Memory and reconciliation continue to be at the heart of many conversations in Latin America today, especially in Chile. September 11, 1973—the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government—brought in seventeen years of torture, disappearance, murder, and terror. General Agusto Pinochet, the dictator responsible for those seventeen years of terror, would like all to be forgotten: “It is better to remain quiet and to forget. That is the only thing we must do. We must forget….both sides must forget and continue with their work.” Mario Aguilar has chosen instead to remember, and through that remembering to add a few more pieces to the large mosaic of those bloody years. His A Social History of the Catholic Church in Chile will eventually be a four volume work destined to be completed in 2007. (Volume III will explore the second period of the Pinochet government from 1980-1990; Volume IV, torture and forced disappearance during 1973-1980.) The two volumes of this history that have already been published offer a remembering that both heals and challenges—healing through the telling of stories, and challenging to a way of living and acting in difficult times.
In Volume I Professor Aguilar examines the role that the Catholic Church played during the first seven years of the Pinochet dictatorship. Traditionally a conservative body, the Chilean Catholic Church under the leadership of Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez organized to respond to the challenges left by the suppression of political parties and most political institutions. The Committee of Cooperation for Peace in Chile (COPACHI) was formed by Cardinal Silva Henríquez on October 6, 1973, less than a month after the coup. An ecumenical committee composed of members of Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal and Orthodox churches, as well as the Jewish community, the Comité Pro Paz began by offering “legal aid and material help to families of those who had lost their jobs.” But soon it started providing “legal advice to the relatives of those who had been arrested, killed, or disappeared.” This eventually became too much for the repressive government and Pinochet demanded that COPACHI be shut down. The Cardinal complied by closing the Comité on December 31, 1975; but on January 1, 1976, he created the Vicariate of Solidarity, an organization with ecclesiastical status—a Roman Catholic vicariate, under an episcopal vicar, and hence beyond the reach of the Pinochet government. The Vicaría de la Solidaridad continued the work of COPACHI, becoming “an embodiment of Christian teaching and doctrine regarding the poor and the marginalized.” (Pinochet accused the Vicaría of being “more communist than the communists themselves.”)
Mario Aguilar focuses on this interaction of the Catholic Church with the social and political reality in which it is immersed: the Chile of the Pinochet regime. For him “a social history presupposes that the narratives and actions of a particular Church respond to social and political actions that surround that Church and that those responses arise out of a sacramental celebration of community.” This political action—exemplified in the Comité, the Vicaría and the lives and actions of so many priests, religious and laity—was not about defending the Church’s social and economic privileges, but rather grew out of “a larger reflection on her responsibility towards the poor and the marginalized.” It is this larger reflection that forms the basis for the author’s narrative of these first seven years of the Pinochet regime. Each chapter in Volume I examines one of these seven years beginning with the military coup in 1973, representing “disorganized images of a textual social reality lived by members of the Church in Chile”: the Military Coup (1973); the Committee for Peace (1974); the Sheltering of the Persecuted (1975); the Birth of the Vicariate of Solidarity (1976); Contested Visions of Chile (1977); the Year of Human Rights (1978); and From Puebla to Lonquen: The End of the beginning (1979). The new constitution approved in 1980 changed the role of the Church by offering new avenues of protest and action outside the Church, which continued to support the work towards a return to democratic government. Aguilar tells us that he was a participant in some of the events narrated in these chapters, but he chooses to keep this personal narrative out of the text. He now lives in Scotland where he is Professor of Religion and Politics, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews.
At the center of this interface between the Church and the Pinochet government stood Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquz (known affectionately as “Don Raúl), “the most prominent ecclesiastical figure of the Chilean and the Latin American Church of the XX Century” (Dr. Hugo Cancino in the Preface). And so Volume II of Dr. Aguilar’s social history encompasses the life of this remarkable churchman. Although it is entitled The Pinochet Government and Cardinal Silva Henríquez, this volume is in fact a biography of the cardinal who was born in 1907 and lived a very full life, dying in April of 1999 at the age of 91. Through this narration of his life we come to see and understand much of Chile and the Catholic Church in the twentieth century: the Second Vatican Council, Medellin, Puebla, Christians for Socialism, the Christian Democrats, Salvador Allende, Agusto Pinochet. A member of the Salesian Order, Cardinal Silva Henríquez embodied a commitment to youth, to the poor and marginalized, to human rights. Reading the story of his life during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, one is struck by his strong vision in the spirit of John XXIII and Paul VI—and saddened by the Church’s retreat from such a prophetic style in recent years. (The prompt acceptance of his resignation as archbishop of Santiago by John Paul II in 1983 is said to have saddened Don Raúl; he may have been 75, but was still vigorous and anxious to continue working.) Readers might want to begin with Volume II in order to place the years 1973-1980 covered in Volume I into this wider context of Chile, the Church and the twentieth century.
It should be kept in mind that neither of these volumes is meant to be a popular narration of events. Both are carefully researched—and footnoted--academic works intended for an audience already somewhat familiar with the history. However they are at the same time written in an accessible style so that the interested reader can deepen his/her understanding of this important period in Chilean history and gain insights into the role of the Church in public life. One wishes that the books had been more carefully edited since there are numerous awkward sentence constructions that slow down the reader. Here and there the reader has the sense that sentences are being translated from Spanish into English. (For example, in Volume II, page 258, a sentence reads: “The army chaplain, Father Zenteno objected to the blessing as he argued that the Church had always condoned suicide” [emphasis added]. One assumes the author intended to say “condemned.” Did someone mistranslate the Spanish condenar (to condemn) as a false cognate?) And a much more extensive and inclusive index in each volume would have made each of them much more valuable as a research tool. The extensive bibliography in each volume indicates the in-depth research Dr. Aguilar has done and provides a resource for the reader. Dr. Aguilar has made an important contribution to the mosaic of Chile and the Pinochet years—and given us interesting insights into the role of the Church during these years, especially through the inspiring life of Cardinal Silva Henríquez. These two volumes will be necessary additions to the theology, history and Latin American studies sections of college and university libraries. We look forward to the publication of volumes three and four.