The Chilean Road to Socialism


Institutional Forces


The Church

The Church, long a pillar of the status quo in Chile as in other Catholic countries, has lately begun to experience a profound transformation. Young priests have become revolutionaries, students at the Catholic University have deposed conservative rectors, and the latest current in religious thought is the theology of liberation. This does not mean that the Church has become transformed from an institution of domination to a vehicle for liberation from oppression, only that the deep divisions and social struggles of society have permeated this traditionally conservative institution.


From Prensa Latina Feature Service ES-857/70. Navarro Ceardi is with the Catholic University.


There are many reasons for Salvador Allende's victory in Chile. One of them is the special support he received this time from various Christian groups that had previously denied it to him during the presidential elections of 1952, 1958, and 1964. This support originates in the special attention the Church itself has paid to social problems ever since the Second Vatican Council and the meeting in Medellín, Colombia—a time when the majority of priests no longer were satisfied with merely changing the liturgy from Latin into Spanish or discarding their ecclesiastical robes.

This progressive movement within the Chilean Church originally expressed itself when the Catholic bishops became the first to implement President Alessandri's "Mini" Agrarian Reform on their own lands. Another sign was the overwhelming victory won during the presidential election of 1964 by the Christian Democratic candidate, Eduardo Frei, with the slogan "Revolution with Liberty." Frei is a faithful Catholic, studied law at the Catholic University of Santiago, and was a leader of the Conservative Youth until he abandoned it to set up the Falange Nacional.

Perhaps the frustration felt by many Christians with the Christian Democratic Party—which, as Radomiro Tomic (their candidate) acknowledged, "had accomplished a great deal but not the revolution"—accelerated their radicalization. Yet this process also took place in other Latin American countries: in Colombia with Camilo Torres, the guerrilla-priest, and in Brazil with Dom Hélder Camara and his concepts of reform through non-violence.

The crisis within the Church, however, kept growing, especially among the young people, and in 1967 it exploded. On June 15, the students of the Catholic University of Valparaiso took over their university and attacked the chancellor, the Bishop of Valparaiso, and the rector (his appointee), Arturo Zavala. Their example was followed by the students of the Catholic University of Santiago who, on August 11 of the same year, also occupied their university and, with the explicit support of the CD Party and the Cardinal Archbishop of Santiago, managed to remove the rector, Monsignor Alfredo Silva Santiago, and began a reform process that was more easily won than the one in Valparaiso but that was equally important.

As if by coincidence, on August 11 of the following year the Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago was taken over by a group of priests, nuns, and laymen who, under the name of Young Church, proclaimed their support of "a new society that will give dignity to the human person," where "love will be possible." Their Manifesto, after explaining why they were in the cathedral, stated their views:


—No, to a Church that is a slave to structures of social compromise.

—Yes, to a free Church that serves mankind.

—No, to a Church that is committed to power and wealth.

—Yes, to a Church that risks poverty because of her faith in Jesus Christ and in man.

—No, to a hierarchical structure imposed on the Christian people.

—Yes, to pastors born from the people who search with the people.

—No, to a Church that is afraid of confronting history.

—Yes, to a Church that is brave and commits herself to fight for the real liberation of her people.


The sign that appeared in front of the metropolitan Cathedral summarized their feeling: FOR A CHURCH THAT STANDS WITH THE PEOPLE AND THEIR STRUGGLE.

After occupying the cathedral, the Young Church movement lived through an internal process which later expressed itself through religious and social action: it participated in the take-over of factories along with the workers, in the creation of workers' co-operatives, in the aid to homeless citizens, in Christmas street festivities, etc.

In 1969 the young intellectual and Catholic vanguard received political support when the Christian Democratic Party split into a new political group called Movimiento de la Action Popular Unitaria—MAPU, which in the language of the Araucanian Indians means land—consisting largely of the young people of the Christian Democratic Party plus certain legislators and peasant and labor groups.

Together, the Young Church, the MAPU, and the reforms in the Catholic Universities —movements that interconnected through people and ideology— sought, above all, co-operation with Marxists to change society and build the Kingdom of God on earth ("Thy Kingdom come. . .").

Presently, various Christians who own part of the mass media are contributing in various ways to a return to the essence of Christianity and, as a result, are sometimes harshly attacked by conservative elements within the Church. Catholic magazines such as Mensaje of the Company of Jesus, Mundo 70 of the Missionaries of the Heart of Mary, the Capuchins' teaching-radio "Voice of the Coast," which offers cultural programs to the peasants in the South, plus the television channels of the Catholic universities of Santiago and Valparaiso, are also part of this crusade.

A study by the Office of Religious Sociology of the Jesuit Center also gives us an idea of the ideological position of Chilean priests. According to Mensaje (Nº. 193, October 1970), the largest percentage of young priests (78 per cent identify themselves with the Young Church, while the smallest per cent (18.7 per cent) with FIDUCIA (Chilean Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property). In other words, more than three fourths of the Chilean priests identify themselves with the Left.

