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Michael Kuhnert {*}

In a Fix

The Church in Argentina
is Struggling with the Past


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 4/2008, pp 200-203
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The Argentine episcopate has difficulties in elucidating its role during the military dictatorship. As at that time the bishops of Argentina find no common ground in the painful dealing with the past.


In La Plata on 9 October 2007 the Catholic priest Christian von Wernich was sentenced to life imprisonment. After a four-month process and the hearing of far more than 100 witnesses because the court had found von Wernich, who is of German origin, guilty of crimes against humanity in the course of the genocide of the dictatorship. In concrete terms, it was proved that he had participated in seven murders, 31 tortures and 42 abductions during the military dictatorship.

The pronouncement of judgement was broadcast live on television. In front of the court-house more than 1000 people followed the broadcasting of the judge's verdict on a big screen. In the courtroom the representatives of the "Madres de la Plaza de Mayo" and family members of those who disappeared and were murdered during the military dictatorship fell into each others' arms. In the media the verdict was celebrated as a victory of justice and as a major step against oblivion and for coming to terms with the past.

Apart from the satisfaction about the sentencing of von Wernich in the critical public among other things the following questions were voiced: How is it possible that a man like von Wernich, who had been expelled from various seminaries had nevertheless been ordained priest? Why does the Catholic church not open its archives in order to support the search for justice? Why is von Wernich not suspended from the priesthood or excommunicated?


The Inadequate Response of the Bishops

In fact, the official reactions of the Argentine Bishops' Conference and of the bishop of the diocese Nueve de Julio, in which von Wernich is incardinated, to his sentence had turned out to be too laconic.

The communiqué of 18 lines issued by the Permanent Commission of the Argentine Bishops' Conference right away on 9 October 2007, in which von Wernich's name was not mentioned, stressed that the church in Argentina was moved by the pain caused by the participation of a priest in most serious crimes". Further it says: "We think that the steps taken by the judiciary to investigate those criminal acts are to serve to renew the efforts of all citizens on the road to reconciliation and call upon us to refrain from impunity as well as from hatred and vengeance."

The communiqué concludes by pointing out that the church already in September 2000 asked for forgiveness and repeats what had been said in March 1995 by the Permanent Commission of the Bishops' Conference: "If a member of the church by his recommendation or complicity has endorsed those acts (of forcible repression), he had done it on his own personal responsibility and gravely erred or sinned against God, humanity and his conscience."

The bishop of the diocese Nueve de Julio, Martin de Elizalde, stresses in his message of 10 October 2007 the "conviction that Jesus Christ's gospel imposes a behaviour upon us which shows honest respect for our brothers - precondition of a social life in peace and justice. We regret that in our country there was so much division and hatred, which we as church could neither prevent nor cure. That a priest could - by action or omission - be so far away from the requirements of the mission entrusted to him moves us to ask with sincere repentance for forgiveness, while we ask God our Lord that he may enlighten us, so that we fulfil our vocation to unity and service. At the appropriate time von Wernich's situation has to be clarified in accordance with the orders of the canonical law."

With those two short statements the Argentine bishops have done themselves no favour. Of course it is right that they ask for forgiveness, appeal to readiness for reconciliation and send a reminder about the unity of the Argentines. But do requests and appeals suffice to reconcile a nation in which still far too many former perpetrators go unpunished and where the pain, the anger and despair about 30.000 vanished people are still palpable everywhere even a good 20 years after the end of the dictatorship?



The bishops have failed to make seriously and thoroughly answers to some signs of the times in a very sensitive moment of history and for the Church of Argentina: namely people's desire for justice, for a complete reappraisal, i.e. the clearing-up of the military dictatorship, accompanied by the attempt really to come to terms with the past in a forward-looking and therefore of course also painful way.

Special anger was caused by Bishop Elizalde's announcement that von Wernich's situation must be clarified by ecclesiastical law "at the appropriate time". Which point in time, so one asked, was actually more "appropriate", clearer and more urgent than the moment in which a final sentence was passed on von Wernich because of his involvement in numerous murders, tortures and abductions! Until today there is no information that von Wernich has been suspended from the priesthood or excommunicated. But by now almost no one gets worked up about that any more. Was behind the meagre response of the bishops possibly only the tactics simply to cool down the hot case of von Wernich?


A Vague Request for Forgiveness

Nevertheless, it would be too easy generally to reproach the bishops and the Church of Argentina for lack of sensitivity or tactics regarding the case of von Wernich. Not a few bishops completely agreed with the process against von Wernich and breathed a sigh of relief, though hiding their faces, about his conviction. At least one bishop and one priest gave evidence against von Wernich in the legal proceedings. In many parishes and laity groups the case against von Wernich was taken as an opportunity to clear up one's own role during the military dictatorship and to reflect upon it.

