Chile, a Secular Country


Oscar Contardo, writer and journalist. Author of the books: Siútico: arribismo, abajismo y vida social en Chile and Raro: una historia gay de Chile (Queer: the gay history of Chile), among others.

Translated by Natalia Tranchino

In 2014, amid the great fires of Valparaiso, I noticed that something had changed. After hours of special radio and TV broadcasts, interviewing victims and different political authorities, there was something lacking. At another time, one not far distant, the figure of the regional archbishop would have occupied an important place. However, this time nobody asked for him. In the country where I had grown up, whenever there was a tragedy, next to the voice of the political authorities there was always the voice of a priest, generally the bishop. However, during the days in which a vast majority of the hills of Valparaiso were burned, the media did not feature the representatives of the catholic hierarchy. It was a sign of the times.

During the last decade, the figure of the priest has been vanishing as an authority with political influence, a place he had occupied not too long ago. The turning point was not a change driven by the State or demanded by the more liberal political parties, but rather it was a logical consequence of the crisis produced by the sexual abuse cases, which positioned the Catholic Church at a global level next to suspicious organizations and criminals.  In Chile, up until then, and in many different contexts, politics was carried out only after previous consultation with the Church. Whether it was the Right or the Left, the one or ones consulting with the ecclesiastical hierarchy were the ones who gained prestige and power.

For a recent study, I had to search through political magazines that were in opposition to the dictatorship. Several issues. In almost all of them, so as not to say in all, there was a priest featuring either as interviewee, column writer or reliable source of some news article. There were both liberal and conservative priests, priests on TV and the right-wing press. There were gutsy, friendly and severe priests appearing as protagonists, protectors or mediators. Even the most renowned literary critic of the time was a priest.

During the first decades of what we Chileans call the transition period, that scenario did not change. The Catholic Church voiced its opinion and made itself heard when it came to stopping policies ranging from public health programs to laws and bills.  Moreover, the priests in the media were consulted as moral experts. They knew the way in which the citizens should lead their private lives. They even got to give interviews on the inconvenience of listening to certain rock bands or seeing certain films. Nowadays, the figure of the omnipresent cleric has disappeared. What still remains is the popularity of certain priests who, given their progressive standpoint and thanks to their charity work combined with a knack for public relations, manage to get the attention of certain complacent bourgeoisie. Priests who draw sympathy from the media and popularity in certain circles of influence. But in general, the catholic hierarchy has had to give up to its retirement, which has undermined its power.

Does this mean that we live in a country with a secular state, in a culturally secular country? The answer is no.

The change has not implied a total retirement. In fact, in Chile the Catholic Church holds a power even more extended than that of the priests in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.   The processing involved in the legalization of abortion in three causes was the best example of that dense, interweaved network of influence. A project supported by an overwhelming part of the Chilean population was persistently boycotted by religious groups, but not from the pulpits, not even by priests, but by institutions or groups related to the Church. The role taken, for example, by the director of the Catholic University was remarkable: he achieved the recognition by the Constitutional Tribunal of the existence of the institutional conscientious objection. Such change allowed him to not abide by the law and promote the institutional objection to abortion in the hospitals run by the university. Thus, it is possible to track that power -emanating from the private religiousness which affects and determines the public- between the most privileged sectors of the society and in the schools where the elite is educated: the great majority of those institutions provide a self-centered, religious education which is acritical, and afraid of social changes.

What would happen if we found out that the founder of a secular school is a child molester? Surely that school would collapse and its students would flee. Curiously enough, that did not happen to the schools from the Legionaries of Christ network when it was discovered that its founder Marcial Maciel not only was a sexual predator, but he also led a double life and even molested his children.

To a certain point, these cases -the opposition to the bill on the part of a university rector and the subsistence of the schools in spite of the criminal behaviors of the man who inspire them- reveal a cultural matrix much more vigorous than we imagined, impervious even to the most evident facts and related to class origin. This is the same matrix that at the beginning of the 20th century encouraged the most conservative and wealthy groups to be against the expansion of public education, stirring suspicion on its morality. That ill will towards public education would finally find a great ally almost a century later, when the dictatorship began to dismantle, first, the state universities and soon after the public schools through subsidization. Later, the transition governments would worsen the change with the creation of the co-payment. Most of those institutions with co-payment would be religion-oriented, that is to say, they would have a certain assured indoctrination. Even the sole idea of an establishment ascribing to a certain faith works like a certificate of morality in a culture where “moral values” tend to be synonymous with “religiousness”. It is enough to remember that in Chile the idea of an “agenda of principles” -installed by conservative political sectors- was created to talk about civil rights reforms.

On the other hand, there is the increasing influence of the Pentecostal Evangelical world, a form of extremely conservative Protestantism, which has gained immense power in the United States, Brazil and Colombia and that in Chile has supported the agenda of extreme right politicians like Jose Antonio Kast. The harshest expression of this power was this year’s staging of the so-called Te Deum. The ceremony was one long succession of hostilities against president Bachelet, whom some faithful even insulted at her arrival to the venue.  The reason? She had pushed a series of political reforms that, from their point of view of private religiousness, not only did they consider mistaken, but downright diabolic. The situation brought about the questioning on the necessity of this type of rituals; nevertheless, it is probable that many politicians do not dare to finish with the evangelical Te Deum for the same reason they do not dare to manage an agreement to end the catholic one: the most religious voters. There are zones where the Pentecostalism is getting stronger and stronger; areas in which the Left had formerly prevailed, but where now religious conservatism has taken over. I believe that the reason behind this phenomenon can be summarized in one word: abandonment. These are areas where the poorest people seem to have found in a hard and phobic religion both a lifeline and a way to be part of something, of a community. The latter is a need that before could have been fulfilled by Catholicism – which retreated from a vast area of the popular world- or by politics, but which nowadays finds fulfillment in these new churches that in Brazil for instance, have turned into a faith industry.

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