Saturday 24 March 2018

The economic miracle of Pope Francis

When Argentina faced political meltdown, it turned to an unlikely saviour in Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, according to a revealing new book about the people's pontiff.

'Pope of good promise': Pope Francis
'Pope of good promise': Pope Francis
Economic broker: Jorge Bergoglio

Michael Kelly

Your country is descending deeper and deeper into financial crisis. International markets are increasingly unwilling to lend and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is pounding on the door. Where is a government to turn? It was a real dilemma faced by the then Finance Minister Brian Lenihan as Ireland appeared destined to perish on the rocks of global capitalism gone wrong. Mr Lenihan later recalled how, having just signed the infamous bailout, he sat in Brussels airport alone and looked out at the snow and thought to himself: "Now hell was at the gates".

Just a few years earlier, Argentina had suffered its own hell when the government of President Adolfo Rodríguez Saá defaulted on a huge $132bn debt that was due to the IMF. It plunged the South American nation into turmoil and rioting and looting ensued.

It was to an unlikely quarter that the political elite looked to when Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was approached for advice. Trained as a chemist, the shy Archbishop of Buenos Aires was hardly an acknowledged expert on economics nor, at least on the face of it, did he seem equipped to rebuild a bruised and humiliated Argentina.

However, it was to Bergoglio - now catapulted to global fame as Pope Francis - that politicians turned, according to a fascinating new account of the pontiff's pre-Roman life.

In Francis: Pope of Good Promise, Jimmy Burns, who reported from Argentina for many years for the Financial Times, sheds fresh light on the Jesuit's role as a political broker in the aftermath of the default.

What emerges is a picture of a shrewd and astute negotiator and consensus-builder. It offers fascinating insights to anyone seeking to understand where the first pope to come from Latin American is hoping to take global Catholicism. And it won't be a comfortable ride for elites of either the left or the right within the Church.

A former confidant, Fr Guillermo Marco, describes the default as "a detonating moment when Bergoglio felt he had no choice but to get actively involved in the political and social life of his country".

Fr Bergoglio - a one-time leader of the Jesuit Order in Argentina - had been appointed to lead the Church in the sprawling Argentine capital just three years earlier. As the situation worsened, he was acutely aware that the Church could not stand idly by while the country started to show signs of being gripped by an unprecedented financial and social crisis that led many to question the very survival of the country's nascent democratic state.

But in a nation ill-divided between the 'haves' and the 'have nots', he was acutely aware that the Church needed to walk the walk. He began by marking his distance from his extravagant predecessor as archbishop by shunning the place and moving to a modest flat. There may also have been another motivation.

His relocation to the cathedral - in the midst of the capital's financial and administrative centre - put him just a few steps away from those running the country. He soon made it clear that he would not be keeping politics for the sacristy: "The Church can't just sit sucking its finger when faced with a frivolous, cold and calculating market economy".

The default triggered the collapse of the government. Sections of the media encouraged a 'plague on all your houses' approach, taking up the slogan 'que se vayan todas' (away with them all) with gusto.

Knowing that nature abhors a vacuum and fearing even greater instability, the Church under Bergoglio stepped in and arranged talks leading to a broad agreement between key Peronist and Radical party politicians and other smaller parties, trade union figures, business representatives and other grassroots organisations representing the hardest hit communities.

Formal talks between all of the parties were subject to the full glare of the media. What journalists were not aware of, however, was that the more substantial negotiations occurred in secret bilateral talks between Bergoglio and key political players who had the ability to forge a broad consensus.

Rumours, difficult to substantiate, would later circulate that senior officials used a secret tunnel that links the presidential Casa Rosada to the cathedral. The tunnel, the story goes, was originally used by 19th-century smugglers and was reactivated to guarantee the secrecy of those attending certain meetings.

When it became time to progress the process towards stabilisation, Bergoglio stepped back. In a country steeped in Catholicism, the central involvement of the Church was inevitable. However, he appointed three other bishops to be the public face of the process having already agreed the key parameters and sworn the participants to secrecy. The talks led to a document - Constructing the Transition - and a commitment to a new way of doing politics in what was effectively a failed state. A new political consensus in favour of equitable and sustained growth emerged and Argentina was brought back from the brink.

So what motivated Cardinal Bergoglio at the time and why the secrecy? His former aide, Fr Marco, is in no doubt: "Bergoglio was thinking about the future of his country. He was worried about the deepening crisis and how this was affecting people. He wasn't seeking personal advantage, which is why he shied away from publicity".

Francis is often accused by American free-market thinkers of Marxism. This is to misunderstand his background in Buenos Aires and indeed the political landscape in Argentina. Where do his political sympathies lie? Certainly not on the Left. Those who know him best would consider him on the moderate Right, close to that strand of popular Peronism which is hostile to liberal capitalism.

And where will he bring the Church? Many Catholics may well end up frustrated with Pope Francis. He is clearly an innovator who wants the Church to be more credible by remaining close to the vulnerable and those most in need. He has sounded a clear message that he wants change in the Church, but more a change of attitudes and emphasis rather than fundamentals. He has consistently articulated his immovable positions of abortion, same-sex marriage and contraception while calling on Church leaders to be more open to those Catholics who don't meet the specified ideals.

It's a high wire act between those Catholics who want him to embrace liberalism and those conservatives who grumble that he isn't asserting teaching strongly enough. His role in Argentina's financial crisis indicates a man who wants to find a third way without compromising his beliefs or alienating either side. It's a tall order.

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic.

Francis: Pope of Good Promise by Jimmy Burns is published by Constable. €37.50.

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