Chile's Silent Church

The emphasis is on individual rather than social salvation
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Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet meets Cardinal Archbishop Raul Silva Henriquez. (18 Sept., 1976).

From early colonial times until 1950, the role of the Catholic Church in the public life of Chile experienced no significant change. The Church had come to Chile, as generally to Latin America, as junior partner to an empire-building group which developed in Chile—as elsewhere—into a tightly knit oligarchy that saw itself as sole depository of power and decision-making (always, of course, within the area of maneuver accorded it by a succession of “metropolitan” overlords). The Church never exercised power over this oligarchy. Instead, it served as legitimator and provided moral sanctions to support the physical sanctions imposed by the second perennial institution, the armed forces.

Schematically, and at the hemispheric level, the Church has been ruled by the oligarchy (5 percent of the population). It has exercised significant positive and negative influence on the servants of the oligarchy, the 15 percent who live somewhat on the level of the middle classes in North America and who are served by churches, schools, hospitals and similar institutions. It has exercised a mainly negative influence on the 40 percent today identified as earning the minimum wage (minimum human survival level), for whom it provides godparents, saints’ days and other largely superstitious services; and relatively little influence on the 40 percent living below the human level.

Chile was not totally typical, particularly because substantial immigration from Europe in the nineteenth century of workers already conscious of the inequities of the capitalist system speeded up processes that came more slowly in most of Latin America. The Conservative and Liberal branches of the oligarchy joined early in the National Party under the threat from labor, and considerable segments of the workers emancipated themselves completely from Church influence. But the picture remained mixed. The combination of hacendade and parish priest could still guarantee election of the reactionary National Party nominee in many rural areas, a factor highly distortive of the real desires and needs of the people of Chile in every election held during the twentieth century. The possibility that the Church might have a judgmental role—and not merely a legitimating onemon and for society was tentatively raised in the 1930s, following Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno (1931). In that encyclical, Pius agreed with Lenin that it was of the nature of “free enterprise” to evolve into monopoly capitalism “an international imperialism whose country is where profit is,” a system not able to curb or control itself, and in consequence ultimately self-destructive. The free market, Pius charged, “of its own nature” concentrates power in antisocial types, in those “who fight most violently and give least heed to their conscience.” It is Darwinism gone mad.

Backing off from the categorical condemnations of his predecessors, Pius noted the recent split of the social movement into “a more violent section, communism; and a more moderate section which retains the name of socialism.” Observing that the programs of the moderates “often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers,” he claimed that they could be better realized in the corporate state which he saw as a middle way between capitalism and communism. Many Church leaders then saw Salazar’s Portugal as the hope of the future, and it was under just such a program that two university Catholic activists in Chile, Eduardo Frei, and Radomiro Tomic, started the reform movement that after World War II developed into Christian Democracy. Those origins, including Pius’s distinctions and suggested solution, were to weigh heavily on the development of social reform in Chile from then onward.

The oligarchy reacted violently to the Frei-Tomic suggestion that there could be a party in Chile claiming to be Christian other than the National Party which was the one and only Catholic party, and they ordered the bishops to condemn the upstarts, an action that would have been taken but for the determined opposition of a single young bishop, Manuel Larraín of Talca.

Larraín was really a very moderate reformer, but he was conscious that the social situation in Chile was degenerating rapidly and that the Church would go down with the oligarchy if it continued its historic subservient role. He played a leading part in the creation of CELAM (Consejo Episcopal Latin-americano), and he learned how to survive in the hostile climate of the Chilean church—as Dom Helder Camara would later in Brazil—by building an international reputation. He was prominent among the progressives at Vatican Council II (1962-65) and made a contribution second only to that of the French Dominican priest, L. J. Lebret, to Pope Paul’s encyclical on world development, Populorum progressio. Regrettably both Lebret and Larraín had died before it was issued in 1967, Larraín victim of an automobile accident.

