Religion in Historical Perspective

Chile Table of Contents

Independence from Spain disrupted the church-state relationship. The clergy was divided over the question of breaking the ties to Spain, although the most prominent church officials were generally royalists. As a result, the new independent governments and the leaders of the church viewed each other with distrust. The development of what would later be called the "black legend" (a highly unfavorable view of the colonial administration, of which the church was an integral part), coupled with an admiration for the progress of Protestant lands, fueled this distrust. Despite their misgivings about church attitudes toward independence, the new rulers insisted that they were entitled to exercise the patronato real, the agreement between the Spanish crown and the pope, thereby assuming this important royal power as well. This prerogative was enshrined in the 1833 constitution, which made Roman Catholicism the established church of the new Chilean state. Consequently, the authorities followed the prior practice of sending church appointments to the Vatican for its formal approval and to oversee the governance of the church. For their part, church officials expected that the government would continue to ban all other religions from the country. Moreover, they hoped to retain full authority over education, to keep all civil law subordinate to canonical law, and to continue to function as the state's surrogate civil registry, as well as to control all cemeteries. In addition, they increasingly asserted the independence of the church from the interference of state authorities.

This was a church-state relationship fraught with potential for conflict, and as the nineteenth century progressed many conflicts did indeed emerge. By the late 1850s, a fundamental fault line in Chilean politics and society had developed between unconditional defenders of church prerogatives, who became the Conservatives, and those who preferred to limit the church's role in national life, who became the Liberals or, if they took more strongly anticlerical positions, the Radicals. Although most Liberals and even most Radicals were also Roman Catholics, they were in favor of allowing the existence of other churches and of limiting canonical law to church-related matters, while establishing the supremacy of the state's laws and courts over the nation as a whole, even over priests and other church officials. They also advocated the creation of non-Catholic schools and civil cemeteries, and they pressed for the establishment of a state-managed civil registry that would be entitled to issue the only legally valid birth, marriage, and death certificates. By the 1880s, a decade that saw a break in relations between the Chilean government and the Vatican, all of these points of the more secular and anticlerical agendas had been established. However, the Roman Catholic Church continued to be the established church, dependent on the state for its finances and appointments. This led periodically to new political tensions.

Emerging in the 1820s, the first source of state-church conflicts was the issue of the right of non-Catholics to practice their religion. The government favored allowing them to do so in private homes or other nonpublic places, while the Roman Catholic Church opposed this notion. The issue was a question of considerable significance for more than just civil liberties.

Independence from Spain had permitted the legal establishment of direct commercial links between Chile and other countries throughout the world. These links led to the creation, especially in Valparaíso, of wholesale commercial enterprises that brought British and other foreign nationals who were non-Catholic to the country, and they demanded the right to practice their religion. Denying them religious freedom not only created diplomatic problems with the dominant economic powers of the time but also had the potential to undermine the operations of the export-import concerns that handled much of the emerging country's foreign trade.

Beginning in the 1840s, the Chilean government sponsored the immigration of German settlers to the southern lake district. Most of them, contrary to the government's wishes, came from Protestant parts of Germany. As a result, the first Protestant services in Chile, mainly Anglican and Lutheran, began in immigrant communities. Initially, they were merely tolerated by the authorities, but in 1865 a new law interpreting the religious clause of the constitution that declared Roman Catholicism as the official state religion permitted private practice by non-Catholic denominations.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries of various denominations, beginning with the Presbyterians, came to Chile. Although they continued to serve mainly the immigrant communities, they also made an effort to obtain Chilean converts. The Anglicans set up missions among the Mapuche, and these are still operating. American Methodists founded schools--the well-known Santiago College, which was established in 1880, among them--that were open to middle- and upper-class Chilean children, especially girls. Parents seeking alternatives to Catholic education opted for Protestant missionary schools. By the turn of the century, a small community of local converts to Protestant denominations began to form. In 1909 a segment of the new Methodist group that had adopted charismatic rituals broke off from the main missionary body. This breakaway group became the Pentecostal Methodist Church, which itself split in 1934 when the Evangelical Pentecostal Church was formed. These two denominations remained the principal Pentecostal groups in Chile, although there were many different subdenominations.

