Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez, the Catholic Church, and the Pinochet Regime, 1973-1980: Public Responses to a National Security State

By Aguilar, Mario I. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview
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Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez, the Catholic Church, and the Pinochet Regime, 1973-1980: Public Responses to a National Security State


Aguilar, Mario I., The Catholic Historical Review


After the military coup of 1973 Augusto Pinochet created the means to reinvent Chile in terms of a country that was under attack from foreign elements. As political parties and all public organizations were banned, the Catholic Church assumed the task of defender of human rights and opposition party.

This paper examines the role of Cardinal Silva Henriquez and his response to an ongoing national crisis through his personal memoirs. The paper concludes that Cardinal Silva became a defender of human rights and himself an enemy of the Chilean State because of his Christian convictions and his own sense of service to the poor and to the youth in the context of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

I. Introduction

It has been widely recognized by researchers that the Catholic Church in Chile played an important role in the national affairs of Chile during the period of government of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).1 Within those writings, the Church has been perceived as the hierarchy, and in general authors have outlined the role of the Church as institution.2 Less has been written about the social history of individuals within the Church, or on the ecclesial and human experience of the basic Christian Communities or the parishes in dioceses outside Santiago.5

Moreover, it can be suggested that within an authoritarian regime that controlled the existence of political parties, trade unions, and workers' unions the Catholic Church became the only public voice allowed within Chile and an important contact of information with international organizations and governments outside Chile. As a result of such work and in recognition for its defense of human rights the Catholic Church was granted several international prizes, e.g., the United Nations prize for human rights (1978) and the Austrian Bruno Kreisky Foundation prize for human rights (1979).4

Within that experience of Chilean political conflict and ecclesial growth Cardinal RaUl Silva Henriquez played a central role. Other bishops could have decided to take other decisions, to do other things, to avoid an ecclesial involvement in Chilean affairs. Cardinal Silva Henriquez decided that the Church was called to be involved and he became a controversial figure who was liked by some and despised by others. Nevertheless, the massive gathering of people from all walks of life at his funeral in 1999 suggested that he had led a Church that had been involved in the lives of people and in the national life of Chile.5

This paper examines the involvement by the Catholic Church in Chile during the first period of the military regime (1973-1980),6 by assessing the words and actions of Cardinal Suva as narrated in his own memoirs.71 have elsewhere examined the social role played by the Vicaria de la Solidaridad, the documents by the Chilean bishops that engage with national social realities and the issues of the disappeared and their families' loss of Catholic funerals as fundamental rites of passage and rites of life.8 There is no doubt that Cardinal Suva played a central leadership role throughout those years of change, conflict, and suffering for many Chileans. However, it would be difficult to understand such a role without focusing on the Cardinal's formation as a Salesian priest, and the centrality of the post-military coup political repression that triggered some of his directives for the Santiago Archdiocese and the Chilean Church in general.

The conclusions of this study argue that Cardinal Suva managed to engage the Catholic Church with public concerns within a difficult political period in Chilean history by supporting ecclesial, social, and political organizations. Cardinal Suva followed the directives of the second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and the Latin American Bishops' Conference of Medellin (1968) to the point where the Chilean Church became an example for other more traditional (inward looking) episcopal conferences.

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