Argentine Church Shaken from the Inside
By “Awake!” correspondent in Argentina
THIS South American country suffers its share of agitation and violence so prevalent throughout the world in our time. Of course, that is not particularly surprising in these days.
But what is dumbfounding to many here in Argentina is that numerous clergymen at all levels of the Roman Catholic Church are being accused of inciting “plunder, robbery, assault, kidnapping, crime, bloody fighting, chaos. . . . And all that in the name of Christianity, the Gospels, and Jesus Christ.”
That is the accusation stated in a report entitled “Declaration of Argentine Priests.” The document was signed by 140 well-known clergymen of the Catholic church.
Is the situation really that ugly here in Argentina? Who are these priests “of diverse hierarchies and placed at all levels” of the Catholic church that are charged with inciting “kidnapping, crime, bloody fighting, chaos”? Why are they accused of such atrocities? What measures has the church taken? And the average Argentine church member—what is his reaction to all this?
Events Leading to Crisis
The events leading to such charges have been building up for some time. But recently they have come to the fore because of cruel terrorist murders.
An editorial in the Buenos Aires Herald reported: “In the past 14 months three prominent Argentines have been assassinated in cold blood. . . . in June last year  Augusto Vandor, Argentina’s most influential trade union leader; the slaying of former President Pedro Aramburu on May 31  by his kidnappers; and the slaughter of José Alonso,” another union leader, more recently.
What does this have to do with clergymen of the Catholic church? The public press notes the connection. Siete Dias stated: “The presumed ties of priests . . . with the assassination of General Aramburu provoke secret meetings in the bosom of the Argentine Church . . . to analyze the influence of extremism among the clergy.”
Monsignor Juan Carlos Aramburu (not to be confused with the assassinated former president, Pedro Aramburu) regretfully admitted: “The recent events that are of public knowledge, unfortunately, have put to the test and affected the essential value of the priestly mission in being builders of ‘unity of mankind’ founded on love.” And former Interior Minister Guillermo Borda said: “The extreme wing of the Church has exercised a pressure which I am tempted to call decisive in the recent outbursts of intemperance and violence in the country.”
The “Third World Movement”
Who make up this priestly group accused of inciting violence and agitation? During the past few years they have been called “progressists,” “rebels,” and now they are well known as priests of the “Third World movement.” “The movement” takes its name from the Medellín (Colombia) declaration by eighteen ‘progressive’ bishops who called for a ‘third world’ owing allegiance to neither Capitalism nor Communism.
In answer to a question that the publication Periscopio (now Primera Plana) sent to them, priests Jorge Vernazza, Héctor Botán, Rodolfo Ricciardelli and Domingo Bresci, all of the Third World movement, made this remark: “Upon talking of violence it is imperative to distinguish between the oppressor’s violence and that of the oppressed: that one is unjust and condemned, the other can be the only way of being freed from the unjust aggression, and is then a legitimate defense.” Thus, violence is condoned.
The Buenos Aires Herald calls forty-year-old Argentine priest Carlos Mujica the “chief spokesman” for the Third World movement. This priest serves as professor of theology in Buenos Aires’ well-known Savior’s University. He claims that the changes in the last ten years in the Catholic church are “irreversible,” and that priests must work to bring political and social change. He noted that the Vietnam War had an enormous influence in the formation of public opinion, particularly in the case of youths who see it as a great injustice. He lists other events in Latin America, such as the Cuban revolution and the invasion of Dominican Republic by North American marines, as contributing to the changing of political views among many. The result, he says, is the producing of “a certain conversion to socialism.”
Hence, such priests identify themselves with a movement that works for political and social change even by violent revolution if necessary. And how many such priests are there in the Argentine church? According to Mujica, their number is multiplying with the passing of each day.
This is admitted by other priests. The group of some 140 well-known clergymen who published the “Declaration of Argentine Priests” observed: “Here you have a group of priests in the last few years, each time more numerous, of diverse hierarchies and placed at all levels, that are found determined to change the Church’s image, that of Christianity and even that Jesus Christ himself.” Thus, it is acknowledged by the church itself that the Third World movement among priests grows.
In the eyes of many church officials, and in political circles as well, the ideas of the Third World movement seem close to those of Marxism, if not directly Marxist.
