More than 90 percent of Dominicans were professed Roman Catholics. In the late 1980s, the church organization included 1 archdiocese, 8 dioceses, and 250 parishes. There were over 500 clergy, more than 70 percent of whom belonged to religious orders. This yielded a ratio of nominal Roman Catholics to priests of more than 10,000 to 1. Among Latin American countries only Cuba, Honduras, and El Salvador had higher ratios in the late 1980s.
Roman Catholicism is the official religion of the Dominican Republic, established by a Concordat with the Vatican. For most of the populace, however, religious practice was limited and formalistic. Few actually attended Mass regularly. Popular religious practices were frequently far removed from Roman Catholic orthodoxy. What little religious instruction most Dominicans traditionally received came in the form of rote memorization of the catechism. Many people felt that they could best approach God through intermediaries--the clergy, the saints, witches (brujos), and curers (curanderos). The saints played an important role in popular devotion. Curanderos consulted the saints to ascertain which herbs, roots, and various home cures to employ. Witches (brujos) also cured by driving out possessive spirits that sometimes seized an individual.
Many Dominicans viewed the Roman Catholic clergy with ambivalence. People respected the advice of their local priest, or their bishop, with regard to religious matters; however, they often rejected the advice of clergy on other matters on the assumption that priests had little understanding of secular affairs. Activist priests committed to social reform were not always well-received because their direct involvement with parishioners ran counter to the traditional reserve usually displayed by the Roman Catholic clergy. Villagers often criticized this social involvement. Nonetheless, the priest was generally the only person outside their kinship group that people trusted and confided in. As such, the parish priest often served as an advocate in rural Dominicans' dealings with larger society.
Foreigners predominated among the clergy. The clergy itself was split between the traditional, conservative hierarchy and more liberal parish priests. At the parish level, some priests engaged in community development projects and in efforts to form comunidades de base (grass-roots Christian communities), designed to help people organize and work together more effectively.
The Roman Catholic Church was apolitical during much of the Trujillo era, although a pastoral letter protested the mass arrests of government opponents in 1960. This action so incensed Trujillo that he ordered a campaign of harassment against the Church. Only the dictator's assassination prevented his planned imprisonment of the country's bishops. The papal nuncio attempted to administer humanitarian aid during the 1965 civil war. The bishops also issued various statements throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, calling for respect for human rights and an improved standard of living for the majority. In the 1970s, Bishop Juan Antonio Flores of La Vega campaigned for indemnification for peasants displaced by the expansion of the Pueblo Viejo mine. Bishop Juan F. Pepen and Bishop Hugo Polanco Brito both supported the efforts of peasants and sugar colonos to organize.
Protestants first came as migrants from North America in the 1820s. West Indian laborers added to their numbers in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. By the 1920s, the various Protestant groups had organized nationally and had established links with North American Evangelical groups. The main Evangelical groups included the Seventh Day Adventists, the Dominican Evangelical Church, and the Assemblies of God. Protestant groups expanded, mainly in the rural areas, during the 1960s and the 1970s; Pentecostals made considerable inroads in some regions. With minor exceptions, relations between Protestants and the Roman Catholic majority were cordial.
Most Haitian immigrants and their descendants adhered to voodoo, and practiced it in secret because the government and the general population regarded the folk religion as pagan and African. In Haiti voodoo encompassed a well-defined system of hierology and ceremonialism.
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