Argentina, The Catholic Church in
ARGENTINA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Argentine Republic, the second largest country in South America, is bounded on the north by Bolivia and Paraguay, on the east by Brazil, Uruguay, and the Atlantic Ocean, and on the west by Chile, which separates Argentina from the Pacific Ocean. The country's northern Pampas region is characterized by fertile lowland plains, its climate subtropical, while the land rises to fertile plains in the central region, and the uneven plateau of Patagonia to the south. The Andes mountains to the west provide a natural boundary between Argentina and Chile, and the range contains several volcanos. Argentina's highly literate population is largely of Spanish or Italian origin, with ethnic Amerindians, mestizos, and Africans comprising less than five percent of its citizens.
While Argentina is highly urbanized, it still derives much of its national income from agriculture. Natural resources include deposits of oil, natural gas, zinc, uranium, and lead; the nation's agricultural production includes wheat, corn, cotton, rice, and sugarcane. In a strategic position due to its location near the Strait of Magellan and other sea lanes connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Argentina remained under control of Spain until 1816. After achieving independence, it spent the rest of the 19th century resolving border disputes with its neighbors. Its constitutional government was overthrown in 1943 by a military coup led by Juan Perón, whose dictatorship lasted for several decades. In the years following Perón's ouster, the country was controlled by a military junta. Since 1983 democratic elections have been held in Argentina.
Early Christianization. On April 1, 1519, several priests came ashore at San Julián, Patagonia, as part of Ferdinand Magellan's expedition to Argentina. In February 1536 the colonizing expedition of Pedro de Mendoza arrived at the site of Buenos Aires. Three churches or provisional chapels were built, and the same was done a few months later in Asunción, Paraguay. One of the priests, Juan Gabriel de Lezcano, opened a school for the indigenous people, teaching them catechism, chant, reading, and writing, while trying to instill in them Christian values.
The first settlement at Buenos Aires was soon depopulated, its inhabitants moving to other, more recently established towns such as Corpus Christi (1536) and Asunción, Paraguay (1537). Years later, settlers from Chile founded the city of Mendoza (1560) and San Juan (1561); others from Peru founded Tucumán in 1565, Córdoba in 1579, Santa Fe in 1578, and resuscitated Buenos Aires in 1583. All of these settlements and most of the military expeditions were attended by regular or secular clergy, Franciscans and Dominicans predominating at first. For the Spaniards at that time, founding a city meant establishing a cabildo, and a church and school entrusted to the priest. The conquistadores were predominantly men of profound and deep-rooted faith, loyal to religious and pious practices, even if the habits of some were not always in accordance with moral standards. Some priests, fleeing from the peninsular Inquisition or in search of freedom for their licentiousness, went to Río de la Plata and became a corrupting influence.
The Spanish Period. On July 1, 1547, Pope Paul III created the Diocese of Río de la Plata, which encompassed the Spanish Viceroyalty of La Plata (present-day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay north to the Paranapanema River, and the southern part of present-day Brazil). The see was in Asunción, and the first bishop to actually serve in the position was Pedro Fernández de la Torre (1555–73), a Franciscan. With the creation of the Diocese of Tucumán (sometimes called Córdoba de Tucumán) in 1570, including the central and northwest sections of the country, and the appointment of Francisco de Victoria as bishop, effective episcopal action began. While Victoria had difficulties because of his mercantilist enterprises and his pro-Portuguese attitude (he was a native of Portugal), to him is owed the ecclesiastical organization of the Argentine territory. Both he and his successor, Fernando de trejo y sanabria (1595–1614), made much use of the religious orders, especially the Jesuits, brought in by Bishop Victoria.
Bishop Sanabria organized his diocesan church in conformity with the decisions of the Council of Trent. To better prepare his clergy he established the Colegio Seminario de Santa Catalina, which eventually found a home in Córdoba and was called Loreto. Later he founded the Colegio Convictorio de San Javier in Córdoba, and in 1613 he took the first steps toward the creation of the University of Córdoba, founded in 1622. At the end of the 17th century this initial work, implemented by the Jesuits, would be completed by Ignacio Duarte y Quirós with the foundation of the Convictorio de Monserrat, which fostered many priestly vocations.
