Where Is Religion Headed in Chile?
By “Awake!” correspondent in Chile
CHILE has long been a land of religious freedom. This freedom is guaranteed by its constitution, and the people here have jealously guarded it.
In fact, Chile is one of the few South American countries that enjoy a clear separation between Church and State. That separation took place in the year 1925 and has been carefully maintained since then.
So while all religions are free to carry on their work, none can take an official part in the government. And in 1970, when Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile, he publicly stated that he would continue to respect the freedom of religion that the constitution provides.
But while governments have carefully preserved freedom of religion, and have kept it separated from the state, what is the condition of the churches today? What is the attitude of people toward religion now?
Chile is considered to be a Roman Catholic country, since most people here are regarded as Catholics from their birth onward. But when one examines the religious practices of the people, it can be seen that the majority are Catholic in name only.
In the capital city, Santiago, average attendance at Sunday Mass is less than 13 percent of those professing to be Catholic. And in certain parts of the city attendance is only about 1 percent.
Also significant is what happens to the males, especially, as they get older. While about 16 percent of boys between seven and ten years of age attend Mass, after that a sharp decline sets in. By the time they are between thirty-one and forty years old, only a little over 5 percent attend Mass regularly. And of those who do, only 12 percent receive Communion!
One reason for this has to do with social conditions. For centuries, under various types of rule, the life of the average Chilean saw little improvement. There was much poverty. They saw that the Church usually supported the wealthier classes. Observing the Church supporting types of rule that did little for them, many became embittered against the clergy.
As a result, many turned to ideas that offered more radical solutions for their problems. Hence, Ercilla magazine recently said: “Those who come to Chile after having observed her from afar are amazed when they find that the majority of the workers are, at the same time, Christians and of the left. Christians according to their own way because, although Chile is classified among the Catholic countries, such Catholicism does not figure in its Constitution, neither in the customs of those who say of their faith: ‘We are Catholics but we do not go to mass, neither do we like the priests.’”
A Divided Church
The confidence of such people in the Church is further eroded when they note that the Church is badly divided politically. Among the clergy can be found every type of political expression, from the ultra-right to the ultra-left. Cardinal Raúl Silva Henriques has even been called the “Red Cardinal.”
The pope himself has come under severe attack from some Catholic clergymen here. When, in April of 1971, eighty priests pronounced themselves in favor of Catholic participation in the building of socialism, their spokesman, Gonzalo Arroyo, said of Pope Paul VI: “His pontifical gesture cannot satisfy those who are for a modern Church, pledged against the abuses of capitalism and the bourgeois society. Paul VI has been incapable of breaking his link with European capitalism and is always limited to condemning war and hunger in abstract terms, without pointing out the guilty ones by name, American Imperialism. I believe that he lacks the intellectual valor to break such secular ties of the Church.”
In this same line of thought is the priest Roberto Lebegue, who was ordained in France and nationalized as a Chilean citizen a few years ago. He reveals the approach of many priests closely associated with the working class who believe that workers of all nations should unite to end “the dominion of the bourgeois classes.”
As to Pope Paul VI, Lebegue states: “I believe that he is absolutely unknown to the people of my camp. Not even knowing his name. I believe that some may remember him for his trips or for the matter of the pill.”
In regard to the pope’s 1968 encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which reaffirmed the Church’s ban on artificial birth-control methods, Lebegue declared: “I believe that the defects of this encyclical, in that it deals the same with rich and poor women, sick and healthy, with few or many children, are due in good part to the fact that he [the pope] lives isolated in the pomp and riches of the Vatican, a prisoner of a structure that he has been incapable of breaking . . . The Pope should live like a poor man, as did Jesus Christ.”
Also contributing to the growing indifference of many people toward Catholicism is the increasing number of clergymen who are abandoning their duties. These people reason that if the priests no longer want to serve, then there is something wrong with the Church.
