Page 4, 6th August 1965

6th August 1965
Page 4
Page 4, 6th August 1965 — Church-State problems in Latin America

Report an error

Noticed an error on this page?
If you've noticed an error in this article please click here to report it.


People: Mario Zanarty


Related articles

Pope And Mexican Leader Make History

Page 3 from 15th February 1974

Building A Church On Rock, Not On Straw

Page 6 from 21st May 1965

Cardinal Sent To Brazil As Fact-finder

Page 1 from 8th March 1968

Latin America

Page 2 from 12th February 1965

Christian Revolution Winning

Page 2 from 31st July 1964

Church-State problems in Latin America

fT has become a common"place that the winds of thin-violent social revolution are blowing through the Catholic Church in Latin America. Nobody is any longer surprised to find individual bishops or entire hierarchies proclaiming the urgent need to reform basic structures both in the Church itself and in civil society.

The change of attitude is, however, far from uniform. Here one can observe the same phenomenon as surprised many observers in the early stages of the Vatican Council. It then emerged that the Catholic Church was not as monolithic as its public image. Rather, it permitted a very broad spectrum of opinion.

So in Latin America the ditterent views within the Church structure on the practical issues involved in social reform are starting to be debated and defined in public.

Some result from difference in personal conviction. Others reflect stresses in long-standing structures and traditions now being modernised or replaced, Others again are an expression of the fear that the baby may be thrown out with the bath water.


This last factor has now acquired a name, the Johnson reflex. Nowhere is it more widespread than among high Church leaders in Colombia. Just as the United States is sincerely anxious to see a spread of governments devoted to democratic principles in Latin America, so the Colombian bishops want to end the traditional association of the Catholic Church with the oligarchy in their country.

Rut they are terrified that any change will be used by the Communists and the Castroites to plunge the country into anarchy. And so they react as Washington did in the Santo Domingo crisis.

Another important factor is the tight structural and institutional relationship between Church and State, even in countries in which there is a constitutional separation of powers.

It starts with the appointment of bishops. Many countries have

never abandoned their claim to the patronato, the Spanish Crown's right to name bishops and other high Church dignitaries in its far-flung Kingdoms.

Even where the claim is not formally pressed, it is usually informally exercised. The cleric knows that the President's nod or scowl will determine his rate of advancement.

Connected with this is the dependence on government for operating funds. It may take the form of salaries, of bulk grants, of payments for education or welfare work, or of discretionary handouts. The United States techniques of fund-raising are little known. if a bishop wants a new cathedral. he looks to the president or state governor to provide most of the money.

Moral weapons

The effect of such dependence is seen, for example, in the change of emphasis in Brazil since the military government took over from Goulart in April 1964. Some months earlier in Rome, during the Vatican Council session, I asked an official of the Brazilian hierarchy where the bishops stood.

"Some thirty of our more than two hundred bishops are consciously and convincedly in the socially advanced camp", was the answer. "They know we must renew and modernise the Church so that it can make sense to the people, make the Gospel again meaningful for them, give them moral weapons to build a human society in freedom and brotherhood.

"Some five to ten bishops, equally convinced, form a firm opposition. They believe they should go on in the traditional way, doing more of the same thing, more processions, more candles, more statues of the Virgin.

"In between are all the other bishops. Almost without exception they are deeply concerned. They recognise that the individuals are coming under other influences, often Cornmunist, that the economy is deteriorating, that the society is disintegrating. But they don't just know what they should do."

On a recent visit to Brazil, I put the same question to the same official. "A tremendous withdrawal has taken place", was his reply. "Frightened by the undoubted left-wing

influence in the Goulart government, the official Church almost unanimously hailed the army coup d'etat of last year as a crusade against Communism.


"Of the thirty bishops who formerly identified themselves with social reform, only two continue to do so. And they are. so isolated as to have little impact."

Such tight-rope walking is widening the emotional gap between the higher clergy on the one side and the more progressive of the lower clergy and educated laity on the other.

The strain is increased by what Jesuit Mario Zanarty has described as the Latin American Church's "persistent tendency to monumentalise itself in nonproductive structures".

The decision of the Rio archdiocese to build a new cathedral, which a publicity release promised would be "a showcase for tourists", had a very negative impact at a moment when so many were starving in the favelas.

Even so forward-looking a movement as the Sutatenza radio schools in Colombia has been widely criticised on this score. The project started very modestly as a demonstration of what people can do by their own efforts.

But soon it blossomed out into a complex of imposing buildings and a continuing overhead which involves major dependence on financing subject to government control or manipulation. Once this occurs, freedom of decision is lost.

Lack of opportunity for the expression of such dissent is a major problem for the Church in most Latin American countries, and nowhere is a monolithic conformity imposed more rigidly than in Colombia.

Yet even in that country, a change of atmosphere is indicated. The priests working in the slums on the south side of Bogota have formed an association in which ideas are exchanged that would be vers shocking in the Archbishop's palace.

Last year, many of these priests openly defied the Cardinal Archbishop's directions on how Catholics should vote in the congressional elections.

Few people, however, have an opportunity to know how many priests think in this way, and why they do so. They hear about them only in the distorted and tendentious reports of anticlerical publications.

The official Church position is that they should have no platform, and several priests who have advocated institutional changes have been threatened with excommunication.


The threat has reportedly just been executed in the case of a former chaplain of the National University, on the ground that he had been proclaiming a principle enshrined in the United States Declaration of Independence.

This states that governments are instituted to secure to all their inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."

All over l.atin America, opinion is growing in favour of real separation of Church and State, like that in the United States, as a necessary step towards Church renewal.

Supporters refer to the experience of Mexico, where an unwilling Church was forced to relinquish its claims to privilege and soon discovered that it had gained immensely as a result.

I spoke in Rome to several Latin American bishops who hope that the issue of ChurchState relations will be debated at the next session of the Council this Autumn, and they were confident that a majority would favour full and friendly separation.

"We can never be free", said one, "while we are tied to the money-strings of the State".

blog comments powered by Disqus