Colombia, The Catholic Church in

views updated


The Republic of Colombia has coastlines on both the North Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Its land borders Venezuela and Brazil on the east, Ecuador and Peru on the south and Panama on the northwest. From northern coastal plains, the terrain rises to highlands in the central region and thence south to the rugged Andes mountains. In the east the land drops to a lowlands region. The third largest country in South America, Colombia is exceptionally rich in minerals: it is the largest producer of gold in South America; it stands fifth in the world in the production of platinum; and it has practically a world monopoly in the mining of emeralds. Other natural resources include silver, rock salt, coal, hydrocarbons, iron ore and copper. In 1991 a major petroleum reserve was discovered in the region. The variety of climatesfrom the tropical coast to the more temperate highlandsfavors the cultivation of many agricultural products, which include coffee, bananas, tobacco, cotton and sugar cane. Despite being illegal, Cannabis and coca are also widely cultivated and processed into marijuana and cocaine for export.

Once known as the New Kingdom of Granada, the region was renamed Columbia upon its independence from Spain in 1819. At the Congress of Angostura it combined with Venezuela and Ecuador as Gran Colombia. When the tripartite union was dissolved in 1831, the state took the name of New Granada until 1858, when it became Confederación Granadina. From 1863 to 1886, it was the United States of Colombia, and from then on, simply Colombia. An effort by multiple guerilla groups to unseat the region's stable democratic government has continued since the 1960s, fueled by Colombia's powerful drug lords.

The Early Church. The region was originally inhabited by Chibcha tribes, who were displaced after the arrival of Spanish explorers on the Caribbean coast and the colonization of the region as the New Kingdom of Granada. Beginning with the Franciscans in 1508, missionaries carried the faith to the most remote parts of Colombia. These missions used the reduction system to adapt the Chibcha to community life through instruction in animal husbandry, agriculture and crafts. This system stimulated new industries, perfected existing ones, opened roads for commerce, imported tools and brought in trained craftsmen to teach new trades. The missionaries erected the church in which the converted congregated, built hospitals and ran schools in which were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, chant and above all Christian doctrine (see mission in colonial america, i). Along with these efforts, the missionaries became the defenders of the Chibcha people, who were otherwise mistreated and exploited without mercy by encomenderos seeking slave labor for their plantations.

The first Franciscan mission was formally established in 1550 with the erection of the Custody of San

Juan Bautista. The Dominicans arrived in 1529, founding a convent in Cartagena in 1549 and one the following year in Santafé. The Mercedarians established a convent in Cali in 1537, while the Augustinian Hermits erected a convent in Santafé in 1575 and organized the province of Nuestra Señora de la Gracia in 1597. In the instructions written by Archbishop Zapata de Cárdenas in 1576 for the use of the clergy, he stated that the clergy should establish in the reductions a house for the sick close to the church, where natives could be attended in their illnesses. For the maintenance of the hospitals, farms were to be worked and the profits used to support the ill and the nurses. The Chibcha were to contribute chickens or other birds. Two native nurses were to be provided to prepare the food and care for the patients. Homes for the aged, widows and orphans were also to be founded.

Many obstacles were encountered in the propagation of the faith in Colombia, partly stemming from the sophistication of the Christian doctrine and the fact that Christian morality conflicted with Chibcha customs, such as polygamy and idolatry. The preaching of the gospel among native tribes sparked serious resistance on the part of both caciques and witch doctors on the one hand and hypocritical Spanish slave owners on the other. A further difficulty was the linguistic diversity among the tribes: when missionaries succeeded in mastering the language of one community, the language of the next would again confound their efforts to communicate the word of God. There were also rivalries among the religious orders prejudicial to the preaching of the gospel and interference of civil authorities in purely ecclesiastical matters because of the ecclesiastical patronage.

Concurrent with the development of the missions was the development of the hierarchy: Santa Marta and Cartagena were erected in 1534, Popayán in 1546 and Santafé de Bogotá in 1564. The first bishop of Santa Marta chosen by the king of Spain was Alonso de Tobes, of the Colegio de San Bartolomé in Salamanca. When his appointment was confirmed in Rome, he had been dead for more than two weeks, so it was the Dominican Tomás Toro who held the seat of Cartagena for the first time (153436). Another Cartagenan bishop, Dionisio de Sanctis (157478), authored the first Amerindian catechism. Juan del Valle, a great defender of the native people,

was the first bishop of Popayán. The Franciscan Juan de los Barrios was the bishop of Santa Marta and the first archbishop of Santafé de Bogotá. To Archbishop Barrios the city owes its first hospital, which began operation in 1564 in his house. After a century of service it was entrusted to the Hospitallers of St. John of God and eventually became known as the Hortúa.