In some lands it is claimed that the principal reason for priests leaving the Church is the doctrine of celibacy. While that is no doubt a factor in Chile, it is not the main reason. The publication El Mercurio states: “It is seen that the principal reason for priests leaving the Church in Chile is because of being weak in faith and for lack of spiritual life . . . not because of the doctrine of celibacy.” Can people be taught faith in the churches if the clergy’s faith is weak?
Just how serious is the deterioration among the ranks of the clergy? El Mercurio commented: “The fact of a great crisis in the Chilean priesthood is seen in that approximately 200 priests have left in the last few years and the diminishing number of young men entering the seminaries.” For this small country, that many priests quitting, and much fewer entering the seminaries, is a double disaster for the Church.
In a book published about the situation in Santiago, it was noted that “students of theology in 1967 totaled only 33 for the Diocese of Santiago, that is, exactly one for each 100,000 inhabitants. Fifty percent of the priests in Chile are foreign priests sent from Europe, the United States and Canada. However, this dependency on foreign help will hardly be able to continue for long due to the diminishing of inclination to the religious life in those countries that send priests.”
Where Is Religion Heading?
For these and other reasons, including the immoral actions of some of the clergy here, increasing numbers of Chileans have become disillusioned with the Church. Quite often now when the subject of religion comes up people will say: “I don’t go to Mass and I don’t like the priests.”
Thus without a doubt the power of the Church over the lives of the common people is decreasing. As elsewhere in the world, here in Chile many people, even clergymen, are abandoning the Church. And that trend shows no sign of slackening. Indeed, it is expected to increase.
Yet, at this same time the Bible educational work that Jehovah’s witnesses are doing grows in Chile, as it does all over the earth. As a result, Chileans by the thousands are learning the truths about God’s purposes contained in the Bible. These truths assist them to understand why there is so much trouble in the world and why the churches are in growing difficulty. They also learn that God has guaranteed a new order of righteousness, soon to come, free from the troubles of today.—2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:4.
Because the work of Jehovah’s witnesses is nonpolitical and aids the people in their daily living as well as giving them comfort and hope for the future, their work progresses without hindrance today. In one section of Santiago, poor persons had taken over certain areas and would not permit anyone to enter without their permission. They maintained guards around the section day and night. Yet, as one person said, “Jehovah’s witnesses may enter and talk to the people about the Bible because they seek to help the people to find comfort.”
Finds Answers to Questions
Thousands of Chileans in recent years have experienced the satisfaction that comes from knowing what the Bible, God’s Word, really teaches. For instance, a man from Punta Arenas writes:
“I was a very active Catholic and kept a close association with Jesuits, under whom I studied. Under their auspices I founded the Boy Scouts in Concepción. I also participated in the Legion of Catholic Workers there, learning to engage in religious debates with Protestants. For fifteen years I was the band instructor in the parish schools of San Jose and San Juan Bosco, schools run by the Salesian Order.
“Yet, there were many things I could not understand in spite of all this training in church affairs. For instance, in private conversations I would ask the priest who directed the school of Don Bosco about the logic of the trinity doctrine. His answer was always the same. He would say, ‘You are a Catholic?’ I would answer, ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have faith?’ he would ask. ‘Yes,’ I would reply. Next he would state, ‘Then leave things as they are, because this is a mystery that even we do not understand.’
“When my wife began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s witnesses, I argued with her that what she was learning was wrong. But she could show me what she believed right from the Bible. I began to realize that what she said really was what the Bible taught. So I began to study to find out more for myself. In time, I learned the truths in the Bible and left the Catholic Church.
“Later, the priest of Don Bosco called me to his office. He wanted to know why such a prominent and useful member of his ‘flock’ had left. I told him that while I was grateful for having learned such things as how to read and write and put on dramatic shows, yet, when it came to spiritual things the Church had taught me nothing. On the other hand, because of my Bible studies I now understood much of the Bible, including the fact that God is not three persons in one, and that Jesus Christ was not God but was created by God.
“During this interview I thought to myself: ‘If the priest was really interested in me, why did he not come to see me instead of summoning me to see him? Jehovah’s witnesses did not do that. They took their time free of charge to come and see me.’ But, then, that is what the Bible says that true Christians should do. Now, I too am grateful for the privilege of knowing the truth and being able to help others understand what I have learned from God’s Word.”
