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Reiner Wilhelm {*}

Between Tradition and Future

The Catholic Church in Chile is Facing Many Challenges


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2/2011, P. 91-96
webmaster's own, not authorized, unscientific translation


    Despite internal tensions, the church in Chile has until now a high degree of credibility and moral influence. The reasons for this lie in her commitment to the poor and socially marginalized groups, and her commitment to ensuring respect for human rights. However, the church faces in future enormous challenges, both by the increasing secularization of the Chilean society and by the fact that the Pentecostal churches are very popular.


On 18 September 2010 Chile celebrated the 200th Independence Day, the so-called Bicentenario. The nation had prepared itself for this event for years. Besides an extensive cultural programme, the state has made great efforts and invested much money in the expansion and renovation of infrastructure. In particular, the capital of Santiago de Chile was smartened up. Neither the severe earthquake of 27 February 2010 nor the many smaller conflicts were able to halt the festivities. In particular, the rescue of 33 trapped miners in October last year was used to strengthen the solidarity of the nation rather than to inquire after the underlying causes of the accident.

The Catholic Church for her part has taken up the idea of the Bicentenary but has directly connected it with the "Great Continental Mission" announced by the Latin American bishops at the General Assembly in Aparecida in 2007 (see HK, August 2008, 417 ff and July 2007, 343 ff.) This process includes the whole church - parishes, deaneries, movements or groups of people who are dedicated to the church. With regard to the Bicentenary the bishops appealed to the faithful to "reconstitute" Chile. They should become aware of the permanent values of tradition and the cultural and religious heritage.

Chile lives predominantly from copper. There is also a thriving agricultural industry (wine, fruits, wood and fish).



Although in the past decades great efforts were made as regards the processing industry, it is relatively small in relation to the industrialized countries. At the same time, the elites of the country show no real interest in developing a stronger economy. The role of creating the conditions for free trade is intended for the state. Only a small group benefits, while the overwhelming majority of Chileans have scarcely any share in the progress, consumption and higher income. One can rightly reproach the governments after the Pinochet-era, which was formed by the center-left coalition of the Concertación and was only in 2010 replaced by the conservative President Sebastián Piñera, that they have ultimately neglected to transform Chile's political system and thus the country into a competitive modern industrial nation.


Increasing Social Division

Furthermore, in today's Chile the tendency can be seen of a growing distance and dissociation between the social groups. Sometimes this process is encouraged by the policy. While far into the middle of the last century in a district rich and poor families lived side by side, today the wealthy retreat into their own neighborhoods or their villas, far away from the city centers. This trend is accelerated by the sometimes state-funded house building. In addition, there is a growing disparity between the incomes of the small group of top earners and the great mass of low incomes.

The demands of pupils and students for better and fairer study conditions, as they were voiced at the beginning of Michelle Bachelet's presidency in 2006, are still implemented only reluctantly. Due to high subsidies private schools and universities are booming - many of them are in the hands of the churches. Their construction or extension was often financed by the government, particularly in regions where the state failed to build an adequate infrastructure.

Over the last few years a new middle class could gradually develop. While their parents had predominantly a low level of education and had to work hard for their daily bread, their children have made it to the universities and successfully gone through them. This new group is until now marginalized both by society and politics, and to date it is refused social advancement. A characteristic of this group is its religious indifference.

The big landowners of the colonial period shouldered some responsibility for their workers and their families and in some cases took more or less care of their employees, whereas the capitalist economic system, which during Pinochet's military dictatorship was introduced with an iron hand, created a new class of wealthy who have no sense of social responsibility. This becomes evident in dealing with the harvest workers and the workers of subcontractors in the mining industry. Both groups are denied employment contracts with good wages, social benefits and health care. The reason given for it is the competitiveness in the global market. In cases of dismissal and unemployment, the Chilean government takes over quasi as a matter of course the care of these people and their families.

In recent years the social exclusion of impoverished sections of the population has become increasingly visible. This concerns large masses that have settled on the outskirts of large cities, without prospects and hope for a better future. These are mostly young people who live in public housing or ghettos, in extremely confined space; they form gangs from which a high potential for aggression and violence emanates.


