All eyes were on Pope Francis’ first meeting with Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, Monday at the Vatican. 

After all, in the past Milei had employed virulent language against the pontiff, calling him “nefarious” and “an imbecile,” among other invectives.

However, since his unprecedented landslide victory last November, Milei has proceeded to soften his tone and opted to construct a more conciliatory relationship with the 87-year-old pontiff.

In fact, there were no signs of rancor or resentment when the two leaders embraced in a viral photo on Sunday, Feb. 11, in St. Peter’s Basilica after the canonization Mass of Mama Antula, Argentina’s first female saint. 

The easy familiarity extended to their official bilateral meeting held in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican on Monday, Feb. 12, where they spoke for over an hour, which is unusually long for official meetings between the pope and heads of state. 

Francisco Sánchez, the undersecretary of Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Worship — who was part of the country’s official delegation to the Vatican — said the meeting was full of “surprising aspects” and “took place in a very cordial way, with a lot of sympathy, with a lot of friendship between the two.”

One Argentine online news outlet reported that after the meeting, Milei said the pope “was satisfied with the economic and social support program” that his government has spearheaded since taking office on Dec. 10, 2023.

While both Milei and Francis hail from Argentina — both were born in Buenos Aires — they hold  radically different economic viewpoints.

The economic perspective of Pope Francis 

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Since his election as pope in 2013, Francis has made social, economic, and ecological justice a defining concern of his pontificate, writing several papal documents on these themes, including his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in 2013, his seminal 2015 encyclical on the environment Laudato Si’, Fratelli Tutti in 2020, and Laudate Deum  — the second installment of Laudato Si’ — in 2023. 

In Evangelii Gaudium Francis condemned what he saw as the “new idolatry of money,” arguing that the myriad economic problems that the world is facing stem from a misinformed belief in “trickle-down theories.” 

The pope opined that this economic theory “has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Francis further criticized this view, denoting that it “sustain[s] a lifestyle which excludes others” and that “the culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase.” 

In line with consumerist attitudes, the pope noted that “the current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person.” 

“The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption,” he continued. 

This condemnation of consumerism and of the “idolatry” of money has become a common refrain during the pope’s speeches. In a speech to the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements during his 2015 apostolic visit to Bolivia, the pope denounced the “unfettered pursuit of money” and even called it the “dung of the devil.” 

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“Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity,” the pope declared. 

In his paper “Francis and the Pastoral Geopolitics of People and their Cultures: A Structural Option for the Poor,” professor Rafael Luciani of Boston College argues that the pope “proposes that we move toward an alternative world order that is polycentric, one that recognizes the peripheries and that from the peripheries can create new ways of relating to both the global and the local.” 

The pope, according to Luciani, proposes “a more human view of the world” that dovetails with a call for greater “dialogue” when pursuing the common good. 

One of the most recent examples of the pope’s embrace of dialogue with disparate groups was his January meeting with representatives of DIALOP (Transversal Dialogue Project), an association of European leftist politicians and academics that seeks to bridge Catholic social teaching and Marxist theory. 

In this meeting, the pope said: “There is always a great need for dialogue, so do not be afraid,” while adding that “politics that is truly at the service of humanity cannot let itself be dictated to by finance and market mechanisms.”

In Francis’ native Argentina the economic situation is particularly dire as the country struggles with triple-digit inflation, a weak currency, depleted foreign currency reserves, and growing poverty. 

An analysis of the situation published in the New Yorker noted that “since 2000, it [Argentina] has defaulted on its sovereign debt on three occasions. The economy has fallen into a recession, and the inflation rate has reached 142.7%. Four out of 10 Argentines are living in poverty, and, in the past four years, the value of the Argentine peso has fallen by more than 90% against the U.S. dollar.”

Javier Milei, free market champion

When Milei, a libertarian and self-declared anarcho-capitalist, won the country’s presidential election in a landslide victory last November, it signaled a massive shift in Argentina’s political equilibrium and a radical shift in the government’s economic policy. 

Milei’s economic positions can best be described as neo-liberal, following the tradition of free market economists such as Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, who posit that limited state interference is necessary for economic growth and prosperity. 

Upon assuming office on Dec. 10, 2023, Milei promised to set in motion a series of sweeping economic reforms via his “chainsaw” plan, which included massive public spending cuts, reforms to public administration, and eliminating the treasury, the New York Times reported

For Milei, freedom is tantamount to economic opportunity and prosperity. During his inaugural presidential address, he stated: “The only way out of poverty is with more freedom.”

The 53-year-old economist repeated this call when he spoke at the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month.

At Davos, Milei gave a 20-minute speech in which he decried what he saw as the “danger” facing the West, which he argued was the result of “a vision of the world that inexorably leads to socialism and thereby to poverty.”

Milei went on to condemn the “collectivist experiments” of the past 100 years, which are “never the solution to the problems that afflict the citizens of the world. Rather, they are the root cause.” 

In contrast to the pope’s statements in Laudato Si’, Milei argued that by looking at historical trends, it is clear that “capitalism brought about an explosion in wealth from the moment it was adopted as an economic system.”

“Free trade capitalism as an economic system is the only instrument we have to end hunger, poverty, and extreme poverty across our planet. The empirical evidence is unquestionable,” Milei continued. 

The pope, while not present at the event, sent a letter to the WEF’s founder, Klaus Schwab, on Jan. 17 where he touched upon many of the core themes of his pontificate, writing “the exploitation of natural resources continues to enrich a few while leaving entire populations, who are the natural beneficiaries of these resources, in a state of destitution and poverty.”

The pope also stressed the importance of harmonizing state policy and business practices to develop new economic paradigms that “by their very nature must entail subordinating the pursuit of power and individual gain, be it political or economic, to the common good of our human family, giving priority to the poor, the needy, and those in the most vulnerable situations.” 

In Milei’s Jan.18 speech at Davos, by contrast, he remarked that “the left-wing doxa has attacked capitalism, alleging matters of morality, saying — that’s what the detractors claim — that it’s unjust. They say that capitalism is evil because it’s individualistic and that collectivism is good because it’s altruistic.”