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Democracy faces Argentine peril in Buenos Aires — but also in Rome

Gaudete Gauchos! Pope Francis places the biretta on his fellow Argentine, newly elected Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.
Riccardo De Luca
/
AP
Gaudete Gauchos! Pope Francis places the biretta on his fellow Argentine, newly elected Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023.

COMMENTARY There's a lot of media focus on the potential threat to Argentina's democracy from its president-elect, Javier Milei — but the Argentine pope, Francis, now has his own anti-democratic issues.

Ever since erratic right-winger and Donald Trump-wannabe Javier Milei was elected President of Argentina last week, the media’s been focused — and rightly so — on the potential threat he poses to democracy there.

But it turns out Buenos Aires isn’t the only capital where democracy faces Argentine peril. Rome suddenly looks like the scene of some gaucho absolutism, too.

In case you forgot, Pope Francis — aka Buenos Aires’ former Roman Catholic Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio — is as Argentine as Mendoza Malbec. And in recent weeks he’s given at least the distinct impression that he’s targeting Catholic conservatives with the sort of censorship that more liberal Catholics like myself decried under his conservative predecessors, like John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

READ MORE: Argentina's threat to democracy feels like a preview for America's

Two weeks ago, Francis had Joseph Strickland, the conservative bishop of Tyler, Texas, removed. The Vatican said it resulted from an investigation into Strickland’s governance of his diocese. But it didn’t specify or explain what that misgovernance entailed. That’s left the door open wider than a tabernacle during the Eucharist for folks to speculate, if not conclude, that Strickland had been axed because he’s an outspoken critic of Francis’ more modern and reformist thinking, such as his recent suggestion that priests be allowed to bless same-sex unions.

Now this week, the Pope has gone after another vocal conservative opponent — Cardinal Raymond Burke, also of the U.S. — by booting him out of his Vatican apartment and shutting off his retirement salary.

Reportedly, one of the chief drivers behind Francis’ hierarchical housecleaning is another Argentine he recently brought to Rome, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, who now heads the Vatican’s powerful office on faith doctrine. (Inter Miami CF better watch out lest the Pope tries to recruit Lionel Messi.)

The worst thing Pope Francis could do for the cause of Catholic church reform is to risk emulating what preceded him — to start punishing his own dissidents.

Mind you, I believe rigid reactionaries like Burke — who champions denying communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights — are the reason the institution that claims to speak for my faith remains ossified in a retro mindset, one that's dumped pretty medieval mistreatment on cohorts like women, the LGBTQ community and (you no doubt recall the epic clerical pedophile scandal) children.

But I just as fervently believe that one of the worst facets of that mindset is its intolerance towards dissent. So I support the conservatives’ right to question a more progressive pope as much as I defend my own right as a Catholic to dispute the regressive line. In fact, I applaud the conservatives in that regard: they’re proving what dissident Catholics like me have been saying for centuries — that the church, like religion in general, is indeed a democracy.

Doctrinal enforcers

That of course wasn’t the case during the John Paul II and Benedict XVI papacies, from 1978 to 2013. Back then, doctrinally open minds faced fiercely closed doors — an Inquisition-style surveillance that punished any suggestion the church should humanely evolve on matters like women’s ordination, birth control, divorce, you name it.

Cardinal Raymond Burke at a Vatican conference, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.
Gregorio Borgia
/
AP
Cardinal Raymond Burke at a Vatican conference, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023.

John Paul II (who died in 2005 and was made a saint in 2014) removed bishops who either criticized or too weakly adhered to his orthodoxy. His chief doctrinal enforcer was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would succeed him as Pope Benedict XVI and carry on the work of the papal politburo until he resigned a decade ago, when Francis took over.

The worst thing Pope Francis could do for the cause of Catholic church reform he claims to favor is to risk emulating what preceded him — to punish his own dissidents, even the most obnoxiously atavistic like Strickland and Burke.

Sure, these are the same guys who demonized anyone who dared engage in democratic disagreement with the infallible Holy Fathers when the Holy Fathers said the things these guys liked. So it’s abhorrently hypocritical of them to cry foul, as they’re doing now, when their own contrarian cacophony gets shut down.

But that’s the point: Francis has to avoid falling into his own hypocrisy. If he really believes the church needs to progress, then he has to be especially, well, faithful to that idea that what the church needs most is more democracy.

And that means making sure even the guys who once tried to keep the rest of us Catholics from having a say get their say.

That’s the Argentine legacy Francis should leave in Rome.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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