Bolivia- MAS and the Bolivian Catholic Church: Challenges of Reconciliation

MAS and the Bolivian Catholic Church: Challenges of Reconciliation, Power and Democracy

Since the election of Indigenous descendent Evo Morales as Bolivian President in 2005, national politics, economics and culture have changed dramatically as the country has reconsidered many previously held common truths. Having the largest population of people claiming Indigenous identity in South America makes Bolivia one of the most culturally complex nations on the continent which is manifested in its rich traditions and customs. Nevertheless, prior to the election of Evo Morales Bolivia was the most economically unequal and poorest country in South America and still remains one of the most unbalanced and poorest countries in the world. Through the election 9 years ago of the Socialist party, MAS (Movimiento al Socialismo), varies sectors of old power and influence have been challenged as the country has undergone intense reconfiguration. One of the most powerfully influential sectors of Bolivia, indeed South America, is the Catholic Church (over 80% of Bolivians are Catholic), which unsurprisingly has come under scrutiny and controversy during the Morales years which aims to “decolonise the country” (Tsolakis. 2008). No other single organisation in South America has such close ties to the historical colonisation of the continent than the Church, therefore making it very hard to challenge the colonial power structures without stepping on the toes of the Church.
This paper will explore this complex relationship between the MAS government of the controversial Indigenous, yet self-confessed Catholic Evo Morales and the Bolivian Catholic Church: investigating the problems, power struggles, influences and directions of the country. For a South American government to address the legacies of colonialism without being somewhat critical of the Catholic Church is to almost fail in their objectives, such is the influence of the institution. As Bolivia undergoes radical change whereby notions of identity, faith and power are rethought, controversy has been frequently present with many xenophobic and racially charged attacks and riots (Buxton. 2007). In this polemic atmosphere the position taken by the so-called moral-authority, the Catholic Church- who holds enormous power over the existential, ethical and spiritual reality of millions of Bolivians- is of crucial importance.
Currently the Catholic Church and MAS have conflicted over several key issues: seizure of Church lands, constitutional rights of the Catholic Church as the National Religion, abortion and marriage issues, but most seriously over the teaching of obligatory religious classes in public schools (Howard. 2009). Despite Bolivia being the world’s only recognised Plurinational State, religiously the power still resides very strongly with the Catholic Church. This paper argues that unless the Catholic Church changes (or has changed) its type of discussion, language and ultimately structure of power, issues of reconciliation, historical pluralism and greater moves towards democracy will not progress.
The wider issues and debates related to the Bolivian MAS government are dense and will not being covered in this paper which will instead focus on the relation between the political Party and the Church hierarchy. I will first highlight, very briefly, the history of the Church in South America, though principally in Bolivia, as the Church´s significance in the country is wholly historically related, and indeed there resides both its religious power and also its ambiguities with attempting to move towards reconciliation and de-colonisation. Next I will explore the current context and issues between the Church and the MAS government, before later arguing and reflecting on the significance of these issues for the current and future political climate of the nation. When talking about the Church I refer to the Church’s hierarchy and structures of power, not various pious lay members nor its followers, whom in their majority actually support the MAS government which remains extremely popular. Therefore any criticism against the Church does not refer to the entire entity rather the positions of power within the institution that have the readily assessable ability to shape the Church’s actions and discourse.
History and background
The emergence of Catholicism in South America and the part later known as Bolivia was entirely the product of the colonial effort headed by Portugal and Spain. The history of this colonization, which commenced after Christopher Columbus first encountered the so-called New World in 1492, cannot be divorced from the existential and physical colonisation carried out by the Catholic Church, who indeed benefited enormously (Schwaller. 2011, p.xii). Undeniably since this period State power, education, social control and hegemonic authority, and at times military influence, have been strongly linked with the Church in every country in South America (Schwaller. 2011, p.3-4). While the situation has changed over the years this legacy remains resilient, illustrated by South America continuing to have the largest concentration of Catholics on the planet. In what was later known as Bolivia, Catholicism started replacing or incorporating traditional beliefs within its teachings causing much social upheaval amongst the indigenous population, though also, in sections, “providing the only voice against the violent treatment of the indigenous” (Kung. 2003, p.44).
