Katharine Davis on the Role of the Catholic Church in Politics in Chile

By: Katharine Davis

March 1, 2007

Chile has traditionally been a Catholic country, and almost 90 percent of the population continues to be at least nominally Catholic today. Church and state were officially separated in 1925, but religion has helped to shape the policies and decisions of the government in matters ranging from the direct involvement of the Church during colonialism to the pope’s arbitration of the Beagle Channel dispute in 1985 to the socially conservative policies that continue to exist today. For centuries and particularly during the military dictatorship, the Catholic Church has played an interesting part in Chilean politics and society, but its future influence remains uncertain.
The 1973 coup d’etat and subsequent military regime have been the defining events in recent Chilean history and as a result, the choices and authority of church officials and members during the junta are of substantial interest. Caught between the threat of atheistic Communism and the human rights abuses of Pinochet’s government, some Catholics chose to support the military dictatorship. Although the Church did condemn the bloodshed of the coup, Catholic leaders initially decided to work with the Pinochet regime and asked Chileans to cooperate, believing that it was not the place of the Church to decide the legitimacy of a government (Sigmund 32-33). Referencing religion served to validate one’s argument; during the military government, both government officials and opposition groups called on Catholic principles to support their positions. Pinochet attempted to invoke the Church after the coup, claiming that he wanted to protect Christian principles from Marxism (Sigmund 32). The Declaration of Principles, which was mostly written by Jaime Guzman, one of the best-known ideologues of the Pinochet government, also tried to link the government’s actions to Church doctrine, but the Bishops Conference was unwilling to support these statements (Sigmund 33). 

Despite its initial acceptance of the regime, the Church continually opposed the government’s actions throughout Pinochet’s reign. Its human rights activism greatly helped the opposition to the government and provided invaluable support for the democracy movement. The social and historic prestige of the country’s dominant religious body, combined with its clear support of the victims of the government, both encouraged and protected other human rights organizations (Loveman 494). The Catholic Church’s Solidarity Vicariate provided legal assistance to people who had been arrested and aided people in their search for missing relatives (Rector 189), and the Church endorsed the democracy campaign in 1985 (Rector 209). According to Loveman’s “High-Risk Collective Action: Defending Human Rights in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina,” “the Church as institution provided a 'moral shield' for human rights work through its domestic influence as a source of legitimacy and its international symbolic, moral, and political weight” (494). The Church’s powerful social support provided it with a level of protection not accorded to political enemies of the state, but the regime tried nonetheless to repress Church figures who were too vocally anti-Pinochet. Cardinal Silva in particular made his opposition to the regime known on several occasions and suffered accusations of fraud, limited access to media, and harsh criticism as a result (Sigmund 33). By 1975, more than 300 Catholic priests had been thrown out of the country (Lowden 199). Clearly, the regime viewed some Catholics as a threat and responded accordingly.

However, it is important not to overstate the role of Catholic leaders in the decisions and lives of all Chileans. Despite opposition from members of the Church hierarchy, Chileans were (and are) often loyal to Pinochet’s government. The bishops attempted to encourage citizens to vote against the 1980 constitution, but only a third of voters actually did (Sigmund 33). The fact that the Church’s criticisms could be generally ignored by Pinochet testifies to the Church’s inability to directly influence state policy. Pinochet might have sought to justify his actions on the basis of Catholic principles, but he had little intention of allowing religious leaders to control his decisions. Perhaps no example of the Church’s lessening influence is more telling than Pinochet’s considerable support; in the 1988 plebiscite, 43 percent of Chileans voted to allow Pinochet to act as president for another eight years. Pinochet remains popular with about half of all Chileans even today; obviously, a large proportion of Catholics support a government criticized by their church. 

The Church has continued to champion human rights issues related to the dictatorship since the return to democracy, and although the country remains largely conservative, recent political events indicate a decline in the power of the Church. Two examples in particular illustrate departures from religiously traditional stances: divorce was legalized in 2004, and Michele Bachelet, a socialist agnostic and unmarried mother, was elected president last year. It seems unlikely that Chile will ever totally abandon its religious legacy, and the Church has undoubtedly done a great deal of human rights work and made substantial contributions to the country throughout its history, but recent events prove the country to be at least somewhat willing to change at the expense of Catholic principles.  

Works Cited

Loveman, Mara. “High Risk Collective Action: Defending Human Rights in Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina.” JSTOR. The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 104, No. 2. (Sep., 1998), pp. 477-525. February 28, 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9602%28199809%29104%3A2%3C477%3AHCADHR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-Y>.

Lowden, Pamela. “The Ecumenical Committee for Peace in Chile (1973-1975): The Foundation of Moral Opposition to Authoritarian Rule in Chile.” JSTOR. Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 12, No. 2. (May, 1993), pp. 189-203. February 28, 2007. < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0261-3050%28199305%2912%3A2%3C189%3ATECFPI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-E>.

Rector, John L. The History of Chile. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Sigmund, Paul E. “Revolution, Counterrevolution, and the Catholic Church in Chile.” JSTOR. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 483, Religion and the State: The Struggle for Legitimacy and Power. (Jan., 1986), pp. 25-35. February 28, 2007. < http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-7162%28198601%29483%3C25%3ARCATCC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4>.
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