The Catholic Church in Chile: Examining the link between religion, politics and culture

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Alyssa Robinson

EDGE: Spring 2005

June 1, 2005

The Catholic Church in Chile:

Examining the link between religion, politics and culture

No society develops in a vacuum but instead is influenced by the context in which it grows. Because of this, elements such as religion, culture, and politics all become intertwined so much so that it becomes nearly impossible to tease apart their respective influences on any given culture. Chilean society is no different in that outside forces, particularly religious institutions and ideologies, have actively shaped the development of the country. Though church and state were officially separated in 1925 (Chile-Encarta), religious institutions, namely the Catholic Church, have continued to exert immense influence in shaping the political policies as well as cultural climate of Chile. This paper will explore the ways in which the Catholic Church has done this as well as illuminate the relationship between the people and their religions that coexist in Chile.

Any effective evaluation of the current state of affairs must also take into consideration the past, which often times has directly affected the immediate situation. In order to fully understand the current influence of religion in Chile one must take a look back and examine the role religion has played historically in the development of Chile. Prior to its independence, Chile was a colony of Spain, a country with a deep tie and allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1540, the Spanish, under Pedro de Valdivia (one of Francisco Pizarro’s officers), led an expedition into Chile and managed to establish several settlements there including Santiago in 1541, Concepcion in 1550, and Valdivia in 1552 (Chile-Encarta). Relations between the indigenous people (the majority of them Araucanians) and the colonists however was tense, with the Araucanians killing Valdivia himself and resisting subjugation until the last quarter of the 19th century when they were forced into the forests and brought under governmental control. The seeds of Chilean independence were planted in 1810 when Chilean colonists heard the news that the king of Spain had been deposed of by Napoleon I of France. The people of Chile began to mobilize and on September 18th of that year the Santiago town council removed the colonial governor of Chile from power and delegated his power to a council of seven. Though this day is celebrated as the official independence day of Chile, Spanish royalists were not fully removed until 1826 and even then the “colonial social structure remained intact” (Chile-Encarta, 8).

Though the Spanish royalists were officially eradicated from the country, the conservative policies and religious influence of Spain continued to manifest themselves in Chilean politics. In 1833 a new constitution was adopted which afforded the president (who was at the time was Joaquín Prieto) absolute veto power and gave only literate male citizens who met specified property requirements the right to vote. Roman Catholicism was also declared the official religion of the country and the practice of any other religious tradition was illegalized (Chile-Encarta). As the sole religion accepted and advocated by the government, Roman Catholicism gained power as an influencing agent in shaping Chilean society.

The Catholic Church has remained in this position of power to this day and a look back over Chilean history shows that starting in the early to mid 1900s the Church began getting increasingly involved in the political sphere. Though in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s the Church maintained an official position of neutrality in terms the endorsement of particular of political parties, a group of young Catholic intellectuals in Chile got together in started the Falange Nacional party in 1938 in order to infuse the social teachings of the Church into a secular political program. The party gained support over time and during the 1940s they had members represented in the cabinets of two different government administrations (Smith, 1982). By 1957 the party had relatively strong representation in the political arena in that it “had one senator and fourteen deputies in Congress” (Smith,1982, 89). The influence of this religiopolitical party only increased when in July of 1957 the Falange combined with several other small social Christian movements to create the Chilean Christian Democratic Party (PDC) (Smith, 1982). Though the PDC supported an agenda that was considered more liberal and progressive than that of the mainstream Catholic Church, its mere presence in politics demonstrates the close relationship between religion and politics in Chile.

But the relationship between church and state began to weaken starting in 1970 when Salvador Allende Gossens assumed presidency and quickly moved the country toward socialism. The Church took active steps to dissociate itself from the now Marxist government, as would be expected given that “Marx denied the validity of religion’s transcendent claims, and spoke of it as an ‘opium’ of repressed people that masked the true cause of suffering—economic exploitation. He further argued that religion served as an instrument in the hands of the bourgeoisie to perpetuate the enslavement of the proletariat…” (Smith, 1979). Though there were important incompatibilities between the Catholic Church and Marxism and the pope himself (at the time Pope Paul VI) issued a cautionary apostolic letter in which he did not outright condemn Marxism but warned of the dangers of such concentrated power, the Catholic Church in Chile and the Marxist government of Allende were able to exist rather peacefully in that neither meddled in the other’s affairs. In fact “over 80% of the bishops [in Chile], and more than 70% of the priests interviewed, felt that there were no official attempts by the government to limit the Church’s activity…Only 2 bishops felt the Church’s freedom was actually threatened at the local level…” (Smith, 1979, 412). But it would not be long before the Church’s power was limited by the government.