Another interesting fact comes from the results registered in the School of Theology (the only one in the nation) of the Catholic University of Santiago during the October 1969 election of the Student Federation. The university's student body was given more or less the same alternatives the nation received last September: a list of Christian Democratic candidates; a list of apolitical right-wing candidates; and a list of the Leftist Front (consisting of candidates from the MAPU, the Revolutionary Left Movement, and other independent groups). Although in the entire university the Right won with a small margin over the Left (44 per cent over 43 per cent), the voting pattern within the School of Theology overwhelmingly favored the Left, with 64.5 per cent in their favor, 22.5 per cent in favor of the Right, and 13 per cent in favor of the Christian Democrats.

This sense of emergency among revolutionary Christians had inevitably to manifest itself during the presidential campaign of 1970. Certain priests publicly supported Salvador Allende: Father Darío Marcotti, the parish priest of a working-class neighborhood in Valparaiso, proclaimed that the only Christian way is to form part of the people "by being a worker, and the only way to be true to the gospel of liberation and justice is by turning it into action along with the working class. Christ always stood with his people and unmasked the oppressors. . . ." The "comrade-priest," as they call him in his parish and as Allende called him on TV, is the founder of the People's Church (Valparaiso equivalent of the Young Church), a movement with deep roots among the workers. This is not the only case, nor a mere electioneering trick (as in the case of the Allendista Catholic Movement of the 1964 campaign), but the result of the efforts of hundreds of priests in working-class neighborhoods, peasant settlements, and unions. These priests are convinced that the "light of the gospel is with the people and that one's love of God must be expressed through the love for our brothers who suffer exploitation, misery, and injustice."

Christian leftists incorporated themselves immediately into the Popular Unity: Rafael Tarud, an independent Senator and a Christian, is president of the PU's National Headquarters; and the MAPU was the movement that gave most support to Allende's campaign (without having the strength of the Radical, Communist, or Socialist party). All of this occurred in spite of the fact that the two other presidential candidates tried to use religious values in their favor. For example, the Christian Democrats geared a large part of their campaign toward differentiating the Christian Left from the exclusively Marxist Left; the Right used revered Catholic symbols such as the Virgin of Mount Carmel, the nation's Patron Saint, to "free us from communism." In connection with these supplications, one of the leaders of the Young Church commented, "If they organize a mass against Allende's election, we will respond with ten masses for the triumph of the popular government."

The rumor that the Catholic religion forbade praying for a non-Catholic candidate (the only one was Salvador Allende) was categorically denied by the moderate Christian magazine Mundo 70, which, in its August 1970 issue, answered the following question: "How should the Christian vote?" Answer: "The Christian has the absolute right to decide in favor of any one of the three alternatives. What matters is that his choice be the result of a serious and realistic appraisal responding to the following question: Which of the three alternatives is the most adequate so that Chile can become a more just, brotherly, and profoundly Christian society?"

Allende won. His majority was not overwhelming, and we therefore cannot say that the support of the Christians was quantitative, but we can certainly affirm that its qualitative contribution was most important. . . .

Christian support for the people's cause is evidenced in the recognition of Allende's triumph given by the Bishop of Puerto Montt, the Catholic Action Worker Movement, the Young Catholic Worker, the Rural Catholic Action, the University Catholic Youth, and the rectors of the Catholic universities. Their position contrasts greatly with that of the Chilean bishops, who before the election declared they would only pay their respects to the candidate with an absolute majority; if no one obtained such a majority they would then postpone their visit until the candidate was ratified by the full Congress on October 24. The Conference of Bishops clarified their position in another statement: "The Bishops wish to cooperate with the changes and especially with those that favor the poor." They also appealed to the nation to keep calm during the uncertain situation right after the election, and urged Catholics to seek "together with the rest of the nation a just, original, and creative solution to the Chilean problem."

In summary, what the Left had not accomplished during previous elections—i.e., the legitimization of its program by the Christians—it accomplished qualitatively this time thanks to the reformist tendencies within the Catholic Church which are growing increasingly stronger.

Large groups of Christians took part in the three political groups during this election, and, as a result, we find Catholics who are committed to building Chilean socialism—something that for many only confirms Christ's message and represents real evidence that the "Kingdom of God" must be built here, in this world, and with everyone's participation.

It would be deceitful not to acknowledge that the majority of Christians were not followers of Allende. But the belief predominates that they will set aside personal disputes and will incorporate themselves to the difficult task of building a society where everyone is free and equal—a task which in Chile is just beginning.

Edición digital del Centro Documental Blest el 07feb02
Capitulo Anterior Proximo Capitulo Sube