How the Catholic Church Shaped Latin American Politics

March 3, 2021

This is the third in a series of articles that use edited extracts from Oxford Professor, Edwin Williamson’s The Penguin History of Latin America, to help international investors today learn from the region’s past…

The Church, which had once been an integral element of the Catholic monarchy, had been losing intellectual ground since independence to the principles of liberalism. By the early decades of the twentieth century there were few republics that had not effectively separated the affairs of Church and state. And when governments from the late 1930s began to adopt a policy of rapid industrial development, the Church faced the gravest threat yet to its authority.

The Catholic Church found itself threatened from two directions. First, there was the disruptive progress of liberal capitalism itself, whose reliance on the market and on individual enterprise undermined the hierarchical, paternalist ethos which the Church had done so much to preserve in the New World. Secondly, there was secular nationalism, often allied to fascism or socialism, which challenged religious authority and was advancing in the cities, precisely where the Church was most rapidly losing ground among the mass of the people. For these reasons it sought a middle way for Latin American society between liberal capitalism and atheistic revolutionary ideologies, rejecting the class struggle in favour of intervention by the state to foster the welfare of the most disadvantaged.

Social Catholicism was therefore very sympathetic to corporatism and to the emerging economic nationalism of the 1930s. But it found enemies in the growing numbers of socialists and communists, who perceived in it a powerful rival in the field of social mobilisation. The Church set up trade unions, co-operatives, educational centres, peasant leagues and newspapers. In 1930s Chile a Catholic party took the first steps towards a democratic, socially-responsible form of capitalism guaranteeing workers’ rights and promoting agrarian reform.

By the early decades of the twentieth century there were few republics that had not effectively separated the affairs of Church and state…

In the late 1950s when industrialisation was well advanced and the USA had made continued aid for development conditional upon democratic government, Catholic reformism found expression in Christian Democratic parties, notably in Chile, Venezuela, Peru and El Salvador, though in some countries social Catholicism shaped the attitudes of other parties, as in the case of the Conservatives in Colombia or the PAN in Mexico. In the 1960s Christian Democratic parties began to participate in government. Eduardo Frei was elected president of Chile in 1964 but his ambitious programme of reform foundered on the opposition of right and left. The Christian Democrat Rafael Caldera became president of Venezuela from 1969 to 1974. Christian Democrats in Peru gave tactical support to the reformist government of Belaúnde Terry between 1963 and 1968. The fortunes of Christian Democratic reformism, however, were epitomised by the fate of the party in El Salvador. Its leader José Napoleón Duarte won the presidency in 1972, but his reforms were thwarted by the armed forces, whose savage repression provoked a revolutionary guerrilla war.

Liberation theology

The political radicalisation of Catholicism was a phenomenon of the 1960s. In part this was a reflection of the enormous influence of the Cuban Revolution. But it was primarily a consequence of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), which re-examined the Church’s role in the modern world, stimulating theological innovation and sharpening awareness among the clergy of social and economic issues. The most notable result in Latin America was a ‘theology of liberation’ which argued that Christian charity entailed working for the liberation of the oppressed and the poor, even if this involved the use of violence. ‘Liberation theology’ split opinion in the Church but the intellectual convergence with Marxist ideas of class struggle, exploitation and imperialism encouraged radical Catholics to make common cause with revolutionary socialists in the fight against capitalism.

In the 1960s and 1970s some clergy supported armed insurrection. A number of priests actually joined Marxist guerrillas in the countryside. The most celebrated of these was Camilo Torres, a Colombian from an upper-class family of Bogotá, who incurred the displeasure of the conservative hierarchy when he issued a radical political manifesto in 1965. Choosing to be laicised, he joined a Cuban-style guerrilla force and was killed in action in February 1966.

Less dramatically, many radical priests took jobs in the industrial belts of the big cities, where they could live in the midst of the de-Christianised workers. Others organised religious and social activities in the shantytowns. Missionaries working in the Indian communities encouraged political action to win land reform. Liberation theology inspired a new form of pastoral organisation, the comunidad de base, a grass-roots community of lay people who tried to set the liturgy and teaching of the Church in a context of action for better social conditions.

Although the vast majority of Latin American laity and clergy was not drawn to liberation theology, the ‘preferential option for the poor’ was a further development of social Catholicism in response to industrialisation after the Second World War, a period which in general saw the Church’s deepening commitment to social and economic reform, though no condemnation of capitalism as such.

Human rights

With the rise of military dictatorships in the 1970s, the Church began to champion the human rights of the individual citizen against abuses of power. Such a role had already been foreshadowed in the mid-1950s, when the Church in Argentina, during the last years of Juan Domingo Perón’s government, acted as the final institutional barrier against the wholesale ‘Peronisation’ of civil society. In Chile, after the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s Marxist government in 1973, the Church was one of the few autonomous institutions able to criticise the military regime and provide relief to the mounting numbers left destitute by its economic policies.

In Cuba, where religion was historically weak, the Church was unable to resist the tightening of the Communist Party’s grip on civil society in the 1970s. However, in Nicaragua during the 1980s it became a focus of opposition to a similar monopolisation of power by the Sandinista Front. In neighbouring El Salvador, which suffered an inconclusive guerrilla war throughout the 1980s, the clergy consistently denounced the activities of right-wing death squads and the use of torture by the military. Such opposition led to the murder in March 1980 of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero. As the crisis of the state in many Latin American countries became ever more acute, the Church detached itself from any direct association with either the right or the left, and maintained a position of critical independence from political interests.

In 2013 Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, became the first ever Latin American to be elected Pope…

In the course of the 20th century the Catholic Church gave up its aspirations to enjoy an official position in the state. Nevertheless, it recovered two of its historic functions at a time when Latin America was undergoing profound changes. Reviving the spirit of Bartolomé de las Casas, the Dominican priest who had denounced the exploitation of indigenous people in the sixteenth century, churchmen criticised the abuse of state power by despotic elites, while the ‘preferential option for the poor’ recalled the commitment of the early missionaries to the creation of a just society in the New World.

During the long papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005), the Church reverted to a more conservative position in the political sphere, and continued to uphold its moral teaching, opposing birth control by artificial means, divorce and abortion. But new challenges were emerging – divorce, in certain circumstances, came to be legalised in all Latin American countries; abortion remained illegal, except under strict conditions (it was forbidden outright only in Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador), though in 2007 a bill permitting abortion within the first trimester was passed by the Mexico City legislature after a bitter campaign which pitted the Church against the feminist lobby.

Secularisation was not the only challenge to the Church’s position. Since the 1980s Protestant churches in the USA had been sending missionaries to Latin America, and the emotionally intense style of Pentecostal worship had a strong appeal for the poor in the slums or in the Indian areas. By the 1990s these new churches had attracted millions of converts: in Brazil, for instance, about 15% belonged to Protestant churches, while nearly a third of the population of Guatemala had converted to evangelical Christianity.

In 2013 Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, became the first ever Latin American to be elected Pope, taking the name of Francis. A long-time advocate of social Catholicism and ‘the preferential option for the poor’, Pope Francis introduced reforms in governance at the Vatican, but his somewhat more liberal approach to the challenges posed by secular society (especially with regard to divorce, gay rights, and the position of women in the Church), proved controversial.