ROME – In Pope Francis’s Argentina, the bishops got into hot water recently for using a couple of his most familiar bits of vocabulary: “reconciliation” and a “culture of encounter,” in the context of that country’s Dirty War.
It all began last week, when the Argentine bishops’ conference (CEA) announced that one of the topics for their first plenary meeting of 2017 would be “reconciliation in the context of a culture of encounter,” focusing particularly on the country’s last military regime, the legacy of which, four decades after it ended, remains an open wound.
However, many human rights organizations, including the famed Madres de Plaza de Mayo, raised their voices against it, denouncing it as an attempt from the Catholic hierarchy to forget the crimes committed by the military during the country’s “dirty war.”
For those groups, the concept of “reconciliation” implies a false moral equivalency between human rights abusers and their victims, and also suggests impunity for crimes that should still be prosecuted.
Although the May 2-6 assembly touched on many other issues, including the constitution of a commission for the protection of minors against clerical sexual abuse, the fact that on day three of the meeting the bishops heard the witness from both sides of the 1970’s military dictatorship, was considered by this and other groups as an offense.
The bishops called three people to share their stories: Human rights activist Graciela Fernandez Meijide, whose son Pablo was kidnapped by the military and disappeared; Gabriel D’Amico, a military man whose father was murdered by the guerrilla; and Cristina Cacabelos, sister of three victims of the military.
The three participants didn’t address each other but the bishops.
Perhaps the strongest voice against the bishop’s initiative was Nora Cortiñas, leader of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo “founding line,” who accused the Church of having been a “participant in the horror” that was the illegal repression.
She also went after Pope Francis, saying that he’s never given a “homily for the disappeared, for the political prisoners.”
Yet it was at his urging that some 3,000 files, including letters and documents, from the Vatican, the CEA and the papal embassy in the country (technically called a nunciature) will be made available to the families of the desaparecidos.
Estela Carlotto, president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, defined the idea of “promoting reconciliation between the families of the disappeared and the military” to be a “folly.”
Both organizations, one of which represents the mothers and the other the grandmothers of those who were taken and killed by the military, rejected the decision by the Church to include the voices of those who had family members killed by the guerrilla and various terrorist organizations.
Several members of these groups have long faulted the Church for either being complicit with the military regime or not doing enough to protect its victims. Francis, who acknowledged in 2000 that the Church could have done more, was repeatedly accused of having been complicit in the arrest and torture of two Jesuit priests, charges of which he’s been cleared.
The bishops have since ceased to speak of “reconciliation,” but did not back down from the initiative, which they described in a press release as a “period of reflection on the events that took place during the last military dictatorship.”
In that May 2 statement, the CEA also said that the process would begin with the testimony of family members of people who suffered the consequences of this period marked by violence in different areas of society.
“We have become accustomed to a culture of confrontation, violence and anomie that weakens us as a nation,” Bishop José María Arancedo, president of the conference, said in his homily during the Mass that marked the opening of the assembly.
The bishop also said that contributing in the creation of a culture of encounter is part of the Church’s mission.
Quoting from Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Arancedo spoke about Argentina’s divisions, saying that the time has come to design “a culture which privileges dialogue as a form of encounter, the building consensus and agreement while seeking the goal of a just, responsive and inclusive society.”
The decision to start a process of dialogue was rooted in a 2012 document from the episcopacy, in which they called for everyone who had any information about the situation of “stolen children, or who know places of clandestine burial, should recognize themselves as morally obliged to go to the pertinent authorities.”
That document was signed by then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis. Leading by words and example, last October the announcement was made for opening the files the Catholic Church has of the de facto government, which run from 1976 to 1983. During the recently-held assembly, the prelates also discussed the protocol for accessing said files.
The reconciliation process the bishops called for is set to continue until the end of next year, in an attempt to have both sides of one of Argentina’s darkest periods seated at the same table.
However, according to at least three of the bishops who took part in the assembly, the process does not mean impunity.
The bishops are Oscar Ojea, Jorge Casaretto, and Archbishop Jorge Lozano.
Even within the hierarchy, they acknowledged, there are different stances regarding the process.
However, all agree on the fact that a climate of greater harmony is needed, rooted in three pillars they have been supporting since 1981: Truth, justice and forgiveness.
If an illustration of what the Church means for a combination of the three is needed, perhaps there’s no better one than John Paul II forgiving Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who tried to kill him on May 13 1981. He did so without intervining in any way on the criminal charges put against him.
Several military officers are currently on trial for crimes against humanity, and Lozano – who served as an auxiliary bishop when Francis was bishop of Buenos Aires – said the bishops do not want to interfere in the ongoing judicial process, nor do they want the crimes to be forgotten.
Ojea, also a former auxiliary of Buenos Aires, said that the initiative was framed in Pope Francis’s call for a culture of encounter, and that reconciliation, as understood by Christian doctrine, means “uniting what is separated, but not without truth and without justice.”