Kathryn, I read John Allen’s “pre-spin” of the upcoming papal encyclical on the environment with some interest. Much of what he had to say was as would be expected, but it is worth drawing attention to this:
In a soundbite, [Francis is] not Che Guevara in a cassock.
Yet narratives often live on long after evidence suggests they’re unsatisfactory, and that’s likely to be the case with the new encyclical, too. Given that eco-activism is more strongly associated with the left in most Western nations, the encyclical probably will be seen as further proof of the pope’s ideological credentials.
As part of that picture, many commentators probably will underscore the document’s language on climate change while ignoring another likely point of emphasis: A culture that disrespects human life, for instance through abortion, cannot be relied upon to cherish other forms of life or the natural environment.
In truth, Francis is neither a political conservative nor a liberal, which are Western categories that arose during the French Revolution. If you asked, he’d probably tell you he comes out of the moderate wing of Argentina’s Peronist movement. (I have yet to meet anyone, however, including any of the Argentines I know, who can clearly define what exactly that means.)
In understanding the pope’s politics — and that’s what counts here — John Allen is right to point to Peronism, but wrong to look, as I think he does, at this question in terms of contemporary Peronism, moderate or otherwise, which is as intellectually incoherent as Mr. Allen suggests. The pope’s Peronism is far closer to the original, clearer version he would have known in his youth, minus the thuggery and (I assume!) the anti-clericalism if not, occasionally, the demagoguery.
Juan Perón was one of those early twentieth-century figures looking for a ‘third way’ between communism and capitalism, and he found that in a form of corporatism not so far removed from fascism, or, rather more remotely, the ideas set out by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (1891). The fact that Perón’s party (Partido Justicialista) derives its name from the idea of “social justice,” long a popular phrase on the religious left, tells you quite a bit. Perón was a populist, profoundly suspicious of classical liberalism (a shriveled, but real part of Argentine political tradition) the free market and free trade, all of which may sound familiar to anyone who has followed what Pope Francis has been saying. As would the emphasis that Perón put on social welfare (and the language he used to talk about it).
A Peronist pope then? As I’ve argued before, yes, sort of, which means that, as we listen to Pope Francis’s prescriptions for the economy and the planet (and we can expect to hear plenty about them in the coming months), it’s worth remembering that the economics of Peronism ultimately proved disastrous.
Under the circumstances, Speaker Boehner’s decision to invite the pope to address a joint session of Congress this September is . . . interesting.