Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, Cry For the Catholic Church

Two women drinking coffee together in a Buenos Aires café during the dictatorship (1973-1983) could have been arrested merely for being together. Today they can marry. What a difference a few decades can make. Eva Peron was right in her address to her people from the balcony, as crooned memorably by Madonna in the movie Evita: “The truth is I never left you/All through my wild days/My mad existence/I kept my promise/don’t keep your distance…”

Argentina delivered same-sex marriage on July 15, 2010 (the bill was officially signed into law on July 21) after a bitter but decisive legislative battle. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s supporters backed it and some commentators have alleged that the 33-27 vote in the Senate was less a sign of major cultural change than a way for the president’s husband, Nestor Kirchner (former president of Argentina hankering to run again), to look liberal enough to be reelected in 2011. That may well be, but it misses an important religious angle; namely, that the Roman Catholic Church was defeated as soundly as the political opposition on this one. Maybe it is a sign of things to come in Latin America—on abortion, for example—and around the world as the institutional church fritters away its symbolic capital.

I taught in Buenos Aires from 1980-81, “en plena dictadura,” at ISEDET, the ecumenical seminary. During the dictatorship, there were many infringements on everyday life. Large meetings were discouraged; even small gatherings were frowned upon and could be broken up by police. Homosexuality was against the law, though there remained a thriving, if mostly underground, LGBT community.

I knew a lot of marvelous lesbian women and gay men who coped valiantly. It was the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and many men died young. The women were incredible—photographers, anthropologists, teachers, business leaders—heady company for a young feminist theologian. I vividly recall leaving an evening gathering held in the home of a lesbian couple. We had to exit in small clusters (one, two, or three people at a time, never everyone at once) for fear that we would draw the attention of the police.

All the while the Roman Catholic Church had a dubious relationship with the military government. It was fairly common among upper class Argentine families to have one son who was a general and one who was a bishop or cardinal, so the lines were thin between church and state.* The Apostolic Nuncio to Argentina at the time, Archbishop Pio Laghi, was rumored to play tennis with the generals who ruled the country, including Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera of the junta.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (women who protested the disappearance of their children), and later the Grandmothers who protested the loss of their grandchildren, were famously photographed trying desperately to get a meeting with the bishops. Police stood in between the women and the men; the bishops were on retreat together behind closed doors. The picture said it all.

The institutional church was notoriously silent on much of the so-called “Dirty War.” It left to groups like Servicio Paz y Justicia (whose head, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980) to defend human rights. They did so along with the Mothers and the many secular and ecumenical groups that worked heroically to bring Argentina back to democracy. They pressed for the prosecution of those guilty of kidnapping and/or killing many young people.

By the time of democracy’s return in 1983, the Roman Catholic Church had lost a good deal of its prestige from having been on the wrong side of the war. Nonetheless, like so many Latin American countries, Argentina was still considered Catholic even if a large majority of its people, especially in cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, were not actively practicing. By contrast, the Jewish community in Buenos Aires in the tough decade of dictatorship thrived under the leadership of Conservative Rabbi Marshall Meyer. He distinguished himself as a human rights activist and as an ecumenical partner.

I recall many a meeting and delightful luncheon at the seminary he ran. These were interreligious efforts to put pressure on the government and to build civic community at a time when the government was keeping people apart. Protestant and Jewish professors gathered in abundance but if there were another Catholic beside myself they were few and not there in any official capacity. To their credit, the liberal Protestants were also active in human rights, so much so that the seminary where I taught was firebombed, presumably by government forces, and thousands of books, but no lives, were lost.

There was no mention in those days of gay rights, and even women’s rights took a back seat to other rampant human rights violations. But even in the highly educated and cultured, if not very religious circles in Buenos Aires, everyone knew who the religious leaders were who could be counted on or not. The bishops, with few exceptions, were not very impressive. When Pio Laghi admitted he was “no hero,” no one contradicted him.

Gay and lesbian rights took hold in Buenos Aires and to a less flamboyant but surely just as important degree in Cordoba, Mendoza, Rosario, and other large cities. Ironically, the first gay marriage in the Republic of Argentina took place in the Province of Tierra del Fuego, literally at the end of the world in 2009 when Alex Frye, the head of an AIDS organization, and Jose Maria Di Bello, an executive for the Red Cross, tied the knot. In that case the governor of the province urged a local clerk to register the union just six months before it became legal throughout the country. So the growing consensus in favor of same-sex marriage took place despite the institutional Catholic Church’s theology.

In fact, the Church sponsored protests all over the country, with several Opus Dei bishops prominent in the dissent. And while a few priests courageously broke ranks, the major opposition sprang from Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires who referred to the pending legislation as a “destructive attack on God’s plan.” The Church waged a propaganda war with posters depicting a man and a woman and a baby as the ideal (read: the only possible model of family). Marriage equality in Argentina will require new posters depicting the many ways family can look—with or without children. The cardinal lost a lot of the Church’s credibility along with the printing costs.

Some leaders of the Lutheran Church distinguished themselves with well-reasoned arguments in favor of the inevitable. The Metropolitan Community Church now has an active ministry in Argentina so those leaders were also vocal.

Even at the 11th hour the Catholic hierarchy was on the wrong side. Thousands of Catholic anti-gay supporters staged a loud protest in Plaza de Mayo on the frigid evening of the Senate vote. Alas for them, at 4:05 AM on July 15 it must have felt like a cold day in hell when the votes were counted and the exuberant celebrations began.

I was among the celebrators in Plaza del Congresso in December of 1983 when Raul Alfonsin was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president after the military dictatorship. I wish I had been there that early winter morning in July of this year when the votes were counted. I can only imagine the scene when another expression of democracy took Argentina one more step away from its disgraceful past. And yet the Catholic Church did not take its loss gracefully; there are still rumblings about impending doom.**

Had I been there for the celebration, I would have cried Evita. I would have wept in gratitude for my friends—Alicia, Safina, Poncio and others—who did not live to see their beloved Argentina lose this year’s World Cup but win first place in Latin America’s marriage quests. They lived with integrity when times were tough. Their courage paved the way.

*This sentence has been changed to reflect the fact that it was common ‘among upper class Argentine families,’ and not among the general population. Thank you to the author of an anonymous letter to the editor for helping to clarify this point. Note: RD does not publish anonymous letters to the editor.

**This sentence was initially followed by one about an ACIERA statement. We have since learned that the information on ACIERA may not be correct so weve opted to remove it. RD regrets the error.