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The chaplains and the “death flights”

Argentina's military concordats created state-funded chaplaincies which helped consolidate the power of the dictatorship. New evidence has come to light about the chaplains' role during the Argentine junta's reign of terror from 1976 to 1983. Chaplains in the police and the military reassured those who were haunted by the screams of the people they abducted, tortured and murdered — and helped them carry on. 

“Of all the national churches in Latin America, Argentina is where ties were closest between the clergy and the military,” says historian Kenneth P. Serbin. [1] Because Argentine history in the 20th century was punctuated by military coups — in 1930, 1943, 1955, 1966 and 1976 — this alliance gave the Church great power.

The stage was set for the third coup, after President Juan Perón gave the vote to women, tried to legalise divorce and prostitution and recognise the rights of children born out of wedlock. And that was not all. In May 1955 Catholic religious instruction was abolished in state schools and three bills were introduced to curtail Church privileges: Church property was no longer to be tax-exempt, the fees of all clerics for weddings, baptisms and funerals were to be taxed, and plans were being drawn up for the constitutional separation of church and state. [2]

The Church reacted on June 14 by turning the Corpus Christi procession into an anti-government demonstration. The next day Perón expelled the Bishop and his assistant who had led this, and the day after that, the 16th, Pope Pius XII excommunicated the President.

Ever since the Middle Ages, the excommunication of a ruler had served as a signal for his subjects to revolt against their godless overlord. A few hours later, as Perón was speaking at a rally of his supporters, jets from the Argentine Navy and Air Force, painted with the slogan “Christ conquers” (Cristo vence) flew overhead, dropping bombs. The President escaped, but over 350 others were killed before the planes flew off to safety in neighbouring Uruguay. Naturally, the revolt was “deplored” in the Vatican and the wily Pope let it be known that he was greatly pained by it. [3]

Perón was ultimately overthrown on September 19 by a nationalist Catholic group from the Argentine military. Now the way was clear for the first Argentine concordat with Vatican. One of the leaders of the coup, General Pedro E. Aramburu, was installed as president and signed a military concordat. This agreement set up a special chaplaincy for the military, which separated the military personnel and their families from the dioceses where they lived.

This religious isolation of the Argentine military from the rest of society had consequences, for the 1955 takeover was no ordinary coup. The new military regime introduced a form of religious McCarthyism, which went far beyond the “reds under the beds” scare tactics of the Cold War era in the US. The junta’s anti-communism was rooted in a nationalist Catholic movement which had begun in France, Cité Catholique. Its founder, Jean Ousset, had been an official in the French Vichy Government and after the war when this Nazi puppet regime had ended, he set out to spread its nationalist Catholic ideology through the French colonial army. The Algerian War (1954-1962) became the proving ground for Cité Catholique.

By 1955 the army, which was prohibited by law from engaging in religious activism, asked Cité Catholique to begin organising within its ranks....Secret cells were set up to indoctrinate troops and diseminate information meant to quell their doubts about the war and convert them to the ideology of the “Catholic counterrevolution”. [4]

As the tide of war began to turn against the crusaders, Ousset decided to create branches of Cité Catholique in other parts of the world. The first of these was in Buenos Aires in 1958, and the target was the army. However, unlike the French army, there was no need to infiltrate the Argentine military secretly. The military chaplaincy was able to spread these doctrines openly. 

