National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 11, 2003

Cruising through South America
Passing through three ‘nominally Catholic’ countries reveals two churches


Not long ago, Jean and I flew to Santiago, Chile, where we boarded a 1,700-passenger cruise ship that was a Noah’s ark of humans from all parts of the globe. The uniformed crew came from 39 countries and the passengers -- mostly Americans -- were species from a dozen other countries. It was largely a geezer cruise, filled with Medicare-eligible patients with corrugated faces. One could easily have powered the 52,000-ton ship with captured flatulence.

We cruised to the tip of the continent where Ferdinand Magellan sailed in 1520 and where Charles Darwin sought the origin of the species during his five years aboard his tiny ship, the Beagle (1831-36). We took a ride “to the end of the world” on a picturesque narrow gauge train through the Tierra del Fuego National Park, which now boasts a nine-hole golf course, cluttered with Chilean and Argentinean businessmen. We even visited one of the town’s Catholic churches before sailing along the continent’s Atlantic Ocean side as far as Buenos Aires. (The late postmaster general, Jim Farley, used to say that, no matter where one went in this world, one could find the Catholic church and Coca-Cola.)

We visited only three of the continent’s 13 countries -- Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. We did moor briefly at the tiny Falkland Islands, a British property. Argentina still claims sovereignty and calls them the Malvinas Islands. However, following a badly organized invasion by Argentina in 1989, the British sent a flock of troops

A woman waits beneath a mural of saints at the Chilean shrine named after St. Teresa of the Andes in San Felipe, Chile.
--CNS/Nacny Wiechec

 and reclaimed the bleak, rocky moorlands that are swept by winds and drenched with rain.

I wanted to visit its only Catholic church, meet at least one of its two priests and drink a pint with some bangers and mash. But our captain felt that the waters were too rough to permit landing in small launches, so we sailed away.

North America -- the United States, Canada and Mexico -- is more than 25 thousand square miles larger than South America and has a population of 489 million -- 146 million more than South America. However, South America’s Catholic population is 297,455,000, about 92 million more than North America’s. Yet, it has about the same number of priests. American Catholics take heed: It will be a cold day in hell before the Vatican corrects this imbalance by permitting a married priesthood.

One guide mused that, someday, the Southern Hemisphere may be one country and another suggested it was time for a Latino pope. (The College of Cardinals has 23 South American red hats to pick from, more than any other continent except Europe.)

South Americans love North Americans but hate our government, especially our president. They view us as an imperialist nation, forcing its will on smaller nations. In Chile and Argentina, they still whisper about the U.S. influence in the atrocities in Argentina and Chile under Juan Perón and Augusto Pinochet. Perón, who ruled Argentina from 1946 until 1955, shepherded at least 300 Nazi war criminals while closing Argentina’s borders to Jewish refugees. He did so with the help of the Vatican’s dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, and Argentina’s Cardinal Antonio Cagliano.

Evita Perón, who died in 1952, is still venerated by most Argentineans but she is not linked with the church. We visited her tomb in a Catholic cemetery in Buenos Aires -- just one of the many contradictions in the country.

José de San Martín (1778-1850), viewed as the liberator of Chile, Argentina and Peru and honored with enormous sculptures in virtually any town with a square, was refused church burial because he was linked with the Masons. So, the church added a wing to its cathedral and buried him there with military guards supplied by the army. This is called flex theology.

Not long ago, Cardinal Pio Laghi, representing John Paul II, called upon George Bush to plead for peace. As apostolic nuncio and later apostolic delegate to Argentina (1974-84), he kept in shape by playing handball with Argentinean generals who routinely slaughtered those who sought democratic reform. Laghi was named nuncio to the United States in 1984 where he became friends with the Bush family. Little wonder that the papal coat of arms that adorns the cathedral in Buenos Aires is smeared with graffiti.

There appears to be two churches in Latin America: one that speaks out for the poor and disenfranchised and another that is cozy with the government. The latter one may be found in the big cities. The church grows increasingly more conservative. “The big-city clergy are comfortable,” one guide said. “They don’t want change.” Thus, expatriate Nazis can still hold an anniversary Mass for Adolph Hitler and find a priest to elevate the host. However, Liberation Theology is viewed as the axis of evil.

What emerges is a church that will articulate social issues as long as it doesn’t hobble the institution. It will use trickle-down charity to feed the poor but fight any effort to change their station, assuring them that there will be lots of pie in the sky when they die.

We visited a cathedral in Santiago and were moved by a side altar, layered with beautiful flowers, that celebrated the heroic sanctity of a Carmelite nun, Juana Fernández Solar, who died in 1920 and who is now St. Teresa de los Andes. Teresa is the first canonized Chilean saint. We chatted with a schoolteacher who was praying at the shrine. She confided that the young nun had received the support of the Chilean aristocracy who later funded the campaign to canonize Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei, who made the church’s Hall of Fame in 2002. “Anything can be bought in the church,” the teacher said to Jean. And she went back to her prayers.

Somehow, the American government and the Catholic church have an annoying habit of coming down on the wrong side of virtually every social issue.

The devotional faith is strong in South America. One can’t take a cab that doesn’t have a shrine. Barefoot kids pass out holy cards on the streets in exchange for a peso or two. Catholic shrines are attached to public and private buildings. Both men and women wear gold crosses. But church attendance, especially among males, is generally confined to epiphanies such as being hatched, matched and dispatched.

Our guides were diplomatic. They rarely discussed religion or politics. There were two exceptions. Both were Jewish.

The guidebooks preceded “religion” with “nominally Catholic,” making the three countries about 80 percent nominally Roman Catholic. The enormous cruise ship had a fairly well attended daily Mass, thanks to a gracious and articulate priest from Evansville, Ind., who was leading a group. Mass in the city churches tended to be in side chapels that were filled. (The main churches were largely in darkness, perhaps because electricity is expensive.)

Like the rest of the culture, the dominant theme is Spanish, with graphic art and overdone shrines, although the continent is almost as ethnically mixed as the United States.

As I said, we missed 10 countries. But we visited those that once had the most stable political conditions and the biggest economic growth, and which suffered the most brutal military dictatorships in the 1970s.

Uruguay had the longest democratic tradition, but the 1950s and ’60s saw an economic downturn, social disruption and the dictatorship and torture. Chile was once the most stable economic nation. However, foreign investment and vast economic disparities combined with American economists who were designing their policies. Further, the CIA was under every shrub. Socialist president Salvador Allende was assassinated -- some still hold that he committed suicide -- and Pinochet formed a conservative and repressive government. Although Argentina’s economic growth soared, most of the money remained in the hands of a few. As a result, the economy remains severely hobbled. (During our visit, they were planning a March presidential election but had not yet found a candidate.)

Meanwhile, the church has often spoken out for justice but, at the functional level, has sided with corrupt politicians and the wealthy, largely because of a morbid fear of communism and the threat of a loss of power.

Still, the future looks good. There’s a need to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor and to harmonize life in the cities with that of the country. Most of all, the government, the church and American capitalists need to offer the young population -- about 40 percent of the country -- a chance to realize their full potential.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is taking tango lessons. Dance with him at

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 2003

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