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Latin America From A Catholic Perspective PDF Print E-mail

Paul Sigmund, Princeton University

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom in Latin America and the New Millennium"
October 10-12, 1998, Sheraton Mofarrej Hotel, Sao Paolo, Brazil

Latin American Catholicism is quite different in its history from North American Catholicism. The form that Catholicism took in Latin America contributed to a widely diffused Anglo-Saxon stereotype of the black legend: an evil authoritarian church exploiting the peasants, in league with the landowners and the military. This stereotype, in turn, was spawned by earlier religious rivalries between Catholics and Protestants.

The Protestant view of Catholicism as a completely authoritarian church in which all power is concentrated in its infallible pope was reinforced by the reaction of the Catholic Church to the Reformation and to the Enlightenment. That view is a stereotype and, in fact, I will argue—I have often argued in my own writing in the last 40 years—that there are many currents in Catholicism and that those currents help to explain the dramatic changes in Latin American Catholicism which one sees today. Those changes are reflected in the Vatican II Declarations on Religious Freedom. In the recent book by Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave of Democracy, he argues that there was a 19th century democratic wave, a post World War II wave, and then a third wave in Latin America and Eastern Europe which was substantially assisted by support for democracy and human rights by the Catholic Church.

How did we get from an authoritarian, hierarchical, exploitative and repressive church to a defender of human rights and supporter for democracy? It seems to me that there are some historical reasons and there are some contemporary reasons. The historical reasons are that within the Christian tradition there has always been a kind of affinity between the Christian religion and a belief in human freedom, an affinity that began in the pre-Constantinian times in the church of the catacombs.

I was in Rome a few weeks ago and went through the catacombs and the excavations under Saint Peter’s, of the tombs of the martyrs and the early popes. All the earlier popes were martyred, starting with Saint Peter. His grave now excavated started out in a cemetery on the outskirts of Rome. One can actually see in the catacombs and churches of Rome, the first example of a separation between the official state religion and an active dynamic religious group that began in house churches, small groups working together to evangelize, and to make it possible for people to choose their religion and transform their lives.

After the period of the catacombs the Church was legalized by the Roman Emperor Constantine. The Church of the Middle Ages has been characterized as a feudalistic and powerful institution, which fostered inequality and persecuted heretics. To some degree, that is true. There are, however, other currents and elements in the medieval tradition that I, among others, have been studying, particularly the period from the 11th century on. This period begins with a struggle between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire (we would say church and state). Through this struggle theories of popular sovereignty evolved and the canon law system developed, which recent scholarship relates to modern ideas of human rights. The beginnings of human rights discussions are now seen as going back to the 14th, 13th, and even to the 11th century.

In the writings of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) he defended the rights of the Jewish parents to bring up their children in accordance with their religious beliefs. That was a right that contravened the right of the Church to take the children and convert them. He recognized a primary right of parents that overrides the rights of the church in terms of the education and religious upbringing of their children.

Similarly, on another point, Aquinas talks about the obligation that someone in a religious order has to disobey their superior if their superior commands them to do something he thinks is against his conscience. So rights of conscience are already anticipated in the Middle Ages. The beginnings of these rights are present, even if they don’t triumph. It took a long time for those rights to develop and it was not just the Reformation or Enlightenment that brought those rights to the fore.

I have written several books on the Conciliar Movement at the end of the Middle Ages. This movement was an effort to constitutionalize the church and limit the Pope. To trace the theories of human rights and representative government is a complicated process, but one can see how that theory developed among the concilitants in France and was brought by Scottish exiles under Queen Mary back to England. These ideas in turn eventually affected the discussions that England had in the 17th century during and after the civil wars leading ultimately to the theories of popular rule and human rights developed by John Locke.

In the Catholic tradition there were theories of human rights and democracy, but they were de-emphasized with the reaction to the Reformation. That reaction was one of panic and of the use of every means possible including simply handing over to the Catholic monarch’s control over the church in return for their enforcement of religious uniformity.

