The Catholic Chilean Conundrum

Each year, the Berkley Center selects Georgetown juniors who are studying abroad to write blogs on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries. This year the RFP collaborated with the Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN), asking students to comment specifically on issues of religious freedom and religious diversity in their host countries. RFP scholars offered commentary and responses to the students' observations.

By: Carley Tucker (with a response from Allen Hertzke)

From the outside, Chile is very Catholic. It was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize divorce—merely ten years ago, in 2005. Abortion in all forms is still illegal and heavily criticized. Beautiful churches look out over almost every plaza, and the majority of Chileans celebrate Easter and Christmas.

Yet, this facade is not always at it seems. Underneath these devout Catholic characteristics lies a culture that has deviated from this once strong Spanish religious influence. While Chile may be culturally and politically Catholic, the majority of its citizens are not practicing, nor do they believe in Catholic doctrines or thought. The starkest example may be the Chilean president herself, Michelle Bachelet, who is openly agnostic. 

How can a country that recently legalized divorce and still prohibits abortions have an agnostic president and a diminishing population of practicing Catholics? Can Chile still be considered Catholic? And is this difference between politics and culture simply a contradiction, or is it the beginning of a larger change towards a more secular country?

After two months living in Chile, I still can’t fully answer these questions. Nor will I ever be able to because religious beliefs and culture are constantly shifting and transforming, which is both beautiful and complicated.    

The decline of Catholic religious piety follows a similar worldwide trend in which the number of people who identify with a certain faith and attend religious events on a regular basis is decreasing. Globalization and the rapid exchange of ideas and thoughts probably play a large role in this religious shift. However, this global influence does not necessarily signify the loss of religious beliefs. Rather, it can also lead to the integration of outside faith traditions and the revival of a new form of beliefs and worship.

When I attended my host family’s evangelical iglesia (church) for the first time two months ago, I thought I had been transported back to my church in the United States. A contemporary worship band (consisting of musicians my age playing the guitar, bass, piano, and drums) energized the congregation as they made their way to their seats. Men and women—young and old—clapped to the rhythm, while others lifted their hands, as if trying to touch the ceiling. I was both surprised and comforted. I did not expect to enter a worship service so similar to the those hosted at my home church. The congregation immediately enveloped me with warmth and kindness, kissing me on the cheek and asking where I was from, and the pastor introduced me to the church at the beginning of the service. I could sense their love for the church just from the smiles lighting their faces and the way they swayed and danced to the music.  

The service became more and more familiar as it went on. Every song we sang had been translated from the traditional English version into Spanish. They were songs I had sang many times in church youth groups and retreats. The pastor gave his sermon walking around the church, using a microphone and PowerPoint slides, much like my youth leaders used to do in Sunday school. Even the smallest aspect, the guest information card located in the pews, was almost identical to those used at my home church. And the name of the church was distinctly American: “Union Church.”    

While some may complain that this is another example of a negative American influence, for the members of this church, their worship style gave them life and emotion. It allowed them to praise God in a very vibrant and cheerful manner. These devout, evangelical Chileans found joy and spiritual fulfillment in this contemporary worship—and wanted me to take part in it as well. 

After two months of living in this country, I have come to understand that when it comes to the Christian community, Chile is very diverse. Within the Christian landscape are those who are devoutly Catholic, others who are simply culturally so, and a growing presence of Protestant and evangelical churches. 

Chile’s religious identity is not easy to pinpoint, nor do I want it to be. Its ambiguity and complexity create both fascination, as demonstrated in the strange contradiction between its abortion law and its president’s agnostic beliefs, as well as beauty, found in the majestic Catholic churches and warmth of my host family’s church.

A response to Carley's piece by Allen Hertzke

Ms. Tucker’s astute observations about the conundrum of Chile’s religious roots and secular governance captures nicely the dynamics of changing relationships between religion and the state in the modern world. Moreover, her vivid description of the evolving religious landscape in Chile calls to mind some of the most trenchant scholarship on those relationships. 

Her allusion to globalization is especially pertinent. As sociologist Peter Berger has observed, globalization does not bring secularization; rather, it fuels plurality. In other words, globalization mixes people of diverse faiths, plunges them into encounter with each other, and sometimes forces them to adapt to competition. Ms. Tucker’s beautiful depiction of the vibrant evangelical worship captures, in particular, how Latin American society has been transformed by the growth of Pentecostal and evangelical movements in competition with Catholicism. While in some cases the Catholic Church initially sought state support to check these upstart competitors, it ultimately made peace with an open religious marketplace in Latin America. 

In a way, Ms. Tucker’s experience underscores the findings of scholarship about the societal benefits of regimes of religious freedom. People have more choices, religion is more vibrant, and society becomes more harmonious when there is peaceful competition among diverse religious communities.

Carley Tucker is an undergraduate student in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, class of 2017, majoring in regional comparative studies with a focus on female economic development in South America. Allen Hertzke is David Ross Boyd Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma and faculty fellow in religious freedom for OU’s Institute for the American Constitutional Heritage. 

This piece was originally posted on the Junior Year Abroad Network blog on October 14, 2015. It was later republished on February 9, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/26/the-catholic-chilean-conundrum