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.

Of course, it has not helped that Chile, like a growing number of countries, has suffered recent clerical scandals. But such falls from grace are not the real reason for most defections. Rather, there is a move away from an institution that appears hidebound and legalistic, fastidiously subservient to Rome but out of touch with a society full of new possibilities and challenges. Where is Chile moving religiously?

Chile remains a deeply spiritual country. It is full of “sanctuaries” and churches. On a high hill overlooking Santiago is a large, rather beautiful statue of Mary honoring her Immaculate Conception. It can be seen from every part of the city. In the huge cathedral, many enter to adore the Eucharist or to meditate quietly in the Marian chapel. Streets are named for bishops, towns for saints. The most beautiful lake in a country of beautiful lakes was discovered on All Saints Day and is called Todos los Santos. And Chileans are proud of their recently canonized saints: Teresa de los Andes, a young Carmelite nun, and Padre Hurtado, a well-known Jesuit activist.

But new religions that have no use for Catholic saints have arrived and are flourishing. They offer a new religious identity and a fresh spirituality. One is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I recently met Filipe, a second-generation Mormon who is in charge of various Mormon properties in Chile. He claims there are more than four hundred thousand Mormons in the country, a substantial minority in a population of 16 million. When he found that I did not own the Book of Mormon, he insisted on giving me a deluxe leather-bound edition.

Other nineteenth-century U.S. religious groups are growing as well: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Assembly of God, etc. For many years, Catholic leaders have lamented this hemorrhaging of Catholics to the “sects,” and assumed that these converts were poor, uneducated people with only a foggy notion of Catholicism. The problem, they said, was a lack of good catechesis.

But in Chile today, with its growing middle class, the Catholic Church has another challenge. There is a need for clergy who are at least as well-educated and sophisticated as the laity they serve, and preachers who are prepared to give intelligent, nourishing homilies that bring the gospel into contact with the realities of everyday life. The sentimental pieties and moralisms of the 1950s no longer appeal to young Chileans.

That is not to say the “new religions” appeal because they are easy. They demand a moral conversion (no adultery, no drinking, etc.). Usually fundamentalist, they seem quite lacking in biblical nuance and subtlety. But their preachers speak with conviction and excitement, and they convey a joyful missionary zeal that few Chileans associate with the Catholic clergy. Their pastors seem close to the people whom they both welcome and engage.

So, from the deserts of the north, to vibrant Santiago, to Puerto Montt and the mountains and glaciers of the south, this extended, beautiful country awaits a Catholic revival. The old church has great treasures to be shared. But it needs bishops, priests, and laity who are not chained to old traditions, people animated with the fire of the early missionaries. Otherwise, before too many years go by, the Catholic Church in Chile may find itself just another minority religion.

The Reverend Willard F. Jabusch is chaplain emeritus of the University of Chicago.
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Published in the 2010-01-15 issue: View Contents
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