The Church in Society

Colombia Table of Contents

The influence of the church varied in different regions of the country and among different social groups, but it was felt everywhere and was rarely questioned. The population in general continued to attach great importance to observance of the formal acts of Catholicism. The rate of attendance at mass was high, particularly among women, who generally took the practice of religion more seriously than men. Church attendance also served traditionally to attest to a woman's general virtue. In some urban parishes, more than 85 percent of the Catholics attended mass. Some cities or regions were noted throughout the country for their religious observance. The people of Antioquia Department, for example, were reputed to be particularly devout Catholics, and the Indians of the southern highlands and residents of Popayán were recognized for their regular attendance at mass and traditional observance of holy days, especially during Holy Week.

To the average Colombian, such primary rites of the church as baptism, first communion, marriage, and extreme unction marked the main turning points in the life cycle and identified him or her as a social being. The Catholic faith was felt to be a part of a person's cultural heritage passed on like language and became an integral part of a person's being.

Members of the upper class and the upper middle class frequently had close personal relations with members of the religious hierarchy. Most of the clergy and nearly all prelates were of upper-class or middle-class origin and therefore shared the interests and attitudes of these groups and felt the closest affinity with them. The upper social levels supported Catholic charities with time and money and provided most of the membership of lay religious associations.

Religious beliefs and practices in the rural peasant communities reflected centuries of geographic isolation and a lack of formal religious training. People in these areas were said to be more devout than those in the cities, but their Catholicism was often very different from that of the urban upper and middle classes. Fusion of Catholic practices and beliefs with indigenous, African, and sixteenth-century Spanish ones was widespread in the countryside. Traces of the rural folk religions also were found in urban lower-class communities, particularly those with many rural migrants.

Most people in rural villages were careful to fulfill what they considered to be their religious obligations to protect themselves from supernatural punishment or to secure blessings from one of the saints. The Virgin Mary and the saints were deeply revered by most people. The saints, especially one's patron saint, were considered to be more accessible than God and sometimes willing to intervene in the individual's temporal affairs.

The mass, the sacraments, religious processions, and objects of religious veneration were shared by nearly all Colombians. Holy day celebrations, particularly the fiestas honoring a community's patron saint, were events of great significance, not only in the religious life of the people but also as elements of social cohesion that united members of the community in a common bond.

Critics within the church contended, however, that this emphasis on the ritual aspects of the faith masked serious deficiencies in the exercise of that faith. In their view, Catholicism had a limited impact on the personal lives of the laity. Many couples had chosen alternatives to a Catholic wedding, such as consensual union or a civil ceremony. In addition, many Catholics lacked even an elementary grounding in church doctrine. Critics also argued that Colombia's ratio of priests to inhabitants--one to 4,000, one of the best in Latin America--was highly misleading. Like most elites, clerics gravitated toward urban areas. In contrast, many rural churches lacked priests for extended periods of time.

Despite these deficiencies, the church continued to exercise considerable influence in a number of areas, including education, social welfare, and union organization. Catholic control over education in Colombia was the strongest in Latin America and even greater than its official powers suggested. The church had its own Secretariat of Education, which maintained two research organizations, a literacy program reaching thousands of rural Colombians, and more than 3,500 schools and universities. With a total enrollment of nearly 300,000 students in the 1970s, the church system was estimated to include over 85 percent of the students in preschool, 20 percent of those in the primary grades, more than 50 percent of those in secondary school, and almost 40 percent of those in universities. Church institutions of higher education were among the most highly respected in the nation, and religious courses played an important part in a student's curriculum.

In 1944 the Episcopal Conference established Catholic Social Action, or simply Catholic Action, a loose collection of programs for social and educational development. Some of the programs for Catholic Action were begun by the hierarchy, whereas others, such as Popular Cultural Action (Acción Cultural Popular--Acpo), a program involving specialized education programs for peasants, were initiated by individual priests and later adopted by the hierarchy. Acpo was best known for its literacy programs, which were conducted through Radio Sutatenza. Most of Acpo's budget was financed by the church, but some assistance was received from the government and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1988 the government negotiated a buy-out of Radio Sutatenza, which became part of the state education system.

The church-operated research institutes were founded in the 1960s to conduct socioeconomic studies and act as advisers to the hierarchy. The Center for Research and Social Action (Centro de Investigación y Acción Social--CIAS), subsequently renamed the Center for Research and Popular Education (Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular--Cinep), was run by Jesuits, and the Colombian Institute of Social Development (Instituto Colombiano de Desarrollo Social--Icodes) was staffed by diocesan priests. Both had done studies on housing and population problems, church-sponsored development programs, and land reform, and both were well respected for the quality and reliability of their studies.

Although education was still the most important area of church activity in the mid-1980s, mission activity and social welfare were also major efforts. In the early 1980s, about 1,100 charitable institutions were run by the church, including orphanages, hospitals, and leprosariums. Other welfare institutions were staffed by nuns whose orders were reimbursed by the government. Because of its involvement with the mission territories, the church was also represented in the National Indian Institute. Although the government was slowly taking over the functions of the church in the Indian territories, the church continued to play an important role there.

Two important social welfare programs were Colombian Charity (Caritas Colombiana) and Communal Action (Acción Comunal). Colombiana Charity was set up to coordinate the welfare work of various Catholic institutions. To most Colombians, it was identified with the distribution of agricultural surpluses, shoes, and clothing to the poor. Communal Action, a community development program established by the government in 1958, had significant input from the church at the local level. Priests served as key organizers in Communal Action groups, trying to educate rural Colombians in self-help methods.

The church had been involved with labor organizations since the middle of the nineteenth century, when it was instrumental in the formation of various economic and political pressure groups and later of craft unions. As Liberal-backed unions and communism began to be more influential within the working class during the 1940s, the church moved to increase its own influence. Moving to counteract the Liberal and leftist-oriented Confederation of Colombian Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Colombianos--CTC), several Jesuits helped to form a labor union inspired by Catholic social doctrine, the Union of Colombian Workers (Unión de Trabajadores Colombianos--UTC).

Responding to the need to organize and maintain the loyalty of the campesinos as well as to supply the UTC with badly needed leverage in its battle with the CTC, the church organized the National Agrarian Federation (Federación Agraria Nacional--Fanal) in 1946. Although not as successful as other rural organizations, Fanal was fairly important in rural land invasions in the 1960s, and it was not unusual to find invasions led by priests.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress