Uruguay Table of Contents

Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion in Uruguay, but Uruguay had long been a secular society. In 1981 the nation was divided into 221 parishes and had 204 diocesan priests. In addition, there were 374 monks and 1,580 nuns. About threequarters of all babies were baptized in the church. In the 1963 census, 62 percent of Uruguayans had declared themselves Catholics. However, according to data compiled by the Uruguayan Bishops Conference in 1978, only 105,248 citizens regularly attended mass. This figure represented less than 4 percent of the population. Attendance at mass was, however, slightly higher in the interior of the country and substantially higher among women. There was also evidence that religious observance was higher among the upper classes than among the middle and lower strata of society. In the late 1980s, an estimated 66 percent of Uruguayans were professed Roman Catholics, but less than half of the adult population attended church regularly.

Uruguay's secularization began with the relatively minor role of the church in the colonial era, compared with other parts of the Spanish Empire. The small numbers of Uruguay's Indians, and their fierce resistance to proselytization, reduced the influence of the ecclesiastical authorities. After independence, anticlerical ideas spread to Uruguay, particularly from France, further eroding the influence of the church. In 1837 civil marriage was recognized, and in 1861 the state took over public cemeteries. In 1907 divorce was legalized, and in 1909 all religious instruction was banned from state schools. Under the influence of the radical Colorado reformer José Batlle y Ordóñez (1903-07, 1911-15), complete separation of church and state was introduced with the new constitution of 1917. Batlle y Ordóñez went as far as to have religious holidays legally renamed. Even as of 1990, Uruguayans referred to Holy Week as "Tourism Week."

Nevertheless, the separation of church and state ended religious conflict in Uruguay, and since that time Catholic schools have been allowed to flourish. A Catholic party, the Civic Union of Uruguay (Unión Cívica del Uruguay--UCU), was founded in 1912 but never won more than a low percentage of the national vote. By the 1960s, the progressive trend in the worldwide church was strongly felt in Uruguay under the influence of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI. Particularly influential was the 1968 Latin American Bishops Conference in Medellín, Colombia, at which the concept of "structural sin" was put forward. By this doctrine, evil was seen as existing not only in the actions of individuals but also in the unequal organization of entire societies. The second Latin American Bishops Conference, held in Mexico in 1979, also had an important dynamizing and radicalizing impact in Uruguay. This time, the bishops called for a "preferential option for the poor." Sections of the Uruguayan church in fact became quite radical: when members of the National Liberation Movement-Tupamaros (Movimiento de Liberación NacionalTupamaros --MLN-T) were given amnesty in 1985, for a time they were housed in a Montevideo monastery while they readjusted to normal life.

One symptom of the growing progressive trend in the Uruguayan Catholic movement was the decision of the UCU to adopt the name Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano--PDC) in 1962. The new-found social conscience was strongly influenced by French Catholic philosophers--first Jacques Maritain and later Father Lebret. During the 1960s, the PDC moved further and further left, eventually espousing a form of "communitarian socialism" under its brilliant young leader, Juan Pablo Terra. In 1971 the PDC allied with the Communist Party of Uruguay and the Socialist Party of Uruguay to form the so-called Broad Front alliance. That caused conservative Catholics to form the Civic Union (Unión Cívica--UC) to offer religious voters a nonradical alternative, but the UC scarcely achieved any influence.

During the twentieth century, Protestant sects began to grow in importance. Estimates put the Protestant proportion of the population at 2 percent or a little higher in the late 1980s. From 1960 to 1985, the number of Protestants is estimated to have increased by 60 percent. Over the same period, the number of Protestants grew 500 percent or more in many Latin American countries. Uruguay was thus considered a "disappointment" by evangelical crusaders.

Jews constituted a small proportion of the population (about 2 percent), with most living in Montevideo. The size of the Jewish community had dwindled since 1970, primarily because of emigration.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress