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How Argentina's bishops grapple with their country's past

On September 9, 2000, the Argentine bishops made a historic mea culpa for mistakes made at different times in the country’s history.

In particular, they apologized for wrongs committed during the period of violence that took place between the 1966 Argentine Revolution and the end of the military dictatorship in 1983.

The bishops admitted that Church leaders had taken positions which “injured democratic freedoms.” 

The Catholic University of Argentina produced a three-volume series on the Church’s engagement with Argentina’s military dictatorship. Credit: Vatican media.

They asked forgiveness for the “silences and for the effective participation of many of their children in so much political disagreement, in the violation of freedoms, in torture and denunciation, in political persecution and ideological intransigence, in struggles and wars, and the absurd death that bloodied our country.”

But 23 years after that request for forgiveness — and 40 years since the end of the dictatorship — there are still questions about the Church’s role in that period of Argentine history.

Because of those questions, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 2012 advocated for the opening of the bishops’ conference archives for the victims and relatives, and for subsequent study. 

In 2013, after he was pontiff, Pope Francis also asked for the opening of the archives at the apostolic nunciature in Buenos Aires and the Holy See.

The opening of these files has resulted in a three-volume book: “La Verdad los Hará Libres: La Iglesia Católica en la Espiral de Violencia en Argentina 1966-1983” —  “The Truth Will Set You Free:The Catholic Church in the Spiral of Violence in Argentina 1966-1983.”

The book was produced by the Argentine Catholic University, at the request of the bishops’ conference, to clarify the role of the Church in the country during the spiral of violence between 1966 and 1983. 

That volatile time saw alternating military and civilian governments with coups d'état, guerrilla movements, and state terrorism. The Church was divided during that period — with bishops, priests, and laymen in the country supporting diverse figures vying for leadership – from guerrilla movements to military dictatorship.

The first volume of the series discusses Church history in Argentina after Vatican II. The second includes a detailed historical analysis of the role of the Church in the dictatorship. The third - which is scheduled for publication at the end of the year - will offer an interdisciplinary series of essays that interpret the involvement of the Church in the violence of that time.

The preface of the book, signed by the executive commission of the Argentine bishops’ conference, states, “This search for truth moves us to ask for forgiveness ... Although the people who make up this collegiate body today are not the same as then, we are aware that, in many decisions, actions and omissions, the Argentine bishops’ conference did not rise to the occasion.”

Ricardo Albelda, academic secretary of theology at UCA, is one of the researchers and authors behind the book. He told The Pillar that it originates in a 2012 letter from the Argentine episcopal conference, entitled “La fe en Jesucristo nos mueve a la verdad, la justicia y la paz” — “Faith in Jesus Christ moves us to truth, justice and peace.”

In that letter, Albelda said, the bishops said they “feel committed to promoting a more full [account] of these events, in order to continue searching for the truth, in the certainty that it will set us free.”

“The Argentine episcopate believes that such an investigation is a pending debt that must be settled with Argentine society, since there is no true social fraternity without memory, truth, justice, freedom, social charity, and peace,”  Albelda told The Pillar.

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Peronism and dictatorship

Much of contemporary Argentine history has been dominated by Peronism, an ideology that arose with the presidency of Juan Domingo Perón, an Argentine general who came to power in 1946 and tried to establish a third way between Soviet communism and American capitalism through a nationalist and populist movement.  

Perón was widely popular in certain sectors of Argentine society, but he had a complex relationship with the Church. He has also been criticized for protecting Nazi war criminals, limiting freedom of expression in the country, and exiling, imprisoning, and torturing hundreds of dissidents. 

Perón was overthrown in 1955 and his party was banned. His departure from power led to several years of political instability, during which governments of different military factions followed one another, and elections of dubious legitimacy were held. 

Argentina has suffered from political violence ever since. But in 1966, a new coup in the country, which would become known as the Argentine Revolution, brought the tension and violence to a new level.

“The 1966 coup was mainly due to the question of what to do with Peronism,” Albelda said. While Peronism had been outlawed, it was experiencing a surge of popularity in the public square.

“In that environment, the ecclesiastical hierarchy was still shellshocked by the conciliar renovation” Albelda added. 

There was confusion within the hierarchy as to how to deal with church-state relations.  “[The bishops] willingly accepted a military regime that not only recognized the Church's doctrine as a source of legitimacy, but also intended to restore [its] leading role,” Albelda told The Pillar.

The military regimes of the previous decade had been proposed as transitory regimes. But the Argentine Revolution sought to impose an authoritarian bureaucratic state, which led to the dissolution of political parties and increased social tension and political violence in the country. 

In that period, the so-called puebladas began — popular insurrections in different parts of Argentina, with guerrilla groups rising throughout the country.

New elections were eventually organized in 1973. Héctor José Cámpora, a faithful Peronist, was elected president. He allowed Perón to return from exile and then resigned from the presidency to organize new elections, in which Perón was elected president.

