Roughly 95 percent of Bolivians professed Roman Catholicism; nonetheless, a much smaller portion participated actively. Religion was traditionally the domain of women. Men felt no obligation to attend church or to practice their religion. The absence of clergy in the rural areas fueled the development of an Andean folk-Catholicism among Indians. In the decades following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the church tried to make religion a more active force in social life.
Roman Catholicism had its roots in the Spanish conquest; priests accompanied the first military expeditions. The church's organization, personnel, and role in society were all defined early in the colonial era. Pope Julius III created the La Plata bishopric in 1552; this was followed by those of La Paz and Santa Cruz early in the seventeenth century. A plethora of religious orders--Franciscans, Mercedarians, Dominicans, and Jesuits were the most prominent--joined diocesan priests in the colonial ministry. The clergy were largely of European origin. The few mestizos who joined the ranks were usually admitted as lay brothers rather than priests.
The patronato real (an agreement between the Catholic Church and the Spanish crown) gave the Spanish throne and, by extension, the colonial authorities significant powers in church affairs. Appointments of clergy and bishops normally required the approval of civil authorities. The relationship between church and state was mutual and intimate; each institution had great influence on the other's affairs. In a society where separation from the religious ministrations of the church was unthinkable, the church had great moral influence.
In addition, the colonial church was an extremely wealthy institution. Religious organizations not only owned extensive tracts of land but also served as quasi-official moneylenders to the landed elite and high-ranking officeholders. By the end of the colonial era, a combination of money lending and shrewd real estate investments had made the church the dominant financial power in Bolivia.
Independence brought some changes to Bolivian church-state relations. The Roman Catholic Church retained its status as the nation's sole religion. Except for a brief period during the 1870s, this pattern continued throughout the nineteenth century. At the same time, however, the new Bolivian government quickly asserted its primacy over the church. In 1826 President Antonio José de Sucre Alcalá (1825-28) took control over the collection of church tithes, closed all monasteries with fewer than twelve persons, and seized church lands. These actions permanently weakened the church as a political force.
Further changes occurred in the twentieth century. In 1906 the government proclaimed religious toleration and permitted the establishment of non-Roman Catholic churches. In 1961 the government relinquished its right under the patronato nacional (the successor to the patronato real) to mediate in church affairs. No longer could the government have a voice in conciliar decrees, briefs, or bulls that the pope issued or play a role in the selection of high-ranking church officials. The Constitution of 1967 grants official status to the Roman Catholic Church but also guarantees the public exercise of all other religions.
Freed from direct government control, the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s attempted to establish a more visible presence in Bolivian society. The country's bishops, organized into the Bolivian Bishops Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Boliviana-- CEB), issued pastoral letters condemning the living conditions of peasants and workers. The bishops established development centers, research organizations, and commissions to address these problems. Many priests, brothers, and sisters took a more direct political stance. The so-called miner priests--oblates assigned to parishes in mining communities--actively defended workers' rights. This experience led to the formation in 1968 of Church and Society in Latin America-Bolivia (Iglesia y Sociedad en América Latina-Bolivia -- ISAL-Bolivia). Employing a Marxist analysis of society, ISAL-Bolivia endorsed socialism as the only means of achieving justice.
The political stance of ISAL-Bolivia and others engendered a sharp response from the bishops. Shortly after ISAL-Bolivia contended that capitalism had contaminated the church, the CEB stripped the organization of its official Catholic status. In a subsequent pastoral letter, the bishops stated that although priests had an obligation to promote needed social change, they could not identify with specific political parties or movements. The church hierarchy's caution was evident in its handling of the Bolivian Justice and Peace Commission. Established in 1973 as a research arm of the episcopate, the commission quickly became active in defending the rights of political prisoners of the military government led by Colonel Hugo Banzer Suárez. The government accused the commission of promoting subversive propaganda and deported the organization's key personnel. In their response, the bishops endorsed the commission's human rights agenda but then suspended its operations for two years. The reconstituted commission operated under tighter episcopal controls than did its predecessor.
The return of democracy in the 1980s presented the church with a new set of challenges. Although the CEB recognized that the economic crisis of the early and mid-1980s required strong measures, it publicly questioned the wisdom of the stabilization policies adopted in 1985 by President Víctor Paz Estenssoro. Endorsing the position adopted at the Latin American Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979, the CEB suggested that Paz Estenssoro's New Economic Policy (Nueva Política Económica--NPE) would generate increasing levels of inequality in society. The bishops followed up this pastoral letter by mediating negotiations in 1986 between the government and the Bolivian Labor Federation.
In 1986 the Roman Catholic Church was organized into four archdioceses (La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, and Sucre), four dioceses, two territorial prelatures, and six apostolic vicariates. The bishops had at their disposal approximately 750 priests, most of whom were foreigners. The paucity of priests significantly hampered church activities. For example, the archdiocese of Sucre only had sixty-two priests to attend to the needs of an estimated 532,000 Catholics dispersed over 50,000 square kilometers.
Because of the church's weak rural presence, the vast majority of Indians followed their own brand of folk-Catholicism far removed from orthodoxy. Indians saw no inconsistency in mixing modern technology and medicine with folk curers or indigenous ritual with professed Roman Catholicism. Indigenous rituals and fragments of Roman Catholic worship were interwoven in the elaborate fiestas that were the focus of social life.
The Quechua and Aymara pantheon was a mix of Christian and preconquest spirits and beings. A deity like the virginal daughter of the Inca sun god was transmuted into a Christian figure, in this case the Virgin Mary. Many of the supernaturals were linked to a specific place, such as lake and mountain spirits. The earth mother, Pachamama, and fertility rituals played a prominent role. In the 1980s, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and members of a variety of Pentecostal denominations gained increasing numbers of adherents among the rural and urban squatter populations. Because these denominations tended to emphasize individual salvation and to deemphasize social and political issues, many leftists charged that they were agents of the United States government. In May 1989, left-wing terrorists murdered two Mormon missionaries from the United States who had been working in a squatter community near La Paz.
Other denominations represented in Bolivia included Methodists and Mennonites. The Baha'i faith had members in over 5,500 localities. Bolivia also had a small Jewish community, which had not reported any discrimination. In 1988 the government stated that numerous religious groups were operating in Bolivia illegally, but its attempt to expel some foreign members of the Hari Krishna sect in 1986 was overturned by the Supreme Court of Justice.
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