Allende’s policies, though popular among the working class, were actively opposed by the middle class and “the country became polarized along class lines” (Chile-Encarta, 10); tensions in the country were further exacerbated by the intervention of the United States Central Intelligence Agency which opposed Allende from the beginning and invested large sums of money in efforts to weaken and undermine his regime (Chile-Encarta). In June of 1973 a failed military coup attempted to overthrown the government and though it did not succeed it did lead to a series of antigovernment strikes. Tension came to a head when on September 11th, 1973, the military stormed the presidential palace and assumed power (after the coup Allende was found dead by bullet wounds and though his official cause of death is marked as suicide, some believe he was killed by the military during the raid on the palace) (Chile-Encarta).

General Augusto Pinochet


fter the removal of Allende, the government was taken over by the military headed by General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte who installed himself as president of the country. This would be the beginning of a 17 year dictatorship characterized by repressive control and censorship. All other political parties were banned, censorship of the press was strict, attacks were made on all leftist elements in the country, Congress was dismantled, and many universities were shut down. The Church was not exempt from this governmental control and Pinochet’s regime stripped power away from the Catholic Church and silenced the voices of top-ranking church officials. On top of this, Pinochet “ordered many of the purges that saw more than 3,000 supporters of the Allende regime killed, thousands more tortured, and many thousands more again forced into exile” during his time in office (Caistor). Even those regular civilians not involved with Allende’s regime started to go “missing” and human rights abuses were rampant.

Church-state relations continued to worsen when the Catholic Church (as well as various other religious institutions) in Chile began to actively condemn Pinochet’s government and the human rights abuses that were occurring under it. Civilian protests of the government had been escalating since 1983 (Renshaw) and “in early 1985 police repression in Chile took on a new and terrifying character” (Renshaw, 7). Many people in Chile felt as though the Church was not doing an adequate job in condemning the horrific abuses committed by Pinochet and his government. This sentiment was expressed in an article that appeared in the July 11, 1985 issue of the Latinamerica Press; the unidentified author wrote, “Catholics who have assumed responsibilities in public office cannot remain indifferent in the face of such sins without themselves becoming implicated in them, thus profoundly damaging the credibility of our faith. We appeal to their [the Catholic officials] consciences, asking them to contribute to the exposure of the truth about these lamentable deeds” (Renshaw, 10). In July of 1986 the Church in Chile obliged this request by releasing a statement commenting on what they viewed as the dire situation in Chile. In it they said,

“We have come to the conclusion that the dictatorial government which weighs heavily on the Chilean people is sustained by a political system, an economic plan, a legislation and a repressive practice which tramples on human rights and contradicts the moral order. Even more we confirm that this government has obstinately persisted in its plan in spite of the unceasing calls of those who hold moral authority and against the vast majority of Chileans to find oaths toward democracy. For all these reasons, we judge that this government is not a morally legitimate authority and that what it orders carries no obligation” (qt in Renshaw, 33).

This was one of the first times that the Church explicitly criticized and condemned actions of the state.

It was not just the Catholic Church, but many other branches of Christianity that also spoke out against the human rights infractions and total control being exercised under the Pinochet government. In fact, many different branches of Christianity actually came together for the first time as a united front. This can be seen in a letter written in August of 1986 to Pinochet in order protest his resistance in allowing a more rapid transition to a democratic government. It was signed by the entire board of the Christian Confraternity of Churches as well head officials from eight other churches including the Chilean Pentecostal Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Church of Brethren, and the National Wesleyan Church (Renshaw), and in it directly asked for change when they wrote, “We are making a responsible, firm, and urgent call to the government you preside to perform an act of detachment and love for the country by immediately permitting a democratic transitional process determined by the Chilean people themselves…May God give you the wisdom needed now to receive this call!” (qt in Renshaw, 40).