Shortly thereafter, however, in July 1974, Perón died of a heart attack. His wife, María Estela Martínez de Perón, who had been his vice president, then took power. 

Martínez’s presidency was marked by challenges from guerrillas, armed movements and military groups. She was overthrown in a 1976 coup, led by Jorge Videla, then commander-in-chief of the Argentine Army.

Videla’s dictatorship was one of the darkest stages of Argentine history, leading the “National Reorganization Process” which resulted in thousands of people missing or murdered — while official estimates are approximately 8,000, many experts count as many as 30,000 missing during the period. 

Among those killed was Blessed Enrique Angelelli, bishop of La Rioja, who was assassinated in 1976. Angelelli was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope Francis in 2019.

The Malvinas War in 1982 and an economic crisis led to the collapse of the dictatorship, resulting in free elections in 1983.


The Catholic Church in the ‘spiral of violence’

The relationship between the local hierarchy and the Argentine dictatorship is complex. In the beginning, the bishops were often timid in speaking out.

While some Argentine bishops immediately condemned Angelelli’s assassination, there were notable voices failing to speak up. Archbishop Raúl Primatesta of Córdoba, who was president of the Episcopal Conference, defended this silence by suggesting that the bishops must be “wise as serpents,” saying that "there is a time to speak and a time to be silent."

Angelelli’s assassins had arranged for his death to look like a car accident. Yet the local Catholic media did not discuss the strange circumstances of his death. And Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu of Buenos Aires suggested that it was inappropriate to refer to his death as a murder, saying, “To talk about crime you have to prove it, and I have no argument in that regard.”

Another individual murdered in the spiral of violence was the anti-communist Catholic philosopher Carlos Alberto Sacheri. He was shot by members of a guerrilla group while leaving Mass with his family in 1974, supposedly for having denounced Marxist infiltration in the Church. 

Some Argentine bishops have requested Sacheri’s beatification in response to Angelelli's. To this day, Angelelli's beatification remains controversial, due to his sympathies with leftist groups during the dictatorship.

These murders are just a small sample of the complexity of the situation in which the Church found itself in Argentina at the time.

As a result, the authors of “The Truth Will Set You Free” have emphasized the need for an investigation to clarify the role of the Church in the violence of those years. Despite the bishops’ repeated requests for forgiveness, the authors have noted that there remain many unanswered questions.

While various research has been conducted on the role of the Church in Argentina’s violence, Albelda said the current work being done by Argentine Catholic University is unique.

It considers many different voices in its search for what really happened, and it involves collaboration by experts in history and theology, he said. It is also a thorough report, examining each of the actors of the Catholic Church at the time.

In addition, he said, the current research includes consultation with the archives of the bishops’ conference, as well as various departments of the Holy See, including the Secretary of State, the Council for Public Affairs of the Church and the Apostolic Nunciature.

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The Church’s initial silence in the face of the atrocities committed by the Argentine dictatorship - including grave violence against bishops, priests and Catholic laity - created an impression of complicity or fear among the hierarchy. 

Shortly after the fall of the dictatorship, criticisms of the Church began to arise. 

“A self-assessment by the Argentine bishops emerged more clearly towards the end of 1983,” said Father Luis Óscar Liberti, SVD, one of the authors of the UCA research. Liberti directs the pastoral theology department and serves as research coordinator at the UCA’s faculty of theology.

However, he noted that the hierarchy did not remain completely silent during the dictatorship.

“The bishops had issued relevant and critical documents of the methods used in the [government’s] ‘anti-subversive fight,’ and they responded to the requests of victims that came to them,” he told The Pillar.

Archbishop Primatesta, who had led the nation’s episcopal conference, argued that it was not fear or complicity that motivated the bishops not to speak, but rather a desire not to add to the confusion or disorder that could have resulted in national chaos. 

“We have acted solely out of love for our people and as we understood each time that it was better,” he said.

Soon after the dictatorship fell, the bishops’ conference permanent commission met in December 1983, to discuss “the need for the military vicariate to be able to account for its pastoral activities during the “Process,” Liberti said. 

“This concern had various grounds, such as the fact that at the 69th meeting of the permanent commission  — on December 15, 1982 — in which it was pointed out that: «apparently there have been many chaplains who have told the military that what they were doing was mostly fine,'" Liberti added.

“The bishops also acknowledged that their cordial relationship with government authorities had generated an image of complacency,” Liberti said

Still, the bishops believed the was some nuance to their position. The executive commission added in 1983 that “the appraisals are not unanimous, since for some we have been ‘hard’ with the military, not sufficiently acknowledging them for having saved the country from the guerrillas, communism or chaos, for others we have acted in justice, for others we have been timorous.”

Perhaps the most emblematic case of complacency with the dictatorship was that of Adolfo Tortolo, archbishop of Paraná and military vicar, who was president of the bishops’ conference between 1970 and 1976. As military vicar, he was an important interlocutor between the armed forces and then-President María Estela Martínez de Perón. Later, he would become Videla's confessor.

