The Roman Catholic Church has been trying to rally support after a proposal to cut off government funding surfaced in the Legislative Assembly this month.
With 13 congressional signatures – distributed across party lines – the bill is beginning to muster the support it needs to edit the Catholic Church out of the Costa Rican constitution.
The constitution presently provides for the Roman Catholic Church as “the religion of the state” and mandates “contributions to its maintenance.”
But a movement which claims the support of a mix of religious institutions and political parties to change this designation, began this month in the chambers of the legislature.
“For many Costa Ricans, the Catholic Church has become a school of intolerance,” said Abelardo Araya, president of Costa Rica’s Diversity Movement, a human rights group. “We don’t invest in an army, but we invest in schools of hate… And if the state is going to be involved in one religion, it needs to be committed to them all.”
When news of the proposal to alter this portion of the constitution reached Cartago, Bishop Francisco Ulloa immediately turned to his congregation to warn them against voting for any presidential candidate supporting the reform.
“We must be loyal to our faith and conscience, and not give them a vote,” he said in his Sunday sermon on Sept. 6, according to newspaper reports. To some, the Catholic Church has a lot to lose, not the least being the ¢240 million ($412,000) in funding the church receives each year from the state.
Costa Rica is one of the 48 countries world–wide claiming an official religion, according to a 2005 report by the John Templeton Foundation and Harva rd University. Yet, for the coalition of groups that introduced the bill, it’s time for those funds to go to public schools and health centers instead.
“Countries like the United States and France eliminated the presence of the church in their constitutions a long time ago to ensure there was no influence on the part of religions,” said Jorge Jiménez, professor of philosophy at the University of Costa Rica, who supports the reform. “The politics should remain with the politicians, and there should be no mix with religions.”
A History of Catholicism
The Catholic Church became the country’s official religion in 1871, some 50 years after it gained independence from Spain, said Jiménez.
Since then, Costa Rica has grown up with the Catholic Church. The church is constantly at play in the lives of Costa Ricans. It has served as a guide to each of the country’s 42 presidents, and it is the foundation for many of the nation’s social programs.
And, while it may not be directly involved with political decisions, it always has had a subtle presence at the table, said Father William Rodríguez, of the Diocese of San Isidro de El General.
“It’s part of Costa Rica’s identity, and it’s part of our culture,” he said. “The Catholic Church forms the basis of public opinion so, in that sense, it has been involved when the government makes decisions.”
If the proposed reform garners the 38 votes necessary to pass in the Legislative Assembly, the only loser will be the state, Rodríguez said.
“Nothing will change with the church. It will remain exactly the same,” he said. “What will change are things for the country. It will open the door to abortion, to marriages between people of the same sex and things like that. It will be dangerous.”
Rodríguez said a diminution in funding from the state would not hurt the Catholic Church, adding that it could still receive aid, as do many non-Catholic religious institutions in the country.
“That money (that the church receives) goes right to the people, whether it’s through churches or schools,” he said. “It’s to help communities and people, no matter their religion. In that sense, we are a church of the whole world.”
A week after the bill landed on the desks of Costa Rica’s 57 legislators, the support – which at one point seemed strong – began to fall apart.
When asked about her signature as a sponsor of the bill, Liberation Party legislator Ofelia Taitelbaum ducked away from an answer and quickly retreated back to the Legislative Assembly chamber. Mario Núñez, a legislator with the Libertarian Movement, also backed off the list.
“We (as legislators) have a responsibility to resolve other, bigger issues, like health and education,” he said at a press conference on Thursday, adding that playing with the wording of the constitution in the context of such a controversial issue is not appropriate at this time.
Núñez is one of the 16 legislators who squeezed in front of television cameras on Thursday to voice opposition to the reform.
“This is going down the wrong path,” said Francisco Molina, a legislator with the Citizen Action Party (PAC). “With the economic crisis and the number of people living in poverty, we think Costa Rica needs God even more.”
Oscar Núñez, with the National Liberation Party, who sat next to Molina on Thursday afternoon, argued against the proposed reform, saying, “The church is in the hearts of all Costa Ricans. It’s a vehicle to get to God. Why would we want to interfere?”
Instead of an internal debate among legislators, opponents of the reform suggested a referendum. They said such a change is too important for 57 people in the Legislative Assembly to decide on their own.
“We need to hear the opinion of all Costa Ricans,” said Jorge Eduardo Sánchez, of the Social Christian Unity Party.
The last time Costa Ricans were asked to vote on an issue other than an election was in October of 2007 with the Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) debate, an event that polarized the country and drew a high level of grassroots activism.
But Jiménez, a self-described atheist, said a referendum is not appropriate.
“A referendum would be inadequate,” he said. “This is not a conflict of majorities. Because the Catholics are in the majority in this country, it would be a good moment for them. But the majority cannot impose a religion on the rest of the country or – at the very least – taxes.”
A Middle Ground
President Oscar Arias, an avowed Catholic, has said he agrees with reformers that the Catholic Church should be removed as the official religion of Costa Rica.
But eliminating the reference to “God” from the text in the constitution would be going too far, he said last week.
“I am not okay with taking God out of the constitution because ‘God’ is the God for the whole world – for Christians, for Jews and for Muslims,” he said. “The whole world has a God, except the atheists.”
For Jiménez, this point is secondary: “The importance (of the reform) is to change the political structure and take the church out from being the official religion.”
Araya agreed the word “God” in the text of the constitution is a separate issue. Expressing skepticism about the focus on the wording, he said that the church is using the point to direct attention away from the crux of the reform.
“This is a strategy of the Catholic Church to continue to draw funds from the state,” he said.
A Secular State?
As the bill makes a splash in the chambers of the Legislative Assembly, studies show that Costa Ricans are drifting further from the Catholic Church.
A CID-Gallup poll, taken last month, revealed that Costa Rica is currently 71 percent Catholic, whereas 20 years ago it was 88 percent Catholic.
Of the Catholics who responded to the survey, 43 percent said they never go to church and, for those who do go, 40 percent said that they don’t feel a close connection with their priest.
“Catholicism’s practices are constantly furthering themselves from the reality of their followers’ lives,” said one of the respondents.
But politicians can’t escape the fact that the Catholic religion remains embedded in the culture here, said Diego Soto, a religious science professor at the National University.
“The Catholic Church is involved in funerals, weddings and births,” he said. “So the debate isn’t whether to take the church out of Costa Rica. That’s not possible. The debate is whether to change the wording of the constitution.”
No matter what comes of the discussion – a process that will take more than a year (under Costa Rican law) – it’s an important discussion to have, said Soto.
“The positive aspect of this conflict is that it opens dialogue,” he said. “This is a good opportunity for different factions, including in the academic circles, to debate the cultural changes of our country.”