For the next 400 years there would be a steady increase in the number of dioceses in Argentina, a reflection of the slow but constant progress of Catholicism and evidence of the success of the conversion of the region's native peoples. Franciscans such as Alonso de Buenaventura and Luis de Bolaños (c. 1578), and the Jesuits Alonso Barzana and Pedro de Añasco (1586), approached their work in an organized and systematic manner: the Franciscans worked in the prosperous Reductions in present-day Paraguay and in San José del Bagual, Santiago del Baradero, Isla de Santiago, and Tumbichaminí, while the Jesuits worked in the 30 Reductions they established, beginning in 1610, in what is now the Province of Misiones and in adjacent regions, both Paraguayan and Brazilian. In addition to these Reductions the Jesuits founded in the 18th century those of Abipones in the Chaco, the Mocobíes in Santa Fe, the Vilelas in Salta, the Lules in Tucumán, and those of the Pampas in the Province of Buenos Aires.
After their expulsion in 1767, the Jesuits were replaced in their 30 Reductions by Franciscans, Dominicans, and Mercedarians. These towns were destroyed in the battles that took place between 1810 and 1818 by Paraguayans, Uruguayans, and Brazilians. The other Jesuit Reductions ceased to exist after the expulsion of the
order. At the end of the 18th century Franciscan fathers from the Propaganda Fide, and after 1876 the Salesians, again undertook conversion efforts in the extreme north and the extreme south of the country. Their numbers did not exceed 30,000.
Although the Jesuit professors at the University of Córdoba and in the Convictorio de Monserrat had been Cartesian, as were the Franciscans who succeeded them after 1767, Catholic doctrine suffered no impairment, nor was it affected by the liberal ideas dominant in Spain. This was not the case at the Colegio de San Ignacio in Buenos Aires, directed by the secular clergy since 1773, among them Julián Fernández de Agüero, a priest of agnostic doctrines and lax morality.
Political Independence. Since the more radical ideas of the Enlightenment were not widespread in the area, the Revolution of 1810, which broke the ties with Spain, was completely Catholic and orthodox. Cornelio Saavedra, leader of the revolt, was a thorough and even pious Catholic, as was the priest Manuel Alberti, who was one of the spokesmen of the revolutionary government. While the bishops of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, and Salta did not sympathize with the separatist movement, most of the clergy and many of the religious supported the new political regime. While almost all the Mercedarian fathers were separatist, most Franciscans were against or only tolerated the revolution. Since ties between religious orders and their superiors in Europe had been broken, the new government created the Commission for Religious, an illegitimate instrument of the antireligious assembly. The nature of the revolution soon changed under the leadership of misguided and immoral men such as Juan José Castelli and Bernardo Monteagudo. However, the movement was corrected at the Congress of Tucumán, which proclaimed the independence of the United Provinces of South America (present-day Argentina) on July 9, 1816. Eleven of the twenty-nine representatives who signed this declaration were priests.
While independence had been declared, the form of government for La Plata was a matter of dispute. Buenos Aires wanted to hold control of all the provinces, and this attitude provoked a civil war lasting from 1818 to 1820. Waging such a prolonged conflict necessitated a strong government, and rivadavia aspired to be that government. However, he could count on the support only of the Province of Buenos Aires, and even there he had committed serious errors. A presumptuous man, dazzled by what he had seen in France, Rivadavia was imbued with the ideas of Joseph of Austria and Febronius, particularly the concept of patronage that national and provincial governments each believed they had inherited from Spain. Wishing to legislate ecclesiastical as well as civil affairs and influenced by enlightened priests who wished to end completely Christian preaching, Rivadavia attempted to carry out the ill-named Reform of the Clergy. In 1824, when the papal delegate arrived in Buenos Aires on his way to Chile, Rivadavia refused to let him administer the Sacrament of Confirmation and ordered him to leave the city as soon as possible. In this Rivadavia was supported by the high clergy in Buenos Aires. The next year Rivadavia made a treaty with England by which Protestantism was officially permitted, and with it toleration of all religions. His government proved disastrous for Argentina.
