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Saints and Sinners:
Can the Vatican Tell the Difference

By Patrick Inniss

Will the Catholic Church ever adopt the same standards of decency accepted by most of the world's reputable institutions? For centuries it seems one of its primary functions has been to make life easy for a motley bunch of villains and misanthropes. Recently, the Catholic Church has added yet another chapter to this sad history by coming to the defense of former Chilean dictator August Pinochet in his struggle to avoid deportation from Britain to Spain. Pinochet is wanted in Spain for his role in the disappearance of Spanish nationals during his reign of terror from 1973 to 1990. Chile has declared amnesty for political violence committed during that era, but the Spanish, and many others around the world, feel no compunction to extend mercy to a man who most agree guided a campaign responsible for the murder of thousands.

The outcry from South America against the Vatican's interference was particularly poignant. The Argentine group of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, named for the place where they regularly gathered to protest the disappearance of their family members, sent Pope John Paul II a strongly worded letter opposing the Vatican's intervention into Pinochet's struggle with the British legal system. The women expressed their ire by addressing the Pope as "mister" rather than whatever it is he's normally called.

Explaining the lack of formality, the letter said, "We address you as a common citizen because we think it is an aberration that from your seat in the Vatican, not having suffered yourself the electric prod, mutilation, or rape, you dare seek mercy for this murderer in Jesus Christ's name." Argentina's President Carlos Menen, in a nauseating display of politically motivated boot-licking, later sent a letter of apology to the Pope. In fact, the Vatican's defense of Pinochet is far from an aberration, and could in fact be predicted based upon its well-documented role in the escape of Nazi war criminals following the end of World War II. Pinochet, a murderous right-wing Christian dictator of the old school, is just the sort of miscreant viewed kindly by the atavistic, antidemocratic crypto-fascists that hold sway in the Holy See. This pattern can be traced back at least as far as the Spanish Civil War.

The "kill-a-Commie-for-Christ" mentality is alive and well at the Vatican, where ideas, no matter how bad, have half-lives measured in centuries.

What is somewhat surprising is that the Vatican does not feel in the least restrained by a guilty conscience. But the memory of the bloody oppression in Chile and Argentina is still strong outside the Papal gates, as is the controversy over the Catholic Church's failure to act. In Argentina it has been reported that the Vatican's office actually kept tabs of the kidnappings of civilians and could, through its official contacts, usually report to inquiring relatives whether their loved ones were alive or dead.

The justification that has been offered for its failure to condemn government brutality has been that the Church was able to, by remaining apparently neutral, save a few lives. But, in fact, the only lives that were spared through the efforts of the Catholic Church belonged to a few well-connected individuals.

The silent complicity of the Vatican and the Argentine bishops contrasted dramatically with the statements of conscience delivered by individual Catholics and maverick priests. In fact, an order composed largely of Irish-Argentine priests provided one of the most effective voices in opposition to the crimes of the Argentine government.

The existence of these advocates for the oppressed truth within the Catholic Church itself, and their lack of recognition by the Vatican, highlights the moral bankruptcy of Catholic leadership. Some of these dissidents paid with their lives without their church recognizing their heroism. Meanwhile, fascist-loving Croatian nationalist Cardinal Stepinac and pseudo-humanitarian Mother Teresa are on the fast track to sainthood.

Perhaps the Catholic Church's instinct to come to the defense of its own can be somewhat understood. What cannot be adequately explained or justified is its unseemly, almost criminal, association with some of the most bigoted, oppressive, and reactionary forces around the world. Although the Vatican recently took the first halting steps toward admitting that it might not have handled its role in the Holocaust as well as it could have, not much has really changed. Even to this very day, when the Catholic Church is presented with a fabulous opportunity to step in and use its influence to reduce murderous religious hostilities in Eastern Europe, it is still seemingly more concerned with issues such as birth control and homosexuality. From the Pope's recent diplomatic initiatives it is obvious that winning concessions from leftist governments such as Cuba is more important than attempting to stop the murder of Muslims and Orthodox Catholics. If Hitler were still here, there is little reason to believe he wouldn't be a Catholic in good standing.

Patrick Inniss is a columnist with The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington. The following is reprinted from the Spring 1999 issue of the newsletter, with special permission of the author.

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