The public gave the working paper of the Commission for Pastoral Social Action, which was at first only destined for the internal use of the diocese Neuquén but was then leaked to the press, a very favourable reception. In it the legal proceedings against von Wernich were taken as an opportunity once again critically to examine the role of the church during and after the military dictatorship and to focus on the Christians' obligation and commitment to defend life: "Even if not the entire Hierarchy was deaf in view of so many brothers' sufferings (several shepherds brought salvation, solace and liability in that black hour of the motherland as well as countless priests and laywomen loyal to the Gospel), we can scarcely help acknowledging with pain that not the whole church took over this imperative attitude, in order to be consistent with what we believe and proclaim.



Too much silence, the lack of public participation in the lament of the relatives of vanished people, closed ears in view of the call for justice, too much weakness to acknowledge injustice as such, all that caused evil in accordance to which we appeared close to the dictators of death, whereas we should have been apostles of life."

Also the Argentinean bishops' request for forgiveness of the year 2000 was criticized in the working paper, because it had been expressed within such a solemn context, namely the National Eucharistic Congress in Cordoba, and in a rather unclear language, so "that we, the majority have unfortunately not understood that the Church had asked for forgiveness for its actions during the dictatorship."

The remarkable document from the Diocese of Neuquén calls upon every individual, every community and the whole church to wonder what their attitude was "in view of the contempt for life and the most basic fundamental rights". It concludes with the statement that "we still lack a lot in order to achieve real justice, real peace and reconciliation" and with the demand "to take responsibility to announce the God of life (whatever the cost) by defending the rights and the dignity of each human person and all people."


Time and Again Individual Bishops Pull Out

Not gloss over the past or cover it over with the cloak of silence but consistently learn from it and therefore proclaim today the God of life and consequently defend the rights and dignity of everybody: The priest Rubén Capitanio, who for some time studied at the same seminary as von Wernich and who in the process had to testify against him, has summed that up during the statement in court by the following image. He talks of two photos of the church: "One shows the church (especially the episcopate) at that moment when it was common practice to see bishops and cardinals at state ceremonies and at the table with the military authorities. And the other photo shows the church today: on the photo you see, albeit with restrictions, bishops and cardinals discussing with the power in order to defend the excluded and impoverished."

Why has the Argentine episcopate such trouble with publicly following the path laid down by the diocese Neuquén, the path between complete clarification of one's own role during the dictatorship, a clear admission of guilt as one's clear cut from it, and its new role as advocate of the poor and excluded, especially since the two "Photos" of the Church by now are well known? What prevents the bishops from pointing out that the church, viewed historically, has changed from Saul to Paul since the end of the military dictatorship, because after seven years of collaborating resp. putting up with the dictators - to put it theologically - it has gone through a true conversion and is today in fact the advocate of life, of the poor and excluded?

Perhaps it is due to internal reasons: During the military dictatorship the bishops have not unanimously defended life and human rights. Too many have, openly or secretly, collaborated with the dictators. Admittedly, today most of them discuss with the power in order to defend the poor and the excluded - to continue the metaphor of the priest Capitanio. But they do not succeed in acting as a real unity, even though or just because it is often asserted.

Time and again individual bishops, who have conspicuously good connections with the Vatican, pull out of the bishops' common moderate line as regards the military dictatorship, inner-church concerns and the option for the poor.

In February 2005 army bishop Antonio Baseotto wrote to the then Health Minister Ginés Garcia Gonzales an open letter in which he connected his call for exemption from punishment in case of abortion and the public distribution of condoms to young people with a Bible quotation: "When You publicly distributed contraceptives to young people, You reminded of the Gospel, where our Lord affirms that he who tempts one of these little ones to evil, deserves that he gets a millstone around his neck and is sunk into the sea" (cf. Mt 18, 6).

With that quote, which of course immediately reminded the Argentine public of the death flights during the military dictatorship, when prisoners with stones around their bodies had been dropped above the Rio de la Plata, Baseotto provoked one of the deepest crises of the last decades between church and state: the then President Nestor Kirchner declared Baseotto as dismissed and urged the Vatican it too should dismiss Baseotto. Health Vice Minister Hector Conti reminded of Baseotto's supposedly good relations to ex-Navy Officer Adolfo Scilingo, who had taken part at least in two death flights (and has by now been convicted in Spain) and quite bluntly moved Baseotto in the vicinity of the military dictatorship: "It seems that Monseñor his contacts to the oppressors, who sowed terror and death in Argentina in epochs that we considered to be overcome keeps well oiled."

Baseotto remained, officially dismissed by the government, nevertheless until his 75th birthday in April 2007 as army bishop in office, because the Vatican did not urge him to resign. Quite the contrary: On occasion of his 50-year priest anniversary Pope Benedict XVI emphasized, likewise in April 2007, in a personal letter among other things his "correct interpretation of the church doctrine" and his "special thoughtfulness".



