ROSARIO, Argentina — As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across Latin America, the Catholic Church seems to be projecting a “seamless garment” approach to defending all lives, from the unborn to the sick and the migrant.
Protecting the fragile
In Brazil, where disinformation on the COVID-19 is spreading through social media like wildfire, fueled by corona-skeptic President Jair Bolsonaro, Catholic bishops and NGOs are promoting vaccines against the virus and also urging compliance with standard public health precautions.
In an article published Jan. 27 by the bishops’ conference, Bishop Vital Corbelline from Marabá wrote: “We cannot be in denial, we are called to follow the sanitary rules to avoid contagion. We must be in solidarity with the neediest regions without the means to overcome the pandemic, and encourage people to receive the vaccine” which, “thanks be to God,” is arriving in Brazil.
He goes on to quote priests, theologians and doctors of the Church from the first centuries of Christianity supporting medicine and science.
By contrast, Bolsonaro has publicly questioned the intentions of pharmaceutical companies, suggesting that the vaccine could change human anatomy: “If you turn into an… alligator, it’s your problem, they do not care. If you become Superman, if a lady grows a beard, or if a man starts talking [in a feminine voice], they will say they have nothing to do with it.”
Many took his suggestions as facts, not only in Brazil but throughout the continent. Hence an online seminar organized earlier this month headed by Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Mexico City’s Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes to debunk the misinformation.
Aguiar said the scope of the summit was to try to counter some “conspiracy theories” that have proliferated in social media. Among these, he noted, is a claim the vaccines “can modify the human DNA to reduce birth rate … there are even those who say they will implant a traceable microchip.”
“There are unsubstantiated theories that need to be unmasked,” the cardinal said. “Many experts have dedicated themselves to combating these theories that have proliferated, even in Catholic spheres.”
Placing their trust not only in science but also in God, the Brazilian bishops called for a day of prayer titled “Keeping the light of Hope” for Feb. 2, meant to strengthen the hope of Brazilians in the face of uncertainties caused by new strains of the coronavirus.
As a symbol and to be in communion, the bishops asked that at night, the faithful light a candle and place it in a visible place, such as a window, with the idea that even if small, the light radiates to other people as a sign of hope.
In Nicaragua, where the government of Daniel Ortega has completely ignored the pandemic, not only refusing to implement precautionary measures but releasing pamphlets arguing that God would spare the Central American country, the Catholic bishops are calling on citizens to protect their own lives and others.
On Jan. 28, with a second wave of the virus in full force, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Archbishop of Managua, announced that future meetings of the clergy in the country’s capital would take place via Zoom.
The cardinal noted that processions and gatherings are still banned, and that a greater frequency of “short liturgies” should be in place for Ash Wednesday, noting that many faithful won’t be able to attend Mass in person.
From the beginning of the pandemic, the Church in Nicaragua has adhered to the guidelines of the World Health Organization, ordering the closure of churches and banning processions, as well as requiring compliance with health measures in all parishes.
The government claims there have been less than 200 deaths from COVID-19, while an independent observatory set up by doctors and nurses counts 2,900 probable coronavirus deaths, but with virtually no testing, they say they cannot provide an exact number.
Protecting the unborn
In Pope Francis’s Argentina, where unrestricted abortion was legalized in December, Catholic lawyers are supporting a judge in a northern state who banned the implementation of a measure legalizing abortion on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional.
The new law was presented by President Alberto Fernandez. It allows for abortions to be performed up until week 14, but until the ninth month if the pregnancy is result of rape or if the life of the mother is at “physical, mental or social risk.”
Last week, Judge Marta Beatriz Aucar de Trotti from the northern province of Chaco ruled in favor of a petition presented by a Catholic association and suspended the application of Law 27,610 in the province.
The petitioners argued that Article 15 of the region’s constitution guarantees the right “to life and liberty, from conception” and therefore is in opposition to the national law that allows abortion. (The national constitution also defines the beginning of life at conception.)
The petition also asserts that the abortion law “restricts, undermines, violates, limits and alters the existence of the right to life of the unborn child.”
Since the ruling from Jan. 29, Aucar says she’s received death threats from pro-abortion activists.
On Saturday, the Corporation of Catholic Lawyers released a statement in support of Aucar, saying the harassment she’s experienced is “a veiled threat” to other judges evaluating similar petitions.
The lawyers urged all judges to follow the example of Aucar and, “without being intimidated by political pressure, to comply with the oath to ‘faithfully observe and enforce’ the national constitution, provincial constitutions and laws.”
Protecting the migrant
On Jan. 28, the “Red Clamor,” a network of over 70 Church organizations from Latin America and the Caribbean, called for protection of migrants, particularly after a Jan. 23 massacre in Tamaulipas, close to the Mexico-U.S. border, where 19 migrants were killed.
Though the crime is still being investigated, it’s believed to have been committed by organized crime, which often targets migrants for human trafficking or to force them to work in drug trafficking.
“We demand that the circumstances of the massacre are clarified as soon as possible, so that a crime of this kind, like others that have already happened, does not go unpunished,” says the statement, signed by several cardinals, bishops and lay people.
Red Clamor is supported by the Council of Latin American Bishops’ Conference and brings together bishops, priests, religious and lay people who try to welcome and protect migrants, refugees and victims of human trafficking.
Their statement was addressed to the presidents of Mexico and Guatemala, expressing concern for the situation of migrants crossing Mexican territory.
“The migration policy and the current government have not prevented migrants and refugees in Mexico from falling victim to organized crime if they try to leave their country of origin to protect their lives and that of their families, fleeing poverty and persecution,” the letter says.
Red Clamor said that during their journey, migrants “need greater protection from the states of the countries they are travelling through,” and appealed to the “humanitarian sensitivity” that the Guatemalan and Mexican governments have shown in other circumstances.
“The episode that happened in Camargo must not be included in the statistics of impunity and oblivion,” they insisted.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma