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. 

Pope Francis I: The First Latin American Pope

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis | Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) | Foter.com | CC BY-NC-SA

What will the first Pope from Latin America mean for that region, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics?  Leading scholars – several of them participants in a multi-year research project at American University* – offered insights recently in The New York Times.  Among many factors that they point to as conditioning the leadership of the newly elected Pope Francis – Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires – are how the Church meets the challenge of Evangelical Protestantism and deals with its own past in the region.

With their remarkable rise in recent decades, Evangelicals have broken centuries of Catholic monopoly and made Latin America far more pluralistic religiously than ever before.  Professors Virginia Garrard-Burnett and Daniel Levine underline the limitations of the strategies for renewal employed by the last two Popes – the return to traditional pieties, the adaptation of Pentecostal spiritual practices by “charismatic” Catholics, and the embrace of what Garrard-Burnett calls “neotraditional” organizations such as the elite, secretive Opus Dei.  Levine singles out various Evangelical strengths: churches that “work well with new media, have local leaders close to the community and provide expanded roles for women and minority groups.”  Perhaps the Evangelicals’ most fundamental advantage is their success in making religious faith relevant and real to the millions of Latin Americans that have swelled the region’s violent cities and experienced wrenching social change.

Latin American Catholicism will also be shaped by how it faces its own past in a region where democracies have replaced the dictatorships of old.  The personal story of Pope Francis illustrates different dimensions of that past: an “option for the poor” that took hold after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) together with a long history of ecclesiastical accommodation with repressive regimes.  The Argentine hierarchy as a whole was seen as supportive of the military dictatorship during the massive violation of human rights in 1976‑83.  Bergoglio’s personal role is unclear.  His supporters hold that he combined pastoral concern for his flock with quiet humanitarian diplomacy toward the junta. His critics argue that he failed to protect several left wing priests and his silence constituted complicity with the regime.  Like many other clerics who rose to dominate today’s Latin American hierarchies, he did not publicly defend human rights.

As Pope Francis, Bergoglio’s personal style and pastoral simplicity already mark an important signal to his Church that it must be committed to the poor.  In Latin America it has a historic opportunity to stand for their dignity and foster their empowerment.  Public identification with their cause is vital, but so is living and working with them to overcome the poverty and violence of their communities.  John XXIII, Paul VI and notable Latin American bishops after Vatican II saw this as a matter of securing their fundamental human rights.  This is an enduring legacy of their leadership during dictatorships that Francis and his Church should build on in the democracies of today.

* 2012-13, with the support of the Religion and International Affairs Initiative of the Henry R. Luce Foundation