The first head of state received by Pope Francis was President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of his native Argentina. The meeting Monday was outwardly warm and relaxed, the two exchanging gifts in front of the cameras before retiring for a private lunch.
But the sunny smiles could not obscure the fact that their relationship until now has been a stormy one. In his role as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had reportedly asked Fernández for a meeting 14 times since she became President in 2007. She turned him down each time. She made a point of leaving Buenos Aires every year on Argentina’s Independence Day, July 9, to avoid being present at the traditional Te Deum Mass said by Bergoglio at Buenos Aires Cathedral, a ceremony previous Presidents never failed to attend.
Though Roman Catholicism remains Argentina’s official religion and abortion remains illegal, President Fernández helped legalize gay marriage in 2010 — much to Bergoglio’s anger. She once joked that it was a shame that women couldn’t be Pope because she would run against him for the position. Meanwhile, his homilies indicate that he is opposed to her changing the country’s constitution to seek a third term in office.
His clashes with the Argentine President illuminate his conservative credentials, which do not stray from the doctrines held by the previous Pope and the rest of the Vatican. She championed contraception while he echoed loudly the church’s zero-tolerance policy. “A pregnant woman is not carrying a toothbrush in her womb, or a tumor,” he declared. “Science shows us that the entire genetic code is present from the moment of conception. It’s not therefore a religious issue but scientifically based morality, because we are in the presence of a human being.” He said that many women suffer from guilty consciences after going through abortions. “You need to be in the confession box and listen to those giant dramas because they know they have killed their child.”
In his attacks on the legalization of gay marriage, he was virulent in opposition, writing in a letter to Argentine priests, “Let’s not be naive. It’s not a mere political struggle. It’s a destructive attempt against the plan of God.” He said that gay marriage represents “the envy of the Devil, bringing sin to the world. It’s a clever attempt to destroy the image of God, man and woman, who have received the mandate to prosper, multiply and rule the earth.”