Anti-clericalism in Latin America

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Anti-clericalism in Latin America sprang up in opposition to the power and influence of the Catholic Church in colonial and post-colonial Latin America.


Of the population of Latin America, now well in excess of 300 million, over 90% acknowledge allegiance to the Catholic Church[citation needed]. Consequently, over a third of the world's Catholics inhabit the ‘Latin’ countries of South, Central and North America.

For most of the history of post-colonial Latin America, religious rights have been regularly violated, and even now, tensions and conflict in the area of religion remain. Religious human rights, in the sense of freedom to exercise and practice one's religion, are almost universally guaranteed in the laws and constitutions of Latin America today, although they are not universally observed in practice. Moreover, it has taken Latin America much longer than other parts of the West to adopt religious freedom in theory and in practice, and the habit of respect for those rights is only gradually being developed.

The slowness to embrace religious freedom in Latin America is related to its colonial heritage and to its post-colonial history. The Aztec and the Inca both made substantial use of religion to support their authority and power. This pre-existing role of religion in pre-Columbian culture made it relatively easy for the Spanish conquistadors to replace native religious structures with those of a Catholicism that was closely linked to the Spanish throne.[1]

The Spanish colonization of the Americas resulted in the forcible conversion of the native population in some cases and the attempted elimination of their culture and religion.

The various countries that make up Latin America today won political independence during the 19th century. The basic anticlericalism of the republican movements led to a temporary alienation between church and state, but the 20th century has seen political powers seek to harness the continuing popular influence of the church in support of authoritarian regimes, including military dictatorships.


By the 18th century, the intellectual standards, economic power and social influence of the Jesuits was unmatched. Their economic power derived from enormous plantations in the central valley of Chile, ranches in the River Plate region and large urban and rural estates in Peru and Mexico. There were Jesuit-owned workshops in Paraguay, Peru and Ecuador, and mining interests in the Chaco area of New Granada, now Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama.

19th century[edit]

Anti-clericalism was an integral feature of 19th-century liberalism in Latin America. This anti-clericalism was based on the idea that the clergy (especially the prelates who ran the administrative offices of the Church) were hindering social progress in areas such as public education and economic development. The Catholic Church was one of the largest land owning groups in most of Latin America's countries. As a result, the Church tended to be rather conservative politically.

Beginning in the 1820s, a succession of liberal regimes came to power in Latin America.[2] Some members of these liberal regimes sought to imitate the Spain of the 1830s (and revolutionary France of a half-century earlier) in expropriating the wealth of the Catholic Church, and in imitating the 18th-century benevolent despots in restricting or prohibiting the religious orders. As a result, a number of these liberal regimes expropriated Church property and tried to bring education, marriage and burial under secular authority. The confiscation of Church properties and changes in the scope of religious liberties (in general, increasing the rights of non-Catholics and non-observant Catholics, while licensing or prohibiting the orders) generally accompanied secularist, and later, Marxist-leaning, governmental reforms.[3]


The Mexican Constitution of 1824 had required the Republic to prohibit the exercise of any religion other the Roman Catholic and Apostolic faith.[4]

Reform War[edit]

Starting in 1855, US-backed President Benito Juárez issued decrees nationalizing church property, separating church and state, and suppressing religious orders. Church properties were confiscated and basic civil and political rights were denied to religious orders and the clergy. The Church supported the regime of Juárez's successor, Porfirio Diaz, who was opposed to land reform.

The first of the Liberal Reform Laws were passed in 1855. The Juárez Law, named after Benito Juárez, restricted clerical privileges, specifically the authority of Church courts,[5] by subverting their authority to civil law. It was conceived of as a moderate measure, rather than abolish church courts altogether. However, the move opened latent divisions in the country. Archbishop Lázaro de la Garza in Mexico City condemned the Law as an attack on the Church itself, and clerics went into rebellion in the city of Puebla in 1855-56.[6] Other laws attacked the privileges traditionally enjoyed by the military, which was significant since the military had been instrumental in putting and keeping Mexican governments in office since Emperor Agustín de Iturbide in the 1820s.[5]

The next Reform Law was called the lerdo law, after Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. Under this new law, the government began to confiscate Church land.[5] This proved to be considerably more controversial than the Juárez Law. The purpose of the law was to convert lands held by corporate entities such as the Church into private property, favoring those who already lived on it. It was thought that such would encourage development and the government could raise revenue by taxing the process.[6] Lerdo de Tejada was the Minister of Finance and required that the Church sell much of its urban and rural land at reduced prices. If the Church did not comply, the government would hold public auctions. The Law also stated that the Church could not gain possession of properties in the future. However, the Lerdo Law did not apply only to the Church. It stated that no corporate body could own land. Broadly defined, this would include ejidos, or communal land owned by Indian villages. Initially, these ejidos were exempt from the law, but eventually these Indian communities suffered and extensive loss of land.[5]