When Bishop Barrios arrived in Santafé in 1553, he found far too few clergy to minister effectively to the extensive diocese. He asked Spain for help, but at his death there were still no more than 50 religious and 20 members of the secular clergy, almost all Spaniards. In 1563 the Dominican fathers established a professorship of Latin in the convent of Santafé, where a few Creoles prepared for the priesthood. Archbishop Barrios ordained the first Creole and the first mestizo of New Granada. In 1573 Zapata de Cárdenas encountered a serious shortage

of clergy even though the Dominicans already had a chair of art and theology. Conferring orders on the Saturdays of the four ember days, Zapata ordained Creoles and mestizos over the protests of local authorities, priests and the regular clergy. He also founded, in 1582, the first semi nary of Santafé, one of the first in America, San Luis de

Tolosa. This seminary was of short duration but of great importance in the ecclesiastical history of the country. From the 20 priests that Zapata had on his arrival at Santafé, the number increased to 93 during the ten years of his administration.

By the end of the 16th century the Hospitallers of St. John of God had erected their first house, wherein some practiced medicine under the title of protomédicos. At turn of the 17th century the Augustinian Recollects arrived, as did the Jesuits who, under the leadership of Archbishop Lobo Guerrero (15991608), opened schools in Cartagena in 1603 and in Santafé the following year. In 1605 the Jesuits took charge of the seminary founded by the archbishop, established the first pharmacy in Santafé and erected their province in 1610. By 1600 female religious were also present in Colombia, among them convents of Santa Clara (founded 1573) and Franciscan Conceptionists (1583). Other orders followed, the Discalced Carmelites in 1606; the Order of Santa Inés de Montepulciano in 1645; the Recollect Tertiaries of St. Augustine in 1739; and the Order of the Company of Our Lady (La Enseñanza) in 1783. The religious of La Enseñanza established the first school for women in New Granada, while others dedicated themselves to the contemplative life, founding vocations among the daughters of Spaniards and among Creoles and Chibcha populations.

Intellectual and Spiritual Development. By the middle of the 17th century Colombia had an exuberant religious life that included a metropolitan see with three suffragan dioceses, numerous parishes and doctrines, appropriate canonical legislation emanating from synods and provincial councils, and clergy in convents and seminaries. The Colegio Seminario de San Bartolomé was founded in 1605 and after many vicissitudes, became the Seminario Conciliar of San José; in 1653 the Colegio Mayor de Nuestra Señora del Rosario came into being, while another seminary was founded in Popayán. Idolatry

was almost completely uprooted, and thousands of Chibcha were converted and instructed in the Catholic faith. Among the most important missionary figures of colonial times were St. Louis bertrand and St. Peter claver, the apostle of the Africans; the Augustinian, Francisco Romero, author of Llanto Sagrado (1693); and the Jesuits Alonso de Sandoval (15761652), José Gumilla (16861750) and Juan Ribero (16811736).

In addition to spiritual needs, the Church influenced the intellectual life of the colonial era, as an intellectual culture developed around the schools, seminaries and universities. The first press, introduced in Colombia by the Jesuits, went into operation in 1738 and printed mainly catechisms and small books of devotion. Soon groups of writers were formed who gave glory to the Church through their written works: priests and religious penned the first chronicles of conquest and colonization, cultivated the sacred science, became outstanding in the humanities, and were poets, dramatists and noted orators. The doctrineros in their chapels and the friars in their convents also furthered cultural advancement, while the educational mission rested in the hands of the Church, supported by the throne. In these educational centers, instruction was given mainly to the children of Spaniards, but also to native Colombians. The Botanical Expedition founded by the archbishop-viceroy Antonio caballero y gÓngora in 1783 had the learned priest José Celestino mutis as director and the technical assistance of various priests.

Independence and the Church. During the 18th century the region was transferred from the viceroyalty of Peru to that of New Granada, and the seat of power for not only Colombia but also Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama was transferred to Bogotá. Following the Battle of Boyacá in 1819 Colombia declared its independence from Spain. Together with Venezuela, the region was renamed the United States of Colombia by Simón Bolívar, who went on in 1822 to unite not only the United States of Colombia but also New Granada, Panama and Ecuador as the Republic of Gran Colombia. This union collapsed within eight years, and in 1832 Colombia and Panama promulgated a joint independent constitution. Continued temporary alliances between the regions culminated in the formation of the Republic of Colombia in 1886; the "War of the Thousand Days," waged with U.S. backing from 1899 to 1902, divided Panama and Colombia politically.

