In Argentina's religious freedom row, politics makes strange bedfellows

In Argentina’s religious freedom row, politics makes strange bedfellows

In Argentina’s religious freedom row, politics makes strange bedfellows

Argentina's flag is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Aug. 31. (Credit: Paul Haring/CNS.)

A debate in the pope's native Argentina over a proposed religious freedom law offers a classic illustration of the maxim that "politics makes strange bedfellows," with both deeply conservative Archbishop Héctor Rubén Aguer of La Plata and Amnesty International opposing it — Aguer because he thinks it would make other religions equal to Catholicism, Amnesty because they fear a loss of sexual freedom.

ROME — Argentina didn’t exist as a nation when Shakespeare inspired the line “politics make strange bedfellows,” but if the Bard were around today, he might well look to the pope’s native country for proof, where the once leading conservative rival of the future pontiff and Amnesty International find themselves in an unlikely alliance over a proposed religious freedom law.

In the case of Archbishop Héctor Rubén Aguer of La Plata, seen as the country’s most fiercely traditional prelate on matters such as the legalization of abortion and contraception, he insists the law could threaten the Church’s protected status under the country’s constitution, while Amnesty International fears the law could deprive Argentine youth of their sexual rights.

To put the situation in American terms, it’s as if the late Jerry Falwell and the ACLU had found themselves on the same side of a church/state debate – i.e., a head-scratcher, and one that helps illustrate the often-maddening political complexity out of which Pope Francis emerged.

The bill was presented to the Argentine senate in June, and it reflects a consensus among various religious groups in the country: The local Catholic bishops’ conference, the two largest Jewish institutions, an Islamic Center, and various federations of Evangelical churches and Orthodox Christians. It has the support of the national government, including President Mauricio Macri.

Among other issues, the proposed bill introduces a right to conscientious objection, both for individuals and institutions. If passed, the measure could be invoked for military deployments, providing medical procedures such as abortion, the right to have a holiday during religious festive days, and the right to rest on the days imposed by each religion.

In addition, registration of religious institutions would no longer be mandatory, although registering would provide benefits, including tax exemptions, to those who do. According to those promoting the bill, it’s intended to offer a deeper understanding of religious freedom as a human right.

The initiative was put together by the country’s Secretariat of Worship, which convoked different religious denominations to hear opinions. Its original scope was to replace legislation sanctioned by the military government in 1978.

According to the Argentine newspaper La Nación, Santiago de Estrada, the man who leads the government office, said it was the religious institutions that called for the incorporation of a right to conscientious objection.

Estrada also underlined the “harmony among religious denominations” that exists in the country, leading to a “healthy and fruitful coexistence” promoted by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, once Archbishop of Buenos Aires, today Pope Francis.

Aguer, considered a leading voice among conservatives in Argentina, is a man who’s often clashed with Bergoglio, to the point that when Francis was elected to the papacy, according to news reports from the time, Aguer refused to ring the bells of the cathedral of his archdiocese, La Plata.

Aguer and Francis have known each other a long time. The two worked together in the 1980s, when Aguer was rector of San Miguel seminary and the future pope was the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Argentina. In the 1990s, the two were both auxiliary bishops of Buenos Aires.

Their relationship has never been ideal, and they have very different styles: Aguer tends to be confrontational, while Francis usually takes a more pastoral approach. However, Argentine journalist Mariano De Vedia reports that the two exchange hand-written letters often, and quotes fellow Argentine bishops as saying their differences are more about tone than content.

On Saturday, during his weekly TV program, Aguer spoke about the proposed bill, saying that it’s “unnecessary” and that it could have a negative effect on the Catholic Church, hence “on Argentine society as a whole.”

He also lambasted the Permanent Commission of the Argentine bishops, who went through the proposed bill and gave their green-light, or, at least, according to Aguer, their nihil obstat (a Latin phrase meaning, “nothing stands in the way.”)

