Confronted by what it considers the existential threat of communism, convinced that Christianity and nationalism are one and the same, and compelled by self-interest to place social order above political liberty: Welcome to the world of the Catholic Church in Argentina during the “dirty war.” But most French Catholics during the “dark years” of 1940–1944 would also have recognized their world and church in this description.
There is good reason to hope that Pope Francis will usher in a new era for an institution rocked by corruption and scandal. But there is equally good reason to reflect on his past as Jose Mario Bergoglio, who served as head of Argentina’s Jesuit order during the “dirty war.” A comparison between the two churches during these horrific chapters in their histories would be one way to start.
In 1976, Argentina was not defeated and occupied, as was France in 1940, by a foreign power. But both nations had been at war with themselves, their democratic institutions seemingly incapable of mastering the domestic threats posed by communist and reactionary forces. Upon the death of Juan Peron, Argentina slid toward chaos; upon the defeat of the Third Republic, France collapsed into absolute anarchy. Into the vacuums created by these crises, the military rushed. The generals in Argentina overthrew the government of Isabel Peron, while Marshal Philippe Pétain, the elderly “hero of Verdun,” buried the Republic and became leader of the “French State,” better known as Vichy.
The Catholic hierarchies in both countries applauded their new leaders. As Diana Quattrochi-Woisson, a specialist on Argentine politics, observes: “Far from criticizing the institutional rupture of 1976, the Church welcomed the military junta with relief.” Relief understates the reaction of the French prelates and priests — indeed, for the vast majority of the nation — to Pétain’s assumption of power. For these men, as terrified by the specter of communism as they were by the presence of Nazism, Pétain was, in the words of the right-wing ideologue Charles Maurras, “a divine surprise.”
It was, however, a very different kind of surprise for both Argentine and French Jews. One of the first orders of business for the Vichy regime was to transform French Jews into something less than French citizens. In October 1940, a salvo of anti-Semitic laws was launched, ranging from the purge of Jews from the liberal professions and universities to the “aryanization” — that is, the forced sale of all Jewish businesses to gentile buyers. Church leaders, blinded by the hope that Catholicism would, under Vichy, once again become the religion of the French, scarcely flinched at the laws.
As the historian Pierre Pierrard affirms, there was the “almost total silence of the Catholic hierarchy in the face of anti-Jewish legislation.” Indeed, on the occasions when the silence was broken, it was to cheer the laws. As the archbishop of Marseille declared, “Already we see the face of a more beautiful France, healed of her sores, which were often the work of foreigners.”