Judaism, virtually unknown in nineteenth-century Chile, originated with the Central European Jews who arrived in the country fleeing persecution mainly between World War I and World War II. Both Jews and Protestants, as religious minorities in a predominantly Catholic country, were strongly in favor of religious freedoms and of full separation between church and state. It was therefore natural for them to identify more closely with the more secular and even anticlerical segments of Chilean society and politics; and it was natural for the latter to consider them a part of their constituency. Yet, given their religious beliefs, strict moral upbringing, and, among Chilean Protestants, generally, abstention from alcohol, these segments of the non-Catholic Chilean society had little in common with the broader anticlerical groups. In fact, on many moral issues, non-Catholics' opinions were much closer to those of practicing Roman Catholics. For this reason, although practicing Protestants and Jews tended to vote for the more secular parties in greater proportions than other groups, they generally did not have a particularly strong political identity or play important leadership roles, exceptions aside, in political or social life.

In 1925 President Arturo Alessandri Palma (1920-24, 1925, 1932- 38) pressed for and obtained a separation of church and state. This resolved most sources of church-state friction, but more than a century of conflicts had already created subcultures in Chilean society that continued to leave their mark on twentieth-century educational institutions, intellectual life, social organizations, and politics. The segments most distant from and even opposed to the Catholic Church were receptive to positivism and, especially after the 1930s, to Marxism. In this sense, the nineteenth-century fault line contributed indirectly to the eventual appeal among educated Chileans of the nation's communist and socialist parties.

During the interwar years, partly in response to the challenges of secular intellectuals and political leaders and partly as a result of new trends in international Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church in Chile slowly began to espouse socially and politically more progressive positions. This more progressive Catholicism initially had its main impact among university students, who, in the mid-1930s under the leadership of Eduardo Frei, created a new party that in 1957 fused with other groups to become the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano- -PDC). This development split the subculture that was closer to the Catholic Church into politically conservative and centrist segments. By the early 1960s, a solid majority of the church hierarchy favored the Christian Democrats, and there was a significant shift of voter support from the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador--PC) to the PDC. Following the new thinking in church circles, the hierarchy openly embraced positions favoring land reform, much to the dismay of the still-important minority of Catholics on the right.

The dominant consensus within Chilean Catholicism was much in tune with the resolutions and spirit of Vatican Council II (1962- 65) in theological, ritual, and pastoral matters. Within the Latin American context, the Chilean Roman Catholic Church quickly became noted as a post-Vatican Conciliar church of moderately progressive positions on political and socioeconomic issues, and its representatives played an important part in the reform-minded Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979) conferences of Latin American bishops. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the church fostered the establishment of Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiales de Base-- CEBs) in poor urban neighborhoods. However, only a minority in the Chilean church subscribed to what became known as liberation theology.

In the wake of the military coup of September 1973, the church established, initially in association with some leaders of the nation's Protestant and Jewish communities, an office for the defense of human rights. Later reorganized under exclusive sponsorship of the archdiocese of Santiago as the Vicariate of Solidarity (Vicaría de la Solidaridad), this organization continued to receive funds from international Protestant sources and valiantly collected information on human rights violations during the nearly seventeen years of military rule. Its lawyers presented literally thousands of writs of habeas corpus, in all but a few cases to no avail, and provided for the legal defense of prisoners. The church also supported popular and labor organizations and called repeatedly for the restoration of democracy and for national reconciliation.

As the papacy of John Paul II (1978- ) progressed, the Chilean Catholic Church, like other national congregations around the world, became somewhat more conservative in outlook. In the early 1990s, the episcopal conference was about evenly split between those formed in the spirit of Vatican Council II and those espousing more conservative positions. However, this shifting balance did not affect the church's advocacy of human rights and democracy during the military regime.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress