How Argentina Did It: The Religious Answer

This is the second in a series of posts examining the forces that made it possible to pass a same-sex marriage law in Argentina. The first, on the political factors, is available here.

When I first started reporting in Argentina, I repeatedly had the same conversation. Every time, it made my head want to explode.

“Why was it possible to legalize gay marriage?” I’d ask.

“Because Argentina isn’t very religious.”

“Then why is abortion so illegal?” I’d reply.

“Because the Catholic Church is so powerful.”

The fact that the same people can simultaneously believe both of these things to be true shows that the religious politics of sexuality in Argentina are not straightforward. Religion operates in the country’s politics very differently than in the United States. And, unlike in the US, attitudes towards same-sex marriage and abortion don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Argentina by the Numbers

According to the most recent numbers from the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report, 76 percent of Argentines identify as Roman Catholic and 6 percent as evangelicals. Twelve percent identify as agnostics or atheists.

But religious affiliation doesn’t necessarily tell you a lot about how much influence dogma has on people’s political beliefs or social attitudes. A better indicator may be how frequently people go to church, and only 38.2 percent of Argentines went at least once a month in 2005, according to the most recent data available from the Association of Religious Data Archives.

That’s a lot fewer than in the United States—for every two Argentines who go to church monthly, three Americans do.

Mariana Casas, an advisor to the Buenos Aires lawmaker who led the Federación Argentina LGBT during the gay marriage fight, drew this distinction: “In the United States, people are much more religious in the strict sense of the word. In Argentina, [religion] is just statistics.”

But the statistics on religion don’t tell the whole story.

According to the ARDA stats, church attendance isn’t a whole lot more frequent in Argentina than in Chile. And Chile has held a hard line against same-sex unions and only legalized divorce in 2004.

The Power of the Church

Belief isn’t the only thing that matters, stressed University of Buenos Aires political scientist Daniel Jones. “The key question is the relation between [religion and] the legislators and the executive, and [their] perception … of the cost they’ll have to pay socially to confront the Catholic Church,” Jones said.

As I wrote earlier, Argentina’s ruling party actually had an incentive to confront the church as part of a systematic attack on conservative forces. But the church also was in a very weak position to fight back against the gay marriage push for particular historical reasons.

First, questions of human rights are sensitive for the Argentine church, which collaborated with the military dictatorship that committed scores of human rights abuses to maintain control of the country after it came to power in the 1970s. If this baggage weren’t enough, the church in Argentina was wracked by many of the same kinds of sexual abuse scandals that have unfolded in the United States.

“They didn’t have a large room to argue [against same-sex marriage] because each time they started talking about values, [the church’s opponents] say, ‘You protect sexual abusers,’” explained Mario Pecheny, a University of Buenos Aires political scientist who studies sexual politics in Latin America. “This time it was difficult for them to have a moral role.”

The Holy War

The church’s weak position may have been compounded by an additional self-inflected wound.

The then-head of the Argentine church, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, used rhetoric that seemed straight out of the Middle Ages in a letter making the case against the same-sex marriage law. It was addressed to a group of nuns and not intended to become public. But when it came to light, it didn’t suggest the institution was interested in pluralism or secular rights.

The law was “sent by the Devil,” Bergoglio wrote.

Let’s not be naive: This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God’s plan. This is not a mere legislative proposal (that’s just it’s form), but a move by the father of lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God… Let’s look to St. Joseph, Mary, and the Child to ask fervently that they defend the Argentine family in this moment… May they support, defend, and accompany us in this war of God.

To this day, the embarrassment the letter caused is evident:

“Bergoglio’s letter is nonexistent,” said Father Alberto Bochatey, head of the Catholic University of Argentina’s Marriage and Family Institute, when I met with him in Buenos Aires. “It was a private letter.”

Its publication, he said, was done in “clearly bad faith” by the press to embarrass the church.

But, he conceded, in the heat of the debate, “It surely had a cost.”

The Abortion Advantage

The church has had an easier time maintaining the upper hand on the question of abortion, experts say, in large part because it’s harder to frame it as a stark question of civil rights. It’s not simply a question of a woman’s right over her own body—the notion that a fetus also has rights has powerful sway in Argentina.

“The construction around Equal Marriage is a construction more [about] why [couples] of the same sex don’t have the same rights as heterosexuals,” said sociologist Mónica Petracci, who studies public opinion on sexuality in Argentina. But polling finds that many Argentines still believe fetuses have rights that need protecting.

And although the church lost on the gay marriage battle, Patracci said, the abortion question shows that Argentina is “a society with a strong presence of the Catholic church.”

The Argentine Paradox

If this is confusing for an American, it’s with good reason, said the current head of the Federación Argentina LGBT, Esteban Paulón. Argentina is a country whose history has consistently been defined by a bipolar attitude towards the Catholic church.

On the one hand, it has a special place in Argentine society, recognized by the constitution. On the other, Argentina also has had a consistent drive toward secularism.

“There’s a fundamental characteristic that is different between the United States and Argentina,” Paulón said. Even in the law itself, Argentina has installed a “permanent tension between … a conservative sector strongly linked to the church and a liberal sector that … pushes these advances.”

One thought on “How Argentina Did It: The Religious Answer

  1. Pingback: Why Latin America is beating the U.S. to marriage equality | After Marriage

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