Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Retreat to the Sacristy or Champion of the (Still) Voiceless: The Chilean Catholic Church and Democratic Consolidation

Academic journal article MACLAS Latin American Essays

Retreat to the Sacristy or Champion of the (Still) Voiceless: The Chilean Catholic Church and Democratic Consolidation

Article excerpt

In the past decade, we have seen a number of Latin American countries successfully make the transition to democratic institutions and procedures. Scholarly attention now has turned toward questions regarding the "deepening," or consolidation, of democratic regimes in the region. Ten years ago our focus was on institutional actors (political parties, unions, the military) and/or (political and economic) elites because the intricate negotiations between these key players determined the possibilities for, as well as the nature and pace of, formal transitions to democratic rule.(1) But today, the consolidation of democracy hinges on broader questions such as regime legitimacy, development of effective linkages between citizens (not simply elites) and democratic political institutions, or the degree of widespread democratic political culture.(2) In other words, after a formal transition to democratic procedures and institutions, the "second transition" - or, the process of developing the complex relationship between the democratic state and civil society - remains.(3) Successful democratic consolidation, therefore, involves other actors in civil society that play a role in linking people to democratic institutions and procedures. Examining the role of the Chilean church helps us analyze more deeply the relationship between democratic transitions in which political actors are the key players, and civil society which is organized, at least partially, by a range of social and cultural institutions.(4)

The Catholic church's historical commitment to Chilean democracy has been well-documented.(5) After the 1973 military coup, the church further demonstrated its support for democracy by spreading its famous "protective umbrella" over a broad range of the democratic opposition. Indeed, the church played a central role until the early 1980s in preserving skeletal party and union structures and facilitating party elites' ability to mobilize broad sectors of society during the negotiation process with the military.

Yet, the Chilean Catholic church of the 1990s is widely perceived as withdrawing from its previously heavy involvement in "politics" and civil society. What role does the church intend to play in post-transition Chile? How do church elites frame their visions of the proper role of the Catholic church in the newly democratic regime? And, in what ways does this role contribute to (or perhaps undermine) Chilean democratic consolidation?

The first section below analyzes the church's apparent retreat from "politics". The second section examines the "spaces" that the church might retreat to. In this section we sketch the dominant models of civil-state relations in Chile in order to help frame roles played by the church at key historical junctures in order to differentiate the choices faced by church elites today. The third section analyzes intra-church debates regarding how to best contribute to democratic consolidation that often lie hidden beneath the international church's apparent democratic consensus.


The Catholic church now is perceived to be in full retreat from its previously heavy involvement in civil society. Several reasons account for this change in church policy. The first is a certain exhaustion on the part of many church officials, especially in light of the heavy costs of the perceived politicization of the church during the dictatorship. Although the church's activities may have allowed it to reach levels and sectors of Chilean society for perhaps the first time, the cost of its central role in the re-institutionalization of civil society in the 1970s-80s was a degree of politicization that had not been seen since the early 20th century. As a result, the church lost the allegiance of the wealthy and rightwing at the same time that Pentecostal conversion among the poor and dispossessed sky rocketed, in spite of the unprecedented levels of church organizational work among the popular classes. …

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