Bolivia, formerly known when part of the Spanish Empire as Alto Peru, gained its historical importance due to the silver mines of Cerro Rico, Potosi. Indeed the construction of many cities and towns in Bolivia, and throughout South America, are directly related to the enormous wealth the mine of Potosi would provide the Spanish empire (Galeano. 1997). Potosi would become one of the largest and richest cities in the world during this period, testimony to the immeasurable amounts of silver extracted from the mines, under appalling conditions causing the death of between 8-10 million Indigenous and African workers and slaves (Galeano. 1997). The influence of the Catholic Church to this city is expressed in the construction of over 86 churches and cathedrals. Equally, throughout Bolivia hundreds of churches have been built illuminating the Church’s importance.
The Church also had control over key social issues such as the Coca leaf, which was of immense importance to the native cultures of Bolivia, as well as education. It constructed numerous Jesuit university towns and reduction missions (Schwaller. 2011). The issue of Coca is decisive proof of the interconnected history between the church and colonialism. Initially banned by the Catholic Church under pain of death because coca was seen as “an agent of idolatry and sorcery” and “an evil agent of the Devil” this was later reversed as its qualities as a stimulant were realized (Schwaller. 2001, p.55). In other words, once the Spanish realized that the Indigenous people, with coca consumption, could work harder and longer without rest or foodstuff the Church declared it legal (no longer an agent of the Devil). In addition, through the imposition of a tax and even cultivating the coca plant, they generated a sizable profit (Galeano. 1997). The palpable presence of the Catholic Church in Potosi (and every single town and city of Bolivia), perhaps the most important city to the Spanish Empire in the Americas, highlights its significance to both the colonisation of the Indigenous people and its conspicuous acceptance, despite cases of objection, to the enormous wealth exploited through slavery and bonded labour. Later, in spite of Bolivian independence from Spain, the Church retained its power becoming the Official National religion of the country, a position it would hold until the Morales governments’ change of constitution in 2009 (Webber. 2011, p.5). The Catholic Church’s colonial history in Bolivia has been highlighted to show the important role it must adopt in attempting to come to terms with this legacy: an inheritance which remains vital given both the Church’s use of history to justify its supernatural claims to significance and the enormous influence maintained by the Church over public education.
Contemporary context and issues
In 2005 Evo Morales won the Presidential election, making him the first Bolivian President to claim Indigenous descent. From the outset Morales’s MAS government has stood for the refoundation of Bolivia and anti-imperialism, causing what many saw as a polarization of politics, a statement which has many truths when MAS has attempted to use binary identity politics (Webber. 2011, p.14-16). Nevertheless the sheer inequality of economic and cultural power in Bolivian society, and its lack of change, created the foundations for a radicalization of politics, and thus since the inauguration of Evo Morales the government’s relationship with the Church has been highly controversial.
Merely months after the election win by MAS, it was rumoured that a constitution change would occur, rendering the state independent of religion, to which the Church’s response was murky. Indeed the Archbishop of Santa Cruz, Cardinal Julio Terrazas, stated that: “We are not afraid of Bolivia becoming a secular state”, however the idea of Secularism, the cardinal cautioned, can “order a country in such a way that God is not present” (CNA. 2006). Such a statement from senior Church figures hints at placing secularism directly against the idea of God, and thus the state endorsement of the Catholic faith which thereby is seen as the representation of God. This theme shall be explored later particularly as issues are pushed further into sharply contrasting opposites. Thus from this point on, the hierarchy of the Church and MAS would have a delicate relationship. This is highlighted by Kane who states that the new MAS constitution would “come to recognize and protect, for the first time, Bolivia’s indigenous communities and Pachamama (Mother Earth)… prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation, identify Bolivia as a pacifist, secular state and guarantee sexual and reproductive rights”, moves that have caused controversy with many Catholic social teachings (2013).
Nevertheless the laws have not accompanied this bold constitution, and in many cases abortion still carries a criminal charge, such examples as in 2013 when a 27 year old Guaraní Indigenous woman was imprisoned for having an abortion after being raped six months earlier, a common fact in a country where “according to UN Women, seven out of 10 women in Bolivia are victims of sexual violence” (Kane. 2013). The particular nature of the abortion issue and response in Bolivia has been strongly linked to the church, which takes a strong unequivocal stance against abortion. In 2005, the MAS, internally divided on the issue, tried unsuccessfully to introduce easier access to abortion (Castellanos. 2008).
