CHILE: What's Next After Pinochet?

The Catholic bishops in Chile seized an opportunity to try to unite the sharply divided country when the British Chamber of Lords announced that they would keep former dictator Augusto Pinochet in London. This would also sharply reduce the chances of the former president being extradited to Spain, where he faces charges of human rights violations and genocide.

“It is now time to concentrate on reconciliation, unity and the desire to build a new country,” said Bishop Sergio Valech, the vicar of social pastoral work for the Archdiocese of Santiago.

Bishop Valech said that a document by the Chilean Bishop Conference called Chileans to “justice, reconciliation and forgiveness.” In the document, the bishops acknowledged the deep divisions brought about by the arrest of Pinochet, and said that the way to unite the country is to achieve justice “in pending cases of human rights violations,” but it also called Chileans who felt victimized to “forgive sinners.”

The bishops also renewed their offer to keep the confidentiality of retired military officers who would give information on the whereabouts of secret graveyards in order to return the bodies of the people who had disappeared back to their relatives.

GUATEMALA: Military Is No Longer the Untouchable Class

At the request of the Archdiocese of Guatemala City, President Alvaru Arzu has requested all top-ranking army officials to undergo DNA testing in the investigation into Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi's murder on April 26, 1998.

According to human rights organizations, Arzu's decision marks a “breakthrough in Guatemala's history,” since the military have never been held accountable for any crime — either corruption or human rights violations. The DNA tests would be matched against the blood traces found at the crime scene by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“I want to make clear that the government will not [obstruct] justice in the investigations to find [the person] responsible for the murder of Bishop Gerardi,” said Arzu.

Judges involved in the case have, on two occasions, been changed and all suspects have been released. It has left the investigation almost at its starting point.

The Catholic Church argues that the theory of military involvement in the bishop's murder has not been sufficiently investigated.

MEXICO: A New Stage in Church-State Relations

It may be normal for a president to attend the dedication of a cathedral in Latin American countries, but not in Mexico. Nevertheless, it became reality in late March when President Ernesto Zedillo attended the dedication of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral at Ecatepec.

The bishop of Ecatepec, Onesimo Cepeda, presided at the ceremony, which was attended by 40 Mexican bishops, including Cardinals Norberto Rivera and Juan Sandoval. More than 30 state and federal authorities, including Zedillo, attended the ceremony. At the end of the dedication ceremony, the Mexican president unveiled a bronze plaque at the cathedral's entrance. He said the relationship between the Church and state “has entered into an stage of mutual respect and better understanding.”

Bishop Cepeda, once a wealthy stockbroker who shocked Mexico's elite when he decided to become a priest, said that “the [dedication] of this, the largest Latin American cathedral and last one of the second millennium, has been the occasion to start a totally new stage in the relationship between the Church and the government.”

The cathedral, which can seat 1,600 people, took less than two years to build.

PARAGUAY: “New Era” After Political Crisis

Members of the Paraguayan Bishops’ Conference recently celebrated a Mass “inaugurating a new era,” after the appointment of a new president ended the political crisis and social turmoil sparked by the murder of vice-president Luis Argana.

Argana, despite being vice president, became a strong critic of President Raul Cubas, after he decided to release retired Gen. Lino Oviedo, imprisoned for attempting a military coup.

Both Oviedo and Cubas were held responsible for the murder of Argana which sparked widespread demonstrations that left six dead and hundreds of people injured.

Cubas renounced his presidency and sought political asylum in Brazil, while Cubas sought asylum in Argentina.

Ten bishops, led by the president of the Paraguayan episcopate, Archbishop Felipe Santiago Benitez, celebrated Mass in Asuncion's Cathedral, to mark “a new time of hope and a new era for the country.” During the Mass, which was attended by the new interim president Luis Gonzalez Macchi and several other leading figures from the congress and judiciary, Archbishop Benitez read the bishops’ letter calling Paraguayans to “leave the dark era behind” and “commit their efforts in the building of a better country.”

The bishops called also for “a more civilized political system in which institutions are respected and the opinion of others are listened [to].” They also requested political leaders to “defend the country's democratic system,” the youngest in Latin America.

“This will only be possible if we remember that faith is the only strength capable of preserving and strengthening the moral and social fabric of our country.”

BRAZIL: Ecumenical Program Called ‘Unworkable’

Several Church authorities have said a plan to create an ecumenical licentiate in theology is “unworkable,” because its validity could not be extended to Catholic faculties.

In late March, a spokesman of the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, which belongs to the La Salle Brothers, announced a joint initiative with the Lutheran theological school, aimed at providing a graduate program that would provide a licentiate in ecumenical theology.

The program, designed to accept students from all denominations, has already been sent to the Ministry of Education in Brasilia for legal approval.

According to the Bishop Joseph Romer, the auxiliary of Rio and professor at the Catholic University, the initiative “is strange and not practical, since it is unworkable, at least from a Catholic point of view.”

Bishop Romer explained that, in order to follow postgraduate studies or apply for a teaching position in a Catholic school or university, “a degree in ecumenical theology [would have] no value at all.”

He also said, “It would be interesting to see how the program would solve irreconcilable theological points [between Catholics and Lutherans] such as a means of salvation, the interpretation of Scripture and the transformation of human nature as a consequence of redemption, just to mention a few.”

— Alejandro Bermudez