I had an amusing experience of the efforts of the Chilean oligarchy to keep their monopoly of Catholic orthodoxy by downgrading Larraín. In 1961 I interviewed him for a United States magazine, quoting him as favoring major land reform in Chile, with the Church giving the example—he did in fact distribute all Church land in his diocese of Talca to the peasants who farmed it—and asserting that the Church had a scripture-based duty to be biased toward the poor. The magazine sent me galleys to Santiago to check and I showed them to the editor of the Santiago diocesan weekly who recognized the news value, translated into Spanish and featured on page one. El Diario lllustrado, organ of the oligarchy, shot back with a bitter editorial. Chilean bishops, it said, should know better than to talk to United States newsmen who always distorted their stories. And the editor of a Chilean newspaper that claimed to represent the Church should not be so ignorant as to fail to recognize the heretical teachings on the class war he was attributing to a Chilean bishop. The double joke was that Bishop Larraín had seen my English text and congratulated me in a gracious letter, which I understandably treasure, for “la fidelidad con que ha expresado mi pensamiento.” The Chilean editor in turn had taken the additional precaution of submitting to the bishop his Spanish translation.)

The growing strength of the Left after World War II made other bishops recognize the need for new strategies. In 1956 they asked the Jesuit general in Rome to send them some social scientists who would develop strategies to counter the propaganda of the socialists led by Salvador Allende. One he sent was a Belgian Jesuit, Roger Vekemans, who soon became a key figure in the campaign to stop Allende, especially when Allende all but won the presidency in 1958.

Vekemans and his associates decided that the old ways were no longer viable. Socialist reform could be countered only by Christian reform. The result was a major shift of the Chilean Church to the reformism of the Christian Democrats expressed in the slogan of revolution in liberty which carried Frei to victory in 1964. In organizing that Frei campaign, Vekemans developed a series of programs, some funded by a West German aid agency, others by United States groups who later were revealed to have been fronts for and funded by the CIA. ITT and various U.S. government agencies—including the CIA—also poured money through other channels into the Frei campaign.

It is now clear, I would say it was already clear by 1967, half-way through the Frei presidency, that the coalition on which he rested lacked not only a consistent ideology but unity of objectives. Some elements wanted no change in the traditional monopoly of power. Others really believed they had found a middle way between capitalism and socialism in the formulations of Pius XI as expanded by Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” and still further (in 1968) by the Medellín statements of the Latin American bishops. I have analyzed what I regard as the illogic, the inadequacy and lack of realism of those documents on other occasions most formally in Revolution Next Door written in 1970. For the present purposes, I need only note that they correctly stressed the need for radical, urgent and revolutionary change in Latin America, then offered as the way that change must come “a radical modification by businessmen and their organizations, as well as the political authorities, of their attitudes and methods as those affect the purpose, organization and operation of their enterprises.” In other words, they were telling the Chileans (and other Latin Americans) that they must await the conversion of the CIA and ITT and the rest of the gang who monopolized political and economic power.

Space forbids a deep probing of the subconscious elements which force many Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, to live comfortably with this concept of moral imperatives which marginalizes them in the process of creating a world fit for human habitation. I will merely note that this typical bourgeois ideology results from having internalized a set of abstract, a-historical ethical values, such as democracy, participation in the political process on a level of total mathematical equality, a repudiation of violence understood again a-historically—as doing active deliberate hurt to another, a repudiation resulting from a selective interpretation of biblical texts, and a concept of liberty as an attitude of mind unrelated to structural conditions.

The almost unbroken tradition of Chilean politics is that a president is elected on an extremely progressive platform, quickly modifies it and finally reverses it under the pressures of the power-monopolizing oligarchy. Frei was no exception, and by 1967 his Christian Democratic party was fragmenting into the temporizers and those committed to and aware of the urgent need of radical reform. And so we have MAPU (Movimiento de Acción Popular Unido) in 1969, followed later by MIC (Movimiento lzquierdista Cristiane), while some members join the extreme left MIR (Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario). This shift of emphasis and allegiance was paralleled in the Church, where small but influential numbers of priests and lay leaders, followed parallel lines, starting with the Igiesia Joven movement in 1968, and the declaration of “The 80” priests in 1971. They publicly espoused socialism and followed up with the creation of “Christians for Socialism” in 1972, a movement which then had and still has worldwide resonances. By this time, the old Catholic-Protestant rivalry had yielded to a new split: progressive Catholics and Protestants against reactionary Catholics and Protestants. From that time, Protestant ministers played a significant role in “Christians for Socialism.” Those groups rejected the middle way, insisting that socialism was the only alternative to capitalism, and that Christians and Marxists must unite to end the institutionalized violence of the capitalist power structures.

