Chile Table of Contents

Religious Affiliations and Church Organization

Roman Catholicism is an integral part of Chile's history and culture, and the great majority of Chileans consider themselves Roman Catholic. However, their numbers have been declining since 1970, while the Protestant population has been increasing. The 1970 census showed that about 90 percent of the population was nominally Roman Catholic, and a little over 6 percent was Protestant. The 1982 census did not include questions on religion. The 1992 census showed that 76.9 percent of the population fourteen years of age and older declared itself Catholic, while 13.1 percent declared itself either "Evangelical" or "Protestant". This latter percentage reflected a moderate but steady increase with each census since 1920, when only 1.4 percent of the population was counted as Protestant. About 90 percent of Protestants belong to Pentecostal (Evangelical) denominations.

The more than doubling of the proportion of Protestants in the total population over the 1970-92 period means that a large number of them are converts. Surveys taken in December 1990 and October 1991 by the Center for Public Studies (Centro de Estudios Públicos- -CEP) in collaboration with Adimark, a polling agency, showed that about 95 percent of Roman Catholic respondents have been Catholics since childhood, whereas only about 38 percent of Protestants said they have been Protestants since their early years. Moreover, fully 26 percent of Protestants noted that they had converted sometime in the previous ten years.

According to the 1992 census, there was also a significant minority of about 7 percent of Chileans who declared themselves indifferent to religion or atheists. This group increased from a little over 3 percent in 1970. Other religious groups, mainly Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Orthodox accounted for 4.2 percent of the population fourteen years of age or older.

The CEP-Adimark surveys also included questions on religious practice. According to the surveys, about a quarter of all adult Chileans attend church services at least once a week, a proportion indicative of considerable secularization. A much greater proportion of Protestants (about 46 percent) than of those who said they are Roman Catholics (about 18 percent) are regular churchgoers. Thus, the authors of the CEP-Adimark report note that there is roughly one Protestant for every two Catholics among people attending church at least once a week in Chile. The proportion of nominal Catholics attending mass weekly seems to have increased slightly since the late 1970s; prior studies had shown an attendance rate between 10 and 15 percent.

The distribution of practicing Catholics and Protestants varies dramatically on the basis of socioeconomic status. In 1990-91 about half the practicing Protestant population (52.1 percent) was composed of individuals from poorer groups, while a tiny minority (2.3 percent) had high socioeconomic status. Among practicing Catholics, the proportion with high status was significant at 15 percent, whereas the poorest segment constituted about a fifth (21.8 percent) of all those who practiced. These differences are so salient that among the poor Chilean urban population, for every practicing Roman Catholic there is a practicing Protestant. The growth of Protestantism has therefore mainly been at the expense of the Catholicity of the lower socioeconomic groups, among whom Catholicism has long been weakest. Surveys taken between the late 1950s and early 1970s showed that only between 4 and 8 percent of working-class people who were nominally Catholic attended mass weekly. The 1991 survey showed that 93.4 percent of high-income respondents indicated that they are nominally Catholic; the proportions declined to 75.2 percent of middle-income people and to 69 percent of those with lower incomes. Among the latter, 22 percent consider themselves nominally Protestant. The practicing Protestants also tend to work in greater proportions in the personal service areas of the economy and to be less educated than Catholics. This is consistent with the generally lower economic status of the Protestant population.

Slightly more than half of all Chileans who declared a religious affiliation are women. However, among those who practice, the proportion of women is significantly higher. This is particularly the case for Protestants. Among urban Protestant respondents, about 70 percent of those who attend church services at least once a week are women. Among Roman Catholics, the proportion of practicing women is about 63 percent.

The Roman Catholic Church is divided into twenty-four dioceses and one armed forces chaplaincy. These are led by five archbishops and thirty bishops, some of whom serve as auxiliaries in the larger dioceses. There are also two retired cardinals. The church has long suffered from a shortage of priests. Since the 1960s, they have numbered between 2,300 and 2,500, about half of them foreign born. By 1990 there were 3,000 Catholics per priest. With about 760 parishes throughout the country, the church is unable to extend its presence to the entire Catholic population. This situation is illustrated by a comparison of the number of places of worship for Santiago's Catholic and Protestant populations: 470 Roman Catholic parishes and chapels versus about 1,150 churches and other places of Protestant (mainly Pentecostal) worship.

Religion in Historical Perspective
Forms of Popular Religiosity

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress