(D2-5) The Catholic Church between Reform and Dictatorship: Argentina and Chile in the Second Half of the 20th Century

The varying attitudes of the Catholic national churches toward human rights abuses during the last dictatorships in Argentina (1976-1983) and in Chile (1973-1990) can to a large degree be explained by differences between the two national churches, which developed over the long term and which, to some extent, are of a structural kind, and by their relationship to the state and society. While the relationship between church and state has already been explored, there is no comparable study on the different receptions of the reforms – particularly since the Second Vatican Council – by Church actors and resulting institutionalisation tendencies of new religious social reforms in the two countries. Some of the changes initiated may be interpreted as “secularisation tendencies” within the religious field. The “turning towards the poor” made many priests and members of religious orders set off for the slums and, in some cases, attach less importance to pastoral care than to social work.  During that time, the significance of the social pastoral increased, as did the number of Christian base communities. To justify their orientation, liberation theologians also availed themselves not only of theological, but also of secular arguments. They seized on, for instance, explanations and discourses of dependency theory. This becomes particularly apparent when poverty is treated as an expression of “structural violence”. These new tendencies gave rise to conflicts both within the church and between church groups and parts of society. This was not least due to the fact that, ever since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, demands for social changes had quickly been approximated with socialism, which always involved either a positive or negative evaluation. The approach of the first project stage, which had proven to be fruitful, will be continued in order to investigate the scope of change and the resulting conflicts in the two countries, focusing on priests, monastic clerics and also Catholic lay groups. The questions to be posed are: how did the individual actors team up? What forms of organisation did they find? And how, during conflicts, did they deal with the general pursuit of church unity? In addition to comparing the two countries, it will also be reasonable to look into specific exchange processes between the different levels of the two national churches and into interactions.

A better understanding of the various religious social and organisational forms also becomes possible by investigating the discourses of violence and of human rights in both countries. This addresses a second component of the project, which will examine the church actors’ discourse of violence and of human rights in the second half of the 20th century. The discourse on violence has become relevant not just during the military dictatorships. Rather, the Cold War and particularly the Cuban Revolution again proved to be significant points of central relevance for the discourse on the necessity of violence. The church discourse of violence ranged from legitimising violence, in terms of a defence against communism, and the possible revolution to supporting the revolutionary transformation of the social conditions. In the Chilean and Argentinian churches, too, not only questions as regards the legitimation or delegitimation of governmental repression were discussed, but the problem of revolutionary (counter-)violence, possibly justified by the Christian belief, was also addressed. Ever since the Second Vatican Council and the emergence of liberation theology, therefore, the range of stances on violence within the Latin American church has been exceedingly complex, requiring sophisticated analysis. In concrete terms, it needs to be asked which church actors legitimised or opposed the use of violence at which point in time? What biblical texts or church traditions did the actors refer to? What influence did the respective church discourse on violence have on the societies in Argentina and Chile?

Comparing the two countries may help to bring out the causes for and motives of different church approaches to the subject of violence, because the attitude of the members of the one universal church from two directly neighbouring countries was different not only during the military regimes (for example, the official position of the Argentinian church legitimised the repression of the military dictatorship while most of the Chilean bishops opposed the violence of the Pinochet regime). In the previous years, church actors also alluded to the subject of violence in various ways. In this respect, analysis of the Catholic discourses of violence during the military regime of Onganía in Argentina (1966-1971), claiming Christian legitimation, and the Christian Democratic regime in Chile (1964-1970) in particular should shed light on the various interconnections of religion and politics in the two societies.

The Project is part of interconnecting platform F Transcultural Entanglements, coordinated project group Social forms of religion in ‘second modernity’ and coordinated project group Legitimation and de-legitimation of violence with reference to text and tradition.