By 1857, additional anti-clerical legislation, such as the Iglesias Law (named after José María Iglesias) regulated the collection of clerical fees from the poor and prohibited clerics from charging for baptisms, marriages, or funeral services.[7] Marriage became a civil contract, although no provision for divorce was authorized. Registry of births, marriages and deaths became a civil affair, with President Benito Juárez registering his newly-born son in Veracruz. The number of religious holidays was reduced and several holidays to commemorate national events introduced. Religious celebrations outside churches was forbidden, use of church bells restricted and clerical dress was prohibited in public.[8]

One other significant Reform Law was the Law for the Nationalization of Ecclesiastical Properties, which would eventually secularize nearly all of the country’s monasteries and convents. The government had hoped that this law would bring in enough revenue to secure a loan from the United States but sales would prove disappointing from the time it was passed all the way to the early 20th century.[8]

Cristero War[edit]

More severe laws called Calles Law during the rule of atheist Plutarco Elías Calles eventually led to the Cristero War.[9]

Following the revolution of 1910, the new Mexican Constitution of 1917 contained further anti-clerical provisions. Article 3 called for secular education in the schools and prohibited the Church from engaging in primary education; Article 5 outlawed monastic orders; Article 24 forbade public worship outside the confines of churches; and Article 27 placed restrictions on the right of religious organizations to hold property. Most obnoxious to Catholics was Article 130, which deprived clergy members of basic political rights. Many of these laws were resisted, leading to the Cristero Rebellion of 1927 - 1929. The suppression of the Church included the closing of many churches and the killing and forced marriage of priests. The persecution was most severe in Tabasco under the atheist governor Tomás Garrido Canabal.

The effects of the war on the Church were profound. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed.[10] Between 1926 and 1934, over 3,000 priests were exiled or assassinated.[11][12] In an effort to prove that "God would not defend the Church", Calles ordered "hideous desecration of churches ... there were parodies of (church) services, nuns were raped and any priests captured ... were shot ...".[9] Calles was eventually deposed[9] and despite the persecution, the Church in Mexico continued to grow. A 2000 census reported that 88 percent of Mexicans identify as Catholic.[13]

Where there were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, in 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve fifteen million people, the rest having been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination.[10][14] It appears that ten states were left without any priests.[14]


The tension between civilian and clerical authority dominated Ecuador's history for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This issue was one of the bases for the lasting dispute between Conservatives, who represented primarily the interests of the land owners of the central highlandscentral highlands and the church, and the Liberals, who represented the interest of the urban elites and merchant class of the Costa and anticlericalism.

During the Liberal rule period from 1895 to 1925 two constitutions were issued, those of 1897 and 1906. The first, promulgated by General José Eloy Alfaro Delgado, banned religious orders (including cloisters), abolished certain privileges of the Catholic Church, and reduced voting age to eighteen (vote was a men right only). The constitution of 1925 provided unprecedented protection of civil and political rights and guarantees, including abolition of the death penalty, individual freedoms, and prohibited imprisonment for debts. It also established the separation of the church and state.


Although Colombia enacted anticlerical legislation and its enforcement during more than three decades (1849–84), it soon restored “full liberty and independence from the civil power” to the Catholic Church.

La Violencia refers to an era of civil conflict in various areas of the Colombian countryside between supporters of the Colombian Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party, a conflict which took place roughly from 1948 to 1958.[15][16]

Across the country, militants attacked churches, convents, and monasteries, killing priests and looking for arms, since the conspiracy theory maintained that the religious had guns, and this despite the fact that not a single serviceable weapon was located in the raids.[17]

When their party came to power in 1930, anticlerical Liberals pushed for legislation to end Church influence in public schools. These Liberals held that the Church and its intellectual backwardness were responsible for a lack of spiritual and material progress in Colombia. Liberal-controlled local, departmental and national governments ended contracts with religious communities who operated schools in government-owned buildings, and set up secular schools in their place. These actions were sometimes violent, and were met by a strong opposition from clerics, Conservatives, and even a good number of more moderate Liberals.


The original Argentine Constitution of 1853 provided that all Argentine presidents must be Catholic and stated that the duty of the Argentine congress was to convert the Indians to Catholicism. All of these provisions have been eliminated with the exception of the mandate to "sustain" Catholicism.

Liberal anti-clericalists of the 1880s established a new pattern of church-state relations in which the official constitutional status of the Church was preserved while the state assumed control of many functions formerly the province of the Church. Conservative Catholics, asserting their role as definers of national values and morality, responded in part by joining in the rightist religio-political movement known as Catholic Nationalism which formed successive opposition parties. This began a prolonged period of conflict between church and state that persisted until the 1940s when the Church enjoyed a restoration of its former status under the presidency of Colonel Juan Perón. Perón claimed that Peronism was the "true embodiment of Catholic social teaching" - indeed, more the embodiment of Catholicism than the Catholic Church itself.

