ROME – It took him four years, but Pope Francis has managed to bury a hatchet in his country, appointing a bishop for the military in Argentina, the first one in over a decade. The previous one had been deauthorized by the Kirchner administration after comments he made on abortion.
On Tuesday, the Vatican announced the pontiff has appointed Bishop Santiago Olivera as Ordinary of the Military in Argentina, taking him from the diocese of Cruz del Eje, in the central province of Cordoba.
Among many things, Olivera was the man behind the canonization of Father José Gabriel Brochero, known as the “Gaucho priest.” He’s the second Argentine saint, canonized by Francis last year.
The post Olivera is set to fill has been vacant since 2007, two years after the government of Nestor Kirchner decided to reject the then-military Bishop Antonio Juan Baseotto, who presented his resignation in 2006, on his 75th birthday, as every Catholic bishop does.
Back in 2005, when the Health Minister of Nestor Kirchner announced his support for legalizing abortion and the government’s decision to distribute condoms, Baseotto sent minister Ginés González García a letter quoting a passage from the Gospel of Mark: “Our Lord affirmed that ‘those who scandalize little ones should have a stone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea.’”
The country’s last military coup led to the disappearance of thousands of people, with low estimates being 9,000 with a high estimate of 30,000. One of the army’s methods for “disappearing” people were the vuelos de la muerte, “flights of death,” whereby prisoners of the last military regime were dumped into the Atlantic Ocean from planes.
Suffice it to say, the phrase wasn’t well received in Argentina.
News reports from the time speak of a letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger- who’d soon after become Pope Benedict XVI- supporting Baseotto.
Only months after the controversy began, Kirchner, who saw the Church, particularly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, as one of the leading voices of the opposition, was one of the few heads of states to miss the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome.
The official excuse given was avoiding two trips to Italy, because the plan was for the president to attend the inaugural ceremony of the new pope, but at the time, observers saw it as a deepening of the tension between the government and the Church.
The Kirchner government eventually decided to withdraw its support of Basseotto, breaching an agreement reached by Argentina and the Holy See in 1992, which stated that the government had to pay the salary for the military ordinariate.
When the Vatican denounced this as an attack on religious freedom, the government argued that he could still be a bishop, just not in the army. The Church ignored the order from Kirchner, kept Baseotto in his post for close to a year after the mandatory retirement, and appointed the Vicar General Pedro Candia for the post on a temporary basis, that lasted 10 years.
Eventually the government threatened the Church with re-writing the 1992 agreement, allegedly to include other religions in the spiritual care of the military and to protect the division between Church and State. They never went through with the threat, perhaps because according to the national Constitution, the country’s federal government sustains the Catholic faith.
Kirchner was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernandez, who also saw Bergoglio as the leader of the opposition until he was elected pope. During the final years of her presidency, which ended in Dec. 2015, she bent over backwards to have a good relationship with Francis, coming to Rome several times and meeting with him during his trips to Latin America.
Yet the matter of the military bishop was not resolved until Tuesday, 15 months into the presidency of Mauricio Macri.