Catholic institutions during Argentina’s dictatorship

    Editor’s note: The book Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina by Emilio F. Mignone is a classic which was first published in 1986 and exposes the “sinister complicity” between the church and the military, who “did the dirty work of cleaning up the inside of the Church, with the acquiesce of the priests.” This excerpt from the book has been translated from Spanish.

    The election of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis has brought back into focus the troubling role of the Catholic hierarchy in blessing much of the brutal repression that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, killing and torturing tens of thousands of people including priests and nuns accused of sympathizing with leftists.

    Catholic institutions

    Authoritarianism is a characteristic feature of Argentinian Catholicism. The institutions that make up, or depend on, the official Church have no autonomy, and they are sanctioned if they dare to express any opinion not in accord with the line taken by the bishops. As a Criterio editorial puts it:

    “In Argentina the church desperately needs public opinion. There is a good deal of opinion, but what is missing a climate sufficiently respectful of freedom so that such opinion can be expressed without fear of reprisal. The apparent calm could make many think that there is a greater degree of consensus than really exists… We are quite afraid that in our church ideas are increasingly being repressed: the sooner controls are lifted, the less damaging will be the process of arriving at sincerity.”[1]

    The reprisals mentioned above mean sanctions applied by the bishops. Any attempt to say something to society that is not simply a commentary on their own ideas they call the work of a “parallel magisterium,” not only with regard to theology but in issues of any kind. I have already noted two such situations. In chapter 1, I quoted passages from a document of the permanent commission of the Bishops’ Conference in Argentina in which the bishops scold the Argentina Conference of Religious (CAR) for suggesting that human rights violations should be confronted more vigorously.[2] The Conference of Religious is forbidden to take public positions.

    In chapter 6, I showed how the way priests in shantytowns were sanctioned when they denounced how thousands of their people were pushed off the land and the bishop remained indifferent.

    Lay institutions in the Catholic Church usually keep quiet, except when they are given orders or they feel obligated to support a decision made by the bishops. They have no opinions, or if they have opinions, they keep them to themselves. This is what happened in the difficult question of human rights violations. Some of the organizations that spoke up did so only to heap praise on the military government.

    Such is the case of the Corporation of Catholic Lawyers (CAC), a very small, nonrepresentative group, with a reactionary stance expressed in frequent public statements, where one can note the hand of Dr. Lawrence J. Butler. When the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights came to Argentina, the CAC published a statement signed by Ambrosio Romero Carranza and Virgilio Gregorini, with this astonishing paragraph:

    The Corporation believes that we Argentinians enjoy a reasonable measure of freedom and that human rights are sufficiently protected by the law and Argentinian authorities. Individual cases of persons who have been imprisoned or who have disappeared are under investigation and will be cleared up. Most violations of human rights in our country have been committed by the very ones who, defeated by the armed forces and not courageous enough to take on the consequences of their actions, fled the country, and from there continue to injure Argentina with their hypocritical outcries on behalf of those very human rights that they did not respect when they themselves were in power [italic added].[3]

    In 1982 the Federation of Parents’ Unions of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, under the leadership of Ernesto Gomez Mendizabal, and with the vicar general of the archdiocese, Bishop Arnaldo Canale, as its advisor, began to publish a newsletter. The only thing in the first issue is the text of an instruction published in issue #6 of Manual of Informaciones, a magazine published by the chief army command, second headquarters. What is striking is that the teaching of a Catholic institution takes its inspiration from the armed forces.

    The appropriate church body for defending human dignity is the National Justice and Peace Commission, which is dependent on the bishops. Pope Paul VI created this institution (which operates on different levels — worldwide, national, diocesan) in order to expedite implementation of the principles of his great encyclicals. That is what has happened, for example, in Spain and Brazil, where such commissions are widely known and highly esteemed. In our case the bishops’ conference fulfilled the papal norm in a purely formal manner, as has been the case with so many other things. During the fiercest years of the dictatorship, the commission’s president was Carlos Alberto Floria, who, for that reason, took part in the Puebla meeting. When, in the presence of the human rights activist Eduardo Pimentel, I asked Floria the reason for this passivity, he told me that the commission was explicitly forbidden to express opinions publicly. It was only occasionally called on to advise the bishops privately.

    The Holy See became disturbed at the way the commission was being nullified in practice and sent the president of the Pontifical Justice and Peace Commission, the African Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, to try to change the situation. Some members were added and the officers were changed, but everything has gone on as before. Only once has the National Justice and Peace Commission, with the signatures of its president, Franklin Obarrio, and its secretary, Ignacio Palacios Videla, become involved in the issue of human rights and expressed a stance different from that of the bishops’ conference. It took place after the issuance of the so-called final document of the military junta. The commission declared:

    In the official document on the struggle against subversion we would have liked to have seen a rejection not only of the horror unleashed by guerrilla struggle, but also of the illegal repression that it prompted. The lack of objective truth and the absence of an explicit will on the part of the armed forces to rethink the issue of national defense, by abandoning the doctrine of national security, place the Argentinian community at the mercy of the fluctuations of the internal politics of other powers.[4]

    I never learned how the leaders of the bishops’ conference reacted to this unique statement.

    [1] Buenos Aires, number 1, 947, July 11, 1985, p. 328.
    [2] The Latin American Conference of Religious (CLAR) is involved in a similar conflictive situation with CELAM, whose president is Archbishop Antonio Quarracino of La Plata. Quarracino has noted the split between the Brazilian bishops and CLAR on the one hand, and CELAM, on the other, in an interview in Nexo magazine: “The fact that CLAR does not have an open dialogue and a spirit of solidarity with CELAM is simply a scandal that must be overcome” (Buenos Aires, number 8, second quarter 1986, p. 13).
    [3] La Prensa, Buenos Aires, September 15, 1979.
    [4] Clarin, Buenos Aires, May 5, 1983.

    Emilio Fermin Mignone (1922 – 1998), lawyer, educator and important leader of the human rights movement that emerged during the last military dictatorship in Argentina. He became a campaigner for human rights in Argentina after his daughter was among the thousands who disappeared in the military regime’s “Dirty War”. As founder and director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, Mignone was regarded as Argentina’s best-known campaigner for human rights, particularly from 1976 to 1983, when the country was under military rule. He devoted himself to documenting and denouncing in the country and abroad the crimes of state terrorism and contributed to the prosecution of those responsible to ensure that those crimes will never again be committed.

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