During the colonial period the Church acquired great wealth from legacies, foundations and chaplaincies, which it used for religious services and the support of convents. However, it was subject to the patronato system, which allowed the Spanish crown to interfere in ecclesiastical appointments, and other areas of Church administration. After Colombia broke with the Spanish crown in 1819, the new state assumed the right of patronage in the Law of 1824, although this was never acknowledged by the Holy See. After efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See proved unsuccessful, the government enacted a constitutional separation of Church and State in 1853, while continuing to allow Roman Catholicism the position of official religion. At this point the persecution of the Church began. Properties accumulated during the colonial era were confiscated by the state and passed into the hands of individuals. In 1887 and 1892 concordats were negotiated curtailing the patronato. The president of the republic could intervene in only two ways in the appointment of bishops: in recommending candidates to the Holy See or in vetoing for civil or political reasons those chosen for appointments. In compensation for those properties confiscated by the State during the 19th century, the government began appropriating an annual sum as remuneration for the Church.

The Modern Church. In 1948 Colombia suffered an economic downturn, which resulted in violence that moved from urban to rural areas of the country. In 1953

a military government assumed power and stabilized the country to the point where democratic rule could be restored. Beginning in the 1960s a proliferation of small guerrilla groups initiated a reign of terror in an effort to overthrow the government and institute their own right-or left-wing policies, among which was the redistribution of land. As in other South American countries, some Church leaders were involved in a revolution of their own, through liberation theology, a view of the role of the Church as advocating programs benefiting the poorer classes while disapproving of the violent means employed by guerrillas. Although such actions often made clergy the focus of attacks by the Colombian military, Church leaders attempted frequent mediation between rebel and government officials as a way to end the bloodshed. Efforts at mediation by both Church leaders and the governmentin 1990 with the ultra-radical M-19 guerillas and in 1998 with the National Liberation Army (ELN)saw some success, although violence by other groups continued, and in June of 1999 the ELN had returned to the offensive by kidnapping over 120 churchgoers in Cali. In 1999 a death squad sponsored by the AUC guerilla group murdered 27 Catholics attending a baptismal mass in northern Colombia, as part of a new trend in terrorism that left hundreds dead by the year's end.

In 1991 the government promulgated a new constitution, under which the Church was no longer named as the religion of the state. However, it continued to command a privileged position as the faith of the majority of Colombians, and was authorized to provide the educational needs of rural communities where state-run schools were lacking. In addition, only Catholic priests were allowed to serve as chaplains. All churches remained exempt from taxation in Colombia, and Catholic-run private schools were also extended this privilege. In their roles as the majority church, Catholic leaders remained an active presence as an advocate for Columbian society, in 1996 speaking out on proposed legislation to legalize abortion. In the wake of both this proposal and the legalization of euthanasia earlier in the decade, Pope John Paul II advised Colombian bishops to work against what he termed "the painful problem of accelerated family disintegration."

Into the 21st Century. By 2000 there were 3,295 parishes tended by 5,050 diocesan and 2,265 religious priests. Other religious included approximately 790 brothers and 17,990 sisters, many of whom aided in teaching and operating the 1,660 primary and 1,230 secondary Catholic schools in Colombia. In addition, the first Catholic television station in the country was launched in February of 2000. An historic Catholic emblem, the famous sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de Chiquinquira, remained a popular pilgrimage attracting participants of all social classes as well as people from neighboring countries. In 1997 a timely pilgrimage was held by several thousand Colombians who, accompanying a giant cross, traveled 800 miles through the region's most violence-plagued regions as part of the "Way of the Cross for Peace and Life." The problem of displaced populations following the flight from violence-torn rural areas was of increasing concern to the Church in the new millennium.

Bibliography: j. m. groot, Historia eclesiástica y civil de la Nueva Granada, 5 v. (2d ed. Bogotá 188993). m. g. romero, Fray Juan de los Barrios y la evangelización del Nuevo Reino de Granada (Bogotá 1960). a. lee lopez, "Clero indígena en el arzobispado de Santa Fé en el siglo XVI," Boletín de historia y antigüedades, 50 (1963) 186. j. a. salazar, Los estudios eclesiásticos superiors en el Nuevo Reino de Granada, 15631810 (Madrid 1946).

[m. g. romero/eds.]

About this article

Colombia, The Catholic Church in

Updated About content Print Article