The Roman Catholic Church
Although Panama was nearly 90 percent Roman Catholic in the late 1980s, the church had a long tradition of noninvolvement in national politics. Weak organization and a heavy dependence on foreign clergy (only 40 percent of the nation's priests were native-born Panamanians) inhibited the development of strong hierarchical positions on political issues. As a result, Panamanian politics largely avoided the anticlericalism that was so prevalent in much of Latin America. Church concern over social issues increased notably in the 1960s and 1970s, and there were conflicts between the hierarchy and the Torrijos government, especially following the disappearance in 1971 of a prominent reform priest, Father Héctor Gallegos.
In the late 1980s, the church hierarchy was headed by Archbishop Marcos Gregorio McGrath, a naturalized Panamanian citizen and a leader among the Latin American bishops. McGrath and the other bishops strongly supported Panama's claims to sovereignty over the Canal Zone and urged ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. Nevertheless, the church leadership also criticized the lack of democracy in Panama and urged a return to elected civilian rule. In 1985, as political tensions began to mount, the archbishop called for an investigation into the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora and urged both the government and the opposition to enter into a national dialogue. When the 1987 disturbances began, the church stepped up its criticism of the government, accusing the military of having "beaten civilians without provocation" and of using "tactics to humiliate arrested individuals." Priests were frequently present at CCN rallies and demonstrations, and masses downtown became a focal point for some CCN activities. Priests also stayed with Díaz Herrera in his house after he issued his June 1987 charges against Noriega and the government, and when the house was stormed by the FDP and Díaz Herrera arrested, the bishops demanded his release and denounced government restrictions on the press. But the church stopped short of endorsing the CCN or calling for specific changes in the government and the FDP. Instead, it stressed the need for dialogue and reconciliation. The archbishop's insistence on pursuing a moderate, neutral course in the conflict did not satisfy all of the church leadership. In November, two assistant bishops and a large number of clergy issued their own letter, denouncing government actions and urging changes in the conduct of the military. In late 1987, the church was becoming more active but was finding it difficult to agree on the manner and nature of that activity.
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