It is during the Pinochet’s rule that the Catholic Church became seriously involved in promoting human rights issues; during Pinochet’s regime “the Church provided a protective umbrella under which a whole range of humanitarian programs could be maintained, as well as accurate information on human rights violations disseminated” (Smith, 1979, 618). One such humanitarian effort was the product of a collaboration between the Catholic Church and several other Christian denominations which banded together to form the National Committee to Aid Refugees, which by February of 1974 had assisted approximately 5,000 foreigners in safely exiting the country (Smith, 1979). Another collaborative human rights effort involved the not only the Catholic community but also the Orthodox, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran, and Methodist Pentecostal communities who worked together to set up the Committee of Cooperation for Peace (established on October 6, 1973) to assist Chilean citizens who were in trouble with Pinochet’s government. Though it was initially based only in Santiago, after a few months it had expanded and put offices in 22 of the 25 provinces throughout the country (Smith, 1979). The main task of the peace committee was to “offer legal assistance to prisoners, and to workers arbitrarily dismissed from their jobs, as well as economic aid to families of both of these groups” (Smith, 1979, 620). Over the course of two years (between 1973 and 1975) the organization “initiated legal actions on behalf of more than 7,000 persons in Santiago alone who were arrested, condemned or who had disappeared. Its members also defended more than 6,000 workers dismissed from their positions for political reasons” (Smith, 1979, 620).

In addition to the dire political problems that characterized the country during much of Pinochet’s rule, economic problems also took its toll on the people of Chile, especially those who were already financially disadvantaged to begin with. Since 1983 Chile had been in what many were calling “a serious economic crisis,” experiencing “the country’s worst economic situation in a half a century: the standard of living is [in 1984] 20 percent lower than 10 years ago; unemployment is approximately 30 percent; and, the foreign aid debt is the highest per capita in the world” (Renshaw, 4). The Church recognized the need to assist those suffering economic hardships under Pinochet, and attempted to do so starting in the mid-70s through opening health clinics and soup kitchens (many staffed by local clergy and lower ranking Catholic officials) in working class neighborhoods (these efforts were organized by the Committee of Cooperation for Peace which is described above). Unfortunately, “none of these projects were capable of making a significant change in government policies, nor did they reach anywhere near the actual number of people in need” (Smith, 1979, 621). Though output of Catholic-run humanitarian aid organizations may not have been able to meet all of the demands of the suffering people, they did serve as a catalyst to inspire the Church to be more directly involved in lives of the Chilean people and to take active steps to better their lives in times of need.

After Pinochet was finally removed from office in March of 1990 and democracy was restored in country the Catholic Church was able to gain back some of the power it had lost under Pinochet. Even in more recent times the Catholic Church still maintained a more privileged status than other religions. In fact, up until March 2000 there was no law that explicitly prohibited religious discrimination. Before the March 2000 law on religion (“ley de culto”) was passed, “religious faiths and related organizations other than the Roman Catholic Church were required to register with the Ministry of Justice as private, nonprofit foundations, corporations, or religiously affiliated clubs to receive tax-exempt status and the right to collect funds. Groups without such juridical status could worship, but did not enjoy the tax-exempt status, fund collection rights, and other benefits that come with legal recognition” (International Religious Freedom Report 2003). The Catholic Church however, with its privileged status in the country, did not have to go through any of these proceedings and was automatically given tax-exempt status. The law also “grants other religions the right to have chaplains in public hospitals, prisons, and military units,” another privilege that was previously only available to the Catholic Church in Chile. Even given this new law however, Roman Catholic Mass is often held to mark important public events and if the event involves the military in any way, all military members involved, regardless of their faith, are required to participate in the Catholic ceremony. To this day, “membership in the Roman Catholic Church is generally considered beneficial to one’s military career and in the navy it is said to be almost a requirement” (International Religious Freedom Report 2003).

Another means through which the Catholic Church in Chile gained power was to actively attempt to convert the non-Catholic population (which was largely made up of indigenous people). For example beginning in the 1900, Roman Catholic missionaries started to actively convert the indigenous Mapuche people. With the support of the government, Catholic missionaries attempted to “help” the Mapuche people by schooling them on the tenants of Catholicism and trying to integrate them into mainstream society. Because of this, many Mapuche religious practices have been lost or so much “Christianized” as to be no longer recognizable (The Mapuches). In fact because of the conversion missions carried out by the church in the past, today “anthropologists of religion would be hard-pressed to find expressions of indigenous beliefs in Chile” (“Chile”-World Religions and Cultures).

