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Catholics and the torture chamber

Argentina, 1976. On the afternoon of 3 August, Fr. James Weeks went to his room to take a nap while the five seminarians of the La Salette congregation living with him went to attend classes. Joan McCarthy, an American nun who was visiting them, stayed by the fireplace, knitting a scarf. They would have dinner together and discuss the next mission in Jujuy, a Northwestern province of Argentina, where McCarthy worked. Suddenly, a loud noise came from the door. Before McCarthy could reach it, a mob burst into the house. Around ten men spread all over the house, claiming to be the police, looking for weapons, guerrilla hideouts, and ‘subversive fighters.’ When the seminarians arrived, they and Weeks were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location. The seminarians ‘disappeared’ for a few days, then were jailed and tortured for two months, before finally being exiled to the United States.

The perpetrators were part of the Argentine military government that took power under president General Jorge Videla in 1976, ostensibly to fight Communism in the name of Christian civilization. The military dictatorship claimed to be a Catholic government, yet no other military or civilian government killed and persecuted as many Catholics as did General Jorge Videla’s dictatorship. By the end of the dictatorship, more than 100 Catholic social actors had been killed. The most astonishing fact was—and to some extent, still is—the silence of the Catholic hierarchy while the government witch-hunted ‘subversives’ among the Catholic flock.

Since the 2013 election of Francis I, the first Latin American pope, the role that the Catholic Church played in the 1970s has been revisited. Most of the newspapers articles, scholar statements, and Church press releases are based on a simplification of the situation. For instance, according to critics, the Catholic Church did nothing and was even an accomplice of the dictators; the Church, on the other hand, claims it didn’t know what was going on and had tried to help when possible. Moreover it is assumed that Argentina’s historical context is similar to other Latin American countries; however, unlike large countries such as Chile and Brazil, political violence seems to have been an acceptable means of political participation in Argentina, as both the guerrillas and military government received popular support for their fight.

As a public scholar, I want to contribute to the understanding of the Argentine context and the role of ‘Catholics religious workers’ under state terror. Most of the current literature uses theological positions to explain the behavior of Catholics. Contrary to this, I explore how religious transformations (secularization) under particular conditions explain the roles of different ‘Catholic religious workers’—laypersons, seminarians, nuns, priests, and bishops working as identified members of the Catholic Church—during Argentina’s Dirty War. By placing these ‘religious workers’ in their proper social context, I aim to fill a void in the current academic literature.

General Jorge Rafael Videla
“Argentine military general Jorge Rafael Videla at a military parade in Buenos Aires, 1978.” CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Additionally, I explore the complexity of the social and political situation, bringing in a new perspective: the point of view of the victims. At that time, the official church considered these Catholics to be at the margins of the institution. Yet this same disservice has manifested itself in current academic literature. The few scholarly works published about Catholicism in Argentina’s Dirty War focus on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In contrast, I place ordinary Catholic religious workers within the institution at the center of my research. If we fail to pay attention to these religious workers, we might conclude that Argentine Catholics automatically enacted the official statements of the Church and supported the Dirty War, or we may think the ones who opposed it were outsiders. This is not accurate. To understand Catholicism in the Argentinean context, we also need to understand ordinary Catholics, not just official statements. Therefore, I provide a more nuanced view of the relationship between Catholicism and state terror during the Dirty War through an examination of a particular case study—that of the La Salette missionaries, a group of Catholic religious workers who were arrested and tortured by the regime.  

This case study, in many senses, can be used to illustrate the complex relationship between Catholic faith and political violence during Argentina’s infamous Dirty War. For instance, how did the Argentine government deploy Catholic discourse to justify the violence it imposed on the seminarians and many other Catholics? Similarly, how did the official Catholic hierarchy in Argentina rationalize its silence in the face of violence? By drawing on the diverse points of view of the La Salette case, I am able to analyze how Catholic victims of state violence and their supporters understood their own faith in this complicated context—in other words, what it meant to be Catholic under Argentina’s dictatorship.

Ultimately, I argue that political violence provoked division among Argentine Catholics into three distinct postures: ‘embedded Catholicism,’ ‘Anti-secular Catholicism,’ and ‘Institutional Catholicism.’ Anti-secular Catholics viewed political violence as a necessary tool in a holy war against godless communism. Institutional Catholics disliked it, but assumed it was the lesser of two evils and didn’t understand the magnitude of the massacre. Embedded Catholics, suffering under the regime, unsurprisingly launched human rights campaigns. Each of these postures was not only linked to a distinct position on political violence, but represented distinct responses to the challenges of modernity itself.

Image Credit: “Plaza de Mayo y la muerte de Néstor Kirchner” by Guillermo Tomoyose. CC BY-NC2.0 via Flickr.

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