In his five years as Pope, Francis has never returned to Argentina, despite visiting all its neighbours bar one. When he travelled to Chile in January, an Associated Press reporter asked an Argentine pilgrim why the Pope hadn’t visited his homeland. “Argentines are behaving badly,” he replied. “He is punishing us for sure.”
Pope Francis has written a remarkable letter to his countrymen that aims, in part, to dispel this negative impression. Responding to a letter from prominent Argentines congratulating him on his fifth anniversary, the Pope underlined his “great and intense” love for his country. He then apologised to all “those who may be offended by some of my gestures”, adding: “Although God entrusted me with such an important task and He helps me, He didn’t free me from human frailty. That’s why I can make mistakes like everyone else.”
It is not clear what precisely Francis was asking forgiveness for. The Argentine press suggested it was for receiving a variety of controversial politicians both from the government and opposition. But perhaps he was simply saying sorry for not returning home despite ample opportunities.
Yet the letter wasn’t solely a mea culpa. The Pope also made a subtle but unmistakable intervention in a debate currently convulsing Argentina. Congress is considering a bill to decriminalise abortion. In his letter Francis pointedly urged Argentines to be “channels of goodness and beauty, so that you can make your contribution in the defence of life and justice”. We must wait to see if this will be enough to stop the bill, which would legalise abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.
The polling firm Analogías reported this month that 82 per cent of Argentines have a positive impression of Francis, while only 3.8 per cent have a “very bad” one. The Pope doesn’t appear to have a problem with the Argentine public then, but rather with the political class. This dates back to his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he clashed with populist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who dubbed him “chief of the opposition”. Francis has had a scarcely less complicated relationship with Kirchner’s successor, Mauricio Macri.
Many observers think that Francis is refusing to visit Argentina because he doesn’t want to hand Macri a publicity coup. But there is unlikely to be just one reason. Another factor may be the Pope’s complicated relationship with some local bishops who resisted his rise in the Argentine Church.
According to the Analogías poll, 74 per cent of Argentines want a papal visit. Can Francis afford to disappoint them? In the short term, yes. He can accomplish his goals at the Vatican – such as streamlining the Curia and decentralising authority – without the support of his countrymen. But in the long term, his high approval rating is likely to dip if he never returns to Argentina. More and more will feel, like the pilgrim in Chile, that they are suffering a kind of collective punishment. Not only that, but Francis will deprive the local Church of a unique opportunity to evangelise the country. What better way to promote the faith, after all, than through a homecoming that would touch all of Argentina’s 43 million citizens?
Anti-Semitism is still with us, despite the experience of the Holocaust. Just recently, the Polish bishops have condemned its resurgence, though, at the same time, they have also criticised anti-Polish attitudes among members of the Jewish community.
The context of this intervention is the furore stirred up by the recent Polish law that condemns anyone who “publicly and against the facts attributes to the Polish nation or Polish state responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes” or “flagrantly reduces in any way the responsibility of the real perpetrators”. The small Jewish community in Poland has objected to this, as has the Israeli government, as well as the Holocaust scholars of Vad Yashem. They claim that such a law makes Holocaust research more difficult.
Back in 2009 Stephen Fry, the television personality, made the following comment: “Let’s face it, there has been a history in Poland of right-wing Catholicism, which has been deeply disturbing for those of us who know a little history, and remember which side of the border Auschwitz was on.” Presumably it would be this sort of remark, which infuriated Poles at the timem that would now earn a jail sentence of up to three years in Poland.
But let us remember that Mr Fry’s remark was scorned largely because it was so ignorant of history: Auschwitz was in a part of Poland that was annexed to the Reich, and at the time of the Holocaust, Poland was occupied, its government in exile in London. It is simply not true to suggest that the Poles were, to borrow the title of a book about the German population, “Hitler’s willing executioners”, and misleading to suggest that the Catholicism of the Poles made them sympathetic to Nazism.
There can be no substitute for true historical knowledge. The way forward must always be through properly grounded historical research; that requires subtlety and nuanced reflection. In contrast to that, legislation on what may or may not be said about the Holocaust is a blunt tool, liable to misuse.