Chile’s Catholics see chasm separating hierarchy from increasingly hostile laity

Crux [Denver CO]

August 4, 2022

By Inés San Martín

To put it mildly, the Catholic Church in Chile has a big problem.

Chilean Catholics describe a giant chasm between the hierarchy, which some church-watchers describe as elite and out of touch, and an increasingly incredulous and hostile laity. Without a real effort of both parties to bridge the gap, these same experts fear the church will never regain its once honored place in the country.

One striking place the strain is showing up is in the numbers.

Eduardo Valenzuela, head of Catholic University’s sociology department, told Crux that in the last two decades, the percentage of Chileans who identify as Catholics dropped from 70 percent to 45. The number of Mass-going faithful has been reduced by half.

“There’s a lot of fear in the hierarchy of not being able to control the situation, of calling a lay Catholic to organize something, of accepting the need to loosen the leash,” he said. “The problem we have is that it’s not only a problem of public credibility. We have a phenomenal drain of Catholics. Among young people, forget about it. It’s a problem for them today to publicly acknowledge their faith.”

One priest, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to previous media exposure, lays the blame on a lack of trust: “Pope Francis does not trust the bishops. The bishops do not trust the clergy. And the clergy do not trust the laity.”

He said that most priests believe the laity are “totally clueless, and if we let them talk, they will rant about ordaining women as priests.”

“Of course, if one is treated like a child, one will behave like a child,” he said. “But we have hit rock bottom. Things are so bad that, at this point, we cannot lose anything by giving autonomy to the people, who don’t really trust us either, and with [good] reason.”

“The time has come for the church as a whole to be brave: Why don’t we put a lay person in charge of a parish, and a chaplain can celebrate Mass, the sacraments, and hear confessions?” he suggested. “Not having to manage the day-to-day running of the parish, he can devote himself fully to the sacraments. If it doesn’t work, I insist, things cannot be worse than they are now.”

Then, of course, there’s a priest shortage.

Father Cristian Borgoño, a former member of the Legionaries of Christ, told Crux that the shortage of priests has always been a reality in Santiago, Chile’s capital, but the problem is worsening with no solution in sight.

“We have fewer than 1,000 priests, and this year only one man joined the seminary,” Borgoño said. “There’s a disconnect between what is happening in the hierarchy and the lay people, who in my perception, don’t care about the crisis the church is living through.”

Mass-going Catholics, he said, expect for their priest to make a comment about the abuse crisis, but they don’t really expect for you to solve it, nor do they want to get involved in addressing it.

“What matters to each person is to live out their own faith, unplugged from their church and even from the lay people around them,” he said. This disconnect is often palpable in families too, who don’t pass down the faith.

Borgoño argued that no one in the church should ever forget that the clerical abuse crisis, together with crises of abuse of power and conscience, are real, and there is much to be done. Every member of the church, he said, according to their position, is being called to do something to address it.

“There’s a lack of responsibility in the face of a problem that we have to solve in solidarity,” he said. “On the other hand, we priests have to take charge of our true role: We are at the service of the people of God, we are not employees of a hierarchy. Our relationship with the hierarchy is secondary, and in the clergy in general, there’s an idea that our priority is to execute the orders of the hierarchy. No. Our primary responsibility is to help others live their faith.”

Eugenio de la Fuente, who left the priesthood earlier this year but not the church, said there’s a need for a new culture when it comes to the hierarchy, both in the priesthood and religious superiors.

“We need a way of governing the church that is according to the Gospel and not according to Emperor Constantine,” he said. “Today, the Vatican is basically Buckingham Palace, a monarchy; its center is a royal court and not a spiritual center. It’s even worse than a court, because what the Vatican does, it does in the name of God.”

On the other hand, De la Fuente is convinced that for the church in Chile to be cleansed, and begin a much-needed process of healing, the laity has to stand up and demand, “on the basis of the Gospel, that the church return to its authentic origins with respect to its raison d’être, in coordination with the incarnation and redemption: the good of the human person.”

However, he pointed out that the great inequality one sees in Chile in general is reflected in the church, and that’s part of its problem.

The “elite” of Chile’s laity, those who fund the church, donate to projects and in the end, keep the institution running, he argued, are all members of “powerful” movements. He mentioned the Catechumenal Way, the Legionaries of Christ, Opus Dei and Schoenstatt, and pointed out that there are others, many of which, according to the former priest, have abused the conscience of their members.

“They are formed in such a way that they believe that the hierarchy has and says the will of God,” he argued. “And these lay people will never be able to stand up and say enough is enough, because they are formed in a way that is convenient to a hierarchy that supports itself.”

His hope is that these elites close their wallets until the hierarchy is cleaned up.: “But the entire Catholic elite is formed by these movements. And practically all the bishops in Chile belong to one of these movements, or to a religious order, like the Jesuits or the Franciscans, houses of power on their own.”

The reasons for the laity’s inaction are often more complicated.

Valenzuela, a married layman and academic who’s deeply invested in helping the Chilean church find its footing again, said that his faith is “sheltered” from the institutional vicissitudes because he knows the history of the church (“things have actually been worse”), and his trust  is rooted in God, not men.

With several members of the troubled hierarchy on his speed dial, he said many bishops fear not being able to control the “situation” of a lay man or woman who has a mind of their own and who cannot be “muzzled.”

However, if he could, he said he would shake some sense into these bishops, because, thus far, they have proven incapable of seeing that the problem they have today is not only one of public credibility.

“We have a phenomenal drain of Catholics, the church is bleeding out, with an impact not only in the trust of the public, but in affiliation, belonging and observance,” he said. “People are leaving the church to go nowhere: They still believe in Christ, but they have no sense of belonging.”

The hemorrhaging comes from both the abuse crisis and secularization. This combination, Valenzuela argued, has created a crisis that the bishops on their own cannot fix.

He is, however, frustrated by the modest role the laity in Chile have played, he said, thanks among other things to the Catholic University, it is a “very competent” laity.

“There’s a laity you can call upon,” he said. “If the authorities would call and let themselves be helped by the laity, things would work. There are many lay people, very competent, in all areas. But they do not allow themselves to be helped in any way. The layperson who works with them is usually a mirror, giving them back their own image, because they are unable to have a meaningful relationship with someone who is not their equal.”

With a competent laity that won’t force itself into the institutional organization, and bishops who refuse to actually benefit from the lay theologians, communications experts, canon lawyers, accountants, and a long list of other professionals, Valenzuela, like the rest, has “little confidence that we can solve this well.”

“Time buries everything in the end, but it can take 20 years,” he said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma