News Analysis

Argentina: Where did it all go wrong?

Few things in the realms of the human psyche can prove quite so traumatising as the loss of a high status once enjoyed. The history of Argentina offers a perfect example to counter the naïve yet stubbornly persistent myth of continual progress. But the “decline into silence and doubt” (as lyricist Tim Rice put it in the musical Evita) also finds unsettling parallels in the situation of the Catholic Church today. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Buenos Aires has the highest proportion of psychoanalysts of any major world city.

To understand the loss of status, one must realise the extent to which Argentina, while today a byword for corruption and failure to live up to potential, enjoyed an enviable prominence in the past. By 1910, the Argentine Republic was one of the richest countries in the world. Per capita income was higher than that of France and twice that of Italy, while its GDP accounted for half that of the Spanish Americas. The rich products of its bountiful countryside were brought by the extensive railway network to a rapidly industrialising Buenos Aires where they were packed on to ships bound for the rest of the world. Immigrants from Europe were met with open arms whether in the form of new labour for the factories, new capital for investment or new blood for the social elite.

The country’s heightened status was not merely economic but also cultural. The works of Jorge Luis Borges are adored around the world today but the blind scribe is the mere apex of a universe of Argentine letters encompassing diverse figures such as José Hernández, Leopoldo Lugones and Victoria Ocampo.

Where Argentina went wrong is a matter of intense debate. It is tempting to blame the country’s decline on the demagogic mystique of Juan Perón’s first presidency. But the reality is that Peronism built heavily upon the mistakes of his predecessors during the “Infamous Decade” of the 1930s. The destabilising impact of the Great Depression unsettled working and ruling classes alike, and the influence of a nationalism that sought to balance revolutionary élan and conservative stability grew stronger in the circles of military officers united against what they viewed as the vulgar tawdriness of civilian rule.

Argentina was then, and is now, a blessed land of plenty. But it has been hampered from achieving a stable prosperity by its own political and economic decisions – these wounds are overwhelmingly self-inflicted. Similarly, the Church has been hampered by many of the conscious decisions of its leadership, some of the ill effects of which are shown in Argentina.

The Aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”) heralded by Vatican II was meant to open the windows and let in fresh air. Too often, however, it meant a total abandonment of the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching and the concept of Christ’s social kingship. This was understandable in part thanks to an disadvantageously close relationship between Church and state in some countries. But the tradition was abandoned at precisely the moment that the world needed the countercultural institutional stability and longevity provided by the Church.

For decades Argentina’s military rulers squabbled among themselves because of their competing justifications for disallowing a civilian democracy. On the one hand there was a traditional 19th-century concept of South American nationalism influenced by Freemasonry and the Enlightenment. On the other were practising Catholics like General Eduardo Lonardi (who toppled Perón), who feared that a mass democracy might easily succumb to communist totalitarianism. In reality, these competing visions often merged and were not always divisible, and were united in their opposition to Soviet-backed communism and domestic terror groups.

With the Church abdicating its role in society, many clergy and laity turned to socialism and Marxism. Others took up neo-fascism and the far right. The overwhelming majority, of course, just stayed home. Far-left terrorists began campaigns of murder, bombing, and kidnapping. Among the military, neither Catholics nor rationalists felt compelled to observe traditional restraints: both the Enlightenment and the Incarnation felt equally distant.

The result was a reaction unrooted in either tradition and fulfilling all the philosopher Joseph de Maistre’s warnings that military rule inevitably tends to be the arbitrary rule of the big stick. Previous regimes merely persecuted those who actively opposed them; Argentina’s 1970s National Reorganisation Process dictatorship began detaining, torturing and “disappearing” the innocent as well as the guilty, without any of the ordinary processes of natural justice.

Terror begat terror, fear begat fear, and injustice begat injustice. Many practising Catholics, lay or clerical, spoke out against the injustices, but the Church had already effectively trained its own adherents to ignore it and the military regime successfully (sometimes justifiably) portrayed outspoken priests as collaborating with social revolutionaries and opponents of law and order.

In examining post-conciliar Argentina and the 1970s “Process” regime, we can see a microcosm of the dangers of Catholicism’s retreat from society. The Church that makes no demands of its members is soon relegated to irrelevance, not just by its enemies but by its laity as well.