Performing the Pope

By Brenda Werth

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

Photo credit: presidencia.gov.ar | Creative Commons

The pope is a populist par excellence – Pope Francis has proven to be no exception – and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) is trying to harness some of his unprecedented approval for her own ends.  Since his election in March 2013, supporters of Pope Francis have credited him with changing the tone of the Catholic Church, renewing its relevance, detracting attention away from intractable issues (abortion, gay marriage), decrying capitalism and refocusing efforts on fighting inequality and poverty.  “Who am I to judge?” he famously responded when asked to comment on gay priests.  And yet, in his previous life as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, his judgments with regard to gay rights, specifically his strong condemnation of gay marriage, are what then caused the substantial rift between him and CFK’s government.  The Argentine government has passed some of the most progressive gay rights legislation in the world, making same-sex marriage legal and awarding full adoption rights to same-sex couples in July 2010.  CFK called Bergoglio’s stark opposition medieval.  What is surprising, then, is the conciliation that has taken place between the President and Bergoglio as pope.  It has taken place over the last year in the form of public rituals and urban iconography, bringing the Pope and CFK together in a symbiotic performance of national identity and Peronist imagery.

Given their past differences, their newly fashioned bond conjures a kinship not based solely on shared political views.  CFK has drawn public attention to certain rituals and events that link the two through the construction of familial intimacy.  Perhaps the most stunning example of her attempts to incorporate the Pope into the big happy Kirchner family is in her party’s use of a photographic collage juxtaposing Juan Perón, Néstor Kirchner, CFK, and Pope with the caption, “Mirá pibe a dónde llegamos” (Look, kid, how far we’ve come).  In May 2013 the collage appeared on a gigantic banner covering the façade of the Central Market in plain view of motorists on the heavily transited Riccheri highway.  In June, she broke protocol when she discarded the recommended template and wrote an informal letter to the Pope in honor of the Day of the Pontiff.  Discussed at length in the press, the missive was personal and colloquial in tone and closed mysteriously with Fernández urging the Pope to “take care” and “drink mate.”  When the President’s first grandchild was born a month later, images of the President accepting the Pope’s gift of baby shoes circulated widely in the press, together with her exclamations of “Look what the Pope got me for Néstor Iván.”  And in August, the Perón-Kirchner-Pope collage appeared blazoned on the side of a van deemed the Argentine version of the “Pope mobile,” unveiled by the Kirchner party in support of Frente por la Victoria candidates.

The collage captures perfectly CFK’s campaign to include the Pope in the big happy Kirchner family, but more importantly, it positions CFK herself as a key member of this influential family as she seeks to consolidate not only her own legacy, but also her political future.  With Juan Perón positioned top left and Néstor Kirchner top right, the collage resembles a family tree, in which CFK and the Pope are both direct descendents of a conflated Peronist/Kirchner genealogy.  Recast as founding fathers in this familial image, Juan Perón and Néstor Kirchner look down at CFK and the Pope from an atemporal, mythological realm, their solemn gaze directed at the newfound alliance between CFK and the Pope, solidified through the handshake between two of the world’s savviest of populists.  Dictatorial and democratic regimes alike have manipulated family discourse in Argentina to achieve political means.  The almost imperceptible image of the National Congress Building that constitutes the background of this collage is a reminder of what this performative family portrait ultimately seeks to achieve.  The Pope’s enthusiasm to play the familial role is unclear; a sign of wariness might be detected in his decision to postpone his first official trip to Argentina until 2016.  This date, ostensibly chosen in order for the Pope to participate in the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps more conveniently allows him to avoid the intense campaign period preceding general elections in 2015. 

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1 Comment

  1. Alex Wilde

     /  March 10, 2014

    This is a provocative analysis of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s communications strategy with her compatriot, Pope Francis, but Brenda Werth has a peculiar understanding of the papacy. “The pope is a populist par excellence,” she claims in her lead, suggesting that Pope Francis embodies a longer-term tendency of his office. A long line of populists – really? When his predecessor was Benedict XVI, a notoriously media-averse, tone deaf German theologian who had earlier functioned as the Curia’s Grand Inquisitor toward liberation theologians?? Or when Benedict’s predecessor was John Paul II who, although an accomplished public performer, had publicly scolded chanting sandinistas in Nicaragua and pobladores in Chile?? One could continue.

    “Populist” is a political and usually pejorative term. Applied to Pope Francis it is fundamentally misleading and frankly ludicrous – akin to Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of “Evangelii Gaudium” as “pure Marxism.”

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