BUENOS AIRES — It may sound harsh to accuse someone of hanging onto the Pope’s cassock, but when it comes to Argentina’s top politicians, it’s hard to put it any other way.
And why not? After a year in the papacy, Pope Francis’ moral stature is a new north star for politicians back here in his native country. His personal approval rating in Argentina — 93%, according to the recent poll by Poliarquía — is something other public figures can only dream about. What politician could refuse a little extra sheen for his or her lackluster image, cast by a brilliant sun shining on Argentina and the world?
The more tricky question, of course, is will the Pope let them? President Cristina Kirchner was the first to try it, even if her reported immediate reaction was fury at the election of the man reputed not to appreciate her Peronist politics when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
But while she went looking this week in Rome for a little papal light and succor to help make a dignified exit from the presidency, her potential successors are even more eager to bask in Francis’ glow.
Former presidential ally who has since become a presidential rival, Sergio Massa, of the Frente Renovador movement, met March 13 with two Catholic bishops. It was a meeting carefully organized Massa aide Joaquín de la Torre and held, emblematically, in the Jesuit college where Pope Francis lived and worked for years.
Massa spoke of poverty, corruption, family life — the Pope’s favored themes when speaking of a better life for Argentines. Yet, let’s remember, Massa was cabinet chief in Cristina Kirchner’s first government, when her party had the worst relations with the then-Cardinal Bergoglio. He’s busy doing some repair work now, though he has yet to obtain a private audience with His Holiness.
One old ally
Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, a government opponent, has also vowed his “respect and affection” for the Pope, trying to put behind him poor relations when Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In fact, the Pope privately received Macri in Rome when the mayor visited as part of the Argentine president’s delegation. A senior city official was also present when the Pope anointed the city’s new archbishop, Monsignor Mario Poli.
The presidential hopeful closest to the Pope may be the Buenos Aires provincial Governor Daniel Scioli. Their relationship has been built over time and their loyalty proven amid adverse times. While the governor has avoided flaunting his favored position, his religious fervor is not in doubt — and viewed by some as “obsessive.”
Last week Scioli eagerly voiced support for the bishops’ warning about drug trafficking. And he has signed a cooperation document with the Catholic University run by one of the Pope’s close collaborators — “Tucho” Fernández, who was promoted to archbishop soon after Francis became Pope.
Yet the outsized celebrations the governor planned for the Pope’s anniversary somewhat betrayed his supposed down-to-earth style and spirit, and his specific recommendations against any “personalized” homage to himself in Argentina.
Argentine bishops have, meanwhile, echoed the Pope, calling for “politics as service to the common good” and urging politicians to “administer” power, not possess it.
These are the types of ideas the Argentine Church will continue to preach, taking its cue from the Argentine-born Bishop of Rome. In the earthly realm of politics, the Pope’s actions are as prudent as they are impossible to ignore.