A letter from Dennis Smith in Argentina
April 4, 2013
Before we begin, a prayer request: After heavy rains, more than 50 people have died in flooding in and around Buenos Aires in recent days. Buenos Aires is a low-lying river town and heavy rains often cause flooding. But in this case many have lost their lives and many more have lost their homes and livelihood. Pray for those who are grieving, and for those who are accompanying them in their grief.
The big news from Latin America these days is the election of the first-ever Argentine Pope!
More about that in a minute, but first a few comments on the relationship between church and state in Argentina and how it impacts the ministry of PC(USA) partner denominations. A couple of months ago I made my annual pilgrimage to the office of the Secretariat for Worship, a branch of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Each year Rev. Gerardo Oberman, a good friend and president of the Reformed Churches of Argentina, signs a letter sponsoring our religious visa application. The Secretariat of Worship has to certify Gerardo’s signature before we can present it to the immigration authorities.
The first time I visited this nondescript building, I was surprised to note that Roman Catholic colleagues were received in their own office to the right of the entryway, while all other religious groups were directed to a cramped office on the left. I asked around and discovered that in Argentina, with apologies to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all churches are created equal, but one church is more equal than others. Indeed, the Argentine Constitution recognizes only the Roman Catholic Church, which is sustained by the State. The Argentine State provides a stipend to Roman Catholic bishops, to seminarians, and to Our Lady of Lujan, the patron saint of Argentina. All other religions or faith communities are considered before the law to be civil associations, not churches.
PC(USA) partner denominations in Argentina have long supported the separation of church and state and equal treatment before the law for all churches and religious groups. Church leaders and interfaith delegations meet when they can with the president or with legislators to advocate for a new law. Specifically, they suggest reforming the century-old civil code so that all faith groups are recognized as religious entities—not just civil associations—and no faith group receives preferential treatment by the State.
In his years as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, became familiar with this debate. While he cultivated warm working relationships with Protestant, Muslim and Jewish leaders, not surprisingly, he did not advocate changing the Catholic Church’s privileged relationship with the Argentine State.
Known for his personal piety and simple lifestyle, Bergoglio is also known for having staked out controversial positions on social and political issues. When Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s president, was running for office in 2007, Bergoglio famously declared that “women are naturally inept for the exercise of political office.” He also furiously opposed President Fernández’ move to legalize same-sex marriage.
Yet, politics being politics, President Fernández was the first head of state to be received by Pope Francis at the Vatican. Both had big smiles on their faces.
With 20-20 hindsight, it is no surprise that a politically astute, engaging, genuinely humble Latin American was elected as the new Pope. More than 40 percent of the world’s Roman Catholics live in Latin America, but that total has dropped dramatically due to the rapid growth of Pentecostalism and growing disaffection with religious institutions in recent decades. Pope Francis will visit Brazil in July to participate in a Catholic youth festival, and many will be looking to see if he can re-energize a faltering Catholicism.
Another source of heated debate in Argentina has been Bergoglio’s role as head of the Jesuits during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Thousands were disappeared by the military, including some priests and nuns. His critics claim that Bergoglio maintained a complicit silence during the war, or may have collaborated with the military. His defenders say that, by not publicly criticizing the dictatorship, he was able to work behind the scenes to save many.
As I’ve compared notes with friends here on the challenges of living under brutal dictatorships in Argentina and Guatemala, they have reminded me that Bergoglio’s relative public silence during that period was hardly unusual. Time will tell whether information surfaces that calls his role into question. In the meantime, we can all be spiritually energized by Francis’ sweet spirit and refreshed by his deft ability to demonstrate God’s goodness and mercy through simple gestures.
As you pray these days, pray especially for our partner denominations here in Argentina—the Evangelical Church of Río de la Plata, the Reformed Churches of Argentina, the Evangelical Waldensian Church of Río de la Plata, and the Association of the Church of God. Pray that each might know how to bear prophetic witness to God’s mercy and justice in a polarized, secular society. Pray that they might have boldness to share the Good News of Christ’s redeeming love.
And pray for our brother Francis, that he might be an instrument of God’s Spirit, an emissary of peace and justice, in a broken world.
Under the Mercy,