Dispatch

How the Catholic Church Lost Argentina

Was it the dirty war, the social conservatism, or both?

BUENOS AIRES — Hundreds of spectators stood through the chilly night in the city's Plaza de Mayo, the iconic park in front of the Catholic cathedral and government palace, to watch a live Vatican transmission of the ascension of the Argentine pope, Francis. The mass finally began shortly after 5 a.m., to a roar of cheers and chanting in unison: ‘Argentina! Argentina!'

People wrapped themselves in the yellow and white Vatican flags being hawked alongside Francis buttons, calendars, key chains and posters.

While Francis circled St. Peter's Square in the white pope-mobile, two students of the Catholic University, Federico Chaves and Jonathan Tiberio, both 26, swapped anecdotes about the former Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, an advisor at their campus, who set up a program at the university for students to teach English and computer classes as volunteers in some of the city's poorest slums.

"We're anticipating change at the Vatican because of what he did in Argentina. He worked with everyone, atheists, homosexuals....He's shown a commitment to bring the church closer to the people, to assimilate it into life," said Chaves, an economics student.

Tiberio pointed to the then-cardinal's support for Argentina's legalization in 2002 of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, "showing an openness" that stood in stark contrast to the hardline position taken up by Argentina's conservative Catholic majority.

Indeed, Francis represented a more liberal vein in Argentina's church, appearing to respond to a leftward shift in Argentina in a bid to staunch the bleeding of his flock.

Argentina's laws ensuring lesbian, gay and transgender people's right to marriage -- which it extends to non-resident foreigners -- and adoption are among the most liberal in the world. Nearly three years since the passage of the law in July 2010, more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples have tied the knot in Argentina, according to Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentina LGBT Federation.

Meanwhile, the church's slow decline has continued. According to the Pew Forum, 76.8 percent of Argentina's population is at least nominally Catholic, but only 33 percent of Catholics interviewed in Argentina in 2010 cited religion as very important in their lives, down from 40 percent in 2002, and only 19 percent said they regularly attended mass.

But it may be the church's ambiguous stance during Argentina's last dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, that has done the most to damage the institution's credibility.

Bergoglio, who was also the head of the church's Argentine Jesuit order, has been harshly criticized for his role during this period, when as estimated 30,000 people were disappeared or killed. In continuing trials, members of the church have even been convicted for human rights crimes.

All this has devastated the church's credibility, according to José Casanova, a sociologist of religion at Georgetown University's Berkley Center. The Argentine church "compromised itself by playing a role much more tied to the powers that be," Casanova said.

Unlike the nuns and priests in El Salvador, Chile, Brazil and the Dominican Republic who spoke out against dictatorship, often becoming victims to it, very few members of Argentina's church denounced the dictatorship of Gen. Jorge Videla, currently serving multiple life sentences for human rights crimes. This near-absolute silence has been interpreted since as acquiescence, and even complicity.

Perhaps for this reason, Bergoglio's efforts to present a more charismatic church fell flat.

Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group formed in 1977 that focuses on identifying grandchildren born to mothers in captivity and appropriated by military families, has accused Bergoglio of being "part of the church that has obscured the country's history."

And for Argentina, that history is still unfolding.

A contingent of priests led by Eduardo de la Serna, a parish priest in San Francisco Solano and the coordinator of the Group of Priests in Option of Argentina's Poor, has demanded that the church cease giving communion to incarcerated ex-dictator Jorge Videla and publish the records of the military's Catholic confessors.

One Argentine priest is currently on trial on charges of working closely with torturers in a secret jail during the dictatorship, while another was recently accused of taking a newborn from his mother, one of the many baby thefts from female prisoners who were "disappeared."

Church and military hierarchies blurred as a priest and Navy captain was accused of using biblical verses to soothe pilots conducting the so-called "death flights," in which prisoners were drugged and dropped into the Río de la Plata and sea.

As the leader of Argentina's Jesuits for part of that time, Francis has had to testify in court cases surrounding the dictatorship's largest clandestine prison and torture center, the old Argentine Navy School of Mechanics, or ESMA, building, and in the case of the kidnapping of two priests in his order in 1976. The priests, whom Cardinal Bergoglio had dismissed from the order a week before their disappearance, were discovered five months later on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, drugged and partially nude.

The cardinal and his supporters have pushed back. His spokesman dismissed the charge that Bergoglio was involved with the priests' arrest and detention as "old slander." Bergoglio also testified in 2010 that he had met secretly with Videla and the head of the Navy, Emilio Massera, to ask for the priests' release. The following year, prosecutors called him to the witness stand to testify on the military junta's systematic kidnapping of children.

But even some Argentine priests admit that the church has lost credibility since the dirty war -- which may explain why it has lost so many public debates on issues as diverse as abortion and the right to die.

"The faith of the people is in God, not in priests. Argentines consider themselves Catholic if they pray to the Virgin, baptize their children, celebrate feast days. Compliance with certain ecclesiastical norms? No. They'll say, ‘what does it matter what the priest thinks?'" Father de la Serna told me.

And as much as the new pope has come to be known in recent days for his compassion and humility, the church Bergoglio led from 1998 to 2013 maintained its orthodox, conservative positions on the major social issues of the day, pitting him against President Kirchner, with whom he tangled bitterly over social issues. Amid a fierce same-sex marriage debate in 2010, Kirchner described the then-cardinal's views, expressed in a private letter lambasting same-sex marriage legislation as "a destructive claim on God's plan," as "medieval and reminiscent of the Inquisition."

The church has also alienated itself from women parishioners with its inflexible stance on reproduction. As archbishop, Bergoglio publicly opposed sex education, the free distribution of condoms, and a law passed in Buenos Aires last year permitting abortion in the case of rape. Mabel Bianco, head of the non-profit Foundation for Women's Study and Research, says that some Catholic women are turning to Protestant churches with less vocal views or simply ignoring church doctrine on reproductive issues. "The fundamentalists tend to be the high society, with incomes that afford them private services, but the poor women, they are completely alone. If they are leaving the church it is because it is not meeting their needs," she says.

Fellow bishops describe Bergoglio as always seeking dialogue and consensus, and church workers who have long known him say his private behavior and positions were different than the conservative face he showed the public. But even in public, he once washed the feet of HIV patients and spoke out against the "mafias" running human trafficking rings. He held a mass each year in the gritty, open-air plaza of the ill-reputed neighborhood of Constitución, where he once described the city's levels of poverty as "scandalous."

And poverty may be the issue Bergoglio really cares about. Father José Juan Cervantes, 42, the ebullient director of the archbishop's social outreach program at the Mother of Immigrants church in La Boca section of Buenos Aires, says Bergoglio was much more focused on working with the poor and speaking about their plight than defending church orthodoxy: "He said what he had to say, but the challenge to him wasn't about being confrontational; it was about working with the poor to build justice."

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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