In 1954, Perón reversed the fortunes of the church by threatening total disestablishment and retracting critical functions, including the teaching of religious education in public schools. As a result, Argentina saw extensive destruction of churches, denunciations of clergy and confiscation of Catholic schools as Perón attempted to extend state control over national institutions.[18]

The renewed rupture in church-state relations was completed when Perón was excommunicated. However, in 1955, overthrown by a military general who was a leading member of the Catholic Nationalist movement.

In 1983, the civilian president, Raúl Alfonsín, attempted to restore a liberal democratic state. Alfonsín's opposition to the church-military alliance, conjoined with his strongly secular emphasis contravening traditional Catholic positions, incited opposition that served to curtail his agenda.


In Venezuela, the government of Antonio Guzmán Blanco virtually crushed the institutional life of the church, even attempting to legalize the marriage of priests. These anticlerical policies remained in force for decades afterward.


Cuba, under atheist Fidel Castro, succeeded in reducing the Church's ability to work by deporting the archbishop and 150 Spanish priests, discriminating against Catholics in public life and education and refusing to accept them as members of the Communist Party.[19] The subsequent flight of 300,000 people from the island also helped to diminish the Church there.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sigmund, Paul E. (1996). "RELIGIOUS HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE WORLD TODAY: A Report on the 1994 Atlanta Conference: Legal Perspectives on Religious Human Rights: RELIGIOUS HUMAN RIGHTS IN LATIN AMERICA". Emory International Law Review. Emory University School of Law. 
  2. ^ Stacy, Mexico and the United States (2003), p. 139
  3. ^ Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), pp. 167–72
  4. ^ Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States (1824) Archived March 18, 2012, at the Wayback Machine. Article 3.
  5. ^ a b c d Kirkwood, Burton (2000). History of Mexico. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-4039-6258-4. 
  6. ^ a b Hamnett, Brian R (1999). Concise History of Mexico. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press. p. 162. ISBN 978-0-521-61802-1. 
  7. ^ Kirkwood, Burton (2000). History of Mexico. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated. pp. 101–192. ISBN 978-1-4039-6258-4. 
  8. ^ a b Hamnett, Brian R (1999). Concise History of Mexico. Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press. pp. 163–164. ISBN 978-0-521-61802-1. 
  9. ^ a b c Chadwick, A History of Christianity (1995), pp. 264–5
  10. ^ a b Van Hove, Brian Blood-Drenched Altars Faith & Reason 1994
  11. ^ Scheina, Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo (2003), p. 33
  12. ^ Van Hove, Brian (1994). Blood-Drenched Altars "Blood Drenched Altars" Check |url= value (help). EWTN. Retrieved 2008-03-09. 
  13. ^ "International Religious Freedom Report 2001" (PDF). US Department of State. 2001. Archived (PDF) from the original on 12 March 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-13. 
  14. ^ a b Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars: The Age of the Caudillo, 1791-1899 p. 33 (2003 Brassey's) ISBN 1-57488-452-2
  15. ^ Stokes, Doug (2005). America's Other War : Terrorizing Colombia. Zed Books. ISBN 1-84277-547-2. Archived from the original on 2016-01-09.  p. 68, Both Livingstone and Stokes quote a figure of 200,000 dead between 1948–1953 (Livingstone) and "a decade war" (Stokes)
    *Azcarate, Camilo A. (March 1999). "Psychosocial Dynamics of the Armed Conflict in Colombia". Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution. Archived from the original on 2008-09-07.  Azcarate quotes a figure of 300,000 dead between 1948–1959
    *Gutiérrez, Pedro Ruz (31 October 1999). "Bullets, Bloodshed And Ballots;For Generations, Violence Has Defined Colombia's Turbulent Political History". Orlando Sentinel (Florida): G1. Archived from the original on 31 May 2006. Political violence is not new to that South American nation of 38 million people. In the past 100 years, more than 500,000 Colombians have died in it. From the "War of the Thousand Days," a civil war at the turn of the 20th century that left 100,000 dead, to a partisan clash between 1948 and 1966 that claimed nearly 300,000...
  16. ^ Bergquist, Charles; David J. Robinson (1997–2005). "Colombia". Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2005. Microsoft Corporation. Archived from the original on 2009-11-01. Retrieved April 16, 2006. On April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated outside his law offices in downtown Bogotá. The assassination marked the start of a decade of bloodshed, called La Violencia (the violence), which took the lives of an estimated 180,000 Colombians before it subsided in 1958.
  17. ^ Williford p.218
  18. ^ Norman, The Roman Catholic Church an Illustrated History (2007), pp. 167–8
  19. ^ a b Chadwick, A History of Christianity (1995), p. 266