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‘A Story That Has Not Really Been Told’

The Catholic Church and Argentina’s Dirty War

12/10/15
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Gustavo Morello, SJ (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

By Kathleen Sullivan | Chronicle Staff

Published: Dec. 10, 2015

In his new book, The Catholic Church and Argentina’s Dirty War, Assistant Professor of Sociology Gustavo Morello, SJ, chronicles the 1976 kidnapping, detainment and torture of American priest James Weeks and five seminarians by the Argentine military government – an event, he says, that points up the complex relationship between the Catholic Church and political violence during Argentina’s infamous Dirty War.

“I was interested in the case of Fr. Weeks and the La Salette seminarians because it had not been studied before,” said Fr. Morello, a Jesuit priest from Argentina. “It was a tree that let me explore the forest: By analyzing this case I was able to put the Catholic people of Argentina in context and understand their relationships with the political actors and international networks.”

During Argentina’s Dirty War – an attempt by the government to fight communism by eliminating subversives –15,000 people were killed, 8,000 were jailed and some 6,000 were exiled. In a country where 90 percent of the population is Catholic, these statistics point to the fact that Catholics were killing other Catholics, said Fr. Morello. “In the torture chamber, the discussion was: ‘What does it mean to be Catholic?’”

Fr. Morello interviewed Fr. Weeks, three of the former seminarians – Fr. Weeks and the seminarians were eventually released due to pressure from the United States government – and an American nun who was a witness to their abduction. He also conducted fieldwork and studied archival documents and records of the case. In 2011, he accompanied Fr. Weeks and former seminarian Alfredo Velarde on a return trip to the site of their detainment and torture.

“Theirs is a story that has not really been told,” said Fr. Morello. “And now their story is available in Spanish and English to a broad audience. Although I approached the interviews as a sociologist, I am, of course, also a Catholic priest. And for many of those involved, it was the first time someone from the Church had asked them what had happened to them.

“It was hard, but also positive and healing,” he added. The case is going through the court system in Argentina. Earlier this year, Fr. Morello gave testimony as a contextual witness. “It may help people to get justice.”

By studying the case, Fr. Morello says, he sought to answer the question: Why did Catholics in Argentina do what they did?

“In the book I describe and analyze the complexities of what it meant to be Catholic under Argentina’s dictatorship,” he said. “I wanted to show how victims understood their Catholicism, how torturers justified their actions, and how the Church rationalized its attitude.”

The political changes in Latin America came at the same time as the reforms from the Second Vatican Council. Fr. Morello’s analysis concluded that Catholics’ actions were connected to how they identified themselves after the religious transformation. He categorized three types of Catholics during this era: anti-secular, those who were against all forms of change (social, cultural, religious); committed, those who were part of grassroots movements devoted to the poor; and institutional, those who were conservative but open to change and believed that the government and Catholic Church should work together.

While the Catholic Church’s silence during the Dirty War has drawn criticism, Fr. Morello contends that one cannot look at the Church without also looking at the other actors. “The Church, as well as the media, unions, political parties, were all in step with the government and did not speak out against the government in public.

“This is not an easy topic,” said Fr. Morello. “But it is important to understand what went on because the relationship between religion, politics and violence still exists in the world.”