Crisis at Peak
What brought the ‘movement’ into grave difficulty was former President Aramburu’s kidnapping and murder. Analisis commented: “Evidently the participation of militant Catholics in the assassination of Aramburu and the presumed connection of priests with terrorists’ activities have accelerated the internal fighting within the Church.”
Former President Aramburu was kidnapped May 29, 1970, and his body was found buried in a lime grave July 16. His disappearance and whereabouts had caused great intrigue and upheaval in the country during that time. The Third World movement was accused of being connected with Aramburu’s murderers.
Then what really ignited fuses at many official levels was when priests Hernán Benítez and Carlos Mujica officially attended the funeral of two dead men who were suspected of being Aramburu’s killers, and who were slain in a skirmish with the police. At the church service, the priests spoke well of the two dead men. Mujica called them “my brothers” and extolled them as examples for youths to follow in fighting to achieve “a just society.’’ Two other priests were at the service.
As a result, priests Benítez and Mujica were arrested and accused of propagating seditious doctrine and exalting political crime. Later they were released for lack of evidence. But a scathing editorial in La Prensa said: “To say, of those wanted for kidnapping and murder . . . ‘that this sacrifice serves as an example to the people’ is to instigate the people to violence and crime, wanting to represent the most abominable acts as plausible and meritorious. This dangerous provocation is called condoning or praising crime.” The newspaper added: “Surprise leads to amazement when such praises issue from those who have embraced the religious career for imparting peace to souls, inculcating justice and preaching love of neighbor.”
While some felt inclined to say that the whole Third World movement should not be judged by the acts of a few of its members, others felt that it would be hard to think otherwise. Why so? Because its chief spokesman and other priests insist upon associating themselves with a guerrilla organization that has proudly claimed responsibility for cold-blooded murders.
All of this has resulted in a crisis within the church here. A very serious division has come about within priestly ranks. Monsignor Aramburu acknowledged this, for in a letter to the country’s clergy he stated: “It is not reasonable nor opportune when the storm on the outside is lashing the house, that also movement be made inside . . . jolting its foundation.” In effect, he said that there were many forces tearing at the church from the outside, but now there were powerful forces within the church itself also tearing at it, shaking the church to its very foundation.
When government officials tried to get the hierarchy of the church to punish and suspend the Third World rebel priests, the high curia seems to have decided not to, on the ground that it would be ‘splitting the church in two.’ But that already appears to have happened anyhow.
Reaction of Argentine People
What is the reaction of the average Argentine Catholic to all this?
Even before the present crisis, many Catholics had disassociated themselves from the clergy. Now the alienation is even deeper for increasing numbers. Some say: “I am Catholic, but in my way.” Others declare: “I am Catholic, but I do not think I have to go to church.” Still others state: “I am Catholic, but I do not have anything to do with the priests.”
One lady being visited by Jehovah’s witnesses said to them: “I am very offended with the church. I am from a traditionally Catholic family. My mother died in a strange way; we could never clearly establish the cause of her death. Because of that, we could not get the priest to come and give the blessing at her funeral, in spite of her having been an irreproachable person. However, two prominent priests attended the funeral of the two terrorists and spoke of them as examples for youths. After that, I do not think I will ever step foot inside a Catholic church again.”
This same woman has an aunt who is a nun. This nun is elderly and commented to her niece that she felt “very depressed because of the attitude that people showed the clergy.” She also feels that this hostility has become sharper in the last few years, as shown even in small details. For example, now she notes that seldom does anyone offer her a seat when traveling in public transportation, neither for being a woman, nor for being aged, nor because she is a nun, while years ago a nun traveling standing up was a rarity. She also complained: “It is becoming somewhat insufferable being identified with the Catholic clergy.”
Of course, many Argentine people still go to church and give it their support. But more and more do not. And a growing number express a willingness to talk about the Bible with Jehovah’s witnesses when they call on the people in their Bible educational work. Many now listen attentively and enjoy the free Bible courses in their homes that Jehovah’s witnesses carry on as a public service.
Without a doubt, the Catholic church is in deep trouble here in Argentina. That difficulty reflects the worldwide problems the church is having. Everywhere her doctrines, methods of organization, and her attitudes toward governmental and social issues are being challenged. Not only does this come from the outside, from non-Catholics, but now it is tearing at the church from within, from her own clergy and people.