The politicisation of the Catholic position, particularly against abortion is undeniable, indeed Archbishop Sergio Gualberti stated that “abortion is an imperialist strategy for population control, promoted by international NGOs and foreign governments that are seeking to undermine Bolivia’s sovereignty” (cited in Atchenburg. 2014). While in 2006 Bishop Jesus Juarez threatened excommunicating Judge Juan Luis Ledezma for disregarding Church orders by allowing a 12 year-old girl, raped by her stepfather, to have an abortion (CNA. 2006). This was followed by the Church organising anti-abortion rallies in cities such as Cochabamba. Equally moves to recognise gay civil liberties by MAS have conflicted with the Church. Responding to new initiatives in the constitution around this issue Bishop Óscar Aparicio, called it “a threat to the family” and if “coupled by child adoptions (by gay parents), is a danger to a child’s psycho-social development” (Koc-Menard. 2012). The implications for such an utterly political stance, whether correct or not, brings into light questions of public education and the Church’s huge authority over such matters. This is the key debate between the government trying to reform and decolonise the country from its colonial past, and one of the nation’s most powerful institutions which, whether used for good or bad, has wielded huge power since the colonial times.
In 2006, one of the first key decisions by MAS was attempting to change the religious curriculum in public education, summed up by the statements of Evo Morales that “education will emphatically be secular and no longer Catholic….religion classes will now be optional instead of obligatory (and) there will be a course on the history of religions: indigenous, Arabic, or Catholic” (CNA. 2006). This began one of the more controversial conflicts between the Church and state as MAS would attempt to not only stop endorsing Catholicism as the official state religion, a move completed in 2009, but as the official religion in state education. The response by the Churches hierarchy was unsubtle. Archbishop Tito Solari claimed that MAS “should respect the Catholic beliefs of the majority of Bolivians” while Micaela Princiotto, member of the Bishops’ Committee on Education, stated that “I think the problem is not with the Church, but with the faith of the people who are 80% Catholic”, thus attempting to cause concern for Catholic believers (CNA. 2006). Meanwhile Archbishop Terrazas attempted to explain “the difference between a lay State and a secular State that is hostile to religions. …[The Catholic Church will defend] the universal right to profess a religion” (CNA. 2007). This is despite MAS member Patzi clearing stating that: “Religious subject matter will respect the diversity of religions and that is something we share with the Church, everyone has the right to practice the diversity of other religions, there was never any disagreement on that” (CNA. 2007)
The Archbishop Tito Solari decried MAS’s attempt to implement this change to education as acting “in a Communist fashion, whereby the government imposed its ideology without any room for dialogue”, while Auxiliary Bishop, Estanislao Dowlaszewicz, stated: “Today some people live as if they were allergic to religion or the Church… [depicting it as] a danger for the future of the country…[they are trying to] remove not only religion from the classroom, but God as well“ (CNA. 2006). In an article by World Wide Religious News, Bolivia’s Cardinal Julio Terrazas told Catholics to stop being “passive” and defend their faith, while Auxiliary Bishop Luis Saenz called on Catholics to protest stating that “Bolivia is a country of one people devoted to the one true God…the Catholic Church shall not be enslaved. She is not a slave to the government because she is not a political party” (CNA. 2006). President Evo Morales despite stating that he is “worried by the behaviour of some Catholic Church leaders who are acting like in times of the Inquisition”, would, after a series of talks with key clergy members, withdraw all attempted changes to public education and reverse the actions taken by his government with regards to education and religion (AP. 2006). The MAS government has not tried since to change this aspect of public education in Bolivia.
Contemporary implications
These debates have important implications for the future of Bolivia in attempting to both reconcile with its colonial past and democratize its future. In his novel 1984 George Orwell states “we know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it”, a statement that is of great relevance when discussing the Catholic Church in Bolivia (2003, p.338). The above statements, all by key members of the Church’s hierarchy not merely lay members, show how despite the Church’s already enormous influence in education, public policy and social welfare programs, these are not all done purely out of charity but often with the intention of acuminating power: power that they do not wish to share nor pluralise. I will now argue that education in any secular democratic society must be pluralistic and attempt to avoid forms of explicit indoctrination, and equally that in Bolivia’s case, attempts to reconcile with the history of its colonial legacy are delayed by the Church (of course among other factors). While social issues such as abortion and sexual rights are of related importance to this, the reproduction of public education under control of the Catholic system is at the heart of the matter, bringing into contradiction the early quote that the Church is “not a slave to the government because she is not a political party” (CNA. 2007).
