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Archbishop Héctor AguerTodo Noticias/YouTube

(LifeSiteNews) — Is Argentina a Catholic country? This question leads us to consider the origins of Argentina’s national organization. Article 2 of the Constitution, promulgated in 1853, has remained unchanged throughout successive reforms. It states that “the federal government supports [sostiene] the Roman Catholic and apostolic religion [culto].” (Emphasis mine.) The Constituent Assembly did not want to formulate the principles of a Catholic state, but neither did they opt for the alternative of a secular or atheist state.

The expression “supports” [sostiene] has given rise to numerous interpretations and a debate between legal specialists and enemies of the clause adopted in 1853. At that time it was clear what was meant by the Catholic state; history offered abundant examples. In that second half of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII had updated the secular tradition, especially in his encyclicals Divinium illud munus and Immortale Dei. The adversaries of the Church and her position were liberalism and socialism. Among Argentinians, these positions were embodied in Freemasonry. The aforementioned pontiff proposed the foundations of Catholic social doctrine in a text that would become famous, the encyclical Rerum novarum.

The Argentine Constituent Assembly took into account the reality of Argentine society and did not opt for the alternative of a secular or atheist state according to the evolution of the French Revolution’s ideas. The “support” clause in Article 2 of the National Constitution is not reduced to a religious budget but rather implies a recognition of the Catholic religion’s public character in order to support and encourage it. The opinion of Juan Bautista Alberdi in this respect causes a certain perplexity.

The author of the Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic, which inspired the Constitution, thought that a state cannot support [sostiene] a religion [culto] that is not its own. If I understand correctly, this expression is somehow equivalent to the idea of the Catholic state. Catholicism [La religión católica] is the proper religion [culto] of the Argentine state. The social and cultural reality of a country where most inhabitants are baptized in the Catholic Church is thereby recognized, having been strengthened by Spanish and especially Italian immigrants. It is true that in the final decades of the 19th century the actions of Freemasonry (the secular enemy of the Church) had an enormous influence on the governments of the time, some of which were obedient to Freemasonry, and the Church was practically confined to the sanctuaries and did not have a real influence on culture. However, in several provinces of the interior, the faith and Christian life had a wide presence and development.

To answer the question “Is Argentina a Catholic country?” we must judge the state of society and the religious life of the people. Father Leonardo Castellani answered: “Yes, it is mistongo Catholic.” This slang term “mistongo” means “not very serious” [poco serio]. The great thinker and eminent writer got it right with keen insight. The condition affecting Argentine Catholicism somehow explains its historical ups and downs. I would like to add a characteristic of this condition. Traditionally, Argentine Catholics do not go to Mass. Ours is a country without the Eucharist. The analysis made by any scholar of Argentine religious history today would recognize two pinnacles led by laymen. In the 1880s a group of Catholics in public life holding political posts – especially deputies – fought against Freemasonry in the fields of culture and education: José Manuel Estrada, Pedro Goyena, Achával Rodríguez Pizarro, and some others defended the national tradition by adopting a Catholic position that was influenced by the Christian liberalism of Charles de Montalembert. They were laymen anticipating in their experience what would become the lay vocation according to the Second Vatican Council, 80 years later. There were very few bishops and they had no direct participation in the events.

The second moment was the phenomenon of the Catholic Culture Courses between 1920 and 1945. It is interesting to note that intellectuals and artists who had nothing to do with ecclesial work and presence took them. A whole generation was formed in the Courses. A few priests accompanied this other lay movement.

I apply the same question to the present time, and I focus on the inauguration of recently elected President Javier Milei. He is a former student of a Catholic school, where one would think he received some information about Catholic doctrine. It is obvious he does not live as a Catholic, and his sympathy for Judaism is striking. He has even once mentioned his desire to convert to Judaism. Looking at his case superficially, we notice he does not make the sign of the cross correctly, and that when he entered the Cathedral of Buenos Aires he genuflected with a “crouch.” These must be remnants of his time at the Cardinal Copello College in Buenos Aires.

The beginning of his presidential term half-heartedly respected the religious dimension of the day with an event in the Cathedral. It was not the traditional Te Deum but a sort of interreligious conference, with the participation of Judaism, Greek Orthodoxy, Islam, Evangelicalism, and Anglicanism. The impression caused by the ceremony – if this name is worthwhile, since there was no prayer – is that Argentina is no longer a Catholic country, not even a mistongo one. It is true that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires presided and read a passage from the Gospel. It was the end of Matthew 7, the comparison between the house built on rock – invulnerable to all storms – and the one built on shifting sand and therefore fragile. The primate archbishop’s commentary valued the foundations that allowed us to preserve the house in spite of all the vicissitudes we have lived through. It is necessary to strengthen the foundations: fraternity, freedom, and memory. Let us invoke the Holy Spirit, he said, to help us to forge the foundations and thus build our house: Argentina.

It struck me how President Milei was moved by the participation of Rabbi Shimon Axel Wahnish, with whom he embraced for a long time. It has been explained that he is a spiritual father for him. By the way, how is it possible that not a single one of the more than 100 members of the Argentine episcopate approached Javier Milei during the campaign or after his election? The Church officially ignored him. The responsibility for this omission falls on the leadership of the bishops’ conference. It is evident that the episcopal executives expected Milei’s triumph. Always out of focus!

I remember, however, the insight of two cardinal primates in their understanding of the political role of the office: Antonio Caggiano, for many years Bishop of Rosario and then of Buenos Aires, and Antonio Quarracino, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Despite the changes to the religiosity of society, they did not doubt religious character as a national identity. When I was Quarracino’s auxiliary bishop, I accompanied him at the Te Deum of the national holidays. His Eminence presided over the celebration dressed in a pluvial cape and carrying a miter and crosier. The authorities and other special guests attended with respect. A May 25th or a July 9th without a Te Deum was unthinkable. It was clear that our rulers were convinced of the historical reality that Argentina is a Catholic country. Officially the Church accompanied the political order, even if governments consisted of different parties. This has always been the case. Our heroes respected the inheritance of our Spanish roots.

I must point out here the influence of the Second Vatican Council, and the transformation of society endorsed by progressivism against the traditional order. In the last 50 years religious practice has notably declined, evangelical and Pentecostal groups have multiplied, the liturgy has fallen into total disarray, and the Church has become absent from the centers where cultural expressions develop. Despite the religious restlessness of many young people, we must say that Catholic evangelization of society has failed.

To conclude, I return to the significance of the new president’s sympathy for Judaism. Milei attended a traditional celebration of the Jewish community, the festival of Chanukah, which took place in a square in the Palermo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. It is a festival of light; wearing a kippah, as is the ritual, he lit a candle in the nine-branched candelabra. He pointed out from the stage that “the main lesson is that light prevails over darkness; after so many years the light will emerge, and that will be a moral revolution, because we are going to make it about values.” Milei was accompanied by several officials. The president did not name God but invoked “the forces of heaven,” which he assured “will support Argentina and Israel.” His participation there was more active than at the interreligious event in the Cathedral.

I take up again what I have already mentioned: the indifference of the bishops, who were busy with their stratospheric ramblings. Not a single one approached the president, as was his duty; this constitutes a real shame that must not be forgotten.

+ Héctor Aguer
Archbishop Emeritus of La Plata