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Church and State in Argentina: The Long Road to Secularism

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Anyone walking around Plaza de Mayo one morning last March would have been surprised by the sight of the flag of a foreign state hanging from the side of the Buenos Aires City Government building. Foreign flags adorned the streets and children got a day off school to celebrate the appointment of the head of a theocratic country half way around the world.

These were the first days of the pope-mania that swept the country. Blinded by the heady mix of patriotism and religious fervour that greeted the appointment of Jorge Bergoglio as head of the Catholic Church -and of the Vatican State- many seemed to forget that Argentina strongly proclaimed the division between Church and State well over 100 hundred years ago.

Many examples in everyday life show that, despite Argentina being a mostly secular country, the Roman Catholic Church still enjoys a number of privileges that constitute an unfair discrimination against people of other or no religion.

The Legal Status of the Church

Vatican flag on the Buenos Aires City Government building (photo: Celina Andreassi)

Vatican flag on the Buenos Aires City Government building (photo: Celina Andreassi)

The Catholic Church has a preferential legal status that puts it above not only other religious institutions, but any other organisation of civil society.

Article two of the 1853 Argentine Constitution proclaims that “The federal government supports the Roman catholic apostolic creed.” The ambiguity of the word ‘supports’ has spawned a debate over what the relationship between the government and the Church should be, and whether it can be considered that Catholicism is a state religion in Argentina. Lucas Arrimada, professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Buenos Aires, explains that: “The legal and constitutional doctrine reached a consensus long ago that the word ‘supports’ is to be understood as ‘economic support’ and not as the concession of a preferential, or official, status to the catholic creed or any other religion or creed.”

A document by the Argentine Coalition for a Secular State (CAEL) points out that, despite the specific mentions to God and religion in the original constitution, the foundational years of the Argentine state were marked by a strong bias towards secularism. Between 1850 and 1920, many laws were passed that define the secular nature of the state, such as those that established free, mandatory, and secular public education, civil matrimony, civil registry, and the subordination of religious courts to civil courts, amongst others.

The development of a secular state, however, was stalled after 1930. In the following decades, every military government to take power introduced measures that slowly eroded the secular trend and established long-lasting privileges for the Catholic Church. The democratic governments during this period managed to, at best, maintain the status quo, but did very little to reverse the conservative policies of the de facto governments, which ranged from the establishment of religious education in public schools, to privileged special relations with the Vatican.

It is not surprising, then, that the legal development that cemented the privileged status of the Catholic Church occurred during a military government. In 1966, dictator Juan Carlos Onganía modified the civil code to award the Church its status as a ‘legal entity of a public nature’ -a status only enjoyed by the national, provincial, and municipal states. This means that the Church, unlike any other non-state institution, is governed by public, as opposed to private, law, and that, as a consequence enjoys a number of benefits, such as the guarantee that its properties cannot be seized.

A Matter of Influence

The pervasive presence of catholic rituals and symbols in public life is a constant reminder of the preferences awarded to the Church mainly during military governments, and which the democratic system has been unwilling or unable to abolish.

Crucifixes in hospitals, courts, and other public buildings, statues of the Virgin Mary in the national and provincial congresses, as well as on roads and public parks, are just the visible and conspicuous face of more troubling trends. In the northern provinces of Tucumán and Salta, public school students receive religious education -Catholic education, more precisely. The Supreme Court of Salta even supported the constitutionality of this practice after it was challenged by the parents of non-Catholic students -overturning a first instance sentence- despite it contradicting international treaties on the matter. The case now rests with the Supreme Court in Buenos Aires -the one with the massive crucifix overlooking the judges’ bench.

Argentina's Supreme Court (photo: Gustavo Amarelle/ archivoTélam/lz)

Argentina’s Supreme Court (photo: Gustavo Amarelle/ archivoTélam/lz)

Education is one of the areas in which religious influence is most sensitive. In practical terms, this has meant, for example, that according to a report by CAEL, the Church “carries out an arbitrary, explicit, and systematic obstruction of the implementation of the national plan for sex education for children and youths contemplated in law 26,150 (…) in some provinces they have even confiscated textbooks in the name of Catholic morals.” In a country where 15% of babies are born to teenage mothers (with peaks of up to 25% in poorer provinces) the Church has lobbied strongly, and quite successfully, to have high school children not learn about contraception.