It is clear that the statements such as “Bolivia is a country of one people devoted to the one true God” and suggesting that the education bill will remove both religion and god from the classroom are not signs of an open dialogue but rather move the debate to extremely binary levels, something that many have accused MAS of doing in other operations of government (CNA. 2006). But worse than make the debate binary, the positions serve to: utterly politicise an institution that continually presents itself acting under the guise of political neutrality; install existential fear in voters and their children’s education; dare to suggest that with secular, unbiased religious education ‘God’ will be removed from the classroom; and that rather than educate their followers in ways that help to understand the debate, the Church’s hierarchy would rather mobilise people’s fears in order to maintain their hold on power. Indeed for these reason the education bill was not passed. It has been continually debated as it threatened to bring MAS into confrontation with masses of Catholic followers who had been led to believe the bill was an attack on their faith. This, when coupled with the church’s highly influential power around certain social issues, brings into question the issue of democracy, let alone a “coloniality of power” (Quijano cited in Mignolo. 2000).
Before touching further on issues of democracy and coloniality the attitude of Protestant and Evangelical religious groups, making up a “15% minority”, who have been mixed in their reaction, need to be considered (Howard. 2009). Evangelical Theologian Matias Preisweik stated that the Catholic Church “portrays itself as a superior force that intercedes for Bolivians before the Kingdom of God” alluding to the abuse of influential power the Catholic Church can wield (CNA. 2006). Nevertheless laws to control the activities of all Churches such as providing the government with membership and activity information, as well as insisting on financial transparency, created much unrest in evangelical communities (Regalado. 2009). Indeed in response to the 2009 constitution that “elevated the Andean earth deity Pachamama to the same stature as Christianity’s God”, leading Evangelical reverend, Rolando Hurtado, stated that “Paganism versus Christianity is the situation we are in”, and during the 2009 vote on the constitution leading Evangelical churches in Santa Cruz aired an ad featuring Jesus that stated: “Choose God. Vote No” (cited in Regalado & Regalado. 2009). The Catholic Church, as Rolando stated “disavowed the evangelical ads, but followed with its own detailed critique of the constitution” (2009). This shows that issues of extreme binary language are certainly far from unique to the Catholic Church; however the Church’s huge levels of power and influence are unique. It is something that sets them apart from the Evangelicals, who can be shrugged aside by comments, such as the one by MAS representative of Santa Cruz Gabriel Monta, that stated the Ad was “so disrespectful that it lost credibility” (cited in Regalado. 2009). A difficult relationship therefore exists between democracy, the decolonisation of societal hegemony and the Catholic Church. As the above discussion makes clear, the reason the Catholic Church is so different from other religious or non-religious institutions is its broad control of power and the way it presents itself as a neutral and superior force.
A key issue is decolonisation, indeed what it means to decolonise. In a broad definition, decolonisation, a word in many ways strongly linked to reconciliation, means the breakdown of colonial truths and certainties, a space for a plurality of voices and histories, acknowledgement of the crimes committed and a change in old stigmatizations and discrimination. All of these are important, not only in the act of trying to decolonise politics and society, but also towards building a strong democracy. This link is especially important in certain countries, like Bolivia, whose history and traditional structures of power are very much a legacy of colonial times and whose population have very different epistemologies. To say, as the Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Luis Saenz stated, “Bolivia is a country of one people devoted to the one true God”, is incompatible with any notion of decolonisation as it closes down discourse to a totalizing truth, something the Spanish colonisers did in earlier centuries (CNA. 2007). I do not argue that the Bolivian Catholic Church is akin to the colonial Spanish Church, rather the way it presents the debate and indeed itself, between religious truth and lack of religion, create an utterly dualistic discussion which bears resemblance to the colonial years. It is interesting to note that Bishop Jesus Juarez proclaimed that “history should be read responsibly with its lights and its shadows” and “beyond the anchors of bitterness and resentment” (CNA. 2006). However, the Catholic Church attempts to take the middle ground, but without criticising its own position. So, Bishop Jesus Juarez further states that “the Catholic Church affirms her unity, because she constitutes the one People of God” (CNA. 2006). This leaves no space for uncertainty within the position of the Church, especially considering its highly controversial historical legacy. Indeed in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI officially announced that: “It is not possible to forget the sufferings and injustices inflicted by the colonisers on the indigenous population, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled upon” (cited in Wilkinson. 2009). Yet he went on to assert that the indigenous populations of South America were “secretly longing (for Christianity)…without realising it” and equally the Christian evangelization “did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture” (cited in Wilkinson. 2009). In response to this extraordinary and controversial declaration by the Pope, it was reported that “Indigenous rights groups and the President in Bolivia were incensed”, but the Catholic Church of Bolivia made no official criticism (Wilkinson. 2009).
