Mark Schmidt on Poverty, Politics, and the Chilean Catholic Church

By: Mark Schmidt

October 6, 2010

Latin America is a land of striking contrasts, and Santiago de Chile is no exception. Despite three decades of almost uninterrupted economic growth, Chile remains one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. The wealthiest 10 percent of Chileans earn 42 percent of the country's output, making Chile as unequal as Nicaragua, and only slightly less stratified than either Brazil or Bolivia. This result is actually an improvement over the situation in 1990, when the newly elected, newly democratic government of Patricio Aylwin faced a poverty rate of nearly 38.2 percent. Today, that rate has fallen to 15.6 percent, but as the fortunes of the poor have risen, so too have the incomes of the rich, meaning that the income gap has not diminished so much as it has shifted. Moreover, in the past four years the population in poverty grew by 10.4 percent, and the population in extreme poverty, 15.6 percent.

Income inequality is certainly not new. It is a tragic byproduct of Spanish colonial policies specifically, and colonial society more generally, that will not go away. Rather, what makes the present moment in the poverty debate noteworthy is the Chilean elite’s' shifting—and increasingly secular—response to the debate. The Chilean Catholic Church has always promoted class solidarity and social justice—particularly amongst the wealthy elite. Although the elite’s' response varied substantially in different places at different times, the Catholic Church inspired a genuine concern for the poor amongst the elite that, in turn, sparked political movements such as the Christian Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s, who sought gradual economic reforms to make Chile a more just society.

After the 1973 coup d'état, the Church's social justice message, and the campaign of moderate groups such as the Christian Democrats, took a back seat to Augusto Pinochet's conservative regime. Nevertheless, even Pinochet continued the longstanding political practice of legitimizing decisions by seeking Church guidance, even as the Church organized the Vicariate of Solidarity to document human rights abuses committed by the same military regime.

In light of this history, I came to Chile expecting to find a profoundly Catholic country—and indeed the country appears universally Catholic at first glance. Bishops and church representatives interject in political debates on a regular basis, often serving as formal or informal mediators in the most sensitive issues. Catholic imagery is inescapable—the principal hill in Santiago is topped with a monumental statue of the Virgin Mary, which on a clear day can be seen throughout the city. The country's top-ranked university (which happens to be my host university), the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, runs one of the country's leading television networks and the capital’s leading health system. In social issues, too, the Catholic Church appears unquestioned. Divorce was only legalized in 2004, and abortion remains illegal in all cases. The possibility of gay marriage, or even civil unions, is hardly considered.

Yet although the Catholic Church, as an institution, is omnipresent in Chile, the faith is much harder to find. Seventy percent of Chileans may self-identify as Catholic, but only a fraction go to Mass. Nowhere is this spiritual disconnect more apparent than in the youth: according to the most recent national census, 73 percent of Chilean youth do not identify with any religion in particular, and half the country’'s 931,000 atheists and agnostics are aged 15 to 29. (In my own experience, I am regularly the only young adult at Sunday Mass, and the very fact that I attended weekly Mass led my host mother to conclude that I was planning on becoming a priest.)

It'’s difficult to pinpoint exact reasons for the rapid secularization of Chilean society. Public opinion data on many issues, such as those cited above, is only available since 1990 onwards, as the military suppressed most opinion polls during the Pinochet era. Thus it is entirely plausible that Chilean society had been gradually secularizing, but that this process had been hidden—or suppressed—by the 1973 to 1989 dictatorship.

Regardless of its exact origins, secularism, combined with the country'’s breakneck economic growth, has made Chilean society markedly more individualistic and materialistic. Stability and economic growth have fostered a heady confidence in individuals and markets: greed is good. The current center-right president, Sebastian Piñera, a Harvard trained economist and billionaire businessman, speaks far more often about markets than religion.

In terms of social justice, efficiency is the buzzword surrounding all welfare programs. While efficiency is an admirable goal for any government spending program, welfare included, it is often invoked by anyone suspicious of government welfare programs in general. Despite years of successful social spending programs, the conservative national daily El Mercurio still laments that “vast sums” are being spent on helping the poor to little effect. The recent rise in the poverty rate, far from illustrating the need for increased, or at least sustained, funding to educational and training opportunities for the poor, led El Mercurio to infer that all welfare spending was for naught.

In this new, secularized welfare debate, the Church has become increasingly marginalized. Religion does not, in general, mesh with econometric analysis of welfare expenditures, or with ambiguous political discussions of “inefficiency” lacking in empirical evidence.

Yet among the youth, the greatest threat that the Catholic Church faces is apathy. As the younger generations mature and become breadwinners, it remains an open question whether or not they will return to the faith. If they do not, the Church's political influence will surely decline, along with the power of its social justice message. Yet if this happens, the Chilean poor will lose a strong advocate without a clear replacement, for government is increasingly viewed with ambivalence at best, or suspicion at worst, and the post-dictatorship youth is almost totally apolitical.

Yet with politics a non-starter, and religion irrelevant, how will my Chilean contemporaries reflect on social justice? Not only is Chilean society unequal, it is also geographically stratified and segregated, meaning that the rich literally have no reason to visit, or even travel through, poor neighborhoods. And the highly stratified educational system, far from being an engine of meritocracy, furthers existing class divisions: at the Pontifical Catholic University, for instance, 71 percent of students come from the richest 20 percent of families, and nearly all students come from private schools. Will social justice give way to ‘out of sight, out of mind?’

Of course, this is not to say that the elite is selfish or inherently self-serving, or that the only institutions which exist to serve the poor are Catholic or generally religious. Both claims are patently false. Rather, the point I am trying to make is that social justice requires community awareness. Those who are privileged—whether they hail from Georgetown or Santiago—need to be reminded of as much. To this end, the Pontifical Catholic University continues a tremendous effort to foster solidarity and volunteerism amongst its students. Moreover, the country has a number of secular institutions which serve the poor and less fortunate—from Un Techo Para Chile, the local equivalent of Habitat for Humanity, to the annual 24 hour Teletón which is broadcast throughout the country. However, these institutions pale in comparison to the power and influence of the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, it's necessary to note that a decline in church attendance does not equate to an equal and instant reduction in church influence—although in the long run, the two trends are almost certainly linked. Even though Chileans may not be religious, for instance, they may still remain spiritual, and such spirituality could keep people receptive to what the Church has to say. But again, the sheer lack of religious activity amongst the youth calls into question this more optimistic outlook. Finally, there is a possibility that Protestant groups will gain in influence and promote the same social justice mission. But despite centuries of presence, Protestants in Chile remain a distinct minority.

Thus the question remains: if the Church, arguably the most powerful and forceful advocate for the poor, declines in influence, what institution will fill the void? What institution will remind the elite that although much has been accomplished in reducing inequality, more must be done? And, more importantly, how will the next generations of the Chilean elite relate to the political and social justice campaigns of their parents and grandparents—campaigns that have been heavily imbued with Catholic teachings, teachings that strike no chord with the youth?

The outlook for social justice in Chile is neither positive nor negative; however, it is uncertain.

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