A key role was played by Cardinal Antonio Caggiano, archbishop of Buenos Aires, who served as head chaplain for the military from 1956-1975. He even wrote the introduction to the Spanish edition of Ousset's book, Le Marxisme-leninisme.  This work develops the idea of “subversion” and states that this can only be successfully combated by a “profound faith, an unlimited obedience to the Holy Father, and a thorough knowledge of the Church’s doctrines”. [5]

In the early 1960s cadets at the naval training academy, ESMA, that would later turn into a torture centre, were shown a training film about the methods of the French army in the Algerian War. This film, “an analysis of terrorism and counterterrorism” [6] was introduced by the naval chaplain who added a religious commentary. One cadet later testified that “Torture was seen not as a moral problem but as a weapon”. Another said,

They showed us that film to prepare us for a kind of war very different from the regular war we had entered the Navy School for. They were preparing us for police missions against the civilian population, who became our new enemy. [7]

The crusade against subversion preached by Cité Catholique was adopted by the junta as its Doctrine of National Security. According to this, the real threat to Argentina came from within the country, from “subversives” who sought to destroy the traditional values of Argentine society. Who were these subversives? Anyone who did not adhere to the Christian and military virtues that were supposed to save the world from communism. This doctrine redefined the military’s role: the armed forces were to protect the country's ideological purity, not just its geographical borders. [8] And who, in turn, was to protect the ideological purity of the armed forces? The new military chaplaincy.

The military’s expanded role as guardian of morality was endorsed by the pope’s ambassador to Argentina, papal nuncio Pio Laghi:

The country has a traditional ideology and when someone is attempting to impose other different and unrelated ideas, the nation as an organism reacts with antibodies against germs, and led to violence. The soldiers carry out their primary duty to love God and Country that is in danger. Not only can you talk about invasion of foreigners, but also an invasion of ideas that threaten the fundamental values. This causes an emergency situation, and [...] in such cases the love for the homeland is equated with love of God. [9]

From 1976-83 the junta waged what has become known as “Dirty War”, though the term has been disputed since it implies that there were two sides, rather than state-sponsored terrorism. [10] When the junta unleashed this, the military vicar and his chaplains offered a further religious justification for the military’s new role. They taught the mystique of the Christian soldier, willing to die and to kill, a hero who unites the cross and the sword. The Knight of Death lives only for sacrifice and destruction. The head of the military chaplaincy, Archbishop Adolfo Servando Tortolo, taught that the destructive fury of this holy warrior was exempt from morality, describing it as “beyond good and evil”. This gave moral absolution to “torturers who considered themselves Crusaders, inquisitors, or emissaries sent by God to wage war on devils”. [11] All levels of the military chaplaincy urged cooperation with the junta and provided religious reasons for doing so. The evidence is massive and this is merely a small selection:

♦ The head of the military chaplaincy, Archbishop Adolfo Servando Tortolo had a long meeting with the junta on the very day of the 1976 coup that launched the Dirty War. As he left the meeting Tortolo urged the population to "cooperate in a positive way" with the new government. [12]

♦ Bishop Emilio Graselli was Tortolo's secretary and kept a list for the military chaplaincy of people who had been disappeared, marking with a cross the names of those confirmed dead by the military.

♦ After the coup Bishop Victorio Bonamin, head chaplain for the army, asserted “that when a military man is carrying out his repressive duty, ‘Christ has entered with truth and goodness,’ ” [13]

♦ At the trial of former chief police chaplain for the province of Buenos Aires Christian Von Wernich several former prisoners described how Father Von Wernich used his office to win their trust before passing information to police torturers and killers in secret detention centres. They testified that he also attended several torture sessions and absolved the police of blame, telling them they were doing God’s work. [14]

♦ According to naval officer Adolfo Scilingo, Father Alberto Ángel Zanchetta who served as a chaplain at ESMA, “the Auschwitz of Argentina”, consoled the officers who were stricken with anguish. Their tasks ranged from routine torture and executions to participation in “death flights”, in which prisoners were drugged, stripped naked and pushed from planes to drown in the ocean below. After his first flight, Scilingo was wracked by guilt, but the military chaplain told him that this was a “Christian and non-violent” way to die and justified it by citing the Biblical parable about separating the wheat from the chaff. [15]

As self-proclaimed protectors of morality, the Argentine military spread terror among civilians, but when it started a real war it had to face opponents who shot back. During the 1982 Falklands War the sense of a moral crusade continued. [16] The invasion attempt was code-named “Rosario” in honour of Our Lady of the Rosary. Originally invoked for saving Christendom from the heathen Turks, she is venerated in Argentina for repelling a 19th-century attack on Buenos Aires by the British. (An interesting equivalence....) As protectress of the nation she is also the patron saint of the Argentine military and its chaplains. However, this was the last time that the military chaplaincy was able to lend its support to the junta, for after the humiliating failure of the Falklands invasion, the military dictatorship finally came to an end.

