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Podcast Transcript:

This podcast explains the relationship that the Catholic Church has had with the Chilean government under the Pinochet regime as well as under Allende. Explained is the various ways that the relationship between the government and the Church was strained under Pinochet and also the various ways the Catholic Church tried to support the people of Chile while various human rights abuses were taking place.

Interviewer: Hello and welcome to another installment of the Pinochet Podcast. Today we are going to talk about the Catholic Church’s role in the Pinochet military regime. The Catholic Church was very important throughout the Pinochet Regime as it provided aid for the many victims of the dictatorship. Throughout this podcast we will discuss the ways that they helped promote human rights under this oppressive regime as well as the important figures that worked towards preserving human rights in Chile. Here we have a few questions prepared for our guest, Ben Fuller, a student studying the Cold War in Latin America at St Lawrence University. Would mind first explaining how the Pinochet regime came to power?

Ben Fuller: Sure, well Pinochet came to power through a military coup against the democratically elected President Allende on September 11, 1973. Allende was a socialist, which caused the U.S. to have concerns with his presidency. Ultimately a military coup occurred with the help of the United States and other international opposition, causing Pinochet to take power.


Interviewer: Was the Catholic Church generally supportive of Allende’s presidency?

Ben Fuller: Actually it appears that the Church was very divided when it came to supporting the Allende regime. There were more conservative members of the church that were fearful that Marxist ideology would replace the church in Chile and were not so fond of Allende[1]. There were though, very important and prominent figures in the Catholic Church that were very support of not only Allende, but also Marxist regimes in general. One of these was Archbishop Raúl Silva Henríquez. He had attributed parts of the gospel to socialism and had even met with Castro with the permission of the pope. This support for socialism gave him the nickname ‘’The Red Cardinal’’. This idea of socialist ideas and the church was part of a larger movement across Latin America called ‘’Liberation Theory’’. This movement across Latin America used Marxist concepts like concerns for the poor and exploited groups as a type of tool to apply to different situations in Latin America. Some promoters of Liberation Theology say there is a strong Marxist influence to their ideology, while others try to distance themselves as much as they can from Marxism.[2] Although Raúl was supportive of socialist leaders, other members of the church were not. [3]


Interviewer: So did the Church have a history of political activism before the coup?

Ben Fuller: Yes some members of the church viewed the growing Marxism and protestantism among the population of Chile as a threat to the Church and wanted the Church to gain more authority and control in Chilean society to promote Catholic ideals.[4] So the Church and politics started to intertwine in Chile. For example, Raúl would go on to meet Allende while he was president to make sure he was truly for the alleviation of poverty in the region and even tried to help bring together the opposing groups under Allende.[5]


Interviewer: How did Pinochet view the Church during his rule?

Ben Fuller: Well Pinochet had two views of the Church, either they were going to be an ally or an enemy. Pinochet had tried to get the Church support him and his military regime and his policies. For example, he had invited the pope to visit Chile. The Church was one of the biggest social institutions in Chile and Pinochet wanted them on his side.[6]


Interviewer: Was he able to convince members of the Church to support him?

Ben Fuller: Ultimately he was unable to. Especially, with the frequent harassment and even, on occasion, murder of Church workers under his regime. The Church would not be supportive of the Pinochet regime with all the human rights abuses that happened. It soon became a struggle between the Church and Pinochet for control over aspects of Chilean society. The violence and destruction under the Pinochet regime was not hidden from the Church and they saw the atrocities that were happening.[7]


Interviewer: Was there a distinct moment where the Church decided to go against the regime?

Ben Fuller: One of the biggest catalysts for the Church’s position against Pinochet had to deal with the celebration of Te Duem. Te Duem is a service prayer done in Chile celebrating Chilean Independence. Members of the Church say a prayer and comment on aspects of Chilean society. The Cardinal at this time wanted to hold his liturgy at a Cathedral while the military government wanted it at a military academy. After a couple of suggestions by the Cardinal, they finally agreed on a church location. The Cardinal did not take kindly to these suggestions though and in his speech he talked about the same things that he had spoken about under Allende’s control a year before. He also talked about liberation and mourning the dead in Chile. He also mentioned how Chile was ultimately in a time of mourning. I believe that the Church saw that the new military government would do more to undermine the Church than Allende had. The military was increasingly trying more and more to control aspects of Chilean life. Raúl himself has stated that this was one of the defining moments for him, which demonstrated that the Church should not support this regime. The Church was united on this question.[8]


Interviewer: And how did they show their defiance for the regime?

Ben Fuller: There was three main ways that the Church tried to help the people of Chile and undermine the military regime. First, there was a group called COPACHI that helped aid victims in the regime. They would provide soup kitchens, health clinics and other economic programs to help the poor in Chile. The second important thing that the Church did was gather information on what was happening under the dictatorship. They had almost 300 lawyers, medical staff and social workers laboring to gather information on the disappearances and kidnappings that were happening under the regime. They provided aid to around 700,000 people. Finally, a third important thing that the Catholic Church did for the people was providing a safe space for dissenters to meet. Here support groups would meet to discuss the disappearances that were happening to loved ones. Catholic parishes and cathedrals were a safe location for people grieving and allowed dissenters to discuss what was happening under the Pinochet regime. [9]


Interviewer: Do you feel that the Church was ultimately able to make a difference for the people of Chile?

Ben Fuller: I believe when you look at how Raúl Silva Henríquez was viewed in Chilean society, it seems that they made a profound difference in helping the people of Chile. The New York Times published an article written in 1999 by Eric Pace, when Raúl passed away at age 91 from a heart attack. The article described the Cardinal's work for human rights throughout Chile. When the Cardinal preached to the people of Chile, they would respond with, "Raul, our friend, the people are with you,’’ this reflects the positive response the Cardinal had across Chile. He gave a certain feeling of hope. The human rights that Raúl supported across Chile made the Church one of the only institutions that went against the Pinochet military regime and its many atrocities. Without the Church supporting dissenters trying to find loved ones and supporting social programs, the situation in Chile might have been much more brutal. [10]


Interviewer: Very interesting, well that is all the time we have today. Thank you to all our listeners out there and see you next time.



[1] Steven R . Bowers, "Pinochet's Plebiscite and the Catholics: The Dual Role of the Chilean Church." World Affairs 151, no. 2 (1988): 51-58.

[2] James V. Spickard, "Transcending Marxism: Liberation theology and critical theology." Cross Currents 42, no. 3 (Fall 1992): 326.

[3] Mario I. Aguilar, "Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, the Catholic Church and the Pinochet Regime, 1973-1980: Public Responses to a National Security State.” Catholic Historical Review 89, no. 4 (October 2003): 712-731.

[4] Steven R. Bowers, "Pinochet's Plebiscite and the Catholics: The Dual Role of the Chilean Church." World Affairs 151, no. 2 (1988): 51-58.

[5]  Aguilar, 712-731.

[6] Bowers, 51-58.

[7] Bowers, 51-58.

[8] Aguilar, 712-731.

[9] David Molineaux, "Chile honors memory of cardinal who opposed Pinochet." National Catholic Reporter 35, no. 25 (April 23, 1999): 11

[10] Eric Pace, "Raúl Silva Henríquez, 91, Chile Cardinal, Dies." New York Times, April 12, 1999., A23.