|Education and Religious Freedom in
The dramatic changes that have taken place in the legislation,
attitudes, and practices relating to religious freedom in
Latin America have all affected the way in which religious
education has been conceived in this diverse region, especially
over the past century. These changes are principally linked
to three significant developments, which this essay will review
in greater detail:
1. The spread of the ecumenical spirit in the Catholic Church,
resulting from the
reforms instituted at the Second Vatican Council, especially
decrees on religious
2. The dramatic increase in the numbers and militancy of evangelical
throughout the region; and,
3. The adoption of new or amended constitutions which include
freedom of religion and which have limited, or ended, the
privileged legal status
of Roman Catholicism in the region.
The History of Conquest:
From the time of the establishment of Spanish rule, Catholicism
was the official religion of Latin America. The "conquistadores"
brought with them Dominican and Franciscan missionaries. This
practice justified the spread of Spanish rule because it brought
Christianity to the indigenous populations. They attempted,
not always successfully, to define the indigenous religions
as idolatrous. While some leading churchmen, such as Bartolome
de las Casas and Juan de Mariana, questioned the legitimacy
of the spread of Christianity by force, the Church remained
closely linked to, and supportive of, Spanish rule. The "patronato,"
or right of patronage, which gave the Spanish monarch the
right to choose bishops for the episcopacy, assured that church
leaders would be loyal to Spain. In turn, the civil authorities
supported the Christianization of the natives, the rooting
out of previous religious practices, and the enforcement of
religious orthodoxy. The Church controlled education, established
universities, and became a central part of life in Latin American
At the beginning of the 19th century, however, the influence
of the French and American revolutions was felt among the
leaders of the independence movement. The support of the continuation
of Spanish rule by the hierarchy and the Pope, as well as
French-inspired anticlericalism, provided the basis for a
struggle between liberals who wished to diminish the privileges
of the Catholic Church and conservatives who saw it as a bulwark
of the traditional order. The liberal reformers in Mexico
in the mid 19th century took over Church lands and abolished
the special legal status of the Church. While they also established
state-sponsored educational programs challenging the Church's
monopoly, the influence of the Catholic Church continued to
be strong. The degree of legal and constitutional commitment
to Catholicism, which at this point was adamantly opposed
to religious freedom, largely depended on whether liberals
or conservatives controlled the government.
By the 20th century, most countries had included guarantees
of religious freedom in their constitutions, but legal and/or
constitutional provisions still recognized the special position
of Catholicism as the national religion. In a few cases, such
as Argentina and Venezuela, state support was still provided
to the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the 1917 Mexican
Constitution expropriated all Church property, forbade Church
schools, and even prohibited the wearing of clerical garb.
In the 1920s, the Mexican government persecuted and, in some
cases, killed Catholic priests.
As public education was expanded, and Latin America opened
to foreign investment and cultural influence, commitment to
religious freedom gradually spread. This commitment was enhanced
by the adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights after
W.W.II - a document which included religious freedom as one
of its central provisions. Subsequently, the writings of the
French Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, influenced
students and intellectuals and provided the ideological basis
for the establishment of Christian Democratic parties in the
1950s. These political parties were committed to democracy,
human rights, and religious freedom and, as such, rejected
the conservative Catholic "integralism,"
which advocated state support for Catholicism.
The Vatican's Role in Religious Freedom:
During and after W.W.II, the papacy began to give greater
support to democratic ideas. With the publication of Pacem
in Terris (Peace on Earth) in 1963 by Pope John XXIII, the
Catholic Church formally endorsed democracy and religious
freedom. The commitment to democracy was reiterated in the
decree Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) and
the Decree on Religious freedom ( Dignitatis Humanae), adopted
by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Council also called
for ecumenical dialogue and improved relations with other
faiths and even with atheists. The shift from support for
established religions to commitment to religious liberty had
been anticipated in the theory and practice of Christian Democratic
parties in Europe and Latin America. Nonetheless, these developments
were also important as a repudiation of the traditional conservative
endorsement of a privileged position for Catholicism. It also
meant that religious instruction at church and in religious
schools in Latin America became supportive of freedom of religion
and church hierarchies made special efforts to reach out to
the representatives of other faiths in ecumenical cooperation.
The Spread of Evangelical Protestantism:
While liberation theology, which argued that the Bible requires
a special concern for the poor, received support among students
and intellectuals beginning in the late 1960s, it had only
limited success among the lower classes. Instead, this class
tended to moved in large numbers to evangelical Protestantism
all over the region. Where the mainline Protestant Churches
had been content with maintaining their adherents and assuring
good relations with the Catholic Church, the Evangelical and
Pentecostal Churches actively spread their faith, especially
among the recently-arrived poor who had migrated from the
countryside to the burgeoning shantytowns in the large cities.
