Oversimplification by Catholic cardinals and atheist bloggers

Atheist blogger JT Eberhard has a piece accusing the Catholic Church of supporting the Pinochet regime in Chile. This is somewhat surprising given the conventional wisdom is that the Chilean Catholic Church under Cardinal Silva basically ran what little internal organized opposition there was to that regime. So lets look at the details.

The new evidence is a then secret but meanwhile declassified cable from the US Roman embassy to the state department that was recently published by Wikileaks. The cable in question reports on what Archbishop Benelli, then a high-ranking Vatican diplomat said in a rant to Robert Illing, then a US diplomat at the Holy See. And a lot of what he said is indeed very, very bad. Basically Benelli thought things were going fairly well in Chile amd the reports of the new regime systematically murdering its opponents - which we now know to have been clearly true - were just so much communist propaganda designed to detract from this setback for communism. He based this on the report of cardinal Silva - the guy who around that time was founding his first oppositional human-rights organization - whom he thought more sympathetic to the old regime than to the new one. He noted that

Despite its conviction that truth far from picture found in media, Vatican has been impotent in its quiet efforts to convince anyone of same.

and complains that

leftist propaganda has been remarkably successful even with number of more conservative cardinals and prelates who seem incapable of viewing situation objectively. Result is that leftists have managed to create situation in which pope would be attacked by moderates if he defends truth on Chile.

Then for icing he relays a story about the old regime having itself planned a cup and stockpiled weapons at the Cuban embassy for that purpose. We now know that to have been a lie the new regime made up to justify the cup.

So basically the Vatican's diplomacy department fell for the new regime's propaganda hook, line, and sinker, unsuccessfully tried to convince other people of it, and blamed the toppled regime for the cup, all while raving about everybody else being victims of communist propaganda. I don't know if I should laugh or cry.

To this JT adds a link to a 2010 media story about the Chilean bishops proposing an amnesty from which some of the human-rights violating officers would also have benefited. He thinks

This is incredibly odd behavior if the Catholic Church is representative of a loving god’s will on earth.  Of course, stuff like this is exactly what we’d expect to see if the Catholic Church was a political organization interested primarily in its own power, run by corruptible mortals.

I agree this is evidence of the Church being run by corruptible mortals, not to mention the occasional idiot. But the "political organization interested primarily in its own power" part doesn't fit the facts either. (At least not in this case, history does of course have examples of that too).

The thing is, if you're trying to maximize your own power, founding an internal human-rights organization criticizing the local powers in one place while simultaneously telling their foreign enemies they are not that bad is about the worst possible way to go about it. And then calling for amnesty of people that lost power twenty years ago isn't exactly power-maximizing either, particularly if you originally argued for prosecuting them. Nor does calling the dictator a dictator while he is still in power and saying you must struggle to bring democracy to that country sound like a particularly promessing plan for power-maximization.

So lets try for an understanding that can handle the complexity. First, treating the Church as a unitary subject on that kind of thing is already a mistake. Catholics can be found on both sides of nearly every political issue. So it does seem kinda relevant that Benelli and Silva were different people. So is it good Catholics in Chile, bad ones in the Vatican? Even that would be an oversimplification, because people see things differently at different points in time.  For example, another cable almost four weeks later in the same declassified collection reports on cardinal Silva visiting Rome and the Chilean press vilifying him for parts of the statement he made there. The cable concludes (emphasis is mine):

With Allende gone and under the  benevolent gaze of a govt many of whose members view the cardinal's leftof- center stance with some suspicion, the attack on him has been renewed and may be continued. The latter is especially  possible if Silva follows advice given to him in Rome (as reported REFTEL) to press Junta for greater moderation.

And a few months later a report on the new Chilean ambassador to the Holy See notes:

Diplomatic observers here anticipate a certain amount of rough going for Riesle who arrives at a time when Vatican patience is somewhat exasperated over continuation of what church considers unnecessary repression in  Chile.

(Considers? Remember this is the state department under Nixon and Kissinger, which actually did support the Pinochet regime.) So the Vatican picture of the situation didn't remain that rosy either.

Basically that leaves us with Benelli's first reaction of totally falling for the regime's propaganda. As far as I can ascertain, the credibility of the atrocity reports was debatable at the time, though of course now we know they were true. For example, about three weeks earlier, a New York Times article explains how the Junta sucks but hedges in passing that

the reports of largescale executions of alleged leftists may not be true

And a few days before that the US state department cabled loads of institutions telling them

Casualty estimates continue to vary widely. Junta has listed only 115 dead; unofficial reports contend toll much higher.

Of course "debatable" doesn't mean "whatever". Benelli confidently picked the wrong option, decided everyone else was a deluded propaganda victim and then actively tried to convince others of that standpoint.

Now let me speculate about the motivation of that failure. This was during the cold war.  A cleric of the time would have been very invested in anti-communism, because the Church suffered very real persecution in all communist countries. He would also have known that communists lie whenever it's politically convenient both by experience and because that's what Lenin advised as the scientifically correct way to do communism. He would remember that Allende was in the process of nationalizing the means of production in blatant disregard both of the law and of the will of the democratic majority. (Yep, Pinochet was a bazillion times worse, but there is no cosmic law guaranteeing a hero to balance every villain. Allende was way better then Pinochet but still pretty bad.) And he would have observed that the people talking about atrocities were mainly the same people claiming Allende had been totally law-abiding, which actually was obvious propaganda. None of that is actually relevant to the truth of the atrocity reports, because all of it would be (actually was) also true in a world where they were true. But it would have a massive emotional impact. He had a story about the world and one way of oversimplifying complex data fit that story very, very nicely. So he went ahead believing it. And ignored the reports he could have studied if he had also been looking for evidence disconfirming his story. Luckily he didn't convince even people friendly to the Vatican.

Did I already mention this was a failure? Let me do so again: this was a failure. But it's not like that kind of failure only happens to cardinals.

For example, JT Eberhard has a story about the Catholic Church. In that story it is a political organization interested primarily in its own power. And he thinks he has very good reasons to believe this. So then he ran along media reports of this cable. Most of those media reports actually were of the "man were those folks dumb" variety, which is a fairly obvious take. But with just a little bit of oversimplification it fits the story of the power hungry Church really, really nicely. So he concluded the Catholic Church must have been in league with Pinochet. And if you don't look for evidence incompatible with that simple story you don't even have to suspect it's an over-simplification. To be fair, I didn't notice any other atheist bloggers talking about that story, so he doesn't seem to have been very convincing either.

Epistemic morals:

  • Beware of interpreting complex events in preconceived stories about  the good and evil guys. Sometimes it will be correct, but it should be a warning light for likely over-simplification.
  • If you do interpret complex events in preconceived stories about  the good and evil guys make sure to also look for disconfirming evidence.
  • There seems to be good hope of this particular failure mode not being particularly viral, so thinking in communities might help.
  • Also, did you note how most of this is speculation concordant with a simple story? It is my best guess and short of telepathy I can't  disconfirm it. But it is also quite possible that Benelli and/or Eberhard went wrong for totally different reasons.
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