In 1829, during one of many short-lived governments, Buenos Aires governor Juan José Viamonte initiated the restoration of relations with Rome that had been suspended since 1810. Pope Pius VII appointed Mariano medrano bishop of Buenos Aires, and Medrano served until 1832, to the great satisfaction of the Argentine people and the great opposition of some jurists and many priests.
The Liberal Constitution of 1853. From 1835 to 1852 Juan Manuel Rosas governed the whole of Argentina through its capital in Buenos Aires and, through force, brought a measure of peace and order to the region. A firm supporter of patronage, he interfered in clearly ecclesiastical
matters, supporting the Church in spiritual and apostolic work but expelling from the country priests and religious whom he considered too involved in politics. His relations with Bishop Medrano were always of a very cordial nature.
After Rosas was overthrown in February 1852, the government fell under the control of men of heterodox views, such as Juan María Gutiérrez; or of ambition, such as Bartolomé Mitre; or of flexible ideology, such as Domingo Sarmiento. Such men dominated the preparation of the Constitution of 1853, a document little in keeping with the doctrine and spirit of Catholicism. Among the members of the congress drawing up this constitution was a priest, Benjamín Lavaisse; and another, Mamerto esquiÚ, spoke in favor of its adoption.
Catholicism waned appreciably among intellectuals during the period 1853 to 1880. At the same time Masonry became more and more prevalent, its followers believing that the time had arrived to do away with the decadent Argentine Church. By 1880 the effects of the constitution of 1853 upon the Church had become evident, some resulting from specific provisions within its articles, others the consequence of erroneous interpretation. President Julio A. Roca, detested in Buenos Aires because he was from Tucumán, allowed Masons to attack the Church openly and thus began a struggle that lasted throughout his term of office (1880–86). In and out of parliament battles were fought over education and civil marriage, the enemies of the Church winning on both counts.
To oppose these liberal tendencies, José Manuel Estrada, a former liberal who had become a militant Catholic, formed the Unión Católica and became the moving force behind the First Argentine Catholic Assembly, which met in 1884. Estrada founded the newspaper La Unión, and, above all, motivated others with his heroic spirit. Pedro Goyena, Tristán Achaval Rodríguez, Emilio de Alvear, Aureliano Argento, Mariano Demaría, Emilio Lamarca, Dámaso Centeno, and many others were inspired by Estrada to fight boldly for the interests of Christ. If the ecclesiastical authority of Buenos Aires proved less than valiant, the Franciscan Bishop of Salta, Buenaventura Risso Patron and the vicars of Córdoba, Santiago del Estero, and Jujuy acted so valiantly that they were either arrested and jailed or removed from their ecclesiastical posts.
The Early 20th Century. As Argentina entered the 20th century, it was believed that the de-Christianizing process begun by left-leaning liberals in 1880 could be
completed by introducing divorce. While it seemed that everything favored this project in the Argentine Congress, the calm and effective speech of a young deputy from Tucumán, Ernesto E. Padilla, brought about its spectacular failure. Padilla was part of a Catholic revival led by German Redemptorist Federico grote and others. Grote's work was in accordance with the necessities of the age: He started the Workingmen's Groups, founded the Catholic newspaper El Pueblo, and inspired a new generation of men, among them Emilio Lamarca, Miguel de Andrea, Alejandro Bunge, Gustavo J. franceschi, and José M. Samperio.
The International Eucharistic Congress of 1934 was a success that exceeded even the hopes of the most optimistic. The entire nation took part, with many in attendance converting or returning to God. In 1943, after the military government of Gen. Pedro Pablo Ramírez ordered that elective courses in religion or morals be offered in all public schools, 92 percent elected religion. Even in cosmopolitan cities, such as Buenos Aires, the majority remained Catholic. From 1934 through the middle of the century, the Church advanced in many areas: the number of dioceses increased; the Argentine Catholic Action Movement, founded in 1931, gained membership; the number of parishes and of parochial schools grew; secondary schools were founded and directed by the Jesuits, the Missionaries of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Betharram Fathers, Salesians, Order of the Divine Word, Brothers of the Pious Schools, Christian Brothers, and Marist Brothers, as well as other male and female congregations.
