THE BLOG
11/24/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Pope Francis' Plaza de Mayo Moment

Pope Francis maintains the popularity that he had when he stepped on to the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square on March 13, 2013 and asked the faithful to pray for him. He has seemingly united the church with a call for practical reforms emphasizing poverty and cleaning out corruption within the Vatican walls. These reforms have gone uncontested (at least in the public eye). The controversies he has raised come from his facilitating a vigorous Jesuit-style debate like the one that occurred at the Synod on the Family last month on gays and remarriage. Some assume that his speech at the Humanum Colloquium, an international forum praising traditional marriage, signals "a backpedaling" on more tolerant statements, a move that signals the limits of papal power. Vatican realpolitik may play a part in the shift. But given Francis' Argentine background, progressive admirers must consider a more disturbing possibility: That Francis has meant to throw progressives under the bus since he came into office.

History is the present in Argentina today. Many of the same visions, discourses, and symbols that existed in the mid-20th Century still dominate the political scenery, much like debates over Vietnam and Ronald Reagan still hold sway today in the United States. Juan Domingo Perón, the controversial general-turned-president, still holds emotional appeal and shapes political strategy even forty years after his death. Francis the "Peronist Pope's" election, a writer for traditional Argentine newspaper La Nación argued, stole the Peronist populist mantle from Argentina's populist president and political adversary Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Francis' rumored meals with the poor in Buenos Aires, his simple anti-consumerist sacrificial lifestyle, his cold calls to those who write him, all hearken back to the closeness that the Gran Conductor ( "grand conductor" as Perón is often called in Argentina) wished to instill in his followers. Bergoglio's connections to the traditionalist Peronist group Guardia de Hierro certainly taught him to mix classical Catholic values with pragmatic politics. Even amid doctrinal controversies, he remains popular with 98 percent of Argentine Catholics according to Pew Research.

Juan Perón embraced a hodgepodge of philosophies. He came to power with a 1943 Nationalist junta with support from the Church to "cleanse democracy" by elevating class unity above class conflict. Perón and his wife also defined women's suffrage as subservient to the political goals of women's' male counterparts. Nevertheless, Juan Perón later turned against the Vatican-centric hierarchy, replacing their imagery with his own and breaking with them on issues like the legalization of prostitution and divorce. After his 1955 overthrow, Perón fueled chaos and revolutionary student action from exile in Spain meanwhile telling traditional unions to hold fast in forms of small resistance against forces determined to annihilate the movement. Cristina Kirchner, a Peronist, often evokes Eva Perón in her discourses, and her invocation of her late husband Néstor Kirchner parallels Juan Peron's adulation of Eva after her passing. Cristina Kirchner stands on the leftist side of the Peronist divide that fought authoritarian governments. Bergoglio in Argentina represented that Peronist populism which called for women to express their feminist gifts in the home. Francis' calls for living wages express a desire not for gender equality in a modern sense, but a sustaining of traditional family. In his much lauded 2013 papal exhortation Evangeli Gaudium, the Pope exalts the family as the "fundamental cell of society (55)", condemns a trust in "the absolute rights of individuals (54)", and dismisses secular and alternative forms of marriage as "mere emotional satisfaction (55)." Such overlooked statements should put this week's "backpedaling" in perspective.

If Francis follows Peron's path, progressives can expect betrayal to follow seemingly friendly gestures. Perón, upon his return after years of encouraging the Montonero (nominally Catholic) student guerrillas that they were the future of Peronism, disowned them on May Day 1974. In a hotly contested rally in the Plaza de Mayo he pitted old-guard socially conservative labor versus the new guard middle class students. Peron reiterated the traditionalist unions had kept up the struggle "for 20 years, despite those stupid [students] yelling." He insulted "beardless" student who "want to have more credit than those who fought for twenty years." The irony of such statements after Peron's fomenting rebellion for almost two decades is not lost on progressive Peronists today.

In a similar sense, Francis has elated progressives with his calls to end the culture wars and his "Who am I to judge" attitude toward doctrine. He also told youth to "go outside" and create "a mess in the diocese." In 2013, he told a group of religious women "do not worry [about the Church's doctrinal office]...move forward." When push comes to shove, Francis takes the pragmatic "third way" so touted by his country's most influential patron. Perón once claimed that "the only truth is reality", and Francis has taken that to heart, condemning both traditionalist "inflexibility" and the "deceptive mercy" practiced by many dogmatic liberals. His statements about a "mess" at the local level also called for social unity and an end to the exclusion and of the "two polarities of society", the young and the elderly. In that same speech he asked for the young to "fight for those values" that challenged increasing secularization, and to listen to the elderly, "the cultural reserve of the nations...that transmits our history....The faith is whole, it cannot be diluted, it is faith in Jesus!" In short, Francis maybe eclectic in practice, but he remains, despite his most progressive comments, still very much a traditionalist.

Unfortunately, the Catholic progressives of today, like the left-wing Catholic guerrillas in that 1974 rally take Francis' more radical encouragements at face value. They fail to realize that they are expendable in the Pope's larger plan: Splitting off progressives from a growing secular agenda, and gaining the cover of popular support until he can clean up the bureaucratic mess at the Vatican. Just as Perón before him, he speaks the language of unity and shows a pragmatism that eschews ideological discourse, for now. But progressives must ask: Will he like Perón before him also throw progressives out of the plaza?