Such a law, Aguer said, should have been debated by the conference as a whole during their plenary assembly, arguing that it’s too important for it not to be the case.

Aguer also warned that the law would “allow an uncontrollable number of sects to grow wildly” in the country.

According to the archbishop, the law is being considered because of the pressure of a number of “pastors” [quotation marks in the original] who “don’t belong to any specific church.”

Never one to hold back a thought, Aguer also spoke about the number of baptized Catholics who join evangelical churches in Argentina, saying that he could come up with at least one reason: “Evangelicals talk to people about Jesus, about prayer, penitence, eternal life, while we’re too busy trying to guarantee the temporal well-being of the Argentine society.”

“On the other hand, what can we do on these issues? How much do policy makers listen to us? It would be necessary, on our part, to do an examination of conscience, and probably, as a conclusion, a mea culpa.”

Last but not least, Aguer also said that the proposed bill would be “unconstitutional,” and this is something he and Amnesty International have in common. However, their reasons are clearly divergent.

For the archbishop, the law contradicts Argentina’s Constitution because making all religions equal is at odds with the constitution’s second article, which says that the state sustains “Roman Catholic apostolic worship.”

“Sustaining,” Aguer added, “doesn’t mean that the government throws a few bucks to priests, but that it supports, favors and privileges” the Catholic Church.

Mariela Belski, executive director of the Argentine branch of Amnesty International also argued that the proposed bill would be unconstitutional, but her argument is that it violates “rights [that are] constitutionally protected.”

Among them, she said, are the sexual and reproductive rights of young people and adults, since she claims a health-care provider could invoke the law to refuse to hand out contraceptives on religious grounds.

Belski also argued that a teacher could refuse to teach evolutionary theory, and that it “leaves hanging on a thread the law of Integral Sexual Education, because any teacher could limit religious education to Christian sexual morality or the morality of any other religion.”

Furthermore, Belski wrote, “a judge could refuse to celebrate a marriage between people of the same sex on the basis of moral or religious principles, violating people’s right to equality and nondiscrimination.”

In 2012, Argentina approved a law on gender identity regarded by observers as one of the most far-reaching in the world. The law states that a person can legally change gender by simply saying so, while most other countries that accept legal gender change have many requirements, ranging from an actual sex change to court orders.

The law had an impact on the educational system, with the government designing booklets teaching students to choose their gender, regardless of their sexual identity. Teachers were asked “not to impose stereotypical ideas” on children. Sexual education manuals reflecting those values were to be used in every school receiving public funds, including religious ones.

In the end, the manuals weren’t implemented because the drawings and images depicted were considered too explicit for five-year-olds. Nevertheless, according to the website of Argentina’s Education Ministry, the “de-naturalization of gender stereotypes” began in 2010, when Pope Francis’s home country legalized gay marriage, the first nation in Latin America to do so.

Belski argues that the proposed bill would represent a “substantive recoil” that would allow public employees to “fulfill the task for which they were hired.”

She also writes that conscience objection on health issues and “especially sexual and reproductive health used in an abusive and arbitrary way has constituted an illegitimate barrier to access legal abortion.”

To date, there’s been no comment from Pope Francis regarding the law, but seeing that he’s long advocated both religious pluralism and the right to conscientious objection, it’s not far-fetched that he’d be among the Argentine bishops supporting it.

“There’s a persecution of which not much is being said,” Francis said last year during one of his daily Masses, “cross-dressed as culture, cross-dressed as modernity, cross-dressed as progress.”

The pope said this “educated” persecution occurs not when a person “confesses the name of Christ, but for wanting to have and to manifest the values of a Son of God.

“We see every day that the powerful countries create laws that force us to go through this path … a nation that doesn’t follow these modern laws, these cultures, or that at least doesn’t want to have them in its laws, is accused, is politely persecuted,” Francis said.

“It’s a persecution that robs man of his freedom, even from conscientious objection!” he added.

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