Diplomatic blunder hurts church-state ties in Argentina

February 15, 2008

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, 16 Jan. 2008/Marcos BrindicciArgentina’s new president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is trying to improve relations with the Roman Catholic Church, but progress doesn’t come easy. Church-state ties turned tense under her husband Nestor, who preceded her as president from 2003 to 2007, because he occasionally alluded to church complicity in the country’s brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship. And his health minister, who favored loosening restrictions on abortion, had a public spat with the bishop assigned to tending to the country’s military forces.

So when Fernandez took office in December, she moved quickly to patch things up. One step she took was to meet the head of the Argentine Bishops’ Conference , Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a Jesuit who ran against Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 papal election. However, the honeymoon didn’t last long. This time the problem was with the Vatican, which effectively rejected her new ambassador to the Holy See. The candidate, former Justice Minister Alberto Iribarne, is Catholic but divorced and living with a new partner, something the Church does not approve of.

Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican CityThe Vatican did not reject Iribarne’s nomination outright. It simply did not confirm him in the post, which in diplomatic terms means he hasn’t got a prayer. Local media report that Argentina is awaiting some formal response from the Vatican, but local Church sources say that is unlikely to materialise.

Argentina is expected to leave the post unfilled for now if the Vatican doesn’t unexpectedly accept Iribarne. “This issue is strictly between the Vatican and the government,” a source who works at Argentina’s Church offices said. “It’s unfortunate that this has come up now, when we were making progress toward good relations.”

The government has been reported to be considering scrapping the post of military bishop in retaliation against the Vatican. But a government source said although officials would like to eliminate the post, it was “not on the agenda” for now. All the same, the discussion was another opportunity for the Church’s critics to air their complaint that some military Christian von Wernich is led into a courtroom at his trial, 9 Sept. 2007/Enrique Marcarianchaplains used confessions to squeeze information out of torture victims during the dictatorship.

The Church’s collaboration with the dictatorship is far from forgotten here. Last October, an Argentine court handed down a life prison sentence to a priest, former police chaplain Christian Von Wernich, convicting him of involvement in torture, kidnapping and murder during the notorious “dirty war” purge of suspected leftists.

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