By HUGH KAY ARGENTINA, now in the throes of violent labour unrest, offers a classic example of how progressive priests with a well-developed social conscience can impel a conservative hierarchy to listen to Vatican II.
Traditionally, the Argentinian bishops have suspected specifically Christian social movements, and it is not surprising that two-thirds of the working class adhere to Peronism, without the fallen dictator Peron, which gave them the social benefits the Catholic movements failed to secure.
They failed, however, because they were stopped by the Church. There was Fr. Grote's Christian Democratic League, created in 1902 in the spirit of the German, French and Belgian Christian political movements of the day. Many trade unions grew out of it, until the League and all it gave birth to was dissolved by the bishops in 1919.
Then there was Dr. Lamarca's rural cooperative league, dissolved by the bishops about the same time on the grounds that they wanted to build a federation of Catholic organisations. Within the new framework. they said, would start an economic and social league of their own. They did —and closed it down four years later.
The rise of Catholic Action in the time of Pope Pius XI offered new hope, with a marked current of optimism among young Catholics filled with a sense of mission. Fearing innovation, the bishops disregarded requests put up to them, and excluded dynamic priests from youth movements.
in later years they laid the major stress on extracting a law from Peron which would enforce religious teaching in schools. The price? Their own independence. Then Peron turned on the Church and tore up his promises.
After Vatican II, the hierarchy began to show the familiar divide between conservatives and progressives. They found a new generation of younger priests more than willing to force the issue.
In 1964, the staff of the Cordoba seminary urged the bishops to dissociate themselves from wealthy oppressors of the poor. In 1965, 80 priests of Buenos Aires and district called for the right to be heard, and for the implementation of Vatican II.
In 1966, 30 priests of the Mendoza diocese asked for much the same thing and were promptly dispersed to outlying regions. The local seminary was closed. Then, early this year, came the resignation of the 30 priests of Rosario in protest against the lack of reform under Archbishop Bolatti.
Three hundred priests in the north supported them, and 4,500 lay people did likewise— in a letter to the Pope. Archbishop Bolatti was summoned to Rome and was apparently told by Pope Paul to be more flexible.
Finally, the Argentinian hierarchy, meeting at San Miguel, met the anti-Catholic leader of the General Confederation of Labour, Raimundo Ongaro, to ask him what he expected of the Church.
After heated debate within the conference, the bishops have finally issued a splendid declaration committing themselves to "the work of liberation wherever oppression is found," and to "the incorporation of all" in the progress of the Church.
In May, 400 priests in 27 dioceses issued a statement to the effect that hunger, infant mortality, illiteracy and unemployment are growing, and demanding social justice. They were backed by Bishop Devoto of Goya.
Groups of priests throughout the country are backing the workers' demonstrations and denouncing the police for brutal repression. The authori. ties are reported to be furious. Meanwhile, Archbishop Aram buru has been criticised by priests whom he barred from joining in demonstrations. He was, they said, imposing on them a Church of Silence.
Many priests have abandoned the priesthood, but have remained Christians. The hard core of the clergy, however, are now plainly identified with the working class movements, and more and more of the bishops are giving them their support. The San Miguel
episcopal resolution was a big and inspiring breakthrough.
Priests who remain priests in Argentina have to be heroes. Taking the country as a whole, there are 4,000 people per priest. But in some regions it rises to 10,000 and even 14,000. Vocations are few, and the whole country, with 22,000,000 people, has only 5,000 priests, 23 per cent of whom are foreign, mostly Italian and Spanish,
They can take some encouragement from the fact that the Argentinian hierarchy today, now plainly adapting itself up to a point, is on the whole fairly young. There are 60 bishops, with four under 45, nine over 65, 15 over 60. and the remainder between 42 and 60.
Mass attendance in the country varies from 10 to 20 per cent, mostly among the middle class, but there is still a strong religious adherence among the non-practising. Very often, individuals who feel lost in the urban societies they have moved into for work can recapture a sense of community through Catholic groupings with a mutual aid content.
Conditions in Argentina are much better than in many Latin-American countries but. while the per capita income of 811 dollars is the highest in the sub-continent and takes the country out of the underdeveloped category, this position is not reflected in the life of the masses.
This is because the overall figure has to be read in the context of an economy where 60 per cent of the population share in only 30 per cent of national income, and ninety per cent of Argentinians have not reached the average income of 500 dollars per capita which conventionally establishes the barrier between development and under-development.
Given an absence of nationalist unity, the longing for the Peronist days when the working class was the central concern of the nation, the current widespread corruption— and the reasons for the recent flare-ups are obvious.
President Ongania's paternalistic, freedom-stifling stability could not go on indefinitely. He may still be able to survive if he can now prove to be more flexible, even though, as one critic has put it, his halo is bent.
But he will have to face criticism from a strange alliance of Catholic left-wingers and Peronists, and the rising body of new nationalists. Latin America is a place where people do actually die for their convictions. Today, this includes priests. Tomorrow, it may include some bishops.