Which way for Roman Catholic institutions?


Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002

The Depression of the 1930s led to 25 percent unemployment in Chile, a short-lived Socialist Republic led by an air force commander in 1932, and the election of a left-leaning government in 1938. The 1940s saw the beginning of inflation as a major factor in Chilean politics, as the government spent more than it had and printed more money to cover the difference. Inflation averaged 38 percent per year during the 1950s, and political parties began to coalesce into three major groupings.

The two major parties of the 19th century, Conservative and Liberal-"Liberal" in the 19th century meant a commitment to small government, free trade, and disestablishment of the Catholic Church-were now united as the parties of the right. They supported private property but did not place any great emphasis on the obligation of property owners (who had benefited from government backing) to show compassion to those whose ancestors had not been so politically adept. Meanwhile, the Communists and Socialists were on the left, with the Socialists, oddly, often further to the left; Chilean Communists believed in the salami strategy of seizing power slice by slice over several decades, while many Socialists favored consuming the whole hog at one sitting.

The major power in the center-and the swing vote in elections generally-was a new kid on the block, but one powered by Chile's major religious tradition. The Partido Democrata Cristinano (PDC), the Christian Democratic Party, commenced in 1957. Some of its members emphasized voluntary efforts to bring about class reconciliation through the provision of Christian charity, but others tilted toward government-forced income redistribution. Many, coming out of the Catholic "communitarian" position, emphasized governmental pressure in the economy, worker management, and agricultural cooperatives. PDC political tacticians positioned their creation as a moderate party that could work with, and in the process de-fang, Chile's Communist and Socialist parties.

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The 1958 vote was 31 percent for the right's Jorge Alessandri Rodriguez, son of a previous president; 29 percent for the left's Salvador Allende Gossens, leader of Chile's Socialists; and 21 percent for Eduardo Frei Montalva of the PDC, with the other 19 percent going elsewhere. Congress had the right to choose the president from the top two candidates, and the tradition was always to choose whoever received the most votes: Alessandri became president. He fought inflation by placing a ceiling on wages, and dropped it from the average of 38 percent annually all the way to almost zero in 1960, but at a political price: The left gained popularity. To forestall what looked like an Allende victory in 1964 the right agreed to support the PDC's Frei, and he gained 56 percent of the vote to the left's 39 percent. Sept. 11 was nine years away.

The Catholic Church in Chile is the country's largest organization with a vision of class reconciliation rather than class warfare. From that vision, beginning in 1944, grew what is now Hogar de Cristo, Chile's largest mostly nongovernmental social services network. Begun by Jesuit priest Alberto Hurtado, Hogar has grown into a big business, with 500,000 contributors (average contribution per month 1,000 pesos, or about $1.50). Hogar now gets one-third of its money from government and two-thirds through contributions and enterprises (such as the biggest funeral business in Chile) that it runs.

With hundreds of sites throughout Chile, and offering almost womb-to-tomb help, Hogar is the elephant that, if felt in only one place, can be mistaken as a tree or a snake. A severe-looking portrait of Father Hurtado posted in many Hogar offices connects outposts, but some of today's Hogar officials want to make it clear that times have changed. For example, administrator Pablo Egenau, casually dressed in loafers, slacks, a shirt with the top two buttons unbuttoned, a necklace, an expensive-looking watch, and a half-mullet haircut, constantly fiddled with a blue highlighter as he sat in his office with pink walls explaining Hogar, and he emphasized the broad diversity of its operations. But he was emphatic on one point: Hogar allows "no religious teaching."

One of the sites he is proudest of is the Comunidad Terapeutica in La Pintana, an area of southern Santiago that visitors are told to avoid once night falls. The main road there goes by a government-commissioned abstract sculpture titled Somes Todos Iguales ("We are all equal"), but the 13- to 17-year-old boys of the Therapeutic Community are both below and above many of their peers. They are below in that they come from broken or never-formed families. They are above in that they get to live most of the week in a place that looks like a swank American summer camp, with new log lodges and a swimming pool alongside which one teen was playing "Stairway to Heaven" on his guitar.


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