|Chile Table of Contents
The Roman Catholic Church has played a central role in Chilean politics since colonial days. During the nineteenth century, the question of the proper role of the Catholic Church in society helped define the differences among the country's incipient political parties. The Conservatives, in defending the social order of the colonial era, championed the church's central role in protecting that order through its control of the educational system and its tutelage over the principal rights of passage, from birth to death. They also supported the close tie between church and state based on the Spanish patronato real, which provided the president with the authority to name church officials. Liberals, and especially Radicals, drawing on the ideals of the Enlightenment, sought a secular order, a separation of church and state in which the state would take the primary responsibility for instruction and assume "civil" jurisdiction over births, marriages, and the burial of the dead. The Liberals and Radicals also promoted the liberal doctrine of the rights of man and citizenship, seeking to implement the notion of one man-one vote, unswayed by the influence of the upper class or the preaching of the clergy.
During the 1861-91 period, the Liberals were in the ascendancy, succeeding in their quest to expand the authority of the state to the detriment of that of the church. The de jure separation of church and state, however, did not occur until the adoption of the constitution of 1925. Although a few priests and Catholic laity embraced the progressive social doctrines inspired by papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), it was not until the 1950s that the church hierarchy began to loosen its ties to the Conservative Party. Keenly aware of Marxism's challenge to their core values and the growing influence of Marxist parties, church leaders responded with an increased commitment to social justice and reform. Some of the early efforts at breaking down Chile's semifeudal land tenure system were undertaken on church lands by progressive bishops, notably Bishop Manuel Larraín Errázuriz of Talca in the 1960s.
The church's shift away from Conservative politics coincided with the development of a close alliance between the church elite and the emerging Christian Democrats, which contributed to the success of the new party, particularly among women and another previously disenfranchised group, rural voters. The church, and in particular Cardinal Raúl Silva Henriquez, the archbishop of Santiago, welcomed the election of Eduardo Frei Montalva to the presidency in 1964.
Relations between the church and Allende, however, were far less cordial. Church leaders retained correct relations with the leftist government, fearful that the new authorities would make use of the public schools for Marxist indoctrination and further undermine the waning influence of the church in society. When Allende was overthrown, all of the bishops welcomed the coup and helped legitimize the new military junta with solemn ceremonies. Several bishops, including the bishop of Valparaíso, remained staunch supporters of the military for years to come.
Other church leaders, notably Cardinal Silva, shocked by widespread human rights violations and disturbed by the growing rift between the men in uniform and the church's Christian Democratic allies, soon distanced themselves from the military authorities. The church, and particularly the archdiocese of Santiago, responded by gradually assuming a critical role as a defender of human rights and providing an "umbrella" of physical and moral shelter to intellectuals and party and union leaders. Antagonizing the regime and its many supporters in upper-and middle-class sectors, the Vicariate of Solidarity (Vicaría de la Solidaridad) helped provide for the legal defense and support of victims of the dictatorship. Silva's successor, though more conservative, supported the church's work in the human rights field and, in 1985, sought to broker the National Accord for Transition to Full Democracy. As the plebiscite approached, the Episcopal Conference made clear that it did not consider the junta's plan to be democratic and urged Pinochet to step down, further aggravating the relationship between the authorities and the church.
With the restoration of democracy, the church retreated from the political arena. Following dictates from Rome and the appointment of more conservative bishops, relations between the hierarchy and the Christian Democrats cooled. Church leaders also made it clear that, in recognition of church support for the democratic opposition in the difficult years of the dictatorship, they expected support from the new government for the church's own more conservative agenda. In early 1994, Chile remained one of the few countries in the world that did not recognize divorce, and issues such as abortion and the role of women in society were not fully addressed. Chile's political right made clear that it hoped to capitalize on these "moral" issues and revive an alliance between clerical authorities and the parties of the right not seen since the 1940s.
Although the challenge from the Marxist left had waned, the Roman Catholic Church appeared to be engaged in a losing struggle to stem the extraordinary growth of Protestant Evangelicals. Evangelical groups grew rapidly during the years of military rule, primarily as a result of severe social and economic dislocations. While the Roman Catholic Church gained adherents and supporters through its politicized Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiales de Base-- CEBs) and the work of highly committed priests, tens of thousands of other Chileans were seeking a new meaning for their lives by responding to the far more flexible and spontaneous religious appeals of hundreds of storefront churches. Surveys in Santiago indicated that Evangelicals made up close to 15 percent of the population, with far larger proportions in shantytowns (callampas or poblaciones) and other low-income neighborhoods. What is perhaps more significant is that active Evangelicals were as numerous as active Catholics.
More about the Government and Politics of Chile.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress