Francis in another America

Argentines are always quick to tsk-tsk people from the United States for calling themselves Americans. “But we are, too”, they inevitably protest, professing their shared history of Columbian exploration and seafaring. After all, they’re a nation of immigrants as much as we are and, technically speaking, America is a very large set of two continents.

But a lot divides our two “Americas”, and these divisions are as old as the colonial powers that settled the places we call home, from Quebec, to the vast United States, all the way to Spanish and Portuguese (and even French) Latin America. We share a lot of history, but we also have fundamental differences that we’ve yet to overcome many centuries later. Nobody knows this better than Francis, who despite his canny ability to know the world, hasn’t actually seen much of it. Much is made about this first papal visit to the United States, but few know that Francis, and indeed Jorge Bergoglio, has never been here before.

But he knows more about us than his travel history lets on. Francis is very much a western hemisphere individual, with issues like inequality and racial fairness integrated in his teachings in a very New World way.

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The world now knows his views on social justice and social equality. Social justice in the Americas is not like social justice in much of Europe or even Asia. It’s bigger, deeper, and more complex, borne of diverse societies with centuries-old injustices, organized around landmasses and not culture.

Inequality is also an economic reality of a land that was developed and conquered in fits and starts, with gold rushes (literal and figurative), booms and busts defining the economy, and the evergreen dream of making it big in the New World. Francis knows this well and does everything in his power to incorporate fairness and human dignity into his teachings.

But a thornier side of this will come into play in his visit to the United States: how the structural inequality between North America and South America has defined so many lives and touched every society south of the Rio Grande. The world will see clearer this week, and politicians across the hemisphere will be keen to hear, how Francis deals with a country and society that makes many Latin Americans deeply conflicted.

As a child of the only country in Latin America that could lay claim to a rivalry with the United States in the 20th century, Francis knows what it’s like to be on the losing side of history. Peronism is the reaction to this feeling of waywardness, and the political consequence of economic decline. Squarely in its path, right or wrong, is the United States, and it’s world leadership which many Latin Americans feel has been constructed through their exploitation.

Bergoglio is the child of a political ideology that harbors serious skepticism towards the United States, and its role in the hemisphere and the world. From our market principles to our treatment of the individual, all the way to our global military and the Monroe Doctrine, the United States is constantly on trial in Latin American politics.

Beyond the global issues that Francis will tackle at the United Nations General Assembly, and the U.S. issues that he will undoubtedly address when he is given the first papal audience before a joint session of Congress, I’ll be listening to the nuance of how he frames the United States, and its role in the Catholic Church and the world.

It won’t be as overt as the flames thrown by Argentine, Brazilian, Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, or Bolivian presidents who will remain unnamed — Francis doesn’t need to win any easy votes. But I suspect that, just underneath the surface, Francis will remind Americans of their responsibility to the rest of the world, and how their power and authority must also serve the vulnerable and the voiceless.

Every pope has had a unique moral authority to challenge how Americans think about the world. But a Latin American pope, with the weight of history, can tsk-tsk all that more loudly.

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