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Pope Francis v. President Macri: A Simmering Argentine Beef

A combination of political differences, bungling of protocol and lack of sensitivity seem to have further gnarled relations between Argentine President Mauricio Macri and fellow countryman Pope Francis.

Francis and Macri - a bit tense at Saturday's encounter at the Vatican
Francis and Macri - a bit tense at Saturday's encounter at the Vatican
Richard Roa


BUENOS AIRES — Words are only one way we communicate. So much can be said with silence. There are gestures, glances, the time we give someone and the posture we strike when we do. No words were necessary to see that Pope Francis and his kinsman, conservative Argentine President Mauricio Macri, didn't see eye to eye in their recent meeting that some described as "frosty."

Pope Francis gave expand=1] the president a shorter audience than any other head of state — a mere 22 minutes — and much less time than what the religious leader has afforded his political friends from Argentina.

A day before, from his residence at the Vatican, the Pope denounced the role of the rich in the world and the consequences of capitalism and wealth. Many viewed the comments as a preamble to his meeting with the newly elected Macri.

It's difficult to understand why the Pope is so uncomfortable with the new government that has just begun to administer Argentina. Personal issues may be at work here, in addition to growing religious discord rooted in opposing postures Macri has taken with the Church.

There is probably also some outright irritation related to the the Pope's Peronist sympathies, which put him politically closer to the last government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. It's as if he's keeping Peronism's soul alive at the Vatican. Was one cause of the pontiff's distress the presence of Rosana Bertone in the Macri cortege? She is the newly elected governor of the Tierra del Fuego province, a Kirchner supporter but also the niece of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, believed to be an "arch enemy" of the Pope.

Another explanation for the cool papal reception, which surprised Macri, could be the format the president chose for the meeting. Macri went to the Vatican following diplomatic, rather than political, protocol, meaning he handled the engagment as if it were a meeting of two heads of state.

When Macri arrived, the president greeted "Francis," not Father Jorge (the Pope's name is Jorge Bergoglio) or Your Holiness or any of the respectful ways people typically greet the Pope. There were no words or gestures to show the Supreme Pontiff that Macri was among his flock.

The Argentine foreign ministry clearly fumbled the occasion. Pope Francis isn't just another head of sate. He is a global religious leader and interacts with rulers from that position, and expects recognition of that particular role.

Macri behaved at the Vatican like a talkative, focused engineer. It's clear now that the Vatican isn't looking for engineers. Macri has tried, and failed, to open up the relationship with the Argentine pope.

There must also be some ideological reasons at play. Macri is heading a center-right, secular and pro-Capitalist coalition. Pope Francis wants to be the voice of those who have nothing, which smacks of leftist populism. Between these currrents, there is mistrust, in part for the conduct and legacy of the outgoing leftist government and its base of social support.

These are just interpretations. It would all be much clearer if Francis would just tell us what's going on with Macri. But then, a Pope would never do that.

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