The days of the dictator Augusto Pinochet seem like ancient history to the young Chileans who live in Santiago’s new condominiums and shop in the capital’s upscale malls.
The country is an economic success story and its president for the past four years, Michelle Bachelet, has represented an unmistakable change: this traditionally conservative nation has been led by a woman who is a socialist, a medical doctor, a single mother, and a professed agnostic.
Chilean friends are quick to remind me that the Catholic Church remains a power to be reckoned with here, and that some 60 percent of Chileans claim to be Catholic. Yet as one young woman told me with just a hint of hyperbole, “People are leaving the Catholic Church every day.” Why this migration from the ancestral faith?
In Europe, people leave the church to become practical atheists in a pervasively secular society, but in Chile and other parts of Latin America, people seem to walk away not because they can no longer pray the Creed or because they find organized religion irrelevant, but because they discover a new church they hope will understand them, one that will treat them as adults in the twenty-first century. They know the church of Rome has been an important part of their country's history, but it seems to be the church of their grandparents, and one that no longer compels their loyalty.