The Perón Era. When the populist government of Juan Domingo Perón stressed its totalitarian tendencies in 1952, it provoked a serious conflict with the Church. The official press began to mock everything Catholic; Catholic gatherings were prohibited; Catholic organizations, such as the university athenaeums of Santa Fe and of Córdoba, were abolished; crucifixes were removed from government offices; religious teaching in schools was suppressed; the divorce law was approved; and houses of prostitution were again authorized. While the episcopate remained firm and energetic, and the faithful supported their pastors, priests and laymen were jailed and mistreated on many occasions, and every expedient was used to harass Catholics. Persecution reached its high point on June 11, 1955, when a huge crowd gathered in the cathedral in Buenos Aires and in the adjacent plaza to hear Mass and afterward, in absolute silence, passed through the center of the city to the congressional building. Five days later, after an attempt to overthrow the government had been thwarted, the government instigated mobs to take revenge by burning local churches and the episcopal curia, the contents of which, including the historical archives, were reduced to ashes. The sacking and burning of churches raised a great reaction throughout the country and even abroad. Never had anything like this occurred in Argentina.
After the fall of the Perón government in September 1955 the new revolutionary junta began to reestablish justice. Unfortunately, this government was soon infiltrated by anti-Catholic elements, and although the divorce law passed in the time of Perón was suspended, the pre-Perón religious education law was not reinstated.
Bibliography: j. c. zuretti, Historia eclesiástica argentina (Buenos Aires 1945). g. furlong, Diócesis y obispos de la iglesia argentina, 1570–1942 (Buenos Aires 1942). Anuario eclesiástico de la República Argentina (Buenos Aires 1961–). a. donini, "Un análisis para el futuro del catolicismo argentino," Estudios 549 (Buenos Aires 1963) 651–657. a. p. whitaker, Argentina (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1964).
Vatican II and Beyond. On the eve of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the Church held the spiritual allegiance of the vast majority of Argentinians, despite a century of attacks waged by liberalism and secularism, not to mention the terrible confrontation with Perón's populist dictatorship. The Catholic hierarchy projected a
conservative, sternly authoritarian, and reactionary image as it presided over what was seen as a closed, intolerant, and elitist institution anxious to retain its strong political presence in the country. Religious traditions and rituals survived as major elements in Argentine public and private life, while Catholic educational and charitable institutions contributed an indispensable part of the nation's academic and welfare services. A renewed spirit resulted from Vatican II that gradually found its flowering in the quincentennial celebration of the European discovery of the New World (1992) and the launching of a new program of evangelization of the Americas inspired by Pope John Paul II.
In Argentina, the 1960s was characterized by strife and turmoil. Old forms of Church life were dying out. The Argentine Catholic Action (ACA) movement, inspired by papal social teaching, had inspired great social change during the 1930s and 1940s, but by the 1960s was in rapid decline as it lost its former youthful energy and purposefulness. The days of truly outstanding lay leadership were over. At the same time, the chronic shortage of priests and religious became more acute, reaching critical proportions by the middle of the decade.
In 1962 the radical Frondizi government, which had been well disposed toward the Church, fell to a military coup aimed at halting the unchecked resurgence of Peronism. The next year Arturo Illia, with only 25 percent of the vote, became president and provided honest but weak leadership in a land torn by irreconcilable divisions. Peronist labor leaders refused to compromise or collaborate with Illia, while the military watched over his government with a menacing vigilance. A major development for the Church occurred in 1962 with the promotion of Catholic private education led by Tomás Walsh, FSC (Hermano Septimio). Together with the religious and lay members of the Superior Council of Catholic Education, Walsh spearheaded a successful crusade for equality of rights and privileges with state education throughout Argentina. That same year over 4,000 people attended the First National Catechetical Conference in Buenos Aires that gave a fresh start to religious instruction.