The Gospel message, as interpreted by the evangelicals, called
for self-discipline, sobriety, family values, and active participation
in a supportive community that drew its inspiration from the
Religious surveys began to indicate that Protestants, mainly
evangelicals, made up about 15% or more of the population.
In El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, and Brazil, evangelicals
formed political parties and coordinated efforts to achieve
political and legal recognition. Although the Catholic Church
had developed good relations with the mainline Protestants,
it found it more difficult to work with the evangelical community,
especially the Pentecostal Church. A meeting of the Latin
American bishops in 1995 in Santo Domingo denounced the "sects"
and the "ravening wolves" preying on the faithful.
In turn, the evangelicals preached their Gospel message outside
Catholic churches arguing that much of traditional Catholicism
was idolatrous. Yet, despite the rancor, the militancy of
the evangelicals made it evident that Catholicism no longer
had a religious monopoly in Latin America.
New or Amended Constitutions:
A third development that favored religious liberty was the
adoption of new or amended constitutions that expanded the
guarantees of religious freedom and reduced or eliminated
the special legal or constitutional position of one religion
over others. While much of Latin America had been under military
rule from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, the return of civilian
rule provided an opportunity to revise or replace earlier
constitutions, including provisions on religion.
In 1992 in Mexico, most of the restrictions on church activity
and property-holding were removed, although members of the
clergy continued to be prohibited from participating in politics.
It was not until 1994 that the Argentine Constitution was
amended to eliminate the requirement that the president and
vice-president must be Catholics and that Congress should
promote the Christianization of the indigenous Indian populations.
Nonetheless, the article declaring that the Argentine Government
"supports the Roman Catholic religion" remains --
probably because the Catholic bishops still receive a small
government subsidy. Colombia ended its concordat with the
Vatican that had also included the requirement that the Government
of Columbia approve new bishops. Chile extended the special
legal status of the Catholic Church to the other churches
and synagogues. In Cuba, the restrictions on believers were
removed from the Constitution and from the statutes of the
Communist Party in the early 1990s. There was a considerable
increase in religious activity by both Catholics and Protestants
during and after the papal visit to Cuba in 1998, although
it remains true that actively religious Cubans are still suspect
and Cuban education is hostile to religion. Only Argentina,
Bolivia, and Costa Rica, while guaranteeing religious freedom,
make special mention of the Catholic religion in their constitutions.
In the first two cases, there has been strong public criticism
of these provisions.
There are still instances of religious discrimination in
Latin America, especially on an unofficial basis. However,
the main social and legal barriers to religious freedom have
been removed as a result of the developments described above.
Understanding this history and these developments helps us
to better understand the role of religious education.
Promoting Religious Diversity:
Instruction in Catholicism had been an integral part of the
curriculum in the public schools of some of the more Catholic
countries of Latin America, such as Columbia and Argentina.
However, in recent years, it has been offered on a voluntary
basis. Provision has been made in some countries, Colombia
and Chile for example, to offer instruction in Protestantism
as well. A particularly strict separation of church and state
is still observed in Mexico. Conversely, in many countries,
government money still provides significant support to Catholic
universities. In the case of Chile, government funds are provided
to non-profit schools of all kinds on the primary and secondary
Overall though, Catholic schools have largely come to endorse
and promote religious freedom and good ecumenical relations.
In cases in which a civic education program is offered in
public schools, the constitutional and legal provisions favoring
religious freedom are described and supported. Many Latin
American countries also offer voluntary religious instruction
in public schools.
While Latin American students still learn little or nothing
about other world religions, the expansion of religious freedom
means that discrimination against non-Christians is less likely
and public ceremonies have become more ecumenical in including
not only evangelicals, but also representatives of the Orthodox,
Jewish, and Muslim faiths.1 In this
instance, as in others, the globalization of culture has also
produced the beginnings of globalization of religious understanding
in Latin America.
The development of religious pluralism in what had been a
predominantly Catholic culture, as well as the an acceptance
of religious freedom and the abandonment of a privileged position,
has resulted in societies that are more and more responsive
to the creation and promotion of religious freedom in all
the countries of Latin America. There are still inter-religious
tensions, particularly concerning proselytizing by evangelicals.
However, the educational systems and the overall culture of
Latin America have now moved from the sometimes-contested
dominance of a single religion to the acceptance and even
promotion of religious diversity.
1 Except in Argentina, there are not significant numbers of
Jews in most Latin American countries and the Middle Eastern
population is largely Christian.
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