The Catholic Church and Latin American Dictators

    By G. D. T. | 12 April 2013
    Critical Thinking

    The history of the Catholic Church has been one of anti-Semitism, corruption, intimidation, ignorance, brutal torture, slaughter, and mass murder.

    Dictators hold supreme power over their people. They can remove anyone who challenges them. They have a tendency to rationalize and/or cover up any wrong-doing on their part. They hold power for life. They are usually considered to be a larger-than-life person, despite the fact they are human. They often use religion to spread their agenda. They acquire great wealth. They live in luxury. They prefer dealing with other dictators. They control people’s behavior and control as many aspects of people’s lives as possible. They deal in propaganda. And, they do not tolerate any opposition and, where possible, they kill their opposition.

    The Pope is the world’s most famous and quintessential dictator. Not only does he control the attitudes and behavior of a billion international members of his church, he claims infallibility and claims to speak for God.

    The history of the Papacy is one of preferring to deal with dictators, particularly in Latin America.


    It has been clear for many years that the upper reaches of the Argentine Catholic Church contained many men who had communed and supported the unspeakably brutal Western-supported military dictatorship which seized power in that country in 1976 and continued for years. Not only did the generals slaughter thousands unjustly, often dropping them out of planes over the River Plate and selling off their orphan children to the highest bidder, they also murdered at least two bishops and many priests who objected to the military dictatorship. Yet, even the execution of clergy did nothing to shake the support of senior clerics, including representatives of the Vatican, for General Jorge Rafael Videla and his followers.

    In 2010, in the city of Córdoba, Videla and some of his military and police were convicted by their Argentina’s courts of the murder of 31 people between April and October 1976, a small fraction of the killings for which they were responsible. The convictions brought life sentences for some of the military. Unsurprisingly there was dancing in the city’s streets when the judge announced the sentences.

    What one did not hear from any senior member of the Argentine Catholic Church hierarchy was any expression of regret for the church’s collaboration in these crimes. The extent of the church’s complicity in the dark deeds was excellently set out by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina’s most notable journalists, in his book El Silencio (Silence). He recounts how the Argentine navy with the knowledge and approval of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires and now Pope Francis, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship’s political prisoners. Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home in an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. The most shaming thing for the church is that in such circumstances Bergoglio’s name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to chose the successor of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (aka: “The Nazi Pope”). The first Pope ever to be elected from the Americas is an accessory to murder and false imprisonment.

    Argentine archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was selected as pope at a time when the Roman Catholic Church in this South American country is facing a rebellion by priests and laypersons who reject the role of the Catholic Church leadership during the 1976-1983 dictatorship and the lack of reparations for past omissions and complicities. The accusations against Bergoglio for his alleged ties to the dictatorship, which made headlines around the world when his appointment as pope was announced by the Vatican, are just the tip of the iceberg of a controversy that has raged for decades without a solution and which is coming to light as the regime’s human rights violators have been brought to trial since the amnesty laws were scrapped. Groups like Curas en la Opción por los Pobres (Priests with an Option for the Poor), Cristianos por el Tercer Milenio (Christians for the Third Millennium) or Colectivo Teología de la Liberación (Liberation Theology Collective) have voiced increasingly harsh criticism against the Argentine bishops’ conference’s shortcomings in terms of self-criticism, in spite of an apology and pledge to investigate issued a few months ago. “It’s good that this debate is happening, that we work to clarify what happened, so that the truth will come to light. That would be very healthy,” Claudia Touris, a researcher at the University of Buenos Aires and the coordinator of Relig-Ar Grupo de Trabajo en Religión y Sociedad de Argentina (Relig-Ar: Working Group on Religion and Society in Contemporary Argentina), told IPS. Curas en Opción por los Pobres said they were “scandalized by so many stances running counter to the Gospels” and by the fact that priest Christian von Wernich, who was sentenced for human rights violations, “was not expelled from the priesthood,” and unrepentant former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, found guilty of crimes against humanity, continues to receive communion.


    Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship was responsible for the deaths of as many as 3,200 people in Chile in the 1970s, but the Vatican dismissed reports of bloodshed at the time as “communist propaganda,” according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. Pinochet came to power in 1973 as the head of a military coup against democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The right-wing junta that subsequently ruled the country from 1973 to 1990 was responsible for 3,200 murders as well as the arrest of tens of thousands more, many of whom were tortured.