The Hunger Strike of 34 Mapuches

The government takes a tough stance and is unable to conduct a dialog with the indigenous population, especially with the Mapuche. Since the bloody subjugation by the young republics of Chile and Argentina in mid-19th century, they are fighting for recognition as a people and for the return of their land. And the state does not shrink from using emergency laws against them, in order to fight terrorism: Suspects can be remanded in custody for up to two years; the proceedings take place before a military court; the defense does not have access to all data; witnesses can testify anonymously, which opens the door for informers; and the penalties imposed are draconian.

In autumn last year, the hunger strike of 34 Mapuches, of whom two were under-age, brought their situation to the attention of the nation and the world public. The fact that the hunger strike was given up and the possibility for talks with the government was created is owed to the negotiating skills of Ricardo Ezzati, the current chairman of the Chilean Bishops' Conference, who a few weeks ago was appointed Archbishop of Santiago and in mid-January inaugurated into office.

These social challenges are faced by a church whose membership figures steadily decline. In 1992 the proportion of Catholics was still 76.7 percent, whereas - according to a survey of the Universidad Catolica - in 2007 it reached only 65.5 percent.



In contrast, the number of Protestant church members rose to 17.5 percent, of whom the vast majority, i.e. more than 16 percent of the population, belong to the Pentecostal churches. The proportion of atheists or of people who describe themselves as indifferent has increased since 1992 from 5.8 percent to 12.1 percent. Moreover, the Catholic Church is no consistent entity.

Three tendencies can roughly be identified. The traditional group is numerically the largest. It includes predominantly the poor and clings to the popular religiosity. This finds expression in the veneration of the saints, especially in the adoration of the Virgin Mary, in the traditional religious festivals and pilgrimages. In addition, there exist up to the present day the brotherhoods, the so-called "cofradías, which venerate a particular saint - in particular the "balle religioso", i.e. religious dances. They are presented by dance groups in traditional dress in honor of the Virgin Mary or to meet the solemn promises once given. In contrast to Bolivia and Peru, in Chile these groups are closely integrated into the pastoral care.

A second group within the Catholic Church can be characterized as reform-oriented. It is shaped by the Second Vatican Council and the general assemblies of the Latin American church. Important topics are ecumenism, dialogue with other religions and cultures (as e.g. the Mapuche), the social teachings of the Church, pastoral care at universities, among young people and workers, Caritas, the use of modern means of communication. It includes also the followers of liberation theology, who become increasingly unimportant in the Church of Chile. They stand in the tradition of Christians for socialism.

The last group of Catholics includes the wealthy elites of the country, most of which are traditional and conservative. Nowhere in Latin America, e.g. the percentage of priests who come from the highest social classes is as high as in Chile. For a wealthy family it is appropriate to have besides a lawyer or entrepreneur also a priest in its ranks. Thus, there is a connection with politics and business already due to family ties. In addition, the influence of conservative religious communities may not be underestimated. From those circles also lay movements are recruited, the members of which have great influence on politics and society. To date, the scandals about sexual abuse and the stewardship of funds could not shake the confidence to such an extent that the elites would have abandoned the church.

The Chilean bishops expressed clearly their position in the pastoral letter about the separation of state and Catholic Church in 1925. I quote, "In Chile the state parts with the church but the church does not part with the state. She remains ready to serve it, to care for the welfare of the people, to promote social order. She offers help to everybody, also to her opponents when they in moments of fear or social unrest remember her and ask for her support." This offer of the church applies today more than ever.

On 27 February 2010 in the Central Region of Chile the earth shook for three minutes with a magnitude 8.2 to 8.8 on the Richter Scale. Particularly affected were the provinces of Maule and Bio Bio, where about two million people live. Thanks to the solid construction, only 538 people were killed.



But the material damage was very high. 50 percent of the residences and 80 percent of the church infrastructure were damaged or destroyed. According to official data 500.000 people were directly affected by the earthquake and tsunami.

Many of the inhabitants of the region lost their jobs and thus their livelihood. Many got into debt due to their collapsed homes. Together with government agencies and many other actors in the social sector Caritas and the social departments of the affected dioceses, which have a well-organized and structured network to the farthest corners of the parishes, gave a very effective emergency aid and disaster relief. The bishops together with their priests and members of religious orders were present during the disaster and assisted the grieving.


Credible Pastoral Care for the Mapuche

Since the General Assembly of the Latin American bishops in 1992 in Santo Domingo, there is an increasing awareness of the indigenous population and of its importance for the Catholic Church. In the field of theology, besides the Latin American liberation theologies the so-called "Teologia Indía" developed, which over the years has improved its image. The Mapuche in Argentina and Chile are actively involved in this process. In 2007 this pastoral care has gained a particular upgrading by the beatification of the Mapuche Ceferino Namuncurá by Benedict XVI.

