Catholic Church

Catholic Church
   Traditionally, the Catholic Church in Latin America belonged to a triumvirate that included the military and the ruling elite. In the 1960s liberation theology challenged the Latin American church to abandon its traditional alliances and side instead with the region’s poor. A decade later, during the height of the “dirty wars,” the church was further challenged to shift its allegiance from the defenders of the status quo to the victims of repression. In Argentina the church was largely conservative, and many priests and bishops not only supported the coup of 24 March 1976 but also justified the repression. Christian Federico Von Wernich, for example, a Catholic priest and police chaplain, was given a life sentence in October 2007 for complicity in kidnapping, torture, and homicide. Yet the Argentine church was by no means homogeneous. Many Catholics opposed the military regime and suffered the consequences. Monsignor Enrique Ángel Angelelli, the bishop of La Rioja, for example, was assassinated by the air force on 4 August 1976, shortly after the assassination of two of his diocesan priests. Two French nuns disappeared in Argentina on 13 December 1977 because of their involvement with the Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo). And Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a lay Catholic and leader of Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ, Peace and Justice Service), was imprisoned for his nonviolent efforts in behalf of the missing (desaparecidos).
   In Bolivia the church hierarchy welcomed the August 1971 coup that ousted the left-wing General Juan José Torres González and installed General Hugo Banzer Suárez, who saw himself as the defender of Christianity in Bolivia. Within two years, however, the bishops began to adopt a critical stance in the face of the regime’s harassment of progressive priests and religious women. In January 1973 the bishops established a Justice and Peace Commission, which began documenting cases of illegal detention, torture, and disappearance. In October 1977 the bishops supported the creation of the ecumenical Asamblea Permanente de los Derechos Humanos de Bolivia (APDHB, Permanent Assembly on Human Rights in Bolivia), which participated in the 1977–1978 hunger strike led by the activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara and three other miners’ wives. The strikers’ demands were met—Banzer Suárez proclaimed an amnesty for 340 labor and political leaders then in exile. And during the short, but violent, dictatorship of Luis García Meza (July 1980–May 1981), the bishops continued to denounce torture and assassinations. In Brazil the hierarchy was ambivalent about the 1964 coup. On the one hand, fearing that the country had been on the road to socialism, it expressed gratitude to the military for taking action. On the other hand, it expressed reservations about authoritarian rule. Nevertheless, the church and the military government managed a peaceful coexistence for the first few years, and conservative bishops could be counted on to celebrate masses of thanksgiving on the anniversary of the coup. By the mid-1960s, however, a rift had begun to appear. As the military hard-line came to power and transformed Brazil into a national-security state, progressive church leaders such as Archbishop Hélder Câmara, Dom Paulo Evaristo Cardinal Arns, Aloisio Cardinal Lorscheider, and Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga rose to prominence as advocates for human rights. They were also branded as subversive, and left-leaning Catholics were targeted by death squads.
   Although some members of the hierarchy in Chile supported the coup of 11 September 1973, the church emerged as the only institution in the country capable of applying consistent pressure on the military regime of Augusto Pinochet Ugarte. Shortly after the coup, the bishops condemned socialism but stopped short of publicly embracing the new regime. Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, though uncommitted at first, created the Comité de la Paz (COPACHI, Committee for Peace) in October to aid victims of the repression. After COPACHI was dissolved by the government two years later, its work was continued by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad (Vicariate of Solidarity), established under church protection. In August 1983 Archbishop Juan Francisco Fresno Larraín, Silva Henríquez’s successor, urged cooperation, not confrontation, and began hosting secret meetings between opposition groups and representatives of the military regime. This dialogue would result, in August 1985, in the National Accord for a Transition to Full Democracy, a pact that laid the groundwork for Pinochet Ugarte’s defeat in the 1988 plebiscite. The church in Paraguay had had a troubled relationship with rulers going back to the colonial period—the Jesuit order was expelled in 1767, the first of several expulsions. In the early years of the Alfredo Stroessner regime (1954–1989), the church and the government maintained a fragile working relationship—the church gained financial support, the government moral support. Tensions appeared as early as 1956, when Ramón Talavera, a Paraguayan priest, denounced Stroessner from the pulpit, citing violations of human rights. After Talavera was kidnapped and beaten, the church hierarchy sent him to Uruguay for his protection. Although the government never let him return, others followed his example. In the 1960s the Catholic University in Asunsción became a center of student activism. Meanwhile, in the countryside, the Jesuit order was raising the political consciousness of peasants by creating cooperatives called Christian Agrarian Leagues. To the government, both the university and the leagues were hotbeds of communism. In 1975–1976 it destroyed the leagues and expelled many of the Jesuits.
   In Uruguay, bishops opposed the dissolution of Congress on 27 June 1973, which capped a four-month-long coup. Although the bishops often spoke of the need for reconciliation, they openly opposed the military government in a document issued on 30 April 1975. On 1 April 1984, in anticipation of the return to democracy, Monsignor Carlos Partelli delivered a sermon on “the good news of the dignity of man.” Partelli had spent many years defending the Uruguayan branch of SERPAJ against the military government.

Historical Dictionary of the “Dirty Wars” . . 2010.

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