When the momentous news of a new pope rang through the Vatican, scores of notable figures took to Twitter and the media to congratulate Pope Francis on the announcement. Among them was Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who released a letter on Twitter that read in part, “I want to greet you and express my congratulations on your election as the new Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. It is our desire that you have, as you assume the leadership and guidance of the church, a fruitful pastoral career, playing such great responsibility toward advancing justice, equality, fraternity and peace of mankind.”
But a deeper look at the past history between President Kirchner and then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, suggests that her congratulatory note may hide a message in choosing to highlight justice and equality — two issues where the president and the cardinal fiercely opposed each other.
“Equality and justice — that was their most concrete dispute,” says Charles H. Blake, the chair of the department of political science at James Madison University in Virginia, “which was highlighted during Kirchner’s presidency with the issue of same-sex marriage.”
Argentina has long been a gay-friendly tourist destination, along with Rio de Janeiro, and 60 percent of Argentinians support gay marriage, according to a 2010 poll. But as Kirchner and her husband, the previous president of Argentina, supported gay marriage, which passed on July 15, 2010, they placed themselves firmly in the cross hairs of Roman Catholic Church officials in the country.
“A plan to destroy God’s plan,” is how Cardinal Bergoglio, the longtime Archbishop of Buenos Aires described it at the time. “This is no mere legislative bill. It is a move by the father of lies to confuse and deceive the children of God,” Bergoglio thundered as the debate approached its resolution. He also said “if approved, this law would be a real and dire anthropological throwback.”
Not to be outdone, Kirchner said Bergoglio’s comments were “really reminiscent of the times of the Inquisition.”
“They don’t get along, we know that,” says Maria Victoria Murillo, a professor of political science and international affairs at Columbia University. “There is his opposition of gay marriage and as cardinal he was critical of the government.” Murillo also says Kirchner never happened to be in Buenos Aires when then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke at the cathedral during national holidays.
Professor Blake says the gay marriage issue was just a continuation of a combative relationship centered on the government’s reopening of human rights cases dealing with repression and torture during the military government from 1976 to 1983, when a military junta was kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a “dirty war” to eliminate leftist opponents.
“From when Nestor Kirchner became president in 2003 to her presidency in 2007 and when she was re-elected in 2011, the presidency has led the successful effort to overturn a series of amnesty laws and provisions…that said most alleged crimes during that time were not actionable,” Blake says. The government said, “unconstitutional crimes against humanity could not be pardoned or amnestied,” he adds.
This meant cases and allegations that were closed long ago were able to surface once again, putting the Church on the defensive and susceptible to allegations that “priests participated or were present during violent events,” Blake says.
While Bergoglio has not been in court for any allegations — he was formally named as a potential defendant once but denied involvement and the case was dismissed — Blake says one need not go very far to see a Church hierarchy that responded differently when faced with a murderous ruler in the form of Augusto Pinochet. “On the other side of the Andes mountains in Chile, some members of the church did provide sanctuary for victims or potential victims of repression. In Argentina on the other hand, the hierarchy in general was not critical.”
But the new pope’s authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and that it’s unfair to label Bergoglio with the collective guilt that many Argentines of his generation still deal with.
“In some way, many of us Argentines ended up being accomplices,” at a time when anyone who spoke out could be targeted, Rubin told the AP just before the papal conclave.
Recently, Bergoglio has praised the conciliatory tone that Kirchner often uses in her speeches — and he always supports the same message: unity among Argentinians. Blake says he thinks the now-Pope Francis will bring this message of unity to all Catholics.
“”He’s the first Latin American pope, he’s the first non-European pope in over a millennium,” he says.
“It’s important that we embrace the reality that the majority of parishioners are not Europeans and there are high expectations that he will be a pope who can speak to all parishioners and be more responsive to their concerns.”