The (Argentine) periphery now the center, and vice-versa

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

With a certain pride or with mixed feelings, French people – maybe more than others – recognize the name of some of their fellow Frenchmen in the references used by Pope Francis in support of his teachings (if the term is still appropriate), though this must be really put into perspective because of the way these documents have been drafted, most of them self-referenced if not self-centered… We can mention Congar in regards to the concept of periphery as center of a reform of the Church; Lubac in regards to the critic of worldliness and rigidity; and perhaps Chenu in regards to a specific conception of the sensus fidei as a dynamic theological place. Let’s not forget the Jesuit elders, Lubac, Teilhard de Chardin, and Michel de Certeau with his considerations on Abraham leaving his land as an example of the position of the Church in a secularized world, a sign of the injunction addressed to Her “to go forth”.

Is it enough, we wonder, to add these references and others together which have in common to be “conciliar”, to a few exception like Guardini (even if the dependence is more an affirmation than something obvious), to summarize Francis’ vision, his writings which are now unavoidable markers of the life of the Church, as it is said in the inaugural documents of the synodal process on synodality which was started last fall? It would be considering him as a European which he is not. His obvious disinterest for the old continent, to the exception of the borders, of the migratory peripheries like recently Lampedusa or Cyprus showed. Unless, in his logic, the attention given to these peripheries is precisely a true, but strange, interest for Europe.

Likewise, scrutinizing Francis’ character and position, which many would agree relates to a construction for which he is himself responsible, brings nothing substantial in terms of a resolution to the question. Yet, it isn’t all incoherent, far from it actually, with the kind of answer we believe we could provide.

A Theology of the People with Peronist founding principles

Of course, we must look towards the Argentinian Theology of the People. This theology contains the references from Europe that we just mentioned, but they have been integrated in an argumentation and a praxis which, no matter what slight differences there might be, is fully part of the Liberation theologies family.

Resting on an article written a little while ago but still pertinent as proven by current events, we would like to shade a light on an important trait, maybe the most fundamental, the very keystone of Bergoglian thinking. Titled “At the cultural source of Pope Francis’ thinking”, this article[1] is a long commentary, both a critic and a praise, as much of Francis’ thinking as of People’s theology, and through the presentation of a book from Juan Carlos Scannone, subtitled “Pope Francis’ theological roots”. It is interested to note and to keep in mind that the late Argentinian Jesuit Scannone taught Jorge Mario Bergoglio before becoming Francis’ devoted commentator.

We could summarize the origin of People’s theology (and, according to Scannone, of Bergoglio’s thinking) in this way: the Latin-American Church has received primarily, from the Second Vatican Council, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, yet supplementing it with the theme of poverty that the Conciliar Fathers, though encouraged by John XXIII at the beginning of the Council, had forgotten and which only appears as secondary on the final documents. Moreover, this thematic was placed at the source and center of the reflection and not in a static manner (which could only have had for consequences preserving and charitable work), but according to a radical and global dynamic of liberation. According to its supporters, it was about interpreting, inculturating Gaudium et Spes to the culture, but also the teaching of Lumen Gentium on the Church as People of God. The inculturation of which we speak here has for one of its major components the association – and even the temptation of superimposing them – the biblical and theological notion of People of God and of the social, economic, and politic reality of the people in Latin-American societies. We actually find this ambiguous polysemy in Francis’ documents.

This which is common to all Liberation theologies and is relatively well known, has established itself in a specific way in Argentina; and this is what is of particular interests to us: Indeed, whereas some Latin-American theologians insisted on the economic and political dimensions, with a definite marxist approach, those from Argentina preferred a more sociological, historical and cultural perspective. Within this frame, a “voluntarily positive re-reading of the historic experience of Argentina” took place (Guibal, p.694), according to a prism we would call populist, in the technical sense it bears in political theory: a history where, since the seventeenth century, the aspirations of the people have been recognized and carried by “heroes (…) claiming for all, and notably the poorest, an equal dignity” (id.). Over the course of this history, “the evangelical spirit of service and reconciliation would have in the end taken over the conflicts and divisions, an original reality would have emerged, one of a new people coming to the consciousness of self and learning to take charge of its history in its specific way. From Artiguism to Peronism, not to mention Irigoyenism, Argentinian “Caudillism” would itself give testimony to the search for an organic unity between those who govern and the people from whom they emanate, as well as to a political conscience moved by a general will for peace and justice.” (Guibal, p.693) Maybe, to stay away from the generic and often pejorative term of populism, at the same time confessing an almost complete ignorance of the political history of Argentina, and also, taking into account the fact that in Europe the term caudillo refers too directly to the figure and regime of general Franco, we ought to speak of a Peronist founding principle in People’s Theology. Such is, it seems, the specific characteristic of this theology.