New categories of thought, attitudes, and action were urgently needed for the Church remain relevant in a rapidly modernizing world. Being a Christian was now more a matter of personal choice than a result of birth and national identity. As Argentina alternated between rudderless civilian governments and repressive military regimes, her society was on the verge of a rupture with its Catholic foundations. It had become a society in the grip of traumatic political conflict and confrontation, of confusion and rebellion set within the context of revolutions led by Fidel Castro and the Argentine Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Cuba and fast spreading to Brazil, Chile, and the rest of South America.
In 1966 the military struck once again in an attempt to check and purge the persistent and growing Peronist movement, naming General Juan Carlos Onganía president. An admirer of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, Onganía established a conservative, pro-Catholic, anticommunist regime which initially enjoyed a broad base of popular support. Business, industry, and even labor looked to the military to put an end to the economic chaos, crime, and corruption that now permeated society and politics. Over a four-year period Onganía's government pushed ahead with economic and industrial development, but it could not cope with the emerging guerrilla and urban terrorist movements.
During Onganía's presidency several major events took place in the Church: the end of the Patronato Regio (union of church and state) in a bilateral accord signed in 1966 by the Argentine government and the Holy See; the emergence of the Argentine-based Priests for the Third World movement; and 1968's celam (Latin American Bishops Conference) meeting in Medellín, Colombia, for the implementation of Vatican II in Latin America. In 1969 the Argentine Bishops' Conference issued its "Document of San Miguel" calling for sweeping Church reforms based on the conclusions of Medellín and emphasizing the need for lay leadership and active participation in the work of the Church. This document, an oftcited and highly praised source of Catholic teaching, bore little practical fruit in a country caught up in a whirlwind of political and economic troubles that culminated in May 1969 in the bloody Cordobazo, a series of labor strikes and rebellions that brought death and destruction on an unheard-of scale.
In 1970 terrorists in Buenos Aires kidnaped and murdered General Pedro Aramburu, who had overthrown Perón in 1955. Kidnaping for ransom and political murder soon became commonplace strategies of fanatics intent upon driving the country to armed revolution. Onganía's comrades-in-arms lost faith in his ability to govern, and they replaced him eventually with General Alejandro Agustín Lanusse. Adopting a policy of compromise and dialogue, Lanusse was able in some measure to create a climate of hope despite the ongoing violence and assassinations masterminded and executed by rival groups of radicals such as the Montoneros, mostly young guerrillas of communist or Peronist ideology.
Peron's Return and a Divided Church. In September 1973, Perón and his third wife, María Estela "Isabelita" Martínez de Perón, were elected president and vice president respectively. The octogenarian Perón could not deliver on his promises of unity and progress for the nation. When he died the following year he was succeeded by his wife who, inexperienced in politics, suffered from unfavorable comparisons with the glorified memory of Perón's second wife, the beloved Evita, who had died in 1952.
The brief presidency of Perón and his wife was marked by a profound national crisis which gave rise to struggles within the Church, especially between the relatively small membership—about 400 priest supporters and 140 active members at most—of Priests for the Third World and the hierarchy. Led by the charismatic Carlos Mujica, the Priests' movement had run head-on into conflict with Church and state authorities over the proper mission and role of the clergy in politics. With its aim the rapid and radical application of the teachings of Medellín and the "Document of San Miguel," the movement sought political means of implementing social justice. Its members were mostly Peronists who supported the return of their leader from his long exile in Spain. The Episcopal Conference insisted that priests stay out of politics, and that they promote no specific party or ideology but instead dedicate themselves to their religious and spiritual mission. After the ill and aging Perón returned to power, the movement began to fragment due to ideological and tactical disputes. In May 1974, Mujica was shot down as he left his church in the working-class parish of San Francisco Solano in Buenos Aires. He was instantly transformed into an heroic martyr for the Priests of the Third World and for others who struggled for social justice and the cause of the preferential option for the poor. The movement as such, however, was censured by the conservative hierarchy and its members were persecuted by the military government that seized power in 1976.
