Savi Hensman

Being on the side of the crucified

By Savi Hensman
March 14, 2008

In October 2007 a priest was convicted of complicity in 7 murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings. Christian Von Wernich had been chaplain to the Buenos Aires police force in the years of Argentina's military dictatorship from 1976-1983. For his role in the ‘dirty war’ in that period, when many opponents of the regime ‘disappeared’ and were never seen again by their loved ones, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Roman Catholic church, like many other Christian denominations and faith communities, has long made clear its opposition to human rights abuses. How, then, did a priest end up in the dock for such grave crimes? Why, when clergy have been called to account by their bishops or even the Vatican for comparatively minor matters, was action not taken at the time? And are their lessons to be learnt by people of faith?

A church of the powerful

A clue, perhaps, lies in the position of religious institutions in society. Where these are favoured by the privileged and powerful, and derive benefits from this position, they may come to identify with their wealthy patrons and supporters. Religious leaders may then find it difficult to recognise and challenge abuses, especially when victims are relatively poor and unimportant, or are portrayed as threatening social and economic systems in which faith-based institutions have thrived.

Amidst struggles between wealthy landowners and businessmen on the one hand and those seeking a better deal for peasants and workers on the other hand, communism was seen by Argentinian church leaders as a major threat. In the 1960s Cardinal Caggiano wrote that Marxism was born of the negation of Christ and his church, ‘put into practice by the Revolution’, and of the need to ‘prepare for the decisive battle’ though the enemy had not yet ‘taken up arms’. He helped to create a course in which students from the military studied a quotation from the fifteenth-century bishop of Verden: ‘When the existence of the Church is threatened, it is no longer bound by the commandments of morality. When unity is the aim, all means are justified: deceit, treachery, violence, usury, prison and death. Because order serves the good of the community, and the individual has to be sacrificed for the common good.’

Just after the 1976 coup, Argentinian Archbishop Paraná Adolfo Tortolo, himself a senior military chaplain, praised Jorge Rafael Videla, who had seized power: ‘General Videla adheres to the principles and morals of Christian conduct. As a military leader he is first class, as a Catholic he is extraordinarily sincere and loyal to his faith.’ He also said that when confronting subversion, the military should take ‘hard and violent measures.’

Some in the church were actively opposed to the regime and its violence. For example in 1977 two French nuns regarded as dissidents were murdered, and Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, which protested against the ‘disappearances’, met in Santa Cruz church in Buenos Aires. But much of the religious hierarchy sided with the military.

Against this background the actions of Von Wernich, who misused his priestly function to try to obtain information from detainees, can more easily be understood though not justified. When military rule ended, the church hierarchy sought to shield him from facing the consequences, including sending him away to a parish in a small town under a false name. But finally he was tracked down and put on trial.

Witness after witness testified to the terrible suffering they had undergone during the years of dictatorship. ‘I continue to question the Church’s role as an institution, above all in the hierarchy, because it wasn’t able to meet the challenge, which is to say, it wasn’t with the crucified,’ said another priest, Rubén Capitanio, who testified against Von Wernich. ‘Von Wernich’s case is more than symbolic, because he put himself on the side of the crucifiers.’

God of life or the idols of death

In El Salvador during the years of military terror, the response of the church was different.

Though many in the church were strongly attached to the establishment and relatively uncritical of social inequalities and the repression of protest, some priests sided with the poor, working with lay people in community education and development. To the hierarchy in 1977, pious conservative Oscar Romero at first seemed a safe choice as archbishop, someone who would rein in those clergy who were too critical of the status quo.

But his deep pastoral sensitivity to the plight of the people, and distress at the murder by a death squad of a friend of his, a radical Jesuit priest, began to transform his ideas. ‘We either serve the life of Salvadorans or we are accomplices in their death,’ he reflected. ‘We either believe in a God of life or we serve the idols of death.’ Though he was saddened by the opposition of fellow-bishops and lack of support by the Vatican, he did not flinch from criticism of the regime at a time when many did not dare to speak out.

He tried in vain to persuade the US government to stop supporting the brutality of the regime in El Salvador, which, in trying to suppress dissent and rebellion, used massive violence against civilians. In March 1980, he appealed directly to the soldiers: ‘You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill”. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order.’ While celebrating holy communion that evening, he was assassinated.

A fortnight earlier, he had said, ‘I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death but in the resurrection.’ If he were to be killed, ‘A bishop will die, but the church of God – the people – will never die.’ And indeed neither his murder, nor the widely-publicised rape and murder of three American nuns and a layworker later that year, stopped the church in El Salvador from challenging oppressive structures and abuse of human rights.

The Jesuit-run University of Central America became a centre for study of El Salvador’s social and economic situation and concern for the traumatised and dispossessed. Psychology lecturer Ignacio Martín-Baró described the devastating impact of a conflict in which ‘The human nature of the “enemies” is denied; one rejects the possibility of any constructive interaction with them, seeing them as something one would like to destroy.’ Amidst violence, social polarization and the institutional lie, in which perceptions of reality were distorted, ‘the militarization of social life can become a militarization of the mind.’

In 1989 he, along with five other priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were murdered by soldiers. But their influence continued. A few years later, negotiations led to an end of the civil war.

Another of the Jesuit martyrs, Juan Ramón Moreno, had earlier reflected on the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37): while the priest and Levite ‘look without solidarity, from a distance’, the ‘Samaritan’s gaze is very different – the gaze of one who is open to the situation of others’, and thus ‘he is “moved to pity.”’ He pointed out that ‘this way of acting, which Jesus presents as a model (“go and do the same”), simply reflects Jesus’ own way of acting… Before speaking or acting comes the gesture of looking, expressing a heart of mercy.’ The incarnation reflects the compassionate tenderness of God, whose ‘response to this world stretched out on the roadside, this world in the throes of a despairing death, is, as in the parable of the Samaritan, to come close to the world, to enter into the world.’

The church, Moreno suggested, must be willing to look carefully at the suffering in today’s world and show compassion, seeking the reign of God, whose love and mercy can transform. This can be challenging, especially for the privileged: ‘it is a frightfully radical change that one be decentred, abandon the viewpoint of one’s own interests and privileges, whether individual or class or nation.’

There is a price to be paid for sharing the good news in word and deed. ‘But what is important for our church and for our religious institutes: that the powerful of this world look on us approvingly and support us, or that we be a cry of hope, good news for the despised of the earth? Jesus’ words – “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” – are applicable institutionally to the church and to ourselves.’

Hope amidst turmoil

When governments are responsible for human rights abuses, how members of faith communities respond may be influenced by various factors.

How highly do we prioritise the preservation of the current order and protection of existing patterns of wealth and privilege, which may benefit us individually and institutionally? In providing pastoral care to the privileged and powerful, are we able to remain detached from their outlook and encourage them to seek a higher good? Do we tend to adopt society’s values, dismissing as unimportant the hardship and injustice endured by the poor and marginalised, or are we bearers of good news even in bleak situations?

When conflict escalates, can we resist the ‘militarization of the mind’? How willing are we to be transformed by a God of love, to look with unflinching compassion on those who suffer and seek to identify and address the causes?

And how willing are we to risk losing what we have in order to gain what is incomparably better? Even when destruction and death seem to hold sway, can we trust in the new life which is to come and be heralds of hope?


(c) Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected and widely published writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of the recent 'Binding the Church and constraining God' (, 'Anglicans need deep learning not cheap victory' ( and ‘Re-writing history’, a research paper on the row within global Anglicanism:

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