The Argentine Bishops' Conference was in Baseotto's case in a fix: Since he was backed by the Vatican, it could of course not put pressure on him regarding his resignation, what caused annoyance among the faithful and provided the government Kirchner new ammunition against the bishops. Since at that time the relationship between President Kirchner and the bishops in general and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in particular was already on a low, because of their fierce criticism of Kirchner's accumulation of power and his social policy, the church clearly emerged as loser from that episode.


What is the Vatican's Role?

The Argentine episcopate is also the clear loser regarding the ultra-conservative, traditionalist "Instituto del Verbo Encarnado (IVE), which in 1984 in the Diocese of San Rafael could arise under the patronage of Bishop Leon Kruk, who was on extremely close terms with the dictatorship and has in the meantime ordained hundreds of seminarians priests. At the beginning of the century the Vatican had admittedly at first complied with the request of the Argentine Bishops' Conference and ordered that the IVE's novitiate and seminary in San Rafael must be closed, but the IVE has never kept to that.

In spite of the IVE's disobedience against Rome then in 2001 an astonishing development came about: The bishop of the Italian diocese Velletri-Segni, where by now the Generalate of the IVE is situated, flew to La Plata in order to ordain in the Cathedral 49 seminarians of the IVE priests, although the Argentine bishops had agreed that none of them ordains seminarians of the IVE priests. That ordination only became possible when the Archbishop of La Plata, Héctor Aguer, stabbed his fellow bishops in the back. He too has at his disposal excellent connections with the Vatican.

In October 2006 Marcelo Martorell was - as a complete surprise for the Argentine Bishops Conference - appointed successor of Joaquin Piña, bishop of the diocese Puerto Iguazú. The Jesuit Piña is regarded as absolutely credible advocate of the option for the poor, and during the 20 years of his episcopacy had sworn the poor rural diocese to the principles of the Second Vatican Council, and had brought the poor into the centre of the Church's actions. At the end of October 2006 he won with a clear majority a plebiscite for the Constituent Assembly as the main candidate against the corrupt governor of the Misiones province, and so made the second re-election of the governor impossible.

Martorell had as Vicar General under the Archbishop of Cordoba, Cardinal Raúl Francisco Primatesta made a successful career. Primatesta had never firmly spoken disapprovingly of the dictatorship, and Martorell as his confidant had accepted money for the Archdiocese from his friend, the dubious entrepreneur Adolfo Yabrán. When Primatesta died and Yabrán took his own life Martorell's star went down - in order surprisingly to light up then all the more in October 2006 by the appointment as Bishop of Iguazú. His appointment was a shock for the Argentine bishops and the poor of Iguazús. Martorell, however, accuses his predecessor now publicly of embezzlement of money, dismisses priests, nuns and laywomen who lent aid to the poor, takes money from the provincial government, and will soon send the seminarians of his poor diocese to the about 1000 kilometres away seminary in La Plata.



It is an open secret that - at least in the cases of Bishop Baseotto and the IVE - the then State Secretary of the Vatican, Cardinal Angelo Sodano decisively held the reins. Under Sodano's term of office the relations between the Vatican and the Argentine church cooled down and the influence of the Argentine Bishops' Conference in decisions regarding its common line and unity was practically zero. Contrary to the ideas and wishes of the Bishops' Conference (arch) conservative candidates were time and again completely surprisingly appointed bishops or archbishops. In September 2006 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone's assumption of office as the new Secretary of State of the Vatican was consequently received with great relief and hope by the majority of the Argentine bishops. His participation in the beatification of Ceferino Namuncurá, the son of a Mapuche chief, in November 2007, was interpreted as a clear sign that the relations with the Vatican normalize, and that the line of the Bishops' Conference, namely to be advocate of the poor and excluded, is understood and approved by Rome.

In this sense in October 2007 the appointment as cardinal of the now 82-year-old Estanislao Karlic, the popular chairman of the Argentine Bishops' Conference from 1996 to 2002, was received with great joy by the Argentine episcopate.

It's true though that together with him another Argentinean was appointed (Curia) cardinal, the 64-year-old Leonardo Sandri, a close ally of Cardinal Sodano, whose relations with the Argentine Bishops' Conference are extremely bad. But Sandri has the best connections with the conservative bishops of Argentina. It could therefore be quite possible that the Argentine church will still be in a fix.


    {*} Michael Kuhnert (born in 1961) is expert for Peru at the Catholic Latin America aid organisation Adveniat. From 2004 to 2007 he lived as development aid worker of the AGEH in Argentina. From 1998 to 2003 he was Argentina expert with Adveniat.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'