Chilean dignitaries gathered for mass

SANTIAGO, Chile (WOMENSENEWS)–Sister Maria Ines Concha, dean of the faculty of theology at the Catholic University of Chile in Valparaiso, remembers Pope John Paul II as a staunch proponent of women’s rights.

“I think it’s irrelevant who is chosen when it comes to women’s issues,” said Concha, referring to the naming of the next pope, “because no one is going to regress in terms of the progress that has been made. I don’t think you can stall those advances.”

Concha recalled how the pope allowed women to serve at the altar and said that by expanding women’s church participation John Paul may have paved the way for his successor to permit the ordination of female priests.

She recommended the following passage from his 1995 letter to women:

“As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic state. This is a matter of justice but also of necessity.”

But while multitudes of women in Chile look back on the deceased pope with gratitude for his advocacy of women’s rights, others chafe at his opposition to divorce, female ordination, abortion and contraceptives.

“In all international conferences on women, the Vatican has consistently been against us on issues like divorce, contraception, homosexuality, abortion,” said Loreto Ossandon, a researcher with the Foundation Institute for Women, a Santiago-based think-tank. “So where is their advocacy of women’s rights?”

Ossandon believes that since John Paul chose the majority of the voting cardinals, his successor will likely toe his line.

Others said that female priests in themselves would not necessarily mean a shift on issues such as reproductive rights.

“It would likely be a female wearing the same pants and professing the same ideas of the current male-dominated church,” said Veronica Diaz, a coordinator with the Valparaiso-based grassroots organization Catholic Women for the Right to Choose. “It would only make a difference if we had a feminist female priest.”

Given the scarcity of feminist Catholic organizations in Chile, Diaz shrugged off the issue as a non-starter.

Divided on Legacy

In Chile–one of the most conservative countries in the most Catholic region of the world–women are divided about John Paul’s legacy on women’s rights.

Divorce was only legalized last year. Abortion in all forms is illegal and prosecuted. Children of separated parents are barred from attending some Catholic schools. Last month, the long hand of the Church was widely suspected as playing a role when a health minister was fired for expressing support for free distribution of the morning-after pill.

For all these reasons, Chile, despite a leftist government, is widely recognized as the most socially conservative country in Latin America, a region to which Pope John Paul made 39 visits to during his 26-year-reign.

In Chile, Pope John Paul II is widely adored. Not only is his 1978 mediation credited with helping to avert a war with Argentina over the Beagle Islands, he is beloved for advising Augusto Pinochet, the country’s military strongman from 1973 to 1990, to accept the results of a referendum to end his dictatorship.

Despite the pope’s immense stature here, the increasing social conservatism of the Chilean Church since the country’s return to democracy in 1990 is widely thought to have alienated younger followers. The nation’s proportion of Catholics was reported to be 75 percent in a 2001 survey by Catholic University, while the percentage of those between 18 and 24 who identified themselves as Catholic was 63 percent.

“On some issues, like divorce and abortion and that stuff, the church needs to be more tolerant nowadays,” said 20-year-old Fernanda Farcuh, a student at Chile’s Catholic University in Santiago. “It’s a very conservative Church here in Chile and it has very much power over politics. It can stop things that people need. I think we need a more open-minded church.”

Farcuh believes young people might stop leaving the church if leadership changes brought new policies on issues such as birth control.

Diaz, with Catholic Women for the Right to Choose, said young people are alienated by a Church removed from their day-to-day reality.

“Asking that women enter marriage as virgins, not have abortions, not get divorced,” are all examples, she said. “And I don’t think any of the papal candidates will change any of those fundamentals.”

Monica Silva is a researcher at Chile’s Catholic University in Santiago and a member of the National Commission on Women in the Church, an organization created by the Episcopal Conference of Chile to advise on women’s issues.

It’s debatable what can be labeled women’s issues,” said Silva. “Take an issue like abortion. That’s not a women’s issue to me. That comes down to the most basic right of all human beings; the right to life.”

Reservations on Ratzinger

Silva says that while she favors no particular candidate, she knows that many Chileans have reservations about German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger because he is regarded as the most conservative.

Both Silva and Diaz said that many women favor the Honduran archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Oscar Rodriguez, a philosopher who speaks eight languages and who is considered the most progressive of the Latin American papal candidates.

Concha said she hopes that the next pope will be Latin American. “I say that strictly from the point of view of representation; since our region is home to half the world’s Catholics.”

Ossandon said her choice would be the Belgian candidate, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels Godfried Daneels, who approves female ordination and favors liberalizing Church policy on contraceptives. “But I don’t think they’ll choose him because they don’t want any major revolutions.”

Jen Ross is a freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile.

For more information:

The Vatican–
Letter of Pope John Paul II to Women:

Tidings Online–
Challenges for the Next Pope: Priests, governance, missions:

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