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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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The conviction on 5 July of two former commanders in Argentina’s military dictatorship for the 1976 murder of Enrique Angelelli, bishop of La Rioja, is important. It marks another step towards clarifying the history of the dictatorship, and in particular the relations between the military regime and the Catholic Church.
The convictions have been welcomed by the current bishop of La Rioja, Marcelo Colombo, who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2013.
Angelelli had attended Vatican II, and approached his ministry in the spirit of the Council. Chaplain to the Young Christian Workers, he made a point of visiting deprived communities and encouraged trades unions and cooperatives. This earned him the enmity of the conservative landowners of the region and their military allies.
There seems to have been a Colombo-Francis alliance over the recent court hearing. It was Bishop Colombo who asked Francis for the correspondence held in the Vatican archives in which Angelelli described the dangers he was facing and which was submitted in evidence.
Now the Church’s highest authority was rejecting the dictatorship’s story that the bishop’s death was a road accident – a story never challenged by the bishops of the day.
Did Bishop Colombo know in advance that his request would be granted?
At a Mass celebrated on the eve of the verdict, Bishop Colombo paid a moving tribute to his predecessor, who, he said, “with full consciousness of being a humble servant, accepted the way of incarnation to build, among the poor, with the poor, a new age for La Rioja”.
But from the Argentine bishops’ conference there has been silence. The Argentine bishops seem reluctant to revisit the role of the Church in the Dirty War. The last time they did so was in November 2012, in a statement responding to an interview given by Jorge Videla, the leader of the 1976 coup, in which he boasted of his “excellent, cordial, sincere and open” relationship with the Church, and especially with its then leader, Cardinal Raúl Primatesta. In their Letter to the People of God the bishops insisted that to say that their predecessors, “our elder brothers”, as they called them, “had any sort of connivance … is utterly remote from the truth”. But they did also repeat an apology made in 2000 for having been “at various moments of our history indulgent towards totalitarian attitudes”.
The bishops’ silence has been sharply criticised by theologian Fr Eduardo de la Serna, co-ordinator of the group Priests in the Option for the Poor. Curiously, it is also utterly remote from the action of Cardinal Bergoglio in 2006 (not 2005, as I wrote in the last issue of The Tablet) when he led a delegation of 12 bishops to La Rioja to commemorate, on the thirtieth anniversary, the murder of Bishop Angelelli, whom he then called a martyr. Some people have called Angelelli “Argentina’s Romero”.
By contrast Fr de la Serna described the Argentine bishops’ 2012 statement as “pale, mediocre and cowardly”, and there is no sign that their attitudes have changed since then.
Francis McDonagh writes for The Tablet on Latin America