Given the combination of official government backing as well as widespread conversion efforts it is no wonder that the Catholic Church has maintained such as position of power in Chile and that today and approximately 77 percent of the population of Chile is Roman Catholic. Currently 13 percent of the population identifies as Protestant but Protestantism is growing and at the expense of Catholicism, especially among the lower class (“Chile”-World Religions and Cultures). This is partly because many of those in lower class feel that the Catholic Church caters only to the wealthy and does not equally serve the rich and poor. This is not a new problem and evidence of preferential treatment of the rich at the expense of the poor was particularly a problem in the 1940s and 1950s. Allegiance to the Catholic Church weakened during this period because it was considered to be “elitist and never directly affected the vast majority of Catholics, especially low-income sectors who constituted over 60 percent of the 5 million Chilean population” (Smith, 1982, 96). The Church invested much more time and resources into serving the upper class as evidenced by the fact that it was not rare to “see a working-class parish of forty or fifty thousand people served by only one priest” (Smith, 1982, 99). With ratios like this it was hard for working class people to even have access to their religious leaders which inevitably took a toll on the people’s dedication to and faith in the Church.

It was not only that the relationship between the lower class and the Church that was weak but also that the Church’s relationship with the wealthy was relatively strong and it seemed that the rich, though fewer in number, had much more influence over Church policy and resources than the poor. “In the rural areas, especially in the Central Valley where Catholicism had its deepest roots from colonial times, the owners of large estates (latifundios) exercised great influence over the Church. They built chapels, arranged for religious missions, and housed priests in their mansions when they came to celebrate Mass and hear confessions” (Smith, 1982, 99). This close relationship between the rich and the Church, made the poor feel very isolated from the Church and many of the working class began to associate the Church with the Conservative Party (made up of the rich it served). These feelings were reflected in two major studies conducted in 1940 and 1956 by priest-sociologists who surveyed the Chilean people about their attitudes and practices related to the Catholic Church. Both of these surveys came to the conclusion that not only was the Catholic Church understaffed and nearly absent in many lower income neighborhoods, but that “the religious and educational apostolates of the Church continued to be oriented toward serving the upper classes, leaving the pastoral and social needs of the more modest sectors [lower classes] of the Catholic population unfulfilled” (Smith, 1982, 98).

Given all of this it is no wonder why Protestant denominations had increased their membership by 105 percent between 1940 and 1952” (Smith, 1982, 99), with many of the new members coming from the lower classes. The dissatisfaction among the lower class with the Church has persisted to some degree to this day. The more than doubling of the proportion of Protestants in Chile between 1970 and 1992 is evidence that conversion is occurring. To further support this notion, “surveys taken in December 1990 and October 1991 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” (“Chile”-World Religions and Cultures). These statistics lend support to the claim that Protestantism is gaining members through conversion. If these statistics are analyzed in terms of socioeconomic status it becomes clear that Protestantism is gaining popularity among the lower classes specifically. In 1990-1991 approximately half of the practicing Protestants (52.1 percent) in Chile were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, whereas only a small minority (2.3 percent) were from the upper class (“Chile”-World Religions and Cultures). Though the majority of the country (77 percent) identifies as Roman Catholic, among the lower class urban Chileans, for every practicing Catholic there is a practicing Protestant—evidence of the overrepresentation of Protestantism among the lower class (“Chile”-World Religions and Cultures). But though more and more people in Chile are beginning to identify as Protestant, the Romans Catholic Church still has more members and more influence in shaping the development of the country.

Historically, and to some extent still today, the Catholic Church, specifically the Jesuit order (which is said to have arrived in Chile in 1608), has played an instrumental role in the area of education and educational policy in Chile. The international head of the Jesuit order (also known was the “black pope”) is currently a Dutch man named Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. He has been in this position since 1983 and speaks eight languages fluently, including Spanish. During his time in this role he has organized the first ever meeting of all the heads of the provinces which met in 1990 to discuss the work of Jesuits in 122 countries (including Chile). He also organized the first meeting between the Jesuit provincials of North and South America at a conference in Miami in 2004; at this historic meeting, Kolvenbach discussed the need for more unity in terms of the Jesuit goals and mission but also more sensitivity to cultural differences. In an address he made at the conference he said,

“What can happen too easily is that the same Catholic Church is too cold for Hispanic immigrants in the North and too emotional for the cool Gringos going to the church in the South. This fact is an invitation to all of us to immerse ourselves in more than one of these cultural realities. In the South to take to heart popular piety, the devotion of the poor. In the North to prepare ourselves better for the pastoral needs of the immigrant from Latin America, today 15% of the American population, especially that as a first step, by learning the others language” (qt in “Jesuit Conference”).

