Photo courtesy of BC Center for Human Rights and International Justice / Facebook

Gustavo Morello, S.J. Explores the Catholic Church and Argentina's Dirty War in New Book

A Jesuit priest from Argentina, Gustavo Morello, S.J. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston College whose past research has focused on secularization and the relationship between religion and political violence in Latin America. In particular, his book, The Catholic Church and Argentina’s Dirty War, looks into the Catholic Church’s position during Argentina’s Dirty War — a complex period during the 1970s and 1980s in which the Argentine Military Government took control and was responsible for countless violent abuses of human rights.

Prefacing a discussion of The Catholic Church and Argentina's Dirty War, which will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 9 in McGuinn 334 at 12:30 p.m., The Gavel sat down with Fr. Morello to chat about his book and the process that went into its formation.

What will you be talking about in your presentation?

When I did my PhD in Argentina, it was on research on a case of a priest and five seminarians who were kidnapped in Argentina in the ‘70s. Because the priest was an American priest from Clinton, Massachusetts actually, the government couldn’t disappear, which was a factor in most of the cases in Argentina. The state department got involved, and the Church in Argentina got involved much more actively than in other cases so the people were released alive. In spite of being released, they were kidnapped and tortured, so they were able to talk about what was going on in the jails and in the concentration camps in Argentina in those years.

Through the case I explored the positions of different Catholic actors and focused more on the point of view of the actors than on the official documents of the Church. I did some research on what was going on in the country before and after that, what was going on at the same time, and also I paid attention to other social actors.

I don’t think that the Church is an institution that acts in a vacuum, and there are social practices and cultural idioms that society has and you cannot judge or evaluate the behaviors of someone without paying attention to the cultural context. So I was aware of that, I paid attention to that, and that’s what I’m going to talk about.

Initially, what drew you to study Argentina's Dirty Wars?

As a priest I was interested in religion and violence, religion and politics, the influence of religion on society and that’s something that still interests me a lot. With violence, the point was that before this work, I explored the relation between the Catholic Church and the first guerrilla groups in Argentina.

Usually in the States, when you think about the Communist guerrilla groups you think about the Communist ideology, Marxism. In Argentina, a lot of the guerrilla fighters were Catholics, so I explored what was going on in Argentina and how they did the loop from committed Catholics to revolutionary guerrilla fighters. So that was my Master’s dissertation.

And that was late 60’s, so I said okay, I want to explore this other part, the Church and the dictatorship — something that is still a contested topic in my country. People aren’t talking a lot about that, it’s like racial issues here in the States: it’s something that we don’t want to think about but it keeps coming over and over again. I wanted to know why some good-hearted people didn’t react as they should have when political violence started. Why did all these people keep silent? And that wasn’t a historical interest, because my point is: Okay, what am I missing now? What are the scenes that I’m not seeing now?

What was the most significant, surprising, or impactful thing you discovered during your research?

The faith of the victims. So how do these guys after thirty years remain faithful Catholics? They were talking to me about how God has protected them, how God was present, and it was really moving.

How has writing this book changed your understanding of Catholicism and political violence?

First, there are a variety of positions within the Catholics in general. I would say the most important thing for me was to be aware that when we talk about a group of people there are a lot of nuances and diversity and varieties there. So when we talk about the Catholic Church, the Jews, the Muslims, I mean, what do we mean with that? There are situations in which we assume diversity, but when we talk about religion we assume that what the institution says is practiced across the group without any nuance, bias, nothing. So for me it was kind of shocking and surprising to discover that variety.

The other thing that was an important discovery for me was the deep linkage between Catholics and Catholics, and how Catholics react within the social context.

And even if they were inspired by religion, there were honest religious people who tortured, there were honest religious people who went to the Revolutionary armies and they truly believed what they did. But because religion wasn’t the only thing, they shaped their own view of religion according to other political and social positions. There were some people who were mainly anti-communist, they were fearful of communism, and they merged that belief with religious statements or religious doctrines. But I don’t think it was because they were religious that they reacted that way, because you have other people who also were religious and reacted in a completely different.

And the last thing that I discovered was that from sociological or political perspective, I think it is unfair to claim that the institutional church in Argentina did nothing. It’s true they didn’t do enough, but nobody did anything in Argentina in those years. The Church wasn’t different from political parties, unions, media, other political actors. The only different stance towards the topic was the one of the families, of the mothers, of the grandmothers, who were something new for Argentinian politics. The support that they got was from abroad. No Argentinian institution supported them at beginning. The tiny slim support they got from the Argentinian people was from the Catholic Church. The main point is that we cannot ask the Church to do something different from what the rest of society is doing.

What was your experience like testifying during the trial last May regarding the 1976 incident of kidnap and torture?

For me it was a way of closing the whole process of the research. As a priest, one thing that always inspired me was that I don’t want to do research just to be published in a journal that nobody will read ever. I don’t want to invest my life in that. I want to do some research that is there, out for the people. Anyone who is interested in the topic can read it, and I hope I will trigger thoughts and reflections about what was going on. When the seminarians invited me to go, I said well this is a way of using my research to bring justice to the victims. It was an important moment for me and an important moment for them because it was also a way of being grateful for what they had done for me, opening their hearts.

It's not like I’m doing medicine or looking for vaccines or something like that. This is more like basic science. So to have the chance to be able to use the findings in something that will have an immediate impact was great.

More information about the event and how to RSVP can be found here.

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Pei-Ling Lee