Disgusted with Practices
Another man’s experiences are like those that many persons have had in Chile. From Valparaiso he writes:
“I was baptized and raised as an active participant in the sacraments of the Catholic Church and educated in the Catholic College of San Vincente de Paul. Also, at the age of thirteen I had been the most advanced of a group of twelve who were being trained in the Church of the Twelve Apostles in preparation for being sent to be trained as a Jesuit priest.
“But I abandoned all that training. Why? One reason was because of the shameful practices I witnessed. One had to be there really to understand. A certain priest, for example, participated in orgies in the chapel with young people. Another, a Jesuit priest, committed lewd abuses with children in exchange for engravings of ‘saints.’
“I was also disillusioned when I would confess a serious sin and then hear the priest-confessor say: ‘Don’t worry, child.’ Yet, when by accident a priest surprised me reading the Catholic Torres Amat Bible, he became furious, considering it a scandal that I was reading a Bible!
“I also observed daily the comparative luxury in which the clergy lived, having much good food, wine and cigarettes, when the common people had so little.
“These, and other things, caused me eventually to repudiate a religion that would tolerate such on the part of its leaders. It also made it much easier for me to accept the true religion that is taught in the Bible.”
A Nun’s Experience
Among those who have left the religious life of the Church in Chile is a nun, who tells of her experience:
“Since I found the world so full of hypocrisy and falsehood, I sought spiritual refuge in the convent. There, I thought, I would be able to serve God without reserve and without experiencing hypocrisy and falsehood.
“So I entered the convent and stayed there for a total of seven years, five in Argentina and two in Chile. But did I find there an atmosphere of love, a spirit of self-sacrifice or genuine interest in worshiping God and helping our fellowmen?
“Let me tell you what they taught all the new nuns who entered the convent. The teaching that received most emphasis was ‘the most holy trinity.’ Afterward came the worship of saints and the superiors of the Church. The superiors required total obedience. This in fact amounted to idolatry because, according to them, God placed them in their positions and therefore all had to give them unquestioned obedience.
“How did they manage this? By the vows the nuns were required to take. One vow was of obedience, by which the superiors were adored. The obedience they required reached such an extreme that we had to bow down before them, without ever questioning them.
“The superiors talked constantly of charity and humility, but it was always advice for the others—they never did what they demanded of others. Among them there always existed a spirit of envy and the desire to advance to higher positions and titles. After they received such advancement, they tried to convince the others that those positions were granted to them by God and therefore they should be rendered even more obedience and devotion than before. Thus, they became very powerful.
“What of the other nuns with whom I worked? Why did they enter the convent? Was it because of their faith and love of God? Of course, some had that motive, but the majority entered because of material needs—in order to have a home, clothing and food. The spirit of love and cooperation was missing. Often they did things to hurt others in an obvious spirit of hypocrisy.
“Well, then, did I at least learn to understand the Bible? No, because we were told that only the one who said Mass could have a Bible and that for the rest of us it was a sin to read it. We were never taught to reason on spiritual things or to apply the teachings of the Bible in our lives.
“After seven years of living in that manner, I left the convent. I felt deceived and disillusioned on seeing the injustices and the falseness there. It was surely no spiritual refuge. But although I lost faith in the Church and in her representatives, I never lost faith in God. What happiness I felt, then, when later I began to read the Bible itself with the aid of Jehovah’s witnesses. I found it to be so reasonable, so different, so true! Now I am no longer a slave to a hypocritical religious system. Instead, I find great satisfaction in serving a loving and purposeful God, Jehovah.”
Multiply such experiences many times and you begin to get the picture of what is taking place in Chile today. There are the two currents, or trends: the religions of Christendom are in deep trouble and on the decline; whereas there is an upsurge of true religion as revealed in God’s own Word, the Bible. But that is what Bible prophecy said would happen before this wicked system of things came to its end.—Isa. 2:2, 3.