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Church and State in the New Paraguayan Constitution

By Pedro C. Moreno
Published February 1, 1993

THE NEW CONSTITUTION OF PARAGUAY, recently ratified, replaces the 1967 document which contained some provisions outdated by modern events.

The new constitution states: “It is recognized: freedom of religion, worship and ideology without any limitations except those established in the constitution and law. No confession will have official status. No person shall be harassed, inquired of or compelled to profess his beliefs or doctrines.”

The prior constitution required the president of the republic “to profess the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion.” Likewise, the former constitution stated: “The official religion is the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman religion.”

Surprisingly, the Catholic Church of Paraguay joined an important number of Protestant churches and representatives of the main political parties, Liberal and Colorado, to ask for the separation of church and state and the elimination of the requirement of the president to profess Catholicism. Commenting on this move, Jesuit priest Jose Valpuesta, representative to the Coordination of Churches (a group composed of Catholic and Protestant churches), said: “As time has passed, it has become clear that it is better that society does not impose one religion upon the state.”

The Catholic Bishops Conference of Paraguay, in a pronouncement entitled “One Constitution for our Nation” signed by 14 bishops, on church-state relations stated: “The II Vatican Council pointed out with clarity the church-state relations based on autonomy and mutual respect of both parties…. both the state and the church will better fulfill their roles if they maintain their independence and seek a good cooperation between them.”

Referring to the notion of an official church, the document of the Bishops Conference of Paraguay states: “If at other times this nation completely identified itself with the Catholic religion, it was logical to talk about an official religion. Now pluralism better characterizes the civil society and it does not seem justified to have one church joined to the state, that, for this reason reflects something imposed by force upon the people. The church does not want to confuse the people nor confuse itself with the state.”

Finally, the Catholic Bishops of Paraguay declared: “The church, therefore, does not require anything except a just treatment according to its condition. And affirms with II Vatican Council that humankind has the right to religious freedom … which is based in the very dignity of the human person. All men should be respected in this matter. The liberty of conscience and worship must be mentioned in the law. The dignity of the person so requires.” In this way, the Catholic church of Paraguay gave its unconditional support to establish a broad regime of religious liberty in that country.

Of course, agreement on the relationship between church and state in Paraguay has not always existed. In fact, these relations have had an agitated and stormy history. After the foundation of the Republic and during the 19th century, the Catholic church and the Paraguayan people suffered under the dictatorship of Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and the Lopéz regime.

These totalitarian rulers could not conceive of the existence of a government of the church with independent authority from civil government. The Catholic church was compelled to bow to the will of the dictators and was indirectly responsible for this situation. In the past, the Jesuits had taught total submission to the clerical will. The indigenous peoples had not been educated on their rights and responsibilities, displaying simply a “passive obedience.” Thus the Catholic church unwittingly allowed a system of oppression to arise.

To better accomplish his purposes, Rodríguez de Francia confiscated ecclesiastical property, prohibited the ceremonials, required the priests to be submitted to him and finally made himself the head of the church in the fashion of Henry VIII of England. In 1844, Lopéz approved a new constitution for Paraguay which allowed him to maintain the supreme authority of the country in his hands. This constitution also contained provisions on the right of the state to control the ecclesiastical patronage. The president controlled the churches, the clergy, appointed bishops and members of the ecclesiastical decrees, papal bulls, etc. In spite of protests from the Vatican, which were ignored by the dictator Lopéz, he was able to have the bishops proclaim from the pulpit that he was a ruler appointed by God and “the Lord’s anointed.” Any dissent in relation to the legitimacy of his acts was not only treason but heresy.

After the “tragedy of Paraguay” in which the republic was defeated by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, a new constitution was ratified in 1870 which established the Catholic church as the official religion of the state. However, a mere tolerance for other religions was assured through denying the congress any authority over the free exercise of religion and the guarantee to the inhabitants for the exercise of their religion.

The constitution of 1940 extended the same provisions. The government continued sustaining the salaries of the clergy and of teachers of seminaries, although the amounts were not significant. This was the state of affairs until the constitution of 1967 which has recently been changed.

Apparently, the above mentioned historical process convinced the Catholic hierarchy in Paraguay to work toward its total independence from the state by securing a constitutional provision separating the church from the state.

Pedro C. Moreno San Juan, a lawyer, is the representative of The Rutherford Institute for Latin America.

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