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Declarations & Statements


El País, 2.3.99

Pinochet's men in the Vatican, By Juan-José Tamayo-Acosta

Since seizing power in Chile with the coup d'état against President Salvador Allende, General Pinochet has tirelessly sought the support of the Vatican for his military regime, claiming as credentials his Catholic faith and his crusade against Marxism, in complete harmony with John Paul II, who is also an anti-Marxist. Whilst the Archbishop of Santiago (Chile), cardinal Silva Enríquez, was denouncing Pinochet's attack on human rights - including the right to life - through the Vicaría de Solidaridad (Vicariate of Solidarity), the Vatican legitimated the dictator's actions, above all through the Nunciature (Vatican's Embassy).

After the setback with the plebiscite of October 1988, which forced him to give up power, Pinochet doubled his efforts in order to ensure the backing of the Vatican, confident that it would speak out in his defence should he be prosecuted. And his shadow extended to the Roman Curia, where some of the positions of highest responsibility are occupied by ecclesiastical personalities that are sympathetic to him.

We can look first, at Cardinal Angello Sodano, Papal Nuncio (Vatican's Ambassador) in Chile during Pinochet's dictatorship, and with whom he maintained a close friendship, based on political affinities. He arranged the visit of John Paul II to Chile in 1987, and was behind each of the Pope's gestures of legitimisation towards the dictator. Years later, Sodano replaced Cardinal Casaroli as Vatican's secretary of state, a position that he currently occupies. Although this position is "second-in-command" in terms of the Vatican's hierarchy, in practice he acts like number one. To mark Pinochet's golden wedding anniversary, he sent the couple a personal letter of congratulation, full of praise. After meeting in Castelgandolfo with the Chilean Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, in November 1998, Sodano wrote to the British government, asking that mercy be shown towards his friend the general, citing humanitarian reasons, reconciliation between Chileans, and, ultimately, the sovereignty of the Chilean State.

Cardinal Angello Sodano

At the head of the Roman Congregation for the Divine Cult and the Sacraments is another admirer of Pinochet: the Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina, who was Archbishop of Valaparaíso, Chile's chief port and the birthplace of Salvador Allende. He is a bitter and self-confessed enemy of Liberation Theology, which he has persecuted with exceptional harshness. He has been quite prepared to admit publicly that the Vatican has been working to avoid Pinochet's prosecution and for his prompt return to Chile. Proof enough of his complete disregard for democracy and his (at least indirect) legitimisation of the dictatorship is his declaration of August 3rd, 1990: "Democracy does not automatically mean that God would want it to be put into practice." In his post as head of the aforementioned important Vatican's Congregation, he can carry out a very dangerous task: that of putting the rich world of Christian symbolism at the disposal of causes that attack liberty.

Another powerful man in the Vatican is the Colombian cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who was secretary and then president, of the Latin-American Episcopal Conference (LEC) during the 70s and 80s, a staunch enemy, like Medina, of Liberation Theology, and a persecutor of its main proponents. In this regard I will use, if I may, a personal anecdote. Whilst López Trujillo was Archbishop of Medellín, he banned the distribution and sale of my book Understanding Liberation Theology in all the Catholic libraries of the archdiocese. His presidency of LEC, which coincided with the advance of military dictatorships throughout Latin America, was not exactly characterised by its prophetic denunciation of them. At the height of these conflicts, he demonstrated his affinity with the CIA in his efforts to silence popular demands and the revolutionary spirit of the freedom movements. He currently presides in the Vatican over the Pontifical Council for the Family, which is known for its hostile attitude to the Second Vatican Council regarding matters like contraception and parenthood.

This Who's Who of the Vatican should not lose sight of another character who has played a key role in the religious legitimisation of dictatorships: the Italian Cardinal Pio Laghi, who was absolutely committed to helping the Argentinian military regime when he was the head of the Apostolic Nunciature in Buenos Aires. Neither he nor the Argentinian bishops spoke out for the murdered and missing, or denounced the horrendous crimes against the children who were literally torn away from their parents. The Argentinian church actively collaborated with the repression through the military chaplains. Meanwhile, the assassination of Monseñor Angelelli, a bishop and defender of human rights, did not elicit condemnation from his brothers in the episcopate. Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (the group of mothers and widows whose husbands and children were 'disappeared' during the regime) have appealed to the Italian judicial system to accuse Cardinal Laghi of complicity with the military dictatorship. But their accusation is doomed to fail, because Laghi is currently president of the Holy Congregation for Catholic Education and enjoys immunity under the Letran Accords.

In Spain, Monseñor Asenjo, Secretary-General of the Episcopal Conference, has added his voice to those of his superiors in the Vatican, asserting, against all logic, that to prosecute Pinochet would hinder the process of reconciliation amongst Chileans. It should not come as a surprise if these statements help him to move up a rung or two in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

It is possible that these court counsellors convinced the Pope that Pinochet is an exemplary Christian; his family, a model "blessed family"; his crusade against Communism, a service to the Catholic church; and his coup d'état, an act of God's will in order to re-establish the "Christian social order" which had been upset by the Marxist Salvador Allende. Or, maybe it has not been necessary to convince him of the merits of the dictator, because the Pope knew them well, as he showed with his unequivocal gestures of praise for the General during his visit to Chile. One such gesture was personally administering communion to Pinochet in acknowledgement of his complete religious rectitude. Another was stepping out onto the balcony of the Moneda Palace with the General to greet a crowd that mixed "hoorays" for the Pope with shouts of acclaim for the dictator.

The strategy that the Vatican has followed with regards to Pinochet seems to me both ethically and evangelically unjustifiable. Firstly, the tyrant is turned into the victim. With that cunning move, the victims are once again sacrificed in the memory of the people. Secondly, his immunity is defended by claiming that at the time these crimes were committed, he was a Head of State. With that, his most horrendous crimes against humanity are legitimated. Thirdly, there is an appeal for mercy on humanitarian grounds, forgetting the inhumane actions of the dictator against his people. Finally, the tyrant remains free without even being taken to court, and gloats over his victims. All this, with divine help, mediated by the Vatican. In short, one dictatorship supports and legitimates another one. And that, in the case of the Catholic Church, seems to me to be anti-democratic, anti-evangelical, anti-human, and anti-divine.

Juan-José Tamayo-Acosta is a theologian.

Translated from the Spanish by Remember Chile

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