Jesuit Gonzalo Arroyo, recognized leader and theoretician for “Christians for Socialism,” makes a point I regard as important. “These socialist Christians did not try to derive their political stance from their faith, even though they felt that it dovetailed with the gospel message and with Jesus’ predilection for the poor and their liberation. They derived their political stance from an analysis which they wanted to be as objective and scientific as possible, and which they saw authenticated by the political praxis of the workers and their avantgarde. But they asserted that their Christian faith was enlivened and vivified by their political activity—that is, by their active involvement in history with the working class and its liberation.”

The existence of this revolutionary current, even though a definitely minor one, undoubtedly helped the formal neutrality of the Chilean bishops during the 1970 elections which gave Allende the presidency, and the institutional Church’s collaboration and normally good relations with the predominantly Marxist government of the Popular Unity coalition. But none of the bishops was ever converted to the dialectical interpretation of events which underlay the stand of “Christians for Socialism.” They remained at best committed to developmentalism, while several of them were still in the traditional attitude of emotional identification with the oligarchy and committed to the class structures which left most Chileans voiceless and powerless. For them, as for Pope Pius IX in Nostris et nobiscum (1849), “it is not given to men to establish new societies and communities opposed to the natural state of human affairs.”

When in 1973, Chilean and international capitalism shed its reformist mask, confirming the view always affirmed by MIR and held with varying degrees of clarity by many members of the Popular Unity coalition that those who monopolize power will not permit the transformation of society by legal, democratic methods, the institutional Church in Chile lacked a realistic analysis of what was taking place. In consequence, its response was totally inadequate to the needs of the situation. It apparently believed, as Frei did, that Chile would experience a conventional coup d’état, a change of the palace guard: the elimination of Allende and “constitutional” installation Of Frei, next in line as head of the Senate. it was utterly unprepared for the savage counterrevolution, the only logical alternative to a continuation of the Allende-headed revolution given the internal and external balance of social forces and pressures, a counterrevolution which condensed into weeks the destruction of popular institutions and the physical elimination of popular leadership which had taken years in Brazil. Apparently, it had not even been listening when Nixon proposed Brazil as the prototype of the coming Latin America.

Cardinal Raúl Silva, head of the Chilean episcopate, behaved with great personal propriety throughout the entire process, publicly acknowledging the democratic decision which brought a Marxist to power in 1970, maintaining a cooperative attitude to the Popular Unity regime and repeatedly praising reforms it effected (including the nationalization of copper) as in Chile’s best interests and strictly constitutional. Nor is there reason to doubt that his initial contacts with the Junta were principally motivated by the desire to save innocent lives, an effort in which he had considerable success.

Nevertheless, in the light of history I fear Cardinal Silva will emerge as less than a hero or a reader of the signs of the times. One problem is personal in the sense of his class conditioning. Like all members of the oligarchy everywhere in Latin America (and bishops are ex officio assimilated to the oligarchy and its mores), he believed he could do business with the generals or anyone else in power as one club member to another. That day is over, if only because the area within which the oligarchs can decide freely has been radically narrowed. The decisions are now made by computers in New York, London, Tokyo and the counterparts in Moscow with whom their exchange of confidences is steadily greater and more cordial.