What to do with unwanted pregnancies, then? The law has not offered a solution to this problem yet, as evidenced by the approximately 500,000 clandestine abortions per year. At least 100 (mainly poor) women die each year of complications brought about by clandestine abortions, though the actual number is thought to be considerably higher. Whilst Congress does not seem to be anywhere close to decriminalising abortion, religious interests have done quite well in blocking access to the few cases where the practice is already legal (rape or health risks to the mother).

Despite the existence of a Supreme Court ruling from 2012 which sought to clarify the terms under which non-punishable abortion should be carried out, restrictive legislation continues to be in place in staunchly Catholic provinces, such as Salta. Even in provinces where this is not the case, relentless campaigns continue to re-victimise and humiliate women who seek legal abortions. In October 2012, a woman victim of trafficking networks who had fallen pregnant after being raped had to endure a traumatic ordeal after the Buenos Aires City government illegally released information about her case, prompting a Catholic ‘pro-life’ group to seek an injunction keeping her from having an abortion at a public hospital. The hospital’s chaplain (chaplaincies are another form of encroachment by the Catholic Church in public institutions such as hospitals and the Armed Forces) led the charge, going as far as holding mass in front of the woman’s house. Unlike Salta, the City of Buenos Aires does a have protocol to treat these cases in line with the Supreme Court ruling, despite the City government’s efforts to veto it.

At What Cost?

The costs of straying from the foundations of a secular state are not just social and symbolic: the Argentine state spends an undefined but significant amount of money in honouring article two of the Constitution.

Rally in support of secular education. Buenos Aires, 1959 (photo: Wikipedia)

Rally in support of secular education. Buenos Aires, 1959 (photo: Wikipedia)

Fernando Lozada, from CAEL, says it is hard to know exactly how much public money flows towards the Catholic Church. The budget for the Secretariat of Worship shows a spending of $40m in wages and pensions for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, who earn 80% of a judge’s salary -a benefit awarded by the last military dictatorship. Catholic schools, in turn, receive a whooping $4.5bn in subsidies each year.

This, explains Lozada, does not include the money the state fails to collect on taxes on income and assets, of which the Church and the clergy are exempt, or the donations given to Caritas, whose accounts are “inscrutable.” It also does not include the donations given by individual municipalities -in his hometown of Mar del Plata, this amounts to $400,000 per year- or the money spent in restoration of churches and other buildings considered monuments.

Representing Who?

Much of the power and influence flaunted by the Catholic Church comes from its claim that it represents the majority of Argentines. Indeed, Argentina has a strong Catholic majority, something that is not at all incompatible with the idea of a secular state.

A survey conducted by Conicet researchers, led by sociologist Fortunato Mallimaci, in 2008 gives a good overview of the religious make up of the Argentine population.

The survey shows that 76.5% of Argentines consider themselves Catholic, whilst 11.3% are ‘indifferent’ (this group includes atheists and agnostics), 9% evangelic, and 3.3% ascribe to other religions. The northern provinces have the highest rates of Catholicism, whilst the lowest rates can be found amongst young people and those with higher education.

Despite these overwhelming numbers, over 75% of people “never” or “infrequently” go to church, and 61.1% claim to connect with good “personally”, rather than through an institution. Further, the survey shows that most Catholics in Argentina do not support the Church’s views on controversial issues such as abortion, sex education, contraception, and homosexuality.

The same research group conducted a study amongst members of Congress in 2011, in which they analysed the influence of religious convictions in their votes. Whilst 60% of lawmakers are Catholic, the majority would vote or have voted against the official Catholic stance on issues such as gender identity, abortion, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and medically-assisted reproduction. Despite this autonomy at the individual level, over 90% of legislators believe that, overall, religious convictions and the influence of the Church play an important role in their colleagues’ legislative activity (half of them think this is right, and half think it is wrong). The survey shows that lawmakers frequently meet with Catholic authorities -over half had met with a bishop and 45% with a priest in the year prior to the study- to discuss political and social issues.