To many the Argentine political scene appeared to be on the path to ruin. Paradoxically, during those years of wrenching political conflicts in the Church, there appeared a strong reaffirmation of the once-despised religion of the people, a religion characterized by spontaneous pious practices and individual expressions of faith by the masses rather than the sacramental and structured spirituality controlled and regulated by the clergy. In this world of sacramentals, of votive candles, of favors asked of God and the saints, and of pilgrimages to holy places, many Argentinians found a sacred space for inward retreat and spiritual growth and consolation. In 1974 the first organized pilgrimage specifically for Catholic youth to Luján, the national Marian shrine about 50 miles from central Buenos Aires, proved successful. This annual pilgrimage soon grew to become the major expression of popular religious devotion in Argentina, and it provided a sense of community and identity for Catholics throughout the land.
On the political front, however, there was no letup in the wave of violence, conflict, and confrontation. As the economy collapsed, institutional corruption respected no boundaries, and the country became ungovernable. General Jorge Rafael Videla headed the new military regime that ousted Isabelita Perón in March 1976. Anticipated by all and welcomed by broad sectors of society, Videla resorted to fierce repression in order to blot out insurgency by warring factions. According to many responsible sources, the use of excessive force, and of kidnapping, torture, and murder as norms of action in what was dubbed the "dirty war" left at least 10,000 known dead and "disappeared". Among the victims were three priests in Buenos Aires, two in La Rioja, and one in Bahía Blanca. Of the few bishops who spoke up boldly and publicly against the abuses of the military regime, perhaps the most respected was a former supporter of Priests for the Third World, Enrique Angelelli. When Angelelli died mysteriously in July 1976 in a car accident on a lonely road in his diocese, many believed he too had fallen victim of "The Process," as the military regime called its program.
The Church and the "Dirty War." A thorny controversy soon arose about the role played by the Church hierarchy during "The Process." The point at issue was whether or not the Episcopal Conference as an institution, and bishops individually, lived up to their obligations as Christian witnesses and protested against violations of human rights during the Videla government's war against subversion. One thing was clear: the hierarchy was not silent on these issues, as was evident from the documentation published by the Episcopal Conference between 1976 and 1982. The bishops also claimed they did considerable work in favor of victims through both personal contacts and behind-the-scenes negotiations with the military. Many critics, however, found the "voice of those who have no voice," as Latin American bishops styled themselves, far too tentative, artful, diplomatic, and conciliatory in Argentina when viewed in comparison with bishops of Chile and Brazil who, at the same time, spoke out valiantly under equally repressive military regimes. Many critics claimed that what was reported in Church documents was not voiced strongly enough, and such documentation was not supported by pastoral action on the local level where high-sounding principles could have been translated into deeds of justice and Christian service. For example, there was no Argentinian parallel to Solidaridad, the Chilean Church organization set up for the defense of political prisoners of the infamous Pinochet regime and for the support of families of the disappeared. Some noted writers went so far as to accuse the Argentine Church of complicity with Videla dictatorship. While the record did not appear to support such a sweeping judgment, some bishops, especially the military vicar, and a few reactionary priests publicly supported "The Process." In 1997 Cardinal Pio Laghi, who served as papal nuncio in Argentina during the Videla years, was formally charged with "intimate knowledge" of government concentration camps. A year earlier, the country's bishops had released a document of confession that stated that the Church's actions were insufficient. The document was sent to the Vatican.
A bright spot in the bleak panorama of torture and oppression under the Videla regime was the courageous role of small groups of lay people, nuns, and priests who, in ecumenical efforts with Protestant colleagues, worked tirelessly for the promotion of social justice for the poor and the cause of human rights. They labored for the most part independently of the hierarchy and were inspired by ideas from other Latin American countries concerning liberation theology and from Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (CEB), Christian grassroots communities basing their lives and social action upon reflection on the Bible. These groups disappeared for the most part with the collapse of "The Process" and the continued coldness of the hierarchy towards them. The most outstanding Catholic defender of human rights during "The Process" was Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, a militant critic and prisoner of the military government who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1980.