The second problem is that winning the battle for individual lives (some of them) lost the war for the life of the people. Like modern Catholic theology, Silva thought of individual rather than social salvation. In November 1973, in the Vatican’s L'Osservatore Romano, he told the Junta that the Church in Chile offered it the same cooperation it had offered “to all those works on behalf of the common good that had been sponsored by the Marxist government of President Allende.” The Junta was offended by having the Allende regime placed on equal terms. In fact, it was being legitimated by the Church. The savages who had destroyed all of Chile’s most cherished institutions, killed thousands, expelled thousands, imprisoned thousands, driven hundreds of thousands from their jobs, were acknowledged to be as legitimate a government as the one the people had chosen for itself in free elections.

Since September 1973

The efforts of the Church to maintain itself in being as an institution and to exercise an influence on events since Sept. 1973 can be conveniently divided into several periods, all of them marked by continuing tension as the Church sought to retain the autonomy it had been accorded by Allende, while the Junta sought to use it.

In the first period, the Church (working ecumenically, particularly with Lutheran Bishop Helmut Frenz) engaged in the Committee of Cooperation for Peace and other organizations in a major humanitarian effort to help individuals in the name of human rights. That meant negotiating and making concessions, and effectively acknowledging the legitimacy of a system founded on violence, so that the Church in fact contributed to creating and strengthening tyrannical structures. The Church’s position was further clouded by a document sent in the name of the bishops (but representing only some Junta supporters) in December 1973 to bishops in many other countries. It was labeled confidential but used shamelessly to slander Allende and his regime and justify all the excesses of the Junta. One such use was an article in Maryknoll magazine repeating all its lies and half-truths without indication of the source. It was written by Maryknoller Miguel d’Escoto, a longtime activist with Jesuit Roger Vekemans in his varied well-heeled anti-socialist activities. (Vekemans, incidentally, fled Chile in 1970 when Allende was elected, was soon back in big business in the more congenial atmosphere of Bogotá, Colombia.) Meanwhile, criticisms expressed by bishops were both ambiguous and in private, never an appeal to public opinion, all of which further tended to legitimate the oppressive and usurping structures.

A significant change occurred in the spring of 1974 when the Secretariat of the Chilean bishops issued a document signed by Cardinal Silva “for all the bishops of Chile,” which for the first time challenged basic positions of the Junta. It said a new Constitution will need the approval of the people “after discussion in which all citizens can participate actively and knowledgeably.” It chided the Junta’s violation of the rights of citizens, the climate of fear and insecurity, rising unemployment and firing of workers for arbitrary or ideological reasons, the restructuring of the economy to impose “an excessive amount of sacrifice” on wage-earners.

Although stated to be the view of all the bishops, this document accelerated an open rift in the hierarchy. One group of bishops identifies the welfare of religion with the objectives of the Junta. Its principal members are Archbishop Emilio Tagie Covarrubias (Valparaiso), Bishops Juan Fresno Larraín (La Serena) Eladio Vicuña Aránguiz (Puerto Montt), and Maximiano Valdés Subercaseaux (Osorr). This group has openly broken unity with the other bishops, especially with formal statements of Tagle and Fresno.

A second group adopts a cautious yet openly critical position, particularly on human rights, as expressed in the Easter 1974 statement. Its leaders are Cardinal Silva, Bishops Carlos Camus Larena (sec. gen. of the bishops’ conference), Fernando Ariztía Ruiz (Copiapó), Carlos González Cruchaga (Talca), Bernardino Piñera Carvallo (Temuco), and Jorge Hourton and Enrique Alvear Urrutia (both auxiliaries of Santiago). The rest of the bishops are hesitant.

The Junta is enormously conscious of the importance of restoring the oligarchy’s traditional control of the Church as legitimator and moral protector of the regime. Responding to the Pope’s call for New Year’s Day 1975 as a day for peace, Pinochet cabled his total commitment to the same objective, adding that his regime reflected and expressed the beliefs and practices of Catholicism. The attempt to create a new religion by giving special meanings to traditional theological language goes back to the installation of the regime. The magazine Tizona in Oct. 1973 captioned a photo of the bombing of La Moneda: “The Purification of La Moneda.” At Easter 1974, El Mercurio headed a full-page essay: “Our Country has Died and Risen from the Dead.” The text included an interview with a cleric who compared the 3-year death of Chile under marxism to Christ’s suffering, death and glorious Resurrection. A large photograph dominating the page showed two soldiers embracing. They were the disciples rejoicing at the good news and now entrusted with the task of spreading it.

