I went home to Argentina last December for the holidays, and upon my return to New York, most people I know greeted me with, “Things have gotten better there, right?”—a fair question, but one to which a typically cynical Argentine would respond: “Of course things are better, they couldn’t have gotten any worse!” But while I was in the country a story caught my eye that convinced me that things, at least in one aspect, might be changing for the better. It was not a story about the supposed upswing in the economy, but rather about a controversial art exhibit.
The Catholic Church was on the offensive over a 50-year retrospective of the art of León Ferrari, one of Argentina’s most important living artists. When the show opened, a top Catholic official called it “blasphemy.” In a matter of weeks, the exhibit was shut down by a judicial order at the behest of an association of five priests, but was reopened two weeks later.
When the exhibit closed, hundreds of protestors outside the cultural center chanted “Atención, atención, regresó la Inquisición!” (“Attention, attention, they brought back the Inquisition!”). It’s no secret that the Church has long had tremendous social and political clout in Argentina, but the exhibit’s closure was not symptomatic of the strength of the Church (as the protest chant suggests) but rather its weakness.
Argentines are increasingly willing to take God out of politics, and this growing secularization has led the more radically conservative to lash out and vent their frustrations in the political arena or by taking to the streets.
Ferrari’s body of work strongly condemns Christianity’s role in some of the world’s most barbarous acts, including the Spanish Conquest, the Nazi atrocities and Argentina’s military dictatorship. “The Church [in Argentina] has launched a concerted campaign against my exhibit,” wrote Ferrari during the controversy, “yet it has not condemned the violence committed by some of its parishioners, which is an attitude that encourages them to repeat their deeds.”
One of the exhibit’s most imposing pieces, which Ferrari had prepared for a 1965 show titled “The Christian, Western Civilization,” during the escalation of war in Vietnam, has a bloodied, life-size figure of Christ crucified on an inverted U.S. fighter jet. A much smaller piece had religious figurines poking out of a meat grinder; several pieces juxtaposed Christian iconography with militaristic images.
The Ferrari controversy caught my attention because beneath the surface it is indicative of a more profound and hopeful process underway. With the dimming influence of the Church, secular spaces have opened for policies that protect lives and grant greater liberties. Although it remains a deeply Catholic society, a handful of groundbreaking policy projects have given rise to public conversations on issues considered taboo by the Church.
In July 2003, for example, the city of Buenos Aires legalized civil unions. Two gay men were the first to gain this legal category—Latin America’s first state-sanctioned gay union. The designation only allows for pension rights, health insurance, hospital visitation and bank credit, but now, a broader civil union law at the national level, including adoption and inheritance rights, is in the works.
Abortion—illegal in Argentina—is another issue that is increasingly being debated by the public. Health Minister Ginés González García recently estimated the number of clandestine abortions in the country at more than 500,000. The vast majority of those who attempt at-home abortions are poor teenage mothers who use the crudest of instruments with frequently fatal consequences. González García introduced a law for sexual education classes at the elementary school level to stem rising teen pregnancy rates, but conservative legislators shot it down.
Conservative groups lashed out again in December 2004 at a lecture by a Dutch doctor who travels the world advocating the legalization of abortion. The speakers and the audience came under violent attack by a group of conservative Christians.
The Ferrari exhibit came on the heels of these developing public debates about civil unions, abortion, reproductive health and sexual education that strike a nerve in Argentines’ religious sensibilities. Although not all the debates have ended with favorable policy outcomes, the tide is beginning to turn.
In response, conservative sectors of the Catholic hierarchy—along with the growing evangelical movement—are breaking ranks with their more lenient counterparts to counter these signs of Argentina’s secularization, which inevitably means the erosion of the Church’s power.
Conservative religious groups still hold significant sway in politics, especially at the local level, but they are receiving diminishing returns for their efforts and find themselves increasingly sidelined. The conservative offensive was best summed up by a recent sarcastic headline: “Holy Resurrection, Batman!”
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