“[Tortolo] was more close and knowledgeable regarding the actions of the Armed Forces and the problems of the ‘conflicted consciences’ that the military chaplains transmitted to him regarding the illegal procedures that were being carried out [by the dictatorship],” Liberti toldThe Pillar.

“Tortolo was concerned about the possibility of the advent of a Marxist government and offered his protection to the Government of the Armed Forces at the time of the coup and afterward,” Liberti said. 

“He also showed himself to be more ideologically involved in the paradigm struggle within the country than his successors. [However, he also] acted with moral conviction when it came to pointing out excesses in the methods implemented by the state in the ‘anti-subversive fight’.”

While his role as military vicar and Videla's confidante likely meant that Tortolo had greater knowledge than the average bishop about human rights violations during the dictatorship, Liberti noted that from the available documentation, it is not clear what the exact level of that knowledge may have been. 

That the Church, in general terms, welcomed the 1976 coup did not help either. 

However, for researchers, that situation is also more complex.

The threat of Marxist guerrilla groups, coupled with the devastated economy, an increase in violence and disappearances, and the failure to establish a social pact, supported the conviction that the new military regime was the only way out of the crisis at the time, said Albelda.

He noted that was the case not only within the Church, but also among business leaders, trade unions, politicians, and much of society. 

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The Vatican’s response

The Holy See’s denunciations of the dictatorship were typically much more explicit than those of the Argentine bishops.

Thousands of Argentinians disappeared during the dictatorship. While many were presumed to have been killed, their bodies did not appear. Videla himself confessed that he did not carry out public executions for fear of Pope Paul VI's opposition to them. In addition, leaders of the dictatorship did not want to leave a trace of bodies, so that homage could not be paid to them.

On October 28, 1979, John Paul II denounced the Argentine dictatorship during his Angelus prayer, while the Argentine bishops were making their ad limina visit. 

“On the occasion of the meetings with pilgrims and bishops from Latin America, especially from Argentina and Chile, the drama of lost or disappeared persons is frequently recalled,” the pope said at the time.

“We pray that the Lord will comfort those who no longer have hope of embracing those they love,” he said at the Angelus, calling for “ precise details on the situation of the prisoners and that, in all the circumstances where the law is to be respected, a strict commitment be made to respect the natural and legal person, even those who are guilty or accused of having violated the law.”

Liberti explained that “the Holy See recommended other forms of denunciation and action [as well], but the leaders of the bishops’ conference did not adhere to the recommendation.”

This is not to say that the bishops’ conference privately approved of the dictatorship and its actions, Liberti clarified, since the conference did denounce human rights violations, although always in private dialogue with the military rather than public denunciations.

“This is one of the clearest shortcomings that we found in the investigation,” he said.

The role of Jorge Bergoglio

Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, who would later become Pope Francis, was superior of the Jesuits between 1973 and 1979 and then Rector of the San Miguel Jesuit Seminary in Buenos Aires until 1986. 

In these positions, Bergoglio played an important role in the Church.

In fact, perhaps the best internationally known controversy between the Church and the Argentine dictatorship is the case of the Jesuit priests Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, who were kidnapped by the Argentine navy in May 1976. They were found October 24, abandoned and drugged in a field.

Jalics and Yorio had drawn suspicion from the regime for alleged sympathies with subversive groups, although they always claimed that they were persecuted for having moved to the district of Rivadavia, where they lived among the poorest of the poor on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. 

Bergoglio, knowing of the threats they faced, had consulted with the superior general, Pedro Arrupe, to move them to a safer community—but Jalics and Yorio opposed it and decided to remain in Rivadavia.

In their months of captivity, little was known about the priests. The apostolic nuncio in Argentina, Pio Laghi, said the priests were presumed to have been murdered. Laghi said he had spoken to Videla about the situation, and was told that “he could not explain the disappearance of the two and that he did not know where they were being held.”

The situation led some to be suspicious of Bergoglio, including suspicions that resurfaced after his election as pope. Some rumors even suggested that he had tried to expel Yorio and Jalics from the Jesuits for opposing leaving Rivadavia, something that was proven to be false. Yorio long blamed Bergoglio for the situation, saying in a 1999 interview that he did nothing to free them, although Jalics said shortly after Francis was elected that Bergoglio was not guilty of the kidnapping.

“It is striking that, if [Bergoglio] was accused from the left of collaborating with the dictatorship, from the right he was accused of collaborating with Marxism,” Albelda told The Pillar

“In the investigation it is clear that Pope Francis used the instruments at his disposal to save many lives: seminarians, priests and students close to the Argentine Jesuit world managed to survive thanks to his actions,” he added.

“Particularly in the case of Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, the investigation shows how Bergoglio promptly informed all members of the Society of Jesus, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and the apostolic nuncio Pio Archbishop Laghi of their disappearances; then, based on information obtained [which pointed to the Navy as one of the possible perpetrators of their disappearances], he met twice with Adm. Massera [responsible for said force] and with the then-president of the nation Lt. Gen. Jorge R. Videla, interceding on their behalf.”

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