Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Garino Olaso Zabala

Fact 1: Augustinian Father Gabino Olaso Zabala was among 98 Augustinian priests and seminarians executed by Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939.

Fact 2: Some 43 years earlier, in 1896, Father Zabala participated in the torture of a Filipino priest named Father Mariano Dacanay. According to Dacanay, Zabala (and a handful of other Augustinians!) encouraged guards who were administering the torture. At one point Olaso himself kicked Dacanay in the head, hard enough to leave the suffering priest semi-conscious.

Fact 3: Filipinos see the 1896 rebellion against Spain in the context of a war of liberation from colonial powers. The Augustinians involved in Dacanay’s torture were working in the interests of the Spanish imperial forces sponsoring their work of spreading Roman Catholicism to the heathens of Asia.

Fact 4: Father Zabala was among 498 Spanish religious beatified in St. Peter’s Square in Rome last Sunday, October 28. Pope Benedict XVI, noted for staying aloof from such ceremonies, appeared on the balcony, to the delight of the Spanish catholics who had come to Rome for the occasion.

Why does a priest with a record of torture get to be beatified? Remember, the victim was another priest, and the church has never denied Dacanay’s testimony nor taken steps to remove him from his priestly office. It accepts the story as true, in other words, and seeks to move on. The beatification is appropriate, according to spokesmen for the church, because Zabala died a martyr to the faith.

Remember Hamlet? How he didn’t want to kill his uncle when he had a chance, because the uncle was praying and thus his soul would fly straight to heaven? You gotta love these catholics and their ways of thinking like God thinks. The idea that you can torture your enemies, but not only escape hell and bypass purgatory, but sit in the first balcony of Heaven, just because you had the fortune to be offed by one of the church’s enemies – well ain’t that a gas!

Not all Spaniards are in sympathy with their countrymen in St. Peter’s Square. Some are pissed as hell that the church is choosing to beatify only the victims of the Republican forces, and not the victims of the Franco regime, with whom they were in cahoots. Opus Dei, the most rightwing of sympathizers of fascist regimes within the church, and others such as the “integrista” forces in all the Latin countries, are having a heyday. More of “us” going up a notch in heaven.

How you frame this story depends on where you sit. If you look at the martyrdom, there is no doubt somebody offed these priests who had it in for the church. The priests and nuns did die for the faith, if you limit the discussion to a “did they or didn’t they” question.

But to tell this story and leave out the fact that the rage against the church, and their henchmen (or dupes – not all were of malicious intent) comes from very real experience with an oppressor power, is to insult the intelligence of progressive forces all over the Third World and beyond.

The parallels are there to the Bush invasion of Iraq and the astonishment on the part of the American invaders that there are people in the Arab world that hate us.

Bad guys do bad things. Go get bad guys.

Teacher, what makes bad guys bad guys?

Shut up and put your hand down. Your questions are not on the curriculum for today.

(And they are on the curriculum for what day?)

It’s no secret I am watching this event in Spain through the eyes of someone gathering information in Argentina on the participation of the same church in the period from 1976 to 1983 known here as the “dictadura” – the fascist dictatorship that became world famous for kidnapping young rebels and “disappearing” them. Just how many exactly is uncertain; the mothers of these kids, who made history by their weekly march in front of the presidential palace to call attention to their plight, set the number at 30,000. The debate today, now that Argentina’s bad guy priest, Cristian von Wernich, has been sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the torture, kidnapping and killing of dozens of young people, is whether von Wernich was an outlier or the voice of the church itself.

Pagina 12, the leftist daily of Buenos Aires, insists he was and is the essence of the church in those times. The church, as always, is seeking to deny by silence, insisting that this is a time for reconciliation, not incrimination. (Imagine how bad that suggestion stinks if you are looking for justice.)

The facts remain that von Wernich was whisked off to Chile, given a false name, and those looking for him, when they called his parish in Buenos Aires province, were told that the church had no information as to his whereabouts. To this day, even in prison, von Wernich has not had his priestly collar taken from him. The prison doesn’t allow him to say mass, but the church has not removed his authority to do so, as they have with priests of the liberation theology group and others who advocate a woman’s right to an abortion.

Von Wernich’s whole case involved two arguments: he was working for the church and against communism, and no court on earth can judge him, because the only justice that counts is divine justice. You had to be there to appreciate the power of his conviction, as he pointed to the cross on the wall in the courtroom, called the witnesses against him liars, and listened to the sentence without emotion.

All authoritarian regimes from Franco to Hitler to the Argentine junta have justified their methods as realistic and necessary to stop the advance of communism. All insisted that they were fighting chaos, as well, since resistence to established authority virtually always leads to chaos. Kissinger and the CIA overthrew Allende and replaced him with Pinochet, and other dictators ruled in Paraguay and Uruguay at the same time. The time was right for making the case against chaos and communism, and the church argues today it was on the right side.

I would argue it was not. Pinochet’s name is now shit, and one of his victims now is president in Chile. The current regime in Argentina, too, for all its limitations, is cleaning house of the dictatorship. As this gets done, it is time to look at the costs to the church itself of complicity with the dictatorships of Spain, Germany, Italy and Latin America, and ultimately with European imperialism altogether. Making saints of victims of regimes of the left but not of the right is not accomplishing that. The church has the option of continuing to defend support of the fascist line under the guise of fighting evil or cut out the cancer that provides priests like Zabala with the justification to kick heads and enables priests like von Wernich to suggest dropping people from airplanes is somehow a “more Christian” form of torture and get sent with a new name to a vacation paradise in Chile for his efforts.

This Sunday’s celebration in St. Peter’s Square made a lot of Spaniards happy. A great day to be catholic. A celebration of the fact there are those willing to die for the privilege.

But is that the only story you want to be telling? Why? Because the other one isn’t as much fun to tell?


Super Duper said...


I'm a member of Opus Dei and voted Green Party at the last election...

And I'm not a Fascist. Or a crazed ultra-conservative murderer :-)

Alan McCornick said...

Yes, and Ruth Kelly and Paola Binetti are lefties. The organization still represents what theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar called "a concentration of fundamentalist power in the Church".