With time, healing took place. The feared conservative counter-attack on liberation theology at the 1979 CELAM conference with Pope John Paul II in Puebla, Mexico, never materialized. Instead, Puebla reaffirmed Medellín and its preferential option for the poor. Meanwhile, the Church in Argentina and Chile gained considerable sympathy and support for its role in arbitrating border disputes in the extreme south of the continent that brought the two countries to the edge of war in late 1978. Asked to mediate the issue, the pope designated Antonio Cardinal Samoré, an experienced, patient, and skillful Vatican diplomat, as his personal representative in the protracted negotiations. Samoré managed to avoid an outbreak of war by postponing matters until the dispute could be settled peacefully in 1985 following a 1984 plebiscite overwhelmingly in favor of the accords.
By 1981 the military regime in Argentina had lost all popular support, and the nation was ruined economically. In this context the Episcopal Conference published its collective pastoral letter "Church and National Community." In strong and authoritative language the bishops called for the restoration of democracy and listed immediate steps to promote national reconciliation, starting with the government's respect for and protection of the fundamental human rights of all citizens. This document put an end to the hierarchy's policy of delicately phrased admonition in the face of government abuses; instead they spoke out prophetically, voicing their Christian conviction. Unfortunately, such strong statements came too late to save the thousands of innocent victims of the "dirty war." In April 1982 General Leopoldo Galtieri, the new military president, launched an ill-advised and catastrophic attack on the British-controlled Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, a desperate ploy to rally Argentina to support a war of territorial vindication. In May, a British expeditionary force handed the Argentines a bitter and ignominious defeat which left the nation in turmoil. In June, Pope John Paul II paid a two-day visit to Buenos Aires, the very first papal visit to Argentina, to promote peace and reconciliation. His visit was met with massive outpourings of gratitude and religious fervor in support of the papal mission.
The Church and Democracy. The defeat in the Falklands brought down the Galtieri regime. In October 1982, the Argentine Episcopal Conference published guidelines urging lay people to become actively involved in politics, to form their political opinions on the basis of serious study of the issues, and to vote their conscience enlightened by the moral teaching of the Church. Responsible participation in politics thus became a constant theme in the bishops' statements. After a one-year transition period, Raúl Alfonsín won the presidency with 52 percent of the vote in the first Radical Party victory over the Peronists in an open and free election. With democracy restored, the major military culprits in the "dirty war" were called to justice by the new civilian government.
In 1987 Pope John Paul II returned to Argentina, this time for a six-day visit during which his central theme was once again forgiveness and national reconciliation. The pope also spoke energetically against divorce, abortion, and the country's increasing drug abuse, and voiced his support for social justice, fair wages, and workers rights. The presence of the Holy Father and the emotional fervor of the multitudes bolstered a sense of national solidarity with the Church and stimulated the promotion and consolidation of democracy.
Severe economic problems led to the May 1989 election victory of Peronist candidate Carlos Saúl Menem. The Church hierarchy worked for harmony and peace with the new government. Menem, a man of enormous charisma, managed to close the door on "dirty war" reprisals and assured the nation unparalleled freedom of the press. He turned to capitalism and the United States to lift Argentina out of the pit of hyperinflation and economic chaos, and in the process transformed Peronism into Menemism, in many ways its ideological and practical opposite.
The 1994 Assembly drafted a new constitution aimed at allowing the re-election of Menem in 1995. Among the changes were several that weakened the traditional influence of the Church. The president of the Republic would no longer have to be a Catholic, and strict anti-abortion laws would be modified. The separation between church and state was now increasing in fact, whereas it had previously only increased in theory. However, the Catholic Church continued to remain the state religion, sustained through a variety of government subsidies. Showing both personal support for Church teachings and political courage in the face of increasing liberalism internationally, in 1999 President Menem proclaimed March 25 as "The Day of the Unborn Child." Applauded by the Vatican, Menem's pronouncement drew worldwide attention and was emulated by leaders in other predominately Catholic nations.
The Church Faces New Challenges. With the stabilization of democracy in Argentina, the Church was once again able to focus on the quality of life. In 1996 Catholic physicians throughout the country joined a government effort to fight the increasing incidence of AIDS in Argentina. Public schools once again made religious instruction available to all students, and by 2000 the Church operated seven Catholic universities within Argentina. Ecumenical efforts by the Church included conferences to discuss current issues and an open invitation to leaders of all faiths to attend the Te Deum Mass on national holidays. Gestures of openness to Argentine' Jewish population were considered particularly important because of a trend toward increasing anti-Semitic activity during the late 1990s.
