñez.

Although identified with Catholicism for many years, Peronism has been losing Catholic support in Argentina, between its support for progressive policies such as the legalization of gay marriage and abortion and the deep economic crisis that many consider to be the fault of Peronism.

In that context, opinions of Argentine Catholics are as divided and polarized as the rest of the country.

And a number of Catholics who might traditionally be considered ‘conservative’ oppose Milei.

It is a complex situation.

“Today it is considered strange to speak against Milei if you are on the right, even though there are many people against him,” according to Lupe Batallán, one of Argentina's best-known pro-life activists, and a convert to Catholicism.

“We are in an extremely polarized country and Milei offers a level of pugilism that is too great when he speaks. It can be fun when he is a spokesperson or a speaker who is invited to debate, but he is no longer that, he is a politician, a presidential candidate.”

“In Argentina there is a lot of division, I don't think that in this context Argentina needs more, because a president is not only president of the people who voted for him — a president is also president of the people who did not vote for him, so if you add a president who starts by saying that those on the left are ‘left-wing  sons of bitches’ and that the pope is ‘the messenger of the devil,’ when in Argentina seven out of 10 Argentines are Catholic, it deepens the division, something that the other candidates also do,” he added.

Many point out that Milei’s criticism of social justice does not refer to only to progressive versions of the concept, but even to the notion of social justice defended by the Church.

“He claims to be a detractor of social justice and when he speaks you realize that he has no idea what social justice is for the Catholic Church,” Batallán criticized.

Santurio said that when Milei criticizes “social justice,” he means something different than what the Church teaches.

“When Javier talks about social justice he is very critical, but the idea of ​​social justice in Argentina is associated with Peronism. He is not really talking about the social doctrine of the Church, he is talking about this failed model that has been imposed over the last 20 years in Argentina, which only generated more poor people, more inequality and a worse level of education,” said Santurio.

“Throughout the region, in Bolivia, in Peru, in all these countries, illiteracy has been reduced, education has improved. In Argentina, the party that governs you with ‘social justice’ as its banner has increased the level of illiteracy and worsened education. So, logically, if you tell me that by ‘social justice’ we understand what Peronism understands, I tell you that social justice is wrong,” he added.

But Father Baya said that in his view, Milei’s positions do oppose some key elements of Catholic social doctrine.

“Social justice is not socialist, it follows the logic of the Gospel and its root in the word and practice of Jesus. It is enough to read Matthew 25 or the Beatitudes to recognize there the origin of what the social doctrine of the Church later called ‘social justice,’” the priest said.

“Milei attacks the state as a concept, and in doing so he attacks the idea of ​​the common good because we as Catholics … see the principle of subsidiarity, we also see within the state the need to support our neighbors,” Batallán added. 

"The Church is not opposed to the existence of the state, on the contrary, it celebrates the state and that it has its sphere of action in the temporal."

Still some of his supporters see in Milei some clear connections to Catholic social teaching.

“For me, the principle of subsidiarity of the social doctrine of the Church is completely reversed in Argentina: the weight is on the state, in that the public does it first, and that leaves a tiny space for private [initiative],” Santiago Santurio told The Pillar

“In Argentina the principle of the universal destination of goods has been abused to increase social plans. But you can see that in Argentina, since welfare began in 2001, as social plans increased, poverty increased,” he added.

“Social plans are not solving poverty,” Santurio argued. 

“We believe that to reduce poverty there must be more freedom to work, to trade, so that one has entrepreneurial initiative, and that the State is not planning the life of the country and the people.”

“The same thing happens with the concept of the common good, there is too much ignorance and manipulation with what it means,” Santurio said. 

“Many of those who have claimed the ‘common good’ badge are collectivists and understand the common good as a collective good, which is not the same, they are not synonyms. The common good is not only guaranteeing access to health and education but also freedom, which is rarely spoken of as the common good and freedom,” he added.

“Common good is not that the state does everything, there is also the principle of solidarity. In Argentina we have a serious problem with this: we see a poor person on the street and we think that it is the state's fault because we understand that the common good means a kind of ‘collective’ and think the state has to be in charge of solving the problems," he said.

“But social doctrine [of the Church] does not teach that. It says that if there is a poor person on the street it is everyone's responsibility – the businessman, you who are passing through the street, and also the state,” he added.

Santurio argued that in his view, a Milei administration would be good for poor people in Argentina.

“Who is taking a preferential option for the poor? The one who wants to repeat the recipe that has kept them poor for 20 years or the one who wants to do things differently?" Santurio asked.

Santurio also focused on Milei’s opposition to abortion.

“On the other hand, the foundation of the social doctrine of the Church is human dignity. The first right that must be respected is life, since Javier entered politics he has been against abortion, while the other candidates are in favor of abortion or do not address the issue,” he added.

But some of his Catholic critics question Milei’s pro-life commitment.

“Milei is not pro-life, he is anti-abortion: he is in favor of euthanasia as long as the state does not pay for it, he is in favor of the legalization of drugs,” said Batallán. 

Still, Santurio said that Milei is not the only politician in Argentina with problematic positions.

“Javier says that he is not going to get into people's private lives, but don't forget that other political spaces have promoted the legalization of drugs, gay marriage and abortion,” said Santurio.

Santurio also said that he believes Milei has been misrepresented on some issues.

“He spoke out and said that he is not going to propose the legalization of drugs, it is not an issue that is on his agenda. We must discuss the proposals, not what was said, or not said, in the past,” he said.

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The Catholic vote

With only days until the election, there are Catholics in Argentina arguing that it would be wrong to vote for the Peronists, because of abortion, and others arguing that it would be wrong to vote for Milei, because of his views on social justice.

But several Catholics told The Pillar that the election is a complex moral choice.

“Many people are making a strategic vote for Milei. They don't agree with him on many things, but he is the one they have the least problems with. But I think we have to see if his policies really reflect that,” Batallán told The Pillar.

“That is something that every Catholic in his heart will have to review. The Church does not force anyone to vote for someone or not to vote for them. What the Church does is to articulate the values ​​that we defend, and the principles that we believe are necessary for a more just world, from our faith,” Father Baya told The Pillar.

“The Church cannot formally ban or canonize a candidate. The vote is free and secret in Argentina, that is what the law says,” he added.

“Voting is a prudential matter. Everyone in their conscience sees where to go. Now, what I can say is that I see many connections between [Milei] and the social doctrine of the Church,” Santurio added.

“Everyone votes as their conscience tells them, but sometimes the urgency of the economic situation makes us believe that the solution is found with some ‘revolutionary’ candidate,” Batallán toldThe Pillar

“But in Argentina today, I think it would be revolutionary to put the human being back at the center of the equation. It would be more revolutionary to put human dignity, the common good, respect for life and family at the center of the equation,” he added.

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