Buenos Aires Cathedral (photo by Alexis González Molina on Wikipedia)

Buenos Aires Cathedral (photo by Alexis González Molina on Wikipedia)

Democratic Actions

Whilst there is much to be done to get back on the path towards a truly secular state, it is important to highlight that a number of laws passed in the last 30 years have directly challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and its alleged ‘moral leadership’.

In 1987, then-president Raúl Alfonsín earned himself the scorn of the Church when he pushed the Absolute Divorce Law through Congress. More recently, the Equal Marriage and Gender Identity laws awarded the LGBT community a wide range of rights, despite the intense catholic lobby.

In 1994, under the presidency of Muslim-turned-Catholic Carlos Menem, a constitutional reform did away with some of the most controversial references to Catholicism, namely the requirement for a president to be Catholic and to swear by God and the Bible upon taking office (a requirement that, inexplicably, is still present in the provincial constitution of Catamarca) and the mandate to promote the conversion of indigenous peoples to Catholicism. The reform, however, failed to abolish article two (about the economic support to the Church) and to remove two mentions of “God” in the preamble and the text of the Constitution.

Despite some set backs, there seems to be a general trend towards secularisation, and the extent of the influence of the Catholic Church is ambiguous. CAEL – formed by people and instititions from different creeds/religions, as well as atheists- and other organisations such as the Association for Civil Rights (ADC) are carrying out a number of initiatives to move the secular cause forward.

Campaign for apostasy (photo courtesy of Apostasía Colectiva on Facebook)

Campaign for apostasy (photo courtesy of Apostasía Colectiva on Facebook)

Under the slogan ‘Not in my name’, the Collective Apostasy campaign was launched in 2009, encouraging people who had been baptised at birth but who do not agree with the preaching of the Catholic Church to have their names removed from the Church’s records, as guaranteed by the Personal Data Protection law. Despite the many obstacles put forward by the different parishes, the campaign is ongoing.

CAEL has also introduced a bill in Congress which addresses many of the issues affecting the secularity of the state and has participated in the public audiences related to the reform of the civil code (their request to have article 33 -which grants the Church its status as a ‘public nature’ entity- amended has, however, fallen on deaf ears). There is also a petition underway to replace the public holiday of 8th December -which celebrates the ‘Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary’- with one on 10th December – International Human Rights Day-.

The main concern for secularist groups, however, is the recent wave of Catholic fervour brought about by the papacy of Jorge Bergoglio. In Lozada’s words, “those of us who work for a secular state knew we were going to receive a new onslaught of clericalism in Latin America and in Argentina” when the appointment was announced. Rather than diminishing their efforts, this should serve as a reminder of the importance of establishing, once and for all, a fully secular state that guarantees true diversity and equality for all beliefs.

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One Response to “Church and State in Argentina: The Long Road to Secularism”

  1. Werner Almesberger says:

    Wow, the energy !

    But it seems to me that CAEL is putting the cart before the horse. Is fighting the name of a random holiday really important ? Chances are that most people don’t even know why the day is off. And most of those who do probably still get it wrong :-) (*)

    (*) I did, too. Just found out what “immaculate conception” is really about when checking Wikipedia to see if there isn’t some older holiday underneath that just got rebranded.

    Regarding the church’s influence on public opinion, I’d say that, according to this study [1], things don’t look all that grim. With the exception of abortion, Argentina is about at levels of disagreement with church doctrine comparable to other developed countries. Things that are highly controversial in other countries, like gay marriage, even passed here without much of a public outcry.

    The numbers in the article don’t convince me that the church is a major money sink for the government. Maybe it is and they’re just good at hiding the numbers. But then, things like schools could just be considered public-private joint ventures. Not a concept that would be above all criticism, but nothing overly weird either. (*)

    (*) And with all the increasingly absurd conflicts going on in the educational system, I can’t help but wonder what that may do to boost the image of catholic schools.