The Jesuits are known world-wide for being champions of education and most of the Catholic schools in Chile have been started by Jesuits. Their involvement in education has been a key factor in the success of many of the educational institutions in the country and their participation had been crucial to the development of many academic programs. In 1767 when the Jesuits were temporarily expelled from the Spanish Empire (which included Chile) by King Charles III, there was a “clear deterioration of medical development…At the end of the Colonial period, only 4 Latin physicians and 3 bachelors in Medicine had graduated from the Universidad of San Felipe [in Chile], from an initial enrollment of 38 students in a half a century…This shortage [of doctors] was a severe handicap in the fight against smallpox and other plagues” (Cruz-Coke). From this example it is clear that the Jesuits had acted as the driving force behind educational programs like the one at the Universidad of San Felipe and that their expulsion from the country took a serious toll on the intellectual and academic progress of Chile.

Inaugural ceremony in Santiago for the Universidad Jesuita Alberto Hurtado, one of the Jesuit institutions of higher education in Chile



The Jesuits in Chile have also founded and/or at some point operated many schools, including large universities, which have greatly added to the intellectual environment in Chile; some of these include the Catholic University of Chile (which was founded in 1888 in Santiago), the Catholic University of Valparaíso (founded in 1928), and the Universidad del Norte (which the Jesuits have helped run since 1965) (Chile-Encarta). The Jesuits have also taken jobs as professors at universities and seminaries throughout Chile. It is due in large part to the dedication and commitment to education that the Jesuits in Chile have displayed, that Chile has one of the best educational systems in the Latin America—one that allows the country to maintain a literacy rate of 97 percent (one of the highest in Latin America) (Chile-Encarta).

In addition to influencing the development of the Chilean educational system, the Church has also had a profound impact on many of the social policies that exist in Chile. In the 1990’s the Chilean Catholic Church created the Pastoral Institute of the Family in an attempt to “counter liberal discourse” on issues such as sexual education, abortion, and family planning, with the more conservative views of the Church (Blofield, 24). The Church has also been very outspoken in its condemnation of divorce and abortion and its influence was so strong that despite “overwhelming public opinion in favor” (Blofield, 7) of it, divorce was only recently legalized (in 2004) making Chile the third to last nation in the world to legalize divorce. Abortion, for any reason including to save the life of the mother, is still illegal in Chile (Blofield, 7).

As one can see the Catholic Church in Chile has played an important role and has had immense influence in all areas of country, spanning from the shaping of social norms to its close involvement with the government and politics. Since Chile’s colonization by the Spanish in 1540 up through the present day, the Catholic Church has been a significant driving force behind the development of Chile. Though relations between the Church and state have not always been harmonious, particularly during Pinochet’s regime, it is undeniable that each has influenced the other throughout the history of the country. One of the major challenges that the Church will face in the coming years will be to work to repair and strengthen the relationship between the Catholic Church and the working class. While progress was made in this direction when the Church initiated many humanitarian movements to assist those suffering under Pinochet’s government, more work needs to be done to ensure that the lower classes feel as though their voices are also being heard, their needs also being met, not just those of the upper class. As Chile becomes more diverse religiously (which is inevitable given that more and more people are converting from Catholicism to various denominations of Protestantism), both the people and the government that serves them will have to become more accepting of and sensitive to this diversity. It would seem to be in the best interest of the country if the various religious groups (including the Catholic Church) could pool their efforts and resources in order to address pressing social issues such easing the plight of the poor. Since the Catholic Church is still very influential and respected by many in the country, it is in a perfect position to start this sort of movement. With power comes responsibility and one can only hope that the Catholic Church uses its influence in order to improve the lives of the Chilean people.

Works Cited:

Blofield, Merike Helena. The Politics of “Moral Sin”: A Study of Abortion and Divorce

in Catholic Chile Since 1990. Santiago: FLASCO-Chile, 2001.

Caistor, Nick. “Pinochet Profile: Savior or Tyrant.” BBC News Special Report. 25 May


“Chile.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2005. 27 May 2005.


“Chile.” World Religions and Cultures. 22 May 2005 .

Cruz-Coke, R. “The Expulsion of the Jesuits (1767) and its impact on Chilean medicine

in colonial times.” National Library of Medicine: PubMed. 19 May 2005 .

“International Religious Freedom Report 2003.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights

and Labor. 16 May 2005 <>.

“Jesuit Conference.” Society of Jesus USA. 16 May 2005


Renshaw, Richard, ed. “Chile.” New Keyhole Series Feb. 1988.

Smith, Brian H. The Catholic Church and Political Change in Chile: 1920-1978. Diss.

Yale University, 1979. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1980. 7927139.

Smith, Brian H. The Church and Politics in Chile. New Jersey: Princeton University

Press, 1982.

“The Mapuches.” Fundacion Chol-Chol. 20 May 2005

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