Moral Dilemmas

In an interesting blog forwarded to me by my friend “Z” in Ecuador, I was able to learn a good bit about Argentina’s “Dirty War” — the military dictatorship that took an estimated 30,000 Argentine lives during the years from 1976 to 1983. Need I say that War was largely financed by the United States, with the help of Henry Kissinger, including billions of dollars in military aid and weapons to assist the dictatorship? But also of interest is the fact that the new Pope of the Catholic Church was head of the Jesuits during that period in Argentina and has been charged with doing little or nothing to stop the carnage that was taking place at the time. As an article titled “The Scotsman” tells us:

Pope Francis (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Pope Francis
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Relatives of those who disappeared during Argentina’s “Dirty War” criticised the new Pope yesterday, saying Francis had failed to confront the military dictatorship in his country.

Some 30,000 people were killed during the war and relatives of victims have claimed the new pontiff had a “very cowardly attitude” towards the regime.

I am reminded of Pope Pius XII’s unwillingness to take a stand against Nazism during the Second World War, a situation that inspired Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, focusing on the Pope’s struggles to determine the right course of action to take in the light of Nazi atrocities. The Pope does not emerge from this examination squeaky clean. As Hannah Arendt said in an essay on Pius’s silence: “No one has denied that the Pope was in possession of all the pertinent information regarding the Nazi deportation and ‘resettlement’ of the Jews. No one has denied that the Pope did not even raise his voice in protest when, during the German occupation of Rome, the Jews, including Catholic Jews (that is, Jews converted to Catholicism), were rounded up, right under the windows of the Vatican, to be included in the Final Solution.” In Hochhuth’s play, the Pope’s dilemma is made clear: speak out against Nazism at the risk of angering Mussolini and Hitler and perhaps rendering it impossible to do any good whatever, or say nothing and do what one can to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi purge. The Pope chose the latter course in a calculation involving a certain amount of self-interest that gives one pause in light of the fact that the Head of the Catholic Church, one would think, ought to take and hold the moral high ground regardless of consequences. As the British representative to the Vatican wrote in 1942, “A policy of silence in regard to such offenses against the conscience of the world must necessarily involve a renunciation of moral leadership and a consequent atrophy of the influence of the Vatican.” Indeed, Hochhuth dwells on the nature of the Pope’s dilemma and hints that even though a  number of Jews were reportedly assisted by the Church to escape to safety it is not clear that this justifies the Pope’s silence in the face of the enormity of the atrocities being committed by the Nazis. As has been noted, the fear that things would have been made worse for the Jews had the Pope spoken out ignores the fact that their situation couldn’t possibly have been worse for them.

In the case of Pope Francis and his role in the “Dirty War’ in Argentina, it is not clear how many people, if any, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as he was then called, was able to save. His biographer insists that he took risks to save  a number of the “subversives” tagged by the dictatorship for imprisonment and even death. What we do know is that 30,000 people were killed mainly for political reasons, and a week after Fr. Bergoglio dismissed two priests for being too “progressive” they were kidnapped, held, and tortured. This does not bode well for those who hope this Pope will drag the Catholic Church, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. It was even rumored at the time that Bergoglio was complicitous in the kidnapping, but this was never verified. But what is clear is that Fr. Bergoglio made the same decision as Pope Pious XII and did not take a stand against the evil he saw around him. As the article referred to above goes on to say:

It is generally agreed upon that the church in Argentina did little to oppose or stand up to the dictatorship during the Dirty War. Argentine bishops admitted as much as recently as October 2012. At the very least, they’re being forced to remember.

While none of us might choose to be placed in either man’s shoes, one must ask the question whether an ethical calculation designed to weigh alternatives and select the lesser of evils is an appropriate stand for two of the most influential men of the Church in Catholic countries in a time of crisis. As the medieval theologians whose thinking formed the warp and woof of Catholic dogma would have said, theirs was a “sin of omission.” Their silence resonates in the face of known atrocities on a mammoth scale.


11 thoughts on “Moral Dilemmas

  1. Hugh, this is very good as well as a sad reminder. Pope Pius XII was probably the only person above the fray who could have said to the world “this is not right.” Yet, he did not. It is my understanding he traded with Mussolini for the safety of the Vatican. The same may have been true in Argentina. Even, in America, we need our church leaders to speak out for our poverty victims and gun violence and say loudly and clearly these are not right and we must do something. These church leaders are human and seek self-preservation, yet if they cannot lead, who else can we look to. This is why I think the greatest sin is when church leaders go beyond silence and perpetuate bad behavior from their various pulpits. Well done, BTG

  2. Mr. C,
    I do believe the Yiddish proverb: “A half-truth is a whole lie” regardless of ….any circumstance, moral and/or religious …would be, and continues to be, the humane standard bearer.

  3. good morning from guayaquil, toto. i’m not in sleepy little farm mode anymore!

    as always, your morning posts are great first reads, even if you’re bringing unpleasant facts to the table. as i read this one, i found myself applying these lessons to my own life and reminding myself to always have backbone and stand up/speak up when possible.

    i found myself asking, ‘what would you do?’ if speaking up put my personal safety at risk; i am much more prepared to speak up with honor and dignity now than i was ten years ago. twenty or more years ago, my beliefs and backbone were much weaker. we can hope that the new pope has also gained a much-stronger backbone and will speak up and out against wrong.

    thanks for the food for thought this morning.


  4. Pope Pius ignored the Nazi carnage all around him, he even denied it. Pope Francis did nothing to help save 30,000 fellow citizens. Benedict and countless bishops and cardinals covered up for the pedophiles around them, gladly sacrificing the tens of thousands of victims rather than take action. And yet the church attacked and censured an order of nuns who were helping the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. I find it interesting how the church will always be out there “humbly” asking for forgiveness, but will never be out there in the forefront, where they actually might have to take a stand, and do some good.

    Their message by their actions is certainly not one I would ever want to be part of.

  5. It is always going to be: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, unto God the things that are God’s” No one should expect anything different.

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