According to the census of 2002, 4.6 percent of Chile's total population belong to ethnic groups. Of these, more than 604.000 are Mapuche. It is noteworthy that in the traditional settlement areas in the south of the country 50.2 percent of the Mapuche are at home, wheras 30.3 percent live in Santiago.

The pastoral care for the Mapuche is thus not only a challenge for the dioceses Temuco and Villarica but also for the Archdiocese of Santiago. Contextual pastoral approaches and key areas of activity are therefore necessary, a process of inculturation that relies on the dialogue on an equal footing and takes besides the cultural also the religious and social realities into account. Due to the acquired credibility in the pastoral care for the Mapuche, the church renders mediation work within the scope of her capabilities and genuine pastoral care in the Mapuches' conflict with the government. But this work as well as the theological approach of this pastoral care are not undisputed in the Chilean church.

The Chilean church shows great commitment to the pastoral care for migrants. In 1955 in Chile the INCAMI (Instituto Católico de Migrantes) was set up. It is since then the Catholic Church's contact to national and international bodies. Here, attention is given to all migration flows, be it internal migration, immigration or emigration. The institute has the task to support the immigrants as well as the Chilean emigrants in the process of integration.

The help that INCAMI then offers is highly specific. It includes the registration of newly arrived migrants, ensuring a basic provision of food, and, if necessary, of overnight stay and the search for a job through a job center. In addition, services such as legal advice and the legalization of the residence status are offered.


Advocate of the Rural Population

From its time as colony until the early 20th century Chile was an agricultural country with large latifundia. The fields of the big landowners were cultivated by small farmers, who in turn got a piece of land for cultivation. The social situation of the rural population was depressing. This was partially aggravated during the period of industrialization, when food was needed for the supply of workers in the industries and the mines. During the period of social movements in Chile, especially in the late fifties and early sixties, the Catholic Church decidedly stated her position on the situation of this population stratum. Inspired by John XXIII's social encyclical "Mater et Magistra", in April 1962 the Chilean bishops wrote a courageous pastoral letter titled "The Church and the Problem of Peasants in Chile." A little later, the demands for an agrarian reform on the landed estate of the church were implemented by Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez and Manuel Larraín, bishop of Talca and co-founder of the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM). In the following years, especially during the dictatorship, the bishops as a group or alone for their dioceses never tired of pointing to the living conditions of small farmers and harvesters (temporeros). The pastoral letter "Abrir surcos para sembrar esperanza" from 1984 used the method of a long and extensive consultation process involving a large number of agricultural workers.

The situation of the rural population has substantially changed over the past 20 years. That's why in 2007 the bishops again saw this as a challenge to write a fundamental pastoral letter. Today, for instance, there are on the one hand modern and artificial cultivation methods for the production of export goods, on the other hand the traditional cultivation of the land - mostly for subsistence. Since the sixties the number of rural inhabitants has dramatically declined. In the area between Santiago and Linares it amounts only to 13.4 percent. However, about 70 percent of the rural population and of the harvesters are living here. Access to education, transport routes, health care and services is still deficient.



In Chile the Catholic Church has a significant task in the field of education. One can differentiate here between schools and universities administered either by religious orders and congregations or by dioceses. In addition to the teaching of mere knowledge, the churchly schools and universities convey values. Besides, they are often an important part of the financing.

The Chilean state concedes the right to the churches to give religious instruction. The school authorities of the respective dioceses are the contact. In concrete terms, the school department takes care of the learning content of religious education, the creation and provision of materials and the training of religious teachers in all types of schools. Due to the separation between church and state, the Chilean education system provides no religious instruction, but offers the possibility to give, on one's own responsibility, RE lessons also in public and private schools. Ultimately it is up to the families to decide for or against the religious education of their children. Moreover, the State bears neither the labor costs nor is it involved in the training to which each teacher is obliged. Irrespective of this, the giving of RE lessons is bound to quality standards which the school department also has to ensure.