As history continues shaping itself, and societies keep on evolving, looking at the past is not enough. Yet, the interpretative framework, Scannone continues, remains. What constituted the People has now diversified into multiple peripheries: in the past, what was at stake was the encounter and the “politico-cultural ethnic mix” of two populations and two races; today the encounter reaches further, is more open: “the Latin-American culture of today is in search of a “vitally important synthesis” between three imaginaries competing against each other: one of a Catholic tradition inculturated, one of a modern liberty, and one of postmodern alterities.” (Guibal, p. 695, #32)

In a 2013 article published in the Roman Jesuit review La Civiltà Cattolica, Scannone had shown an incapacity to place a limit beyond which postmodern alterity is no longer a periphery in the sense of People’s theology, thus predicting excess due to demands: “there is an openness to new propositions, like the intercultural philosophy (Fornet-Betancourt, Dina Picotti), gender philosophy and others more.”[2] The mention of gender philosophy, of course, attracts the attention and takes us back to Francis’ words or actions vis a vis or in favor of homosexuals and transexuals. Less known, the reference to the afrocentrism of Dina Picotti, a radical critic of Argentina’s official history. Though, says Scannone, her critique does not appear as forcing new perspectives on the Peronist epic, a new unbolting of statues (since Scannone’s book comes later than his article), it has for us the merit to recall a major weakness of Liberation theologies: Being essentially praxis, their internal coherence presents little interest. What, paradoxically, makes also their strength, that of not taking into consideration the intellectual criticism they receive.

A caudillo pope

It would be useful to read again, one by one, and particularly in regards to their overall logic, many of Francis’ initiatives, with respect to this founding belief of People’s Theology.

First of all, in regards to the positions he adopted: Jorge Mario Bergoglio, elected to the Chair of Peter, has taken the role of this Argentine hero meeting the people and giving it his voice. Though forgetting one thing, and not the least: his position gives it a universal amplitude. The image of convivial Francis, close to the people, poor, neglecting the historic centers of Europe (France notably) whilst visiting its peripheries (Lampedusa) or EU institutions (Strasbourg), participates of this logic. When the more merciful dimension is put forward rather than the moral dimension, the more spiritual and pastoral rather than the more dogmatic dimension – we are only talking on certain current oppositions in the Bergoglian discourse – even then, in some respects, it relates to the demagogic anti-elitism and to the anti-intellectualism that is found in the Argentine historic populism and in, the least we could say, idealized writing of the national history as People’s Theology interprets it.

This re-reading enterprise would also clarify the ideas put forward by Francis. At the forefront, we will mention the role given to peripheries, considered irreplaceable, but with much imprecision as to what they are. The concept of periphery seems to encompass categories having less and less to do with poverty in its classical sense (sexual minorities or, according to Laudato si, creation itself). Or also, it appears to be replacing what we thought of, previously, as being beyond Church authority (Protestants, at the time of the celebration of Luther’s anniversary; Muslims, at the time of the Declaration of Abu Dabbi). The whole idea is to work towards an open and inclusive fraternity, an ethnic mix of all sorts. On the temporal side of things, we wonder if we cannot see in the injunction made to the populations of rich countries to welcome migrants and to form with them a renewed community, sharing the fruits of the earth which belong to all[3], a mirror of the successful “politico-cultural ethnic mix” that Argentina supposedly would be?

For, is it really so successful a story? The question is certainly not without importance, yet we don’t have all the competence to decide. Still, few questions must be raised:

  • Is it pertinent to transpose the Argentine experience to all situations? This evidently appears to neglect historic and cultural realities: the Argentine populist hero does not fit the cultural and political traditions like those of France, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, of Venice and other cities, etc. The encounter between two populations, cultures and religions, has also taken the form of resistance of Central European Christian countries against the Ottoman military push. The Argentine prism thus appears reductive, if it pretends to be the criteria for the present and the future of all, by erasing specific pasts. So, paradoxically, far from being opposed to it, as it pretends it does and maybe sincerely thinks so, the universalization of People’s Theology by Francis becomes one of the figures of the movement encouraging the prevailing globalization.
  • The polysemy of the word “people” must be clarified: In this regard, the Theology of the People spared itself arguing of Argentina long-standing and in-depth evangelization. It isn’t the case as we see the wave of secularization, agnosticism and materialism, not to mention islam, which have spread in the past decades. We cannot, or we can no longer, in most societies, superimpose People of God and people; and even less in the Argentine perspective where the periphery is seen as the heart irrigating with its life the rest of the social body.
  • Likewise, with respect to the government: we can’t associate in anyway the function of Shepherd of the Church with Caudillo of the people, and this for a variety of reasons. The first and main one being that the second emanates from the people – or claims to be -, people from which comes his legitimacy, whereas the Sovereign Pontiff is Vicar of Christ, according to a descending order. But it is true that, since the 2020 Pontifical Yearbook, “Vicar of Christ” has been demoted to the rank of “historic title”; and that the synodal process on synodality wants to persuade us that the sensus populi[4] is number one and guides even the shepherds themselves.

Fr. Jean-Marie Perrot

[1] Francis Guibal, « Aux sources culturelles de la pensée du Pape François », in Ephemerides Theologicæ Lovanienses 93/4 (2017), pp. 685-708. Regarded the above mentioned book: Juan Carlos Scannone, La teología del pueblo: Raíces teológicas del papa Francisco (Presencia Teológica), January 2017, SalTerræ, 280 p.
[2] J.C. Scannone sj, « La filosofia della liberazione », in : La Civiltà cattolica, vol. 3920, 6 April 2013, pp.105-120.
[3] “Each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere.” (Fratelli tutti, n.124).
[4] We purposefully take on the classic formula sensus fidelium, promoted by an eminent member of Bergoglian galaxy: Victor Manuel Fernandez, “El ‘‘sensus populi’’ : la legitimidad de una teologia desde el pueblo”, in: Revista Teologia, tomo XXXIV, n°72, 1998, pp.133-164.