The Constitution prescribes that there shall be no prejudice with respect to religious freedom, and the practice of all forms of worship is authorized. However, the Constitution recognizes that the Roman Catholic faith is the country's predominant religion and contains a provision that it be taught in the public schools. Such instruction or other religious activity is not, however, compulsory .
The Constitution does not specifically provide for the separation of church and state, but it implies the independent functioning of each. Members of the clergy may not hold civil or military public office, except such posts as may be concerned with social welfare or public instruction. The Constitution stipulates that senior officials of the church hierarchy in Panama must be native-born citizens.
The majority of Panamanians in the late 1980s were at least nominal Roman Catholics. The Antillean black community, however, was largely Protestant. Indians followed their own indigenous belief systems, although both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were active among the various tribes. Roman Catholicism permeated the social environment culturally as well as religiously. The devout regarded church attendance and the observance of religious duties as regular features of everyday life, and even the most casual or nominal Roman Catholics adjusted the orientation of their daily lives to the prevailing norms of the religious calendar. Although some sacraments were observed more scrupulously than others, baptism was almost universal, and the last rites of the church were administered to many who during their lives had been indifferent to the precepts of the faith or its religious rituals.
In the mid-1980s, when nearly 90 percent of the population was Roman Catholic, there were fewer than 300 priests in the country. Virtually every town had its Roman Catholic church, but many did not have a priest in residence. Many rural inhabitants in the more remote areas received only an occasional visit from a busy priest who traveled among a number of isolated villages.
Religious attitudes, customs, and beliefs differed somewhat between urban and rural areas, although many members of the urban working class, often recent migrants from rural regions, presumably retained their folk beliefs. According to one anthropologist, the belief system of the campesinos centered on God, the Devil, the saints, and the Virgin. Christ was viewed as more or less the chief saint, but as peripheral to the lives of men. The Virgin Mary served as an inspiration and model to women, but there was no comparable model for men.
Although the campesinos believed that each individual "is born with a destiny set by God," they also believed that the destiny could be altered if the individual succumbed to the constant blandishments and enticements of the Devil. The rural dwellers possessed a clear sense of reward and punishment that centered on All Souls' Day. On that day all who died during the previous year are summoned to judgment before God and the Devil. The life record of each person is recited by Saint Peter, and the good and bad deeds are weighed out on a Roman balance scale, thus determining the person's afterlife.
Throughout the society, birth and death were marked by religious rites observed by all but a very few. One of the first social functions in which newly born members of the family participated was the sacrament of baptism, which symbolized their entry into society and brought them into the church community. In the cities, church facilities were readily available, but in rural areas families often had to travel some distance to the nearest parish center for the ceremony. The trip was considered of great importance and was willingly undertaken. In fact, baptism was generally considered the most significant religious rite.
If the family lived near a church that had a priest in regular attendance, children received an early exposure to the formal teachings of the church and were usually taken to mass regularly by their mothers. As they grew older, they took an increasing part in church liturgy and by the age of ten were usually full participants in such activities as catechism classes, communion, and confession. As they approached manhood, boys tended to drift away from the church and from conscientious observation of church ritual. Few young men attended services regularly, and even fewer took an active part in the religious life of the community, although they continued to consider themselves Roman Catholics.
Girls, on the other hand, were encouraged to continue their religious devotions and observe the moral tenets of their faith. Women were more involved in the church than men, and the community and clerics accepted this as a basic axiom. There was social pressure on women to become involved in church affairs, and most women, particularly in urban areas, responded. As a rule, they attended mass regularly and took an active part in church and church-sponsored activities. Religious gatherings and observances were among the principal forms of diversion for women outside the home, and to a great extent these activities were social as much as devotional.
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