    In a 1973 diplomatic cable addressed to Henry Kissinger, then serving as the United States’ Secretary of State, high-ranking Vatican official Giovanni Benelli was quoted as relaying “his and the pope’s grave concern over successful international leftist campaign to misconstrue completely realities of Chilean situation.” Benelli dismissed reports of massacre as “unfounded” and “possibly [the] greatest success of Communist propaganda,” while explaining away whatever violence had occurred as “unfortunately natural following coup d’etat.” The cable was written five weeks after the coup, during the reign of Pope Paul VI, with reports already surfacing that political opponents of the regime were being arrested and killed. “The cables also showed the Vatican later realized the full extent of the abuses being carried out,” according to AFP, “but refused to criticize Pinochet’s regime openly and continued with normal diplomatic relations.”

    The Catholic Church’s activities in South America has been the subject of some scrutiny in the past. Opus Dei, made most famous by Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” but a real and influential order in the Church, has been dogged for years by allegations that it supported Pinochet’s coup and that its members were later active in the Pinochet regime.

    Pinochet, who was ousted as president of Chile when the country returned to democracy in 1990, was arrested in London in 1998, though he never stood trial, and eventually returned to Chile. He died in 2006.

    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.


    The Catholic Church has a long history of close relations with the state and government in power. In the Colonial period, the Church acted as a check-up on conquistadors who pursued their own feudal interests contrary to those of the Spanish Crown and those of the Church itself. In the middle to late colonial periods, the Catholic Church sided with the Spanish crown in attempts to curb native Indian and peasants who wanted equality and economic independence.

    When the revolutionary struggle began in the 1960s and 1970s with the Sandinistas (aka: Sandinista National Liberation Front or FALN), the Church did not support it. The ideology of the revolution was intended to better the lives of the peasants at the expense of the powerful land-owners. The Catholic Church sided with the land-owners and the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Somoza engaged in violent tactics such as the authorization of bombings of major cities, some of which targeted the church in his attempts to hold on to power. The Catholic Church was horrified by the church attacks and some of the regime’s brutality, yet they stuck by him as the better of two evils. Somoza lost popularity and the support of the Sandinistas became more prevalent.

    The FSLN overthrew the Somoza government in 1979 and established a revolutionary government in its place. Following their seizure of power, the Sandinistas ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990. It had the popular support of the people.


    During the period of 1876 to 1911, relations between the Catholic Church and the Mexican government were good. Mexican president and dictator, Porfirio Diaz (José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori; 1830-1915) said, “Persecution of the Church, whether or not the clergy enters into the matter, means war, and such a war, the Government can win it only against its own people through the humiliating, despotic, costly and dangerous support of the United States. Without its religion, Mexico is irretrievably lost.” Diaz strengthened the Mexican government ties with the Catholic Church with an agreement formulated in 1905.

    In 1910, the Mexican Revolution against the Diaz government started. It was a major uprising led by Francisco Madero. Over time the Revolution changed from a revolt against the established order to a multi-sided civil war. This armed conflict is often categorized as the most important events in Latin American history and one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century. After a long struggle, it produced the Mexican Constitution of 1917.

    The Constitutionalists eventually took active measures to reduce the profound influence of the Catholic Church. On May 19, 1914, General Álvaro Obregón Salido (1880-1928), who later became President of Mexico (1920-1924), sentenced Bishop Andres Segura and other clerical officials to jail for eight years because of their participation in opposition of the revolt. While Obregón was in control of Mexico City during February 1915, he ordered the Church to pay 500,000 pesos to alleviate the suffering of poor Mexicans.

    Because of the Catholic Church’s support of a dictator, support of the wealthy landowners at the expense of the poor and the peasants, when Venustiano Carranza (Venustiano Carranza de la Garza; 1859-1920) assumed the presidency in 1915, the new Constitution diminished the Church’s political sway over the people and power within Mexico. Five elements in the Constitution were aimed at reducing the Catholic Church’s influence in Mexican domestic affairs. Article 3 enforced secular education in Mexican schools. Monastic vows and orders were outlawed in Article 5. Article 24 prevented public worship outside the confines of the Church buildings. According to article 27, religious institutions were denied the right to acquire, hold, or administer real property. Furthermore, all real estate held by religious institutions through third parties like hospitals, schools, was declared national property. Finally in article 130, it declared all basic civil responsibilities like voting or commenting on public affairs was taken away from Church officials.

    The disagreement between the church and the government turned violent when over five thousand Chisteros (Catholic Church supporters) initiated an armed rebellion. The Mexican government and the Catholic Church engaged in bloody battle which lasted for a three-year period. The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. There were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, but by 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people. The rest had been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination. By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all.

    The 2000 census reported that Mexico had some 101,456,786 Catholics among the population aged five and above, which equates to around 91% of the total population, making it the second largest Roman Catholic country in the world after Brazil. But, the anti-Catholic Constitution largely still remains in effect.

    Bitter Past: Pope Francis and Argentina’s Dirty War

    Pope Francis’ Junta Past: Argentine Journalist on New Pontiff’s Ties to Abduction of Jesuit Priests

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