Serious questions arise when an institution claiming a totalizing truth, one which refuses to acknowledge that within the country there may be other truths, has control over the obligatory religious education in public schools. History cannot be properly understood if an organisation with such power refuses to acknowledge itself as anything but total truth and indeed separate from politics, despite its hugely influential presence in key social issues. While naturally this makes it very hard to achieve a break with colonial truths, to move towards reconciliation and plurality, it also raises questions about what it means for democracy. While many have criticized MAS for heavy-handed politics and acting un-democratically, one cannot begin to condemn MAS without similarly decrying the Church’s monopoly practices in society, particularly around education (Howard. 2009). How can public religious education be controlled by a religious organization, whose classes are obligatory, and whose role in public culture, politics and history is enormous, without risking explicit levels of indoctrination?
Archbishop Tito Solari outlined his perception of the State’s role in education which, he argued, “can contribute, in a democratic atmosphere, to people choosing the best educational model for the integral and critical formation of persons” (CNA. 2006). But, following this line of argument surely a key step for a democratic situation would be to abandon the Church’s monopoly over education, which would indeed lead to what has been called a more “critical formation of persons” (CNA. 2006). The position of the church, as spokesperson for the Bolivian Bishops committee on Education, Micaela Princiotto stated, is that the government has ignored the “Church’s contribution to culture, education, health care and development in Bolivia” (CNA. 2007). However, this does not justify for the need of obligatory monopolisation of every public student in Bolivia (CNA. 2007).
In 2006 MAS education Minister Felix Patzi called for: “Education in Bolivia to be secular and pluralistic because that respects the spirituality of each culture and freedom of belief, and promotes its own values, and rejects every type of dogmatism” (CNA. 2007). Archbishop, Cardinal Julio Terrazas responded “Great wars began with small theories … with this discourse of hate, rancour, of unforgiveness” (AP. 2006 & CNA. 2007). Patzi criticized this response, arguing that, “they are saying we are going to destroy the Church and its beliefs…[Do] not lie to the people, give them the whole truth, the hard truth” (AP. 2006 & CNA. 2007). This dispute outlines the undemocratic nature of senior members of the Catholic Church, indeed an Archbishop, who continue to try to manipulate the members of their faith to defend their monopolisation. While the reality of the monopolisation is problematic, the mendacious defence given by the Catholic Church hierarchy is by itself an abuse of its power. In July 2006 protests were led by Catholic organisations in Tarija and Santa Cruz against the bill- despite the Catholic opposition stating “religion is an issue that should not be politicised” (CNA. 2006). The resulting outcome, the perpetuation of the Church’s control over obligatory public school religious classes, illustrates the Church’s continually powerful influence over political affairs.
Bolivia remains a country rooted in its historical complexities that, for better or worse, have created extreme tensions within the country over the direction of Bolivia and indeed its identity (Buxton. 2007). These overall tensions have been led by somewhat extreme politics, by both the left and right; nevertheless these tensions very much remain a legacy of unchanged, historically colonial, formations of society. The Catholic Church must take a role in attempting to democratise the future and the historical interpretation of the past, given its influential position. This does not mean an abandonment of their faith, as the vast majority of Bolivians are Catholics, but rather an acknowledgment of historical wrongs, plus a plurality of values, beliefs and opinions, which still exist within the country and lie at the heart of much discrimination. As a major power within the country, the Church has the influence to mediate discrimination, both racial and cultural, which cannot be done by insisting upon a monopolisation of education which teaches that all other religious epistemologies are wrong. This paper argues that a crucial step towards democracy and recognising the complexity of beliefs, both current and historical, is to change the public education of religion away from any sort of monopoly. The Church has the power to act as a respectful intermediary between the ethnic and cultural disputes, focusing on the essences of their faith and its tolerance instead of attempting to cultivate the faith as a means to an end: essentially to maintain power. The complexities of both the MAS and the historical position of the Catholic Church are difficult to cover in its totality; I have tried in this paper to highlight some of the contemporary debates between the two, particularly over public education, though I acknowledge that many intricacies were unable to be included. In a country whereby Catholicism was imposed colonially and remains the major religious force, I feel the debate and official positions of the Catholic Church should have offered both the Bolivian people and its followers a more intelligent, educative and democratic debate. Instead the debate and position by this organisation have been overwhelmingly directed towards the maintenance of un-pluralistic authority, the manipulation of emotion and ignorance, all of which are dangerous to democracy and would not be tolerated by any other national institution that endorses democracy.

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