In the Tradition of the Catholic Action

The social teaching of the Church was and is in Chile of great importance. The basis for this is found in the Catholic Action. Unlike its Italian model, in the Chilean Catholic Action the full responsibility was transferred to the laity in the social problem area. Influential personalities were the a few years ago canonized Jesuit Alberto Hurtado, Bishop Manuel Larraín, and the later President Eduardo Frei. Young people from wealthy families were brought into contact with marginalized groups. In the so-called missions during the holidays in January and February this tradition has been retained until the present time. Students go in social problem areas in order to discuss with the residents religious, social and political topics, to assist them in solving social concerns, and take care of the children.

Before the entry into force of the Constitution of 1925, in which the separation between church and state was put into effect, the Chilean church was financed by a kind of church tax which the state allocated to the church. In the following years until in the sixties she lived as best as she could by the church tax, inheritance of affluent individuals and the income from her possession. Already under the influence of the forthcoming Council and in regard to the social responsibility of the Chilean church for society, in 1961 the self-financing system was re-established by Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez.

But the yields did still not correspond to the income level of the country. Only about eight percent of the faithful paid the church contribution. De facto, since the sixties up to the nineties the Chilean Church was to 90 percent financed by the aid from Europe and North America. Due to more favorable economic conditions and the reintroduction of democracy in Chile, foreign aid has declined steadily; the Chilean church was therefore forced to search intensively for own sources of income.

Through enhanced information about the activities of the church, through the disclosure of revenue and expenditure, and improving the accounting system in the parishes and dioceses and their surveillance, the results could be improved. Although still only about 10 percent of all believers participate, the results could nevertheless be significantly improved. Besides the traditional visits by so-called "Visitadores", who do not only collect money but also offer genuine pastoral care, now collection systems are used in cooperation with the banks.

Even though the financial requirements of the Chilean church can not yet be met entirely through the church subscription, it is nevertheless an important contribution to the local church's independence of domestic and foreign aid. It also strengthens the believers' responsibility for their church.

On the occasion of the celebrations of the Bicentenary, at the request of the Chilean bishops, Benedict XVI donated a statue of Mary, which is called "Virgen del Carmen Misionera" and is carried through all the dioceses in the country. Following the Jewish tradition to copy the holy books by hand and pass them on, the Catholic Church has invited the Christian denominations to copy the "Book of the Church", i.e. the writings from the Epistle to the Romans to the Apocalypse. In total 8.000 Chileans, members of Evangelical, Orthodox and Protestant churches took part in the action, and contributed to its success by copying one verse per each person.

In addition to this ecumenical campaign, in April 2010 the Permanent Council of the Chilean Bishops' Conference launched the initiative "Chile, a table for all", an appeal for pardoning prisoners. The bishops called on the President of the Republic to remit a portion of the sentence of those who were legally condemned and to grant them the possibility of rehabilitation. This applies only to those offenders who have not committed a murder and for who amnesty is not ruled out.



In addition the bishops call for improving the conditions of detention and the living conditions and for a fundamental reform of the penal system.

The petition for pardon includes also those prisoners who were involved in human rights abuses during the military dictatorship, however, depending on the degree of their involvement and responsibility. The request has triggered a wide response in Chile's public, and met incomprehension particularly among the families of the victims of the military dictatorship. Even though the bishops avoided speaking of amnesty, the discussion shows that it is still very difficult to come to terms with the period of military dictatorship - even after 20 years of democracy.


What Influence should the Various Groups have within the Church?

Despite internal tensions and breaks it is until now possible for the church to maintain a high level of credibility and moral influence. The reasons for this are her commitment to the poor and to marginalized groups, and especially to her advocacy of respecting human rights. The debate about the dealing with harvesters, the call for improving the conditions of detention in prisons, the criticism of handling the environment (water and mines) and the demand to pay an "ethical wage" are recent examples for it.

Moreover, the Catholic Church is a sought-after dialogue partner, especially in times of crisis, as e.g. in the negotiations between the government and social (marginalized) groups (sub-contractors in the mining sector or Mapuche). However, the church is not spared facing the changing times, in which she as part of society must adapt to new situations. The challenges are unmistakable, which on the one hand Pentecostalism and on the other hand the increasing secularization are for the church. She must also decide internally what influence she concedes to the different groups, particularly those who have great political and economic power. It remains to be seen which path will be chosen by the Chilean church.


    {*} The theologian and missiologist Reiner Wilhelm (born in 1965) is since 1998 a consultant at Adveniat, first responsible for Ecuador and Bolivia, since 2003 for Ecuador and Chile, and since 2005 for Venezuela as well.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'