For months, Pope Francis has been telling his closest advisers that he wants to arrive in the United States via the south of the American continent. Now he is following through on that symbolic geography. The Pope’s 22–27 September visit to the United States matters in both strategic and domestic terms. Touching US soil after a three-day stop in Cuba is already a remarkable novelty. It is as if Pope Francis wants to show that his horizons are broader than just Washington, the White House and the United Nations. In all, it is a reminder that he is a Latin American pontiff: a moral and possibly political leader of South America, keen to reaffirm his role as mediator between President Barack Obama and Raúl Castro’s ailing communist regime. US diplomats admit that they were taken quite by surprise by the decision of this Argentinian Pope, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to visit Havana en route.

Francis’s strategy is to rid the world of relics of the Cold War; to do what it takes to avoid a new one; and continue in alliance with a US-led West – but not prejudicially. It is not just a matter of geopolitics: primarily, it is geo-religion. For the Catholic Church, the division between West and East, democracy and communism, the US and the Soviet Union had direct consequences within the episcopates.

In the second half of the last century, the Catholic world was squeezed in Latin America by the dramatic choice between sustaining (or at least not opposing) military authoritarian regimes, often backed by the US, or embracing Marxist-leaning liberation theology. Facing this choice provoked tension and conflict within the Latin American Catholic community. And Francis himself was both an observer and a victim of this self-destructive spiral. The elaboration by the then-archbishop of Buenos Aires of a ‘theology of the people’, an original Argentinian (and Peronist) version of liberation theology – and an anti-communist one, too – was an attempt to heal episcopates, in the first instance, as well as Latin American societies.

The fact that Francis has opened a dialogue with former liberation theologians does not mean he is a convert. He considers Marxism dead, and incapable these days of doing much damage. His goal is a new alliance based on different premises and cultural paradigms; and an alliance made with the leadership of the Catholic Church, not with Marxist caudillos. But in the US, conservatives went immediately on the attack. ‘The Holy Father is a native of 20th-century Argentina,’ wrote Mary Anastasia O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal, ‘ideologically defined by nationalism, socialism, corporatism and anti-Americanism.’ She quoted Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, for whom ‘Latin Americanism, especially in the South, was also anti-Yankeeism.’

These convictions are the source of the accusation that Francis is peddling Marxism. But the accusation also stems from an inability to understand Bergoglio’s roots and personal experience; to admit the existence of an ‘alternative West’; and to recognise the Pope’s long hostility to communism. Social opening does not mean Marxism. The third way between socialism and capitalism has always been the beacon of the Catholic Church – which prefers the latter, as a guarantee of religious freedom.

For more on the challenges facing Pope Francis, read 'Within the Sacred Walls', Massimo Franco's review essay in the October–November 2014 issue of Survival.

Massimo Franco is a political columnist for the leading Italian daily Corriere della Sera. He is the author of The Crisis in the Vatican Empire (Mondadori, 2013) and The Vatican According to Francis: From Buenos Aires to Santa Marta (Mondador, 2014). An updated edition of Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the US, Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict, will soon be published by Corriere della Sera.

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