The Vatican was well aware of the terror. According to many witnesses, a priest among them, lists of missing people were kept at both the papal nunciature and the bishops’ headquarters. [17] And as early as April 1978 the Argentine bishops sent a secret message to Paul VI telling him about the large numbers of people who had already been “disappeared” by the military. But His Holiness didn’t say a word — and the pious junta, supported by the military chaplaincy which was directly answerable to the Pope, continued unchecked. [18]

As if that were not enough, in June 1982 during the junta's attempt to invade the Falkland Islands, John Paul II himself visited Argentina. There the Pope met the president who was in charge of the death squad Intelligence Battalion 601. General Galtieri knelt before  and received the papal kiss. [19]

Pope Francis I, who was then head of the Argentine Jesuits has since tried to whitewash the role of the Church during the Dirty War. In an interview from 2010 he said that the Church “only gradually found out everything that was going on. At first little or nothing was known”.

Unfortunately for him, documents surfaced about a meeting of the Argentine bishops in June 1976, just six weeks after the military coup. There the bishops shared information about the climate of terror in their dioceses, including kidnapping, police torture and disappearances. The documents show that 19 bishops wanted to tell the world what was going on, but they were overruled by 38 others. [20]

...“At first little or nothing was known”?

Further Reading

A short summary: Leslie Wirpsa, “Bishops apologize, sort of, in Argentina: document skirts church role in ‘dirty war’”, National Catholic Reporter, 1996-05-17. 

An excerpt from the book of a prize-winning investigative reporter: Horacio Verbitsky, “Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the ‘dirty war’”, 2005-07-28.

A treasure trove of testimony submitted to the Italian Justice Ministry by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who on 19 May 1997 filed a complaint against the Cardinal Pio Laghi who had been papal nuncio during most of the Dirty War. This is behind a paywall on the site of the Catholic magazine ADISTA, but has been reposted on two other sites: Processate il cardinale Pio Laghi

General confirmation of the testimony presented by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo against the Cardinal Pio Laghi was provided by Father Frederico Richards in 1995. This brave man only survived the Dirty War due to his connection with a religious order in Ireland. There are two similar articles about his interview:

Uki Goñi, “Role of Vatican in Argentina’s Dirty War”, Pacific News Service, 1995-05-24.

Uki Goñi, “The silence of the bishops — priest scores church’s role in Argentina’s dirty wars”, Pacific News Service, 14 July 1995.

The full report of CONADEP (National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons) was issued on 20 September 1984. A shorter version under the title, Nunca Más (Never Again) is at 
This contains a brief and tactful section on church involvement: Three chaplains are mentioned:
•  Christian Von Wernich, senior Buenos Aires police chaplain
•  Pelanda López, army chaplain
•  Bishop Emilio Grasselli, secretary to Cardinal Antonio Caggiano, the head of the military chaplaincy.

This testimony about Grasselli backs up Father Richards and also the witness accounts presented by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: that the Military Chaplaincy kept lists of the disappeared, crossing off those who had been killed.


* Doc-571, Le Madri di Piazza di Maggio alla Giustizia Italiana, “Processate il Card. Pio Laghi” 

1. “Francis Begins Reign as Pope Amid Echoes of Argentina’s Dirty War”, New York Times, 2013.-03-13

2. “Peron: 3 swift moves”, Catholic Herald, 1955-05-20

3.  “He is excommunicated by Vatican: Church's censure includes other Argentine Leaders”,
New York Times, 16 June 1955-06-16

Rome, June 16 [1955] — Pope Pius XII excommunicated Juan D. Perón, President of Argentina, today, along with all others who "trampled ont he rights of the Church" and "used violence" against  ecclesiastical dignitaries in that country.