    First of all, I think one has to be careful to identify the real problem. Attacking symbols of christianity isn’t likely to have much of an effect. Just focusing on the catholic church may also not be all that useful – even if you managed to drive it out of the constitution, it would still retain the same power over people. Cripple the catholic church, and those who want to believe will just flock to another branch of christianity. It’s not as if those competing for the gullible were particularly hard to find – I have something like three easily identified such outlets within 2-3 blocks from where I live.

    So I’d say that religion as such would make a more useful target. There, I wouldn’t begrudge people their metaphysical beliefs for things that are simply beyond the reach of empirical verification or where it’s part of the small amount of denial everybody uses to make life more bearable. I also wouldn’t try to rattle the basic framework of societal order that’s part of the package in most religions, since it’s the basis of the secular laws we have as well and often just reflects common sense.

    But there are of course the more insidious projects of the church. Tricking people into disbelieving science and scientific method, telling them that poverty and dependence are good (an Orwellian plot that already backfired with Luther, of course only to create a branch and countless splinter groups that can be just as bad as the original), and using their minions as weapons against others (cf. the anti-abortionists’ witch-hunts) are all things well worth fighting.

    But how to do that ? Attacking the church directly seems fairly pointless. They have some 2000 years of collective experience in surviving that. Its credibility seems to resist erosion pretty well – all the pedophilia scandals may have made parents less eager to send their kids to church but they themselves probably believe just as much as before.

    Change the constitution ? For example Uganda has a very nice-looking constitution [2] – much tidier than the messy groceries bag that is Argentina’s – that even explicitly denies a state religion. Yet the responses in [1] (about 41% of the people in Uganda are catholics, says Wikipedia) don’t paint the picture of a particularly modern society. Oh, and they just outlawed homosexuality. [6] Maybe Congo then ? They also have a cool-sounding constitution [3] that doesn’t even mention the concept of a state church. Yet again, the opinions of the catholics in the country, some 46% of its population, don’t look very endearing. According to [4], in the case of the legal situation with abortion, Argentina and Uganda are at about the same level while Congo is even more restrictive.

    Thus I’d say that empirical evidence speaks against the constitution giving a privileged status to some religion having much effect on people’s opinions or the state – on behalf of the church – meddling with their personal lives.

    So what does make people develop an independence from churches and religions ? I think it’s understanding of how things work, and a sense of control. There must have been a crisis session among the wind and rain gods when weather satellites suddenly made forecasts a lot more reliable. Earth and fertility goddesses must have really hated the sudden competition Haber and Bosch unleashed on them. Sun and moon deities can’t have been very happy with the works of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, et al. All the assorted spirits of nature, particularly those specializing in animals and plants were – while being among the first to suffer mankind’s revolt against its gods – the lucky ones since they had Hinduism to run to when they had to escape the onslaught of farming and domestication.

    Someone who is able to control important aspects of their life, who experiences that planning ahead serves a purpose, and who sees that these plans work and aren’t regularly shattered by overwhelming forces, will soon lose interest in figures of authority that explain why they can’t do this and that¸ especially if those explanations are based on fairy tales that contradict educated common sense.

    So here we have three main elements: education, empowerment, and purpose. In more specific terms, I think this describes key characteristics of a middle class that hasn’t reached saturation yet. So, from a political perspective, creating the conditions for the middle class to thrive may be the most effective way to put religion in its place, while burning crucifixes just means to try to battle the church on their home turf.

    - Werner

    [1] http://univision.data4.mx/resultados_catolicos/eng/ENG_catholic-survey.pdf
    [2] http://www.parliament.go.ug/new/images/stories/constitution/Constitution_of_Uganda_1995.pdf
    [3] http://www.constitutionnet.org/files/DRC%20-%20Congo%20Constitution.pdf
    [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_law#National_laws
    [5] http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1665181-inflacion-cambio-de-habitos
    [6] http://edition.cnn.com/2014/02/24/world/africa/uganda-anti-gay-bill/index.html?hpt=wo_c2

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