It is that Counter-Reformation Catholic Church that came to Latin America. It was also a Spanish church that had been on a crusade against the Muslims, who were finally expelled from Spain in 1492. The conquistadors were people who had been carrying on a religious war. That kind of religious motivation continues to be very important. So you have the development of colonization under the auspices of the cross and the sword. The conquistador, with the missionary at his side, converted the Indians sometimes by force and justified the conquest in terms of spreading religious truth.

There was a link between political authorities and church authorities and it was very close, especially through an institution, which survives until today in Latin America, the patronato. The patronato was the right of those who gave the money to establish a church, to name the priest that would run the church. A generalized right of patronage or patronato was given by the Pope to the Spanish monarch in 1510. Basically, the collection of church taxes, the tithe, the naming of bishops, the creation of dioceses, the authorization of religious orders—all of these which we think of as church responsibilities—were in fact part of the responsibility of the government of the Spanish Crown.

When the ideas of liberalism and democracy came to Latin America in the late 18th century and early 19th century, mainly from France, they were linked closely to the idea of breaking this type of union of throne and altar. So, the story of church-state relations in Latin America in the 19th century is one of struggle between anti-clerical liberals who were trying to break the power of the church, and conservatives who were closely allied to Catholicism and who felt that they were obliged to support all of these rights that were exchanged for the patronato. Land was given to the church to support it. There were special legal rights, "fueros," exemptions from civil courts. The Church had a monopoly over cemeteries. It also had authority over education, marriage and even registration as a citizen since you were registered through your parish.

The story of church-state relations in the 19th century is one of liberals taking back or taking for the first time areas that we think are appropriate to government: control of cemeteries, some role in the marriage and education, and the civil register. Some of those involved very brutal actions and wars that moved very far to control the church in places like Guatemala and Mexico. We think of the anti-clericalism in the Mexican Revolution in 1917 and the Mexican constitution as well as the kind of persecution is portrayed in Graham Green’s book, The Power and the Glory. In fact its roots go back to the 19th century, to the reforms of Benito Juarez and Simon Bolivar and to Mexico City and the reform of 1857,which were strongly anticlerical in character.

In the 20th century, you have a new development. There is no longer a polarization between liberalism and conservative Catholicism. You have new strains—developing before the Vatican Council but reaching fruition after it—such as the development of ideas of a strong Christian Democratic movement. In Latin America, Christian Democrats sometimes become the governing party. This is the case today in Chile, Venezuela, and Costa Rica, as it was formerly in Guatemala. In this view, Christianity is allied with democracy and human rights, including the right of religious freedom.

The Christian Democratic movement was largely a Catholic movement in Europe after World War II, except in Germany, where it included leading Protestants such as Ludwig Erhard. In Latin America as well, you did not have to be Catholic to be a Christian Democrat but simply support its reform program.

The 20th century also witnessed the development of a more radical strain, Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology entered into alliances in Central America with Marxists but it also included the promotion of basic Christian communities, as here in Brazil. These activities were justified in terms of the Good Book using biblical phrases. It became known as "the preferential option for the poor" and emphasized the Bible’s support for the poor.

The Church’s commitment to human rights, religious freedom, and democracy was fixed in a way, in Catholic doctrine by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Catholic commitment to human rights and democracy, was a change for official Catholicism, which had been battling anticlerical liberalism all through the 19th century. That new strong commitment to human rights and democracy became very important in the period of military rule in Latin America which except for Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. Costa Rica was under military rule for varying periods from the middle sixties to the middle eighties and indeed into the early nineties in Chile and Paraguay.

The movement for human rights also often mobilized the Catholic Church in ecumenical movements with mainline Protestantism. This was a kind of hallmark in the struggle against the military regimes. The ecumenical work, however, was mainly with the traditional historic Protestant churches, some of which had been around for a hundred years, often connected with the foreign settlements and allowed to do "a limited amount" of missionary work.

Then, one by one, military regimes gave way to elected democracies and open economies. The Catholic Church’s role then changed, partly as a result of changes in appointments by the Vatican, partly as a result of the lack of need for the defense of human rights. There were courts now functioning and peace and reconciliation commissions looking into human rights violations. Other people were able to do it and the church could move back to its basic function of evangelization and worship and religious sacramental activity.