The excommunication decree was issued by the Consistorial Congregation of which the Pope is prefect. It did not mention President Perón but it was stated in the Vatican that he headed the list of persons to whom the excommunication applied. [...]

Excommunication deprives the person against whom it is pronounced of all sacraments and of any participation in the religious life of his country. In ancient times it also implied complete ostracism of the guilty person. [...]

This action was taken against President Perón for his recent strongly anti-Catholic attitudes and actions. These actions culminated yesterday in the explusion from Argentina of Msgr. Manuel Tato, Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar General of Bueanos Aires, and of his assistant, Msgr. Ramon Novoa.

Only a few hours after the excommunication was announced the Vatican learned that a revolt against  President Perón had broken out in Burenos Aires. The revolt was deplored in the Vatican and the Pope was stated to have been greatly pained by it. [...]

The wording of today's excommunication decree follows a formula that has become invariable in cases where high prelates have been the object of indignities or prevented from exercising their ecclesiastical functions. It was aimed anonymously against all persons who had any share in the acts of persecution against the Church in Argentina.

Formerly all excommunications were against individuals. Nowadays, however, the Church mentions names as a rule only when the object of excommunication is an ecclesiastic who has published a heresy or defied ecclesiastical authority.

As is usual also today's excommunication was issued "latae sententiae". This means that it was automatic for it was incurred by the very fact of committing the act. It was also an excommunication specially reserved to the Holy See, which means that it can be rescinded only by the Vatican. [Text of decree follows.]

4. Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad, Princeton University Press, 2007. Google reprint

5. Horacio Verbitsky, “Breaking the silence: the Catholic Church in Argentina and the ‘dirty war’”, 2005-07-28.

6. “Lessons of the Pentagon’s Favorite Training Film”, New York Times, 2004-01-04.

7. Verbitsky.

8. Rita Arditti, Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina, University of California Press, 1999, pp. 11-12.

9. Doc-571, Le Madri di Piazza di Maggio alla Giustizia Italiana, “Processate il Card. Pio Laghi”, 1997.

10. Federico Finchelstein, An Argentine Dictator’s Legacy, New York Times, 2013-05-27.

11. Arditti, p. 27.

12. Archbishop Adolfo Servando Tortolo, head of the military chaplaincy quoted in Rubén Dri, “The Theology of Death”, Pagina 12, 2010-12-28. English translation at

13. Arditti, p. 27.

14. Daniel Schweimler, “‘Dirty War’ trial puts spotlight on Church”, BBC News, 2007-10-11.

15. “The Vatican knew what had happened to Argentinean desaparecidos”, Vatican Insider, La Stampa, 2012-05-09.

A transcript of the confession of Scilingo can be found in Spanish at It is an excerpt from Horacio Verbitsky’s 1995 The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior.

16. Jimmy Burns, “Argentina’s failed crusade”, The Tablet, 2002-04-06.

17. Uki Goñi, “The silence of the bishops — priest scores church’s role in Argentina’s dirty wars”, Pacific News Service, 1995-07-14.

18. “The Vatican knew what had happened to Argentinean desaparecidos“, Vatican Insider, La Stampa, 2012-05-09.

19. T. Crosthwaite, “The Vatican and the Falklands War”, 2010.

20. Horacio Verbitsky, “Bergoglio, Dictadura e Iglesia”, Pagina 12, 2010-04-11.

A French translation by Danielle Bleitrach is in two parts:

“Omisiones e Intenciones par Horacio Verbitsky (toujours sur François, un dossier de Pagina 12)”

“No sabe, no contesta par Horacio Verbitsky (traduit en français) dossier sur François (suite 2)”

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