Argentina’s Abortion Fight Exposes Pope Francis’ Foreign Policy Weaknesses

Pope Francis has had a challenging time exerting his influence around the world.

By Clementi Lisi, Religion Unplugged, March 9, 2020

Past popes have exerted an enormous amount of influence on politics around the world. A pope’s influential reach — and the large number of Catholics around the world — has often been vital in the shaping of laws and policy.

The best example is Saint Pope John Paul II. The Polish-born pontiff was instrumental in the fall of communism some three decades ago. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, had a different approach. Not a media star like JPII, Benedict focused his efforts on Africa. With help from humanitarian aid organizations, the Vatican exerted a great amount of influence in many African nations where the church matters. The church continues to grow there.

What about Pope Francis? A progressive star to some, Francis has made immigration and climate change the cornerstones of his foreign policy priorities. Although he is considered a man of great influence, his papacy has also coincided with the rise of both secularism and populism. That has made the Vatican strange bedfellows on some issues — like aligning itself with left-wing parties in Italy — and sometimes totally ineffective on others.

Francis’ papacy — aside from dividing Catholics, predominantly in the United States — has been a disappointment on a great many issues. While the pope’s position is within traditional Catholic teaching (on climate change and immigration), it has polarized many and been widely dismissed by the same populist governments that have also been appealing to doctrinally conservative-minded voters. Francis is not a forceful diplomat like John Paul II nor theologically astute like Benedict. Francis is both humble and simple — traits that don’t get the job done when it comes to international diplomacy.

Francis is not a forceful diplomat like John Paul II nor theologically astute like Benedict. Francis is both humble and simple — traits that don’t get the job done when it comes to international diplomacy.

That Francis has essentially banked his entire legacy on combating climate change, while a noble endeavor, set a standard back in 2015 when he released his encyclical Laudato Si. The document is a plea to the world to “protect our common home.” Nonetheless, he isn’t the only one pushing the issue (replaced by a Swedish teen named Greta Thunberg), forcing Francis to instead divide Catholics who resist the policy changes that often comes with embracing the science of a warmer planet.

What Francis has failed to do is impact social change — many may say an inevitability in an ever-secular world — that has come into sharper view over the past decade. Examples include Ireland, which legalized abortion in 2018 and the pope’s native Argentina, which appears to be headed in the same direction. A Buzzfeed story from last year — with the headline “How doctors and the church conspired to stop an 11-year-old girl from having an abortion after she was raped” — fueled pro-abortion advocates around the world. Argentine law currently allows for abortion in cases of rape or threat to the life of the mother. Pro-abortion advocates have complained that access is often limited even in those cases.

Argentina is a case study of the dwindling influence this pope has — even in his home country — when it comes to effectively influencing the outcome of an issue that the Catholic church has seen as important for decades. Despite being a very Catholic country, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez recently announced his plan to introduce a bill in the lower house of Congress that would legalize, and expand, abortion across the country. If the bill passes, it would make it only the second democracy in Latin America to make abortion legal after Uruguay did so in 2012. The country’s previous president, Mauricio Macri, opposed it.

Despite being a very Catholic country, Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez recently announced his plan to introduce a bill in the lower house of Congress that would legalize, and expand, abortion across the country. If the bill passes, it would make it only the second democracy in Latin America to make abortion legal after Uruguay did so in 2012.

A recent Washington Post column by Mason Moseley, an assistant professor of political science at West Virginia University, argues that this once untouchable debate has become central in Argentine politics: “The genesis of the current abortion debate in Argentina lies in an emerging feminist social movement called Ni Una Menos (“Not one (woman) less”), which sprang up in 2015 in response to gender violence. Ni Una Menos began after several grisly murders of young women. Launched with a hashtag, an education campaign, and a mass protest, the movement has been demanding the government take measures to reduce machista violence. And it had widespread support among Argentine citizens.”

She added that these forces have become emboldened because Ni Una Menos “provided the organizational network necessary to mobilize women for abortion rights in massive demonstrations when it absorbed reproductive rights into its core set of claims. Through framing abortion decriminalization as an issue of social justice, and presenting evidence that clandestine abortions represent a leading cause of maternal mortality, abortion rights advocates persuaded many Argentine citizens to take up the cause. Feminist activists claimed that abortion must be legal to truly achieve ‘ni una menos.’ Only days after one of their largest rallies in February 2018, the conservative Macri announced he supported a “responsible and mature” debate about abortion.”

While the Vatican has gotten involved in Italian politics (primarily to combat the outspoken populist right-wing star Matteo Salvini), the pope has been a virtual non-factor in Argentina’s heated abortion debate. That’s saying something since he once served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, the nation’s capitol. Last month, The New York Times reported on the bill, quoting demonstrators like Maria del Valle Stigliano, a 30-year-old copywriter who favors such a move.

While the Vatican has gotten involved in Italian politics (primarily to combat the outspoken populist right-wing star Matteo Salvini), the pope has been a virtual non-factor in Argentina’s heated abortion debate.

“The abortion law is much more than the right to perform an abortion,” she said. “It recognizes women as independent people who have the right to decide over our bodies. The [Catholic] church is never going to be in favor of this and there are people who are always going to be against legalizing abortion, but that doesn’t matter. We need to focus on the people who still haven’t made up their mind. That’s how we’re going to win.”

Evangelicals, a growing segment of believers in South America, have teamed up with everyday Catholics in trying to combat the bill — much like they have in the United States — but the pope has not been involved in these very public debates. Should Argentina broaden abortion rights, it could, opponent say, cause a domino effect across the continent. As it is, Argentina is one of just a few countries in South America that allows abortion under a few circumstances. Many countries in the region having strong pro-life language written in their constitutions.

Before Fernandez announced the abortion bill, Francis welcomed him to the Vatican with open arms and spoke with him during a private audience. Fernandez later told a group of journalists that he hadn’t discussed abortion with the pope and the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who was also present at the meeting. In a statement released afterwards, the Vatican said that during the conversations, the matter had been on the agenda. Fernandez later acknowledged that the discussion had taken place with Parolin, but no further details were revealed.

Pope Francis and Alberto Fernandez

No public rebuke of this bill on the part of the pope seems odd, even as the Vatican, Italy and much of the world deals with the spread of the coronavirus. How forceful Pope Francis has been behind the scenes isn’t known. He may very well be doing a lot since his public statements regarding abortion overall have been strong. He once even likened it to “hiring a hitman.” Nonetheless, should Argentina choose to legalize abortion, many will see it as a very public foreign policy failure on the part of a pontiff. As a result, Pope Francis now finds himself polarizing his own flock in a part of the world very close to his own heart.

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.

This article first appeared HERE.