ROME — There’s a famously common saying in Argentina associated with casting a vote for one politician over the other: “He is corrupt, but he gets things done.”
The opposite seems to apply right now to the country’s Catholic hierarchy, with Pope Francis’ handpicked successor in Buenos Aires embroiled in an unfolding saga involving the “irregular” sale of Church assets.
While there’s nothing to suggest anything criminal happened under Cardinal Mario Poli’s watch, the movements appear to be so irregular that Pope Francis ordered a review of the transactions.
An audit by the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy did not pinpoint which movements raised flags, but found that two archdiocesan commissions overseeing financial matters were either inoperative or not fully formed at the time several Church properties were disposed of controversially.
It also instructed Cardinal Poli to carry out only “economic transactions that are currently strictly necessary,” seeing that he is approaching 75, the age at which he is obligated to present his resignation under Church law.
Then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio led the archdiocese of Argentina’s capital from 1998 until his election to the papacy in 2013. As such, he knows the local church, and its assets, well.
The five-page letter, dated Oct. 28 and published by Argentine newspaper La Nación, called on Cardinal Poli to, “to the extent possible, not to dispose of any more assets belonging to the archdiocese or parishes, which seems to have happened often of late.”
The message also requests the “accounting information” that was promised by the archdiocesan accountant, both in person and via email, but which has yet to be shared with the dicastery. This indicates that while no actual criminal activity has yet been discovered, the archdiocese is not yet in the clear.
In a May 3 statement, the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires confirmed that Vatican officials visited the city last October: “During the visit, the archdiocesan administration made all accounting documentation available, and in no cases were crimes or negotiations detected.”
The statement continued: “There are many charitable works that are carried out, particularly in recent years due to the pandemic, which require resources to sustain them over time.”
In light of the recent review, more than 250 Buenos Aires priests signed a letter supporting the cardinal.
“The priests of Buenos Aires have always known you as a brother, a seminary instructor, and as a bishop and pastor,” reads the missive. “We are witnesses to your honesty and moral integrity, as well as of your humility, simplicity and austerity.”
This is not the first time Pope Francis paid close attention to finances in his homeland linked to him. In 2016, he sent a letter to the leaders of Scholas Occurentes, warning that “as a father and brother, [I fear] you’ll begin to slide on the road to corruption.” The letter came soon after he forbade them from accepting a $1 million grant they had requested from the Argentine government.
(Scholas is a pet-project of sorts for Pope Francis, an initiative he began as archbishop of Buenos Aires. Its aim is to build “bridges of dialogue and encounter” in schools around the world, through culture, sports, and technologies, though many observers struggle to fully understand what it actually does.)
Though only time will tell if the disposal of Church property in Buenos Aires amounted to mismanagement or corruption, it is nevertheless telling that Pope Francis had the mind and heart to put the transactions into question. His interest and suspicion, however, lead to another question asked both by local friends and foes since the early days of his papacy: “Why doesn’t the pope come to Argentina?”
Since being elected on March 13, 2013, the pope has visited 55 countries. As per his own recollection, the time he came closest to going back home was in 2017, during the government of center-right Mauricio Macri, in a visit that would also have taken him to Chile. At the request of the latter, however, the trip was postponed to January, and visiting Buenos Aires in the dead of summer resembles visiting a ghost town. He chose instead to go to Peru.
Many Argentines who eagerly await a papal visit hope it will help forge unity in an increasingly politically divided country. Granted, it’s plausible to believe that if Pope Francis saw an honest interest, and not a group of crows trying to claim him as their own for some political gain, he’d be on the first plane south.
In his homeland, Pope Francis is blamed for virtually everything: from being linked to petty political arguments to being an out-and-out heretic. The criticisms, as the country’s bishops have pointed out, often has more to do with what the pope is said to have said, rather than what he actually said. His expressions have been cherry-picked to fit the narrative of the opinion-makers who have made an Olympic sport of spinning his words.
Virtually every trip Francis has made had a strong motto or theme. He went to Central African Republic to preach about peace amidst a bloody civil war, to South Korea to encourage a de-escalation of tensions in the peninsula. He included Cuba in his U.S. tour (a trip originally penciled for Pope Benedict XVI) after being credited by both countries with helping normalize their diplomatic ties.
He's made trips to the Greek island of Lesbos and Mexico to call attention to the migrant crisis, and he went to Sweden, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Albania, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt to foster ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and reconciliation.
And in July, his bad knee permitting, he’ll visit South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo to shine a light on conflicts in the world’s poorest corner largely forgotten by the rest of the world.
Though a country in a constant state of political crisis, Argentina is not on the brink of a civil war or an armed conflict; has historically been welcoming of migrants; has not seen a clerical abuse crisis of a scale like the one in Chile; and despite having 50 percent of the population under the poverty line, its people are far from widespread famine.
All things considered, the question thus becomes: “Why would the pope want to go to Argentina?”