The theory is carried over into practice. The Junta has worked hard and successfully to smash episcopal collegiality. It makes bilateral arrangements with heads of institutions, bypassing Church authorities. It names the heads of Church-related educational and welfare organizations. Any attempts by Christian groups to express themselves publicly in favor of social liberation are ruthlessly smashed. The educational system is being completely restructured and reoriented along the same fascist lines already established in Brazil, with no regard for views of parents or of the school community. Even the celebrations of the Holy Year of 1975 are strictly regulated. General S. A. Stark, head of the Second Army Division, has told the Church authorities of Santiago that expressions must be strictly religious and are permitted only within parish premises and private homes, with full advance information to the security forces. The bishop and pastor must authorize each manifestation, and the bishop will be held personally responsible for any infraction.

Such was the situation at the end of 1974. The first months of 1975 were marked by a series of events indicating the determination of the Junta to continue its efforts to domesticate the Churches while conducting elaborate campaigns of international propaganda to anesthetize world opinion. It gave a great play to a statement signed by 32 Protestant churchmen (including Bishop T. R. Vasquez of the United Methodist Church) proclaiming the Junta as “God’s reply to the prayers of all believers who saw in marxism the satanic force of darkness carried to its culmination.” Spokesmen for the World Council of Churches and the U.S. National Council of Churches expressed surprise at this “breach in the Christian community,” and the Latin American Catholic news agency Noticias Aliadas said it contrasted radically with the stand of the Catholic Church and that of the Lutherans and other major Protestant Churches.

Another “whitewash” operation was a series of talks and press conferences in the United States under the aegis of the violently anti-communist Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation by a Catholic priest on leave from Chile who insisted that Chileans are solidly behind the Junta, that the economy is in excellent shape, and that even those guilty of crimes have been and are being treated leniently.

Evidence is mounting that the Junta will succeed, within a matter of months, in destroying the Committee of Cooperation for Peace, the sole institution attempting to develop long-term programs to deal with the unemployment, poverty and hunger which the Junta’s economic policies have imposed on supporters of the previous regime. Cardinal Silva told a private meeting of bishops at Easter that its work would be finished by the end of the year, and Jonathan Kandell has reported in The New York Times (May 5) that he has repeated this statement several times. While the Committee has Protestant and Jewish cooperation, its legal basis comes from the cardinal and can be withdrawn by him at will.

In addition to being the one symbol of hope for Chile’s poor, the Committee is still seen by churchmen and other observers from other countries as desperately needed to continue its original work of searching for missing persons, providing legal aid to political detainees, and collecting data on abuse of authority. For Jonathan Kandell, it “has become virtually synonymous with church concern for human rights.” In actual fact, there has been no let-up in the programs of oppression. One Chilean bishop has revealed that the incidence of violations of human rights and the unexplained disappearance of Chilean citizens was higher in the first four months of 1975 than in the same period a year earlier.

A report submitted by a group of Chilean priests to the Easter meeting of the bishops insisted that the evils denounced by the bishops a year earlier (see above) had intensified, and that new violations had been added, specifically “manipulations of consciences and an alarming reduction of health services for the poor.” They urged the bishops to take a firmer and more open stand against the Junta for the sake of the people as well as for the long-term good of the Church.

Will this happen? A priest friend of mine, who is close to Cardinal Silva and who until recently remained optimistic, has given me an answer with which I cannot disagree, “I believe that the Church still figures that there will be a way to solve diplomatically the differences between Church and State. This is the so-called ’Polish solution.’ I personally am convinced that only the clearest stand against the Junta is in accord with the gospel and also will give the Church credibility for the future. I doubt that the Church will take this stand. I suspect that this will be one of the elements leading to bloody conflict in Latin America.”

Gary MacEoin is the author of numerous books, most recently The People's Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz and Why He Matters (Crossroad ).

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