The rise of Javier Milei: a ‘false messiah’ in Pope Francis’ homeland?

milei Javier Milei and Pope Francis. | Vox España / Flickr (CC0) // Daniel Ibáñez /CNA

In the heartland of Latin America, where Pope Francis was born and raised, Argentina is witnessing a political shift that has implications not just for its domestic landscape but also for the Catholic Church. 

The bustling streets of Buenos Aires, traditionally echoing with the rhythms of tango, are now resonating with a different tune. It’s the voice of Javier Milei, a libertarian economist who, in recent years, has emerged as a formidable outsider in Argentine politics. 

With his distinctive appearance and brazen rhetoric, Milei is challenging the political norms of the nation. But as he rises in prominence, many are left wondering: How does the Catholic Church, a cornerstone of Argentine society, view this new political figure? And what does Pope Francis, who has often spoken on the interplay of faith and politics, think of his country’s evolving political scene? Since his papal election, Pope Francis has not set foot in his native Argentina — could a Milei presidency mean he never returns to his homeland? 

Argentine voters delivered a blow to the country’s two main political forces in primary elections, propelling the outsider candidate on Aug. 13 to the forefront and causing a significant disruption ahead of October’s presidential election. 

Reuters noted that with about 90% of the votes counted, the right-wing liberal economist garnered 30.5% of the vote, surpassing expectations. The main conservative opposition bloc trailed with 28%, and the ruling Peronist coalition had 27%. 

With inflation at 116% and a cost of living crisis pushing 4 in 10 people into poverty, the result was a resounding rebuke to the center-left Peronist coalition and the conservative opposition bloc, the agency reported. 

The so-called “rock star” responded confidently: “We are the real opposition,” Milei proclaimed in an upbeat speech after the election results. “Another Argentina is impossible with the same old approaches that have consistently failed.” 

Who is Milei and what does he want? 

Politically, critics have variously described Milei as far-right, ultra-conservative, and right-wing libertarian. As an economist, he is a follower of the Austrian School of Economics — which believes in the power of individual choice and free markets to determine economic outcomes — and also identifies as an anarcho-capitalist. 

Regardless of how apt these labels might be, Milei undoubtedly poses a significant challenge to the Church and the Catholic community in Argentina. 

While some of his views, especially his criticism of the political establishment and his emphasis on individual freedom, resonate with many Catholics, others starkly oppose the Church’s social teachings.

Fray Nelson Medina, a prominent Catholic priest, cautioned believers not to be swayed solely by Milei’s charisma. According to ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, he emphasized that the “new messiah“ required an attitude of “serenity, critical analysis and realism.“ 

The pope and the politician

Beneath superficial comparisons, the Roman pontiff and the presidential candidate share few similarities, though both Jorge Bergoglio and Javier Milei have Italian immigrant roots — and Milei has identified has Catholic.

Pope Francis has urged Argentines to strive for social harmony and unity. While he hasn’t directly commented on Milei, the pope has consistently emphasized the significance of solidarity and the common good in politics.

For Jan Schnellenbach, a German economist who teaches at Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus-Senftenberg, Milei’s economic views are “very extreme” and “not compatible with Catholic social teaching.” 

The economist told CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, that Milei’s libertarianism is based on a “very narrow” conception of human nature that ignores the social dimension of human beings. 

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Schnellenbach contrasted Milei’s approach with that of Pope Francis, who has often criticized both neoliberalism and populism as ideologies that undermine human dignity and solidarity. He said that Pope Francis is “the greater realist” because he recognizes that “the market alone cannot solve all problems” and that “there is a need for a strong state that can provide public goods and protect the common good.”

The German professor added that Pope Francis also understands that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution for every country” and that “each nation has to find its own path to development.”

Editor's note: This story was updated Sept. 8 to correct a quote by Fray Nelson Medina, as well as a previous link, published by ACI Prensa.

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