With modernization and increasing economic stability came complex moral questions regarding social policy, the same questions that prompted liberal legislation in much of the world. The Church engaged fully with these questions, in many cases speaking out with vigor. With the highest rate of in vitro fertilization in Latin America, Argentina was confronted with what to do with the thousands of human embryos frozen and stored in medical facilities. Unlike nations such as Great Britain which routinely destroyed such embryos, Argentinian legislators reflected the Church's hopes in determining in 1996 that such embryos would not be destroyed. While Catholic bishops condemned government economic policies decreasing financial aid to poor, pregnant women, they were also confronted, in August 2000, with a new law that allowed the dispensation of abortifacient drugs and birth control devices to all women. Buenos Aires became a particular cause for concern in 1996 when, due to a change in the capital city's legal status, the liberal local government was able to pass legislation guaranteeing reproductive rights that threatened to undercut national prolife laws. The country's high unemployment rate prompted the government, in 1997, to propose anti-immigration legislation until the bishops called the proposal "a shame and a stain on Argentina's tradition of openness and human sensibility." Church leaders also expressed increasing concern about the spiritual laxness of society, and encouraged families to work toward a moral conversion.
By the end of the 20th century, Protestant and sectarian missionary groups, along with national evangelical and Pentecostal churches had become active in Argentina, and were zealously winning over adherents among neglected Catholics, especially the marginalized poor living in the slums and shanty towns surrounding all the major cities. In response to such aggressive anti-Catholic proselytism, in 1990 the Episcopal Conference published an elaborate plan for the "New Evangelization" of Argentina, to be launched in conjunction with the quincentennial celebration of the evangelization of the Americas begun in 1492. The document emphasized greater lay participation in the spiritual enterprise of preaching the good news of the gospel, and called for vigorous steps urgently needed to hold the line on Catholic Church membership. The Conference, led by the politically astute Antonio Cardinal Guarracino, archbishop of Buenos Aires, was certainly on the right track two years later when, after a respectful look back on the 500 years of evangelization in the Americas, it insisted that the task at hand was to look forward into the third Christian millennium and to prepare for it with a faith that does justice for all Argentines, but especially for the poor who need it most.
By 2000 Catholic sentiment and cultural identity remained strong, despite the fact that many Catholics no longer regularly attended church. The country's 2,596 parishes, 3,532 secular and 2,345 religious priests, 848 brothers, and 10,773 sisters attested to the fact that the majority of Argentinians continued to look to the Catholic rites of baptism, first communion, confirmation, marriage, and Christian burial to give spiritual meaning to major moments in their lives. In a survey taken in 1996, 94 percent of all Argentinians professed a belief in God, while 78 percent regularly dedicated time to some form of spiritual contemplation. At the dawn of the 21st century, despite the concern of Argentina's bishops that the nation was experiencing a moral crisis of values, such responses showed that the Church remained a potent factor in the creation of a sense of national cohesion, identity, and unity in a land seemingly destined for unending political strife and economic upheaval.
Bibliography: agencia informativa catÓlica argentina, Argentina (Buenos Aires 1992). comisiÓn de estudios de historia de la iglesia en amÉrica latina, 500 años de cristianismo en Argentina (Buenos Aires 1992). conferencia episcopal argentina, La Iglesia y los derechos humanos (Buenos Aires 1988). e. dussel, ed., The Church in Latin America, 1492–1992 (Maryknoll, NY 1992). t. farrell, Iglesia y pueblo en Argentina (Buenos Aires 1988). e. f. mignone, Witness to the Truth: The Complicity of the Church and Dictatorship in Argentina (1976–83) (Maryknoll, NY 1988). p. siwak, 500 años de evangelización americana, vol. 3 (Buenos Aires 1992). a. j. soneira, Iglesia y nación (Buenos Aires 1986).
[e. s. sweeney/eds.]
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