e-mail us
Salvador's new brigadier causes outrage

NCR Staff

Broad sectors of the Catholic church in El Salvador have responded with stupor and sadness, in the words of one commentary, to the promotion of San Salvador Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle to the rank of brigadier general of the Salvadoran armed forces.

The announcement of Sáenz's acceptance in January of this military honor, conferred under a 1968 agreement between the Holy See and the government of El Salvador, prompted a rash of letters and pronouncements from laity, religious and theologians and protests from a group of parishioners attending the archbishop's regular Sunday press conference Feb. 16.

During the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, the military was responsible for human rights abuses, including torture, massacres of civilians and the killing of countless lay church workers as well as priests, nuns and Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by a death squad controlled by the military.

While atrocities occurred at the hands of the rebel forces as well as the military, a 1992 United Nations Truth Commission report confirmed what religious and human rights groups had argued for years: The military and its right-wing allies were responsible for most of the abuses and for the widespread violence against civilians and church workers.

Responding to archdiocesan statements defending the legal and procedural validity of Sáenz's new title, Carta a las Iglesias (Letter to the Churches), a bimonthly reflection published by the Pastoral Institute of the Jesuit Central American University, stated that people were not outraged because the rank "violated legal -- either civil or ecclesiastic -- norms."

The publication asserts that the people's indignation is instead the result of "something more ... fundamental: concern over the image of the Church of Christ receiving scepters of authority from the armed forces, the reality behind this church and the credibility of the church in the eyes of the victims the military has produced."

The institute is headed by Jesuit theologian Fr. Jon Sobrino, companion to the six Jesuits slain by the military at the university in 1989.

Such gestures, the publication continues, create serious ecclesial problems. "If arguments are based in agreements or canon law or the universal catechism but ... lack sensitivity to the life and feelings of the people, if they do not reflect knowledge of the history of this country, more concretely the history of a criminal armed forces and a church of martyrs, it will be difficult to find solutions to the problems in which we are immersed."

The statement laments that, day by day, the church of El Salvador "moves farther away from poor people and closer to members of the oligarchy, the government and the armed forces."

Equally forceful was the Jan. 29 editorial of the university's analytical weekly magazine, Proceso. "This ascent to the rank of brigadier general has reminded the public that the archbishop, in addition to heading the metropolitan see, is also the bishop of the military," it stated. "We don't know whether to call [the archbishop] monsignor or general. The minister of defense calls him both monsignor and general."

The swearing in of Sáenz as a brigadier general, Proceso said, means "he is another government official ... the president of the republic is his commander in chief and he owes military obedience to the defense minister and the armed forces high command."

Proceso questions the ethical validity of the system of military chaplains, "especially when we are dealing with an army like that of El Salvador, which still carries the burden of the lives of thousands of people who were tortured, disappeared and assassinated."

Lay leaders and base community activists echoed the Jesuit publications in public letters of protest. One, signed by five prominent lay leaders, stresses that religious and laity have ranked high on the lists of victims of "the Salvadoran army of which, today, the archbishop is a general."

All of the statements obtained by NCR from San Salvador emphasize the case of the assassination of Msgr. Joaquin Ramos, who preceded Sáenz as apostolic minister of the military ordinariate. "According to the Office of Legal Tutelage of the Archbishopric (the archdiocesan human rights office), all indications suggest that this crime was committed by the military. The presumption still exists that Msgr. Ramos was eliminated because of information he might have had about what occurs inside the armed forces," the lay leaders' protest letter states. "This doesn't seem to matter to the archbishop."

A statement from Christian communities from the Chalatenango diocese asks, "Which master will the archbishop serve?" The Chalatenango region was severely affected during the 12-year civil war and brutal counterinsurgency campaigns that formally ended with the signing of peace accords in 1991.

The statement also questions "the juicy and generous salaries and benefits" that accompany military titles. "These [benefits], which are taken from the taxes paid by the poor, are surprising in a country like ours where 60 percent of the people live in extreme poverty," the letter states. Chalatenango's Christian communities express concern that Sáenz's acceptance of the title of brigadier general and his public proximity to the military and the government on the eve of the March 16 municipal elections are signs that the "church and its credibility are being manipulated and used politically."

The letter also recalls that the archdiocese under Sáenz's predecessors -- Archbishop Luis Chávez y González, the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero and the late Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas -- "remained at all times free and independent of both the civilian and military powers."

Quoting John Paul II's apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the communities state that "local churches must do everything possible to not lose the memory of those who have suffered martyrdom." In this context, the communities assert, Sáenz's swearing in as brigadier general represents a scandal because it subordinates the archbishop and his ecclesial dignity to "an institution that has persecuted the church."

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 1997