Specifically religious activities on the part of Catholicism coincided with increasing missionary activity by evangelical religions, including the Unification Church, all over Latin America. Pentecostal churches have been especially successful in their evangelical efforts. One can argue that that this is largely because people who were uprooted from the countryside who were coming to the city were available for conversion, for the commitment to the Protestant ethic, for giving up drinking and womanizing, working hard and getting ahead. Some also believed that Protestantism was a way of advancing in society. Most important, Protestant churches offered the individual conversion and a really genuine commitment to fulfilling his belief in a way that often formal Catholicism had not done in the past.

It is at this point that an interesting dialectical process begins—roughly in 1985 and especially in the 1990’s—in Catholicism. Democracy was established in most of Latin America, and constitutions written or rewritten, listing human rights—especially the right of religious freedom—generally opening up Latin American to religious activity, including missionary activity, which had not been possible in the military regimes where Catholicism had been the de facto, if not legally established, religion.

In all the new constitutions there is a guarantee of religious freedom. However, there are at least three countries that have specifically made a special exception for Catholicism and in Bolivia and Argentina the constitution speaks of "sustaining" the Catholic Church. In Argentina, "sustaining" has meant financial support. Thus it was not an accident that Argentine bishops were so quiet on human rights relations, because they get a salary from the government. The original Argentine constitution of 1853 also provided that all Argentine presidents must be Catholic and stated that the duty of the congress was to convert the Indians to Catholicism. All of those provisions were eliminated except the one about "sustaining" Catholicism.

The Costa Rican constitution Costa Rican constitution is even stronger. It says "recognize and contribute to the maintenance of the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church." On the other hand, in the next sentence complete liberty and freedom of religion is guaranteed. So basically what we are seeing is a limited survival of earlier religious establishments. In Mexico, in the 19th century where religious freedom was sometimes brutally crushed and where the churches were owned by the state, the constitution has been amended to provide more religious freedom although there are still limits on religious preaching.

Basically, what we see now is a kind of a working out of dialectic between the old position of predominance, of quasi establishment, to a new position of equality and freedom. In Chile there is a great model of freedom where Catholic rights established by a special treaty or concordat between the Chilean government and the Vatican are now being extended to the other churches.

There are still questions about the special position of Catholicism. What about Catholic schools? Should they get subsidies? What about divorce? The prohibition against divorce has been abolished in all countries except Chile, where the Catholic Church wants to keep the prohibition on divorce as a salute to the marriage bond. There are other issues, for example, homosexuality, and abortion, as well.

An issue that is very important in the United States is the question of equality for non-religions. That has not happened in Latin America. But it may emerge over the next several decades in the next millennium. There is also the question of the relations between Catholicism and other evangelical sects that were called ìravening wolvesî by the Pope in 1979.

There are two Protestantisms in Latin America. There are the traditional mainline historic Protestant churches and there is the Protestantism of the fundamentalists, evangelicals, charismatics, pentecostals and new religious groups such as the Unification Church. They are much more dynamic. But let’s face it, part of their dynamism is anti-Catholicism.

I will close with an anecdote. I was at the Latin American Studies Association meeting in Guadalajara Mexico, a year ago. We organized a breakfast for the Cardinal of Guadalajara and he talked about the problem of "the sects." I raised my hand and said "What is your problem with Protestantism, it has been around in Mexico for a long, long time." He said, "I have no problem with Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians. It is this guy that stands out in front of the cathedral every Sunday afternoon and calls me an ‘agent of Satan’ and the Catholic Church the ‘Whore of Babylon.’" So there is a serious problem. It is one we should talk more about.

There are other problems. The new constitutions have granted tax exemption in most cases for church property and there is a question of tax exemption for donations for the church that is being debated. Also being discussed is if you receive a deduction whether you ought to have an audit of the finances of the churches. So there is the question of increasing state control and intrusion.

It is a problem of the emergence in Latin America of the open society, the liberal society. Because of globalization, the information age, the pressures from the world community, and activities of organizations such as the ICRF, there is a growing wave of religious freedom. This is a process to which Catholics can contribute, but there will continue to be problems.

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