AUTHORSarah Balistreri Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Sarah graduated from Georgetown College in 2012. She worked as a research assistant at the Berkley Center and wrote for the Junior Year Abroad Network from Valparaíso, Chile, in the fall of 2010.
October 15, 2010
December 21, 2010
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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Sarah Balistreri on the Chilean Catholic Church
October 15, 2010 | 4 COMMENTS
The sticker I saw on the micro that day is just one of the many manifestations of presence of Catholicism in Chile. Currently, seventy percent of Chileans identify themselves as Catholic, and the churchs influence can be seen almost everywherefrom stickers and crucifixes on micros, to advertisements for Hogar de Cristo, a charitable organization created by the Catholic priest Father Alberto Hurtado, to the fact that divorce was legalized in Chile only six years ago in 2004 due to the influence of the Catholic Church. The divorce law in particular caught my attention. Having grown up in the United States, I have always been accustomed to the principle of separation of church and state, but from what I have observed in Chile thus far, it seems that the Church and the Chilean government have a different sort of relationship.
Reflecting on this relationship, I asked my Chilean grandmother the other day about the role of the Catholic Church during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that began in 1973 and ended in 1989. She explained that the Church was very important during that time; at the time, she worked for a parish in Viña del Mar that resisted the regime. She also told me about the work of the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, or the Vicariate of Solidarity, that the Pope created at the request of Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez.
In 1973, during the start of the dictatorship, Cardinal Henríquez led a conglomeration of Christian churches along with those of other faiths, including Judaism, to form the Comité de Cooperación para la Paz. The committee worked to give legal and social assistance to those who were detained by the military government. But due to pressure from the government, the committee was dissolved in 1975. Cardinal Henríquez, however, did not give up the fight against the dictatorship; he asked the Pope to create the Vicaría de la Solidaridad. While the Vicaría did not include other religious groups, it did have the full support of the Catholic Church, making it more difficult for the government to attack it. The organization gave support to those detained and tortured, aided in the search for those who had disappeared, publicly renounced the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government and actively supported resistance movements.
Clearly, the Catholic Church played a very important role in the resistance against Pinochets military regime. In addition to sharing the story of the Vicaría de la Solidaridad with me, my Chilean grandmother also lent me a book detailing the Popes visit to Chile in 1987. In the first pages, the author describes the Chilean Catholic Church, saying from its beginning, it has had an extraordinary sensitivity to human sorrow. It has defended the innocent, consoled the crying and alleviated suffering. From what I have observed and experienced in Chile thus farthe stickers on the micro, the strong presence of Hogar de Cristo and the existence of the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, this description of the Catholic Church seems to be quite true.
COMMENT FROM MARK SCHMIDT DECEMBER 4, 2010
When I began my own semester in Chile by touring the Presidential Palace in Santiago, the tour guide (a member of the President's press office) informed us that Chile has been a laic state between 1925, implying not simply a secular state, but a state and society totally removed from religious matters along the lines of the French laïcité. Of course, she made this claim inside the Presidential Chapel, and then proceeded to note that Catholic Mass is still held at least once a week for government employees. Similarly, Sarah's intelligent analysis undermines the official notion of Chile as a laic state by highlighting the varied and subtle interplay of church and state even today. Chilean society may be rapidly secularizing, and the long-term influence of the Catholic Church here may well be in jeopardy as a consequence, but for now the Chilean Catholic Church remains one of the strongest players on the domestic political stage. The Church still commands the respect of most all Chileans, even if they may not be practicing Catholics. Yet respect and prestige were not enough to prevent the 2004 divorce legalization bill from becoming law, or from the national government reiterating its support last month for the unimpeded sale of the morning-after pill in pharmacies nationwide.
COMMENT FROM CAITLIN DELAURENTIS NOVEMBER 23, 2010
I found your letter very interesting. In many ways, your experience of Catholicism in Chile is similar to what I was expecting to experience in Ireland; I expected to observe a much more prevalent expression of Catholicism in Galway than is actually the case. What I found particularly interesting is that at the beginning of Pinochet's military dictatorship in 1973, resistance came from an organization of many different religious faiths. After reading your letter, I wonder what is the general opinion and response in society about other faiths in Chile considering the immense influence of the Catholic Church predominance of Catholicism. Additionally, I wonder what other faiths' response is to this predominance of Catholicism in Chile.
COMMENT FROM PROF. GIANNI CICALI May 8, 2011
I found the article by Sarah Balistreri very, very interesting. Thanks to the article, I have been able to learn more about the role of the Catholic Church during the dictatorship of Pinochet. I found the comments and the information provided by Sarah really useful, objective and informative.
COMMENT FROM PROF. ANNA DE FINA May 4, 2011
I really enjoyed Sarah Balistreri’s depiction of the influence of the church on popular culture in Chile. It made me think of Italy (my own country), where nobody thinks twice before hanging the image of a saint on the car’s mirror. It also reminded me of Mexico where, no matter how loudly the state proclaims its separation from the Church, religious symbols and practices are everywhere. I think Sarah perceived an important cultural difference between many countries in Europe and Latin America and the United States: while in the U.S. most people are aware that there are many religious faiths in the world, other cultures give their religious allegiances for granted until they cannot do so any longer because of the presence of immigrants., refugees and other ‘foreigners.’ Sarah also reflects on a very complex problem: the issue of political involvement by the church. Indeed, the Pinochet era posed a dilemma to Catholic faithfuls and to the Catholic hierarchy as well as it forced them to take a position in the face of the barbarian violence that the regime unleashed against its opponents. And it is certainly true that part of the Catholic Church had an important role in opposing the dictatorship, but it is also true that another part kept an ambiguous, or even favorable, stance towards the regime. I am thinking of the official declarations of support to the “golpistas” by Cardinal Silva, archbishop of Santiago, or of the extreme pro-Pinochet positions expressed by Catholic priest Raul Hasbún. I think that it’s important to keep in mind that within the Catholic Church there are many different churches. So thank you Sarah for your thought-provoking reflections!