In the 1980s an estimated 92 to 97 percent of all Paraguayans were Roman Catholics. The remainder were Mennonites or members of various Protestant groups. The 1967 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but recognizes the unique role that Catholicism plays in national life. The president must be a Roman Catholic, but clergy are enjoined from serving as deputies or senators and discouraged from partisan political activity. Relations between church and state traditionally were close, if not always cordial.
A papal decree created the Bishopric of Asunción in 1547, and the first bishop arrived in the diocese in 1556. In 1588 three Jesuits came with the intent of pacifying and converting the Indians. After the arrival of additional Jesuits and Franciscans, the priests began working in the southeastern area of modern Paraguay and on the shores of the Río Paraná in parts of what is now Argentina and Brazil.
The Jesuits soon realized that they had to protect the Indians from enslavement by the growing numbers of Spanish and Portuguese if they were going to convert them. They accomplished this by settling the Indians in reducciones (townships) under Jesuit direction. At one point about 100,000 Indians lived in the reducciones; the system lasted a century and a half until the Jesuits' expulsion (1767). Following the end of the Jesuit regime, the reducción Indians were gradually absorbed into mestizo society or returned to their indigenous way of life.
For much of the nineteenth century, church-state relations ranged from indifferent to hostile. The new state assumed the prerogatives of royal patronage that the Vatican had accorded to the Spanish crown and sought to control bishops and the clergy. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814-40) was committed to a secular state. He suppressed monastic orders, eliminated the tithe, instituted civil marriage, and cut off communication with the Vatican. Francisco Solano López (1862-70) used the church as a branch of government, enlisting priests as agents to report on the population's disaffection and signs of subversion.
Church-state relations reached their nadir with the execution of the bishop of Asunción, Manuel Antonio Palacio, during the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-70). By the war's end, there were only fifty-five priests left in the country,and the church was left leaderless for eleven years.
The modern Paraguayan church was established largely under the direction of Juan Sinforiano Bogarón (archbishop of Asunción, 1930- 49) and Aníbal Mena Porta (archbishop of Asunción, 1949-69). Both envisioned a church whose role in the country's endemic political struggles was that of a strictly neutral mediator among the rival factions.
Starting in the late 1950s, the clergy and bishops were frequently at odds with the government. Confrontations began with individual priests giving sermons calling for political freedom and social justice. The activities of the clergy and various lay groups like Catholic Action (Acción Católica) pushed the church hierarchy to make increasingly critical statements about the regime of Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda (president since 1954).
In the 1960s the Catholic University of Our Lady of Asunción became a center of antiregime sentiment. Students and faculty began cooperation with workers and peasants, forming workers' organizations as an alternative to the government-sponsored union. They organized Christian Agrarian Leagues (also known as peasant leagues) among small farmers. The organizations sponsored literacy programs, welfare activities, and various types of cooperatives. In addition, Catholics operated a news magazine and radio station-- both critical of the government.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were sporadic student demonstrations and government crackdowns. The church criticized the lack of political freedom and the government's human rights record. The government's principal countermeasures included expelling foreign-born clergy and periodically closing the university, news magazine, and radio station. In response, the archbishop of Asunción excommunicated various prominent government officials and suspended Catholic participation at major civic and religious celebrations.
On a popular level, Catholicism was an essential component of social life. Even the poorest of homes contained pictures of the saints and a family shrine. Catholic ritual marked the important transitions in life: baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial. Participation in the rites of the church reflected class and gender expectations. The poor curtailed or delayed rituals because of the costs involved.
Sex roles also affected religious participation. Devotion fell into the female sphere of activities. Men were not expected to show much concern about religion. If they attended mass, it was infrequently, and normally men stood in the rear of the church ready to make a quick exit. Women were supposed to be more devout. Regular participation in church services was seen as a virtue on their part. They were more likely to seek the church's blessing at critical points in the family's existence.
Religion served as perhaps the only institution in society that transcended kinship relations. Both politics and economic activities were enmeshed in the relations of kin; they reflected the family feuds and the accumulated loyalties of generations past. It was in popular religion, however, especially in the communal religious fiestas, that Paraguayans of every social stratum participated and the concerns of family and kin were, to a degree, muted. Fiestas were community and national celebrations; they served as exercises in civic pride and Paraguayan identity. Church holidays were public holidays as much as religious occasions.
The populace enjoyed the celebrations associated with fiestas, but actual belief and practice were typically uninformed by orthodox Catholic dogma. Especially in rural Paraguay, the saints associated with popular devotion were often no more than revered local figures.
Religious societies played an important role, planning and organizing local fiestas and undertaking welfare activities. Various lay brotherhoods assumed responsibility for assisting widows and children, among other duties associated with the care of the poor.
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