THE VATICAN has warned the Argentine government that it could be guilty of infringing religious liberty if it insists on stripping the salary and commission from a bishop serving with the country’s armed forces.
Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, spoke out after the Argentine government declared it was withdrawing its recognition of Bishop Antonio Baseotto, who was appointed military ordinary by Pope John Paul II.
It had earlier approached the Vatican to demand the removal of Bishop Baseotto but was turned down. But by withdrawing funding from the military diocese, the government has broken an agreement it made with the Vatican in 2002.
“Clearly, if a bishop legally appointed by the Holy See in keeping with canon law and current agreements were to be impeded from carrying out his pastoral ministry, we would be facing a violation of religious liberty and of those same agreements,” said Mr NavarroValls in a statement.
The government of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner issued the decree last Friday to formally withdraw its recognition of Bishop Baseotto as the bishop for Catholic members of its military.
Mr Navarro-Valls said the following day that Bishop Baseotto remained the military ordinary and, according to both Church law and agreements signed by the Vatican and Argentina, he cannot be impeded from exercising his ministry.
Bishop Baseotto became the focus of controversy after he criticised the government’s health minister, Gines Gonzalez Garcia, for supporting the decriminalisation of abortion in Argentina and for the Minister’s support for distributing condoms to Argentine young people. In a letter to Miss Gonzalez, Bishop Baseotto said she risked becoming “an apologist for the crime of murder”. But it was the bishop’s use of a Gospel passage in reaction to condom distribution that created the main furore.
The bishop had told Miss Gonzalez, that “Our Lord affirmed that ‘those who scandalise the little ones should have a millstone hung around their necks and be thrown into the sea’,” a phrase found in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.
But the bishop’s remark raised public ire because it evoked the “death flights” in which political dissidents were killed by being dropped from planes into the ocean during Argentina’s 1976-1983 “dirty war”.
In a statement released last Saturday, the executive committee of the Argentine bishops’ conference accused the media of sensationalising Bishop Baseotto’s remarks.
While the committee pledged its full support for Bishop Baseotto, it also said the controversy could be resolved only through dialogue with government officials.
In addition, the committee expressed sadness at the government’s “unilateral” decision to withdraw its recognition of Bishop Baseotto at the beginning of Holy Week when Catholic members of the armed forces have a right to the pastoral ministry of their bishop.
The Catholic bishops have grown increasingly critical of the government while Argentina has struggled through a long political and economic crisis.
Archbishop Estanislao Karlic, president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, said in an interview earlier this month that the people were facing “a crisis of confidence” in their leaders.
The Argentine bishops have also been resolutely pro-life as the government flirts with the idea of legalising abortion.
The bishops last week appealed to politicians to reject the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women because of its support for “safe abortion”.