June 19, 2013
Nay to Francis holiday
Flying in the face of the separation of Church and State
Late Friday, Buenos Aires City Government decreed that all BA schools be closed tomorrow morning for the official ceremony that will instate Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis. The reasons quoted are that “the City considers the election of Pope Francis as one of the most important events in Argentine history, one which vastly exceeds its religious nature.” It adds that “all Argentines of good will have shared in this joy, in a span that integrates with equal force Catholics and non-Catholics, believers of any creed or religion, and those who hold no religious belief.”
No authorities are mentioned as responsible for the decision, but Mayor Macri used the very wording “most important event in Argentine history” to refer to Bergoglio’s election, and nobody in their right minds would exclude the name of Education Minister Esteban Bullrich, who has active ties to Catholic groups, from that list not just for his religious affiliation, but mostly because it is through his signature that state and private schools received the order to be closed Tuesday morning.
The decision is a definite and undeniable reversal of one of the three tenets on which Argentine education was founded. In 1884, the foundational School Act (usually dubbed “Ley 1420”) stated in no uncertain terms that the State was to guarantee free, universal, non-religious education. That settled a raging debate about the role of religion in schools, with Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s side winning the argument.
In a very brief recap, a Pedagogic Congress in 1882 had stated that “universal education is essentially Catholic.” Sarmiento countered by reminding them that, even though the Constitution signed a year later said the Argentine state supported and upheld the Catholic cult,“schools are not the cult; therefore schools are not Catholic, even if they are Christian, just as the current Constitution has not been signed only for Catholics.” The declaration put forward by those demagogue extremists is in flagrant violation of the Constitution and the laws, a return to the days previous to the Constitution, a theft on their own behalf of the tax money contributed by all for the benefit and enjoyment of all, and an act of tyranny under the pretence of religious form.”
In the Herald, a newspaper born of the open call for migration and integration that Sarmiento put forward during his presidency, there is no need to state just how important this principle is. An English-speaking readership needs no reminder that not every person is a Christian, and that not every Christian is a Catholic. People familiar with such principles as the absolute separation of Church and State do not need to be told how important they are to an open, inclusive, free society.
Mayor Macri and his entire administration, on the other hand, have just set this cornerstone of our democracy on fire, and in the process have undone 141 years of progress in that direction. Tomorrow, when State schools that should be 100 percent religion-free and religious schools from non-Catholic denominations (Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, take your pick) cannot open their doors on Ministry’s orders, Buenos Aires will be a less free, less inclusive, less democratic city.
And the argument that this is a “historical event” and that “all good-willing Argentines of all religions and even non-believers share in the joy” adds insult to injury. Yes, a porteño has been appointed to one of the highest offices in the world and shall wield (at least in theory) absolute, unquestionable power over billions of Catholics around the globe but what does that mean to those who are not Catholics? Is this an excuse to bypass Argentina’s Constitution, which in 1994 dropped the Catholic faith as a requisite for being a president, removing one of the last legal binds between the State and religion in our country? Didn’t this City administration vocally protest the national Education minister’s (wrong) decision to suspend classes during Argentina matches at the World Cup? How is this not about religion and Catholicism? How does this not exclude everyone else? How does this not send the message that BA is a Catholic town, all else be damned? (in case the large Vatican flag that replaced the BA flag in the Obelisk wasn’t clear enough...)
And the most worrying thing is that tomorrow is just the beginning. Pope Francis will visit Buenos Aires in the near future: what about then? Schools off, bank holiday, mandatory attendance the rally? And in the many years of his rule over the Catholic world, how many of these things are we to expect? It would be an overstatement to say that this opens the door for creationism in schools, but there is a dotted line from here to there that didn’t exist before this decision was announced.
This is a wrong decision. This is not democratic. This is not what Argentina and Buenos Aires, the gateway to the millions of immigrants that built the country, are about. In any country that calls itself a republic, this would be scandalous and would end with someone’s head on a platter (can you imagine state schools without classes in his constituency in Boston or his hometown in Lakewood, Ohio if US Cardinal Sean O’Malley had been elected pope?). Catholics are a majority in BA, even the specific numbers are foggy (a staggering majority of people call themselves Catholics or have baptized in the faith, only a third of those are churchgoers or state that they follow the Church’s precepts) still, even if there was only one person who worshipped to a different god in a different way, or a single citizen who did not believe in any deity whatsoever, a measure like this would be the first step between being a minority and being an oppressed minority. Imposing the celebration of some onto everybody and implying that those who do not want to join in are not “good willing Argentines”is beyond the pale. And it is a very slippery slope all the way down.