All Saints Cathedral, Cuenca
Courtesy Martie B. Lisowski Collection, Library of Congress
The Roman Catholic Church assumed a pivotal role in Ecuador
virtually at the onset of the Spanish conquest. Catholicism was a
central part of Hispanic culture, defining the ethos and worldview
of the time. Through the Office of the Inquisition, the church
examined the "purity" of possible officeholders. The church was
virtually the only colonial institution dealing with education or
the care of the needy. It amassed great wealth through donations,
dowries, and outright purchases. Virtually every segment of the
organization--the hierarchy, individual clerics, and religious
orders--owned some form of assets.
The liberals' ascendancy in 1905 brought a series of drastic
limitations to the Roman Catholic Church's privileges
(see The Rule of the Liberals, 1895-1925
, ch. 1). The state admitted
representatives of other religions into the country, established a
system of public education, and seized most of the church's rural
properties. In addition, legislation formally abolished tithes
(although many hacienda owners continued to collect them). The 1945
constitution (and the Constitution of 1979) firmly established
freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
Beginning in the 1960s, the country's Catholic bishops became
increasingly active in supporting social change. Church leaders
organized literacy campaigns among the Indians, distributed the
institution's remaining lands, assisted peasants in acquiring land
titles, and helped communities form cooperatives. In the 1970s and
1980s, the bishops espoused a centrist position on social and
political issues. The episcopate contended that the unjust
organization of Ecuadorian society caused many to live in misery.
The bishops also claimed that the economic development of the 1970s
and early 1980s had merely widened the gap between rich and poor.
At the same time, however, Catholics were warned against employing
Marxian analyses of society or endorsing violence or class
Church support for social reform occasionally brought it into
conflict with government authorities. In 1976, for example, police
arrested Riobamba bishop Leonidas Proaño Villalba--the
espiscopate's most outspoken critic of Ecuadorian society and
politics--and sixteen other Latin American bishops who were
attending a church conference in Chimborazo Province. After
accusing the prelates of interfering in Ecuador's internal politics
and discussing subversive subjects, the minister of interior
released Proaño and expelled the foreign bishops from the country.
Some Catholics formed groups to support conservative causes. The
Committee of Young Christians for Christian Civilization, for
example, advocated scuttling the "confiscatory and anti-Christian"
agrarian reform laws.
In 1986 the Roman Catholic Church was organized into three
archdioceses, ten dioceses, one territorial prelature, seven
apostolic vicariates, and one apostolic prefecture (see
Appendix). The church had only 1,505 priests to minister to a
Catholic population of slightly more than 8 million, a ratio of 1
priest for every 5,320 Catholics.
Although approximately 94 percent of Ecuadorians were Roman
Catholic, most either did not practice their religion or pursued a
syncretistic version. Most Sierra Indians, for example, followed a
type of folk Catholicism in which doctrinal orthodoxy played only
a small part. Indigenous beliefs combined with elements of Catholic
worship. Much of community life focused on elaborate fiestas that
marked both public and family events. Although the precise
configuration of fiestas varied from community to community, in
general public fiestas involved an individual in a series of
increasingly demanding and expensive sponsorships (cargos)
of specific religious celebrations. By the time individuals had
completed all the expected cargos, they were recognized
The Roman Catholic Church's relatively weak presence in the
countryside and in squatter settlements, coupled with the nominal,
syncretistic practice of most Catholics, created a fertile ground
for Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal missionary activity.
Although multidenominational groups such as the Gospel Missionary
Union (GMU) had been active in Ecuador since the beginning of the
twentieth century, significant levels of conversion did not occur
until the late 1960s. By the late 1970s, the GMU reported that it
had converted 20,000 Sierra Indians in Chimborazo Province alone.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance indicated that conversions
among Indians in Otavolo climbed from 28 in 1969 to 900 in 1979. By
the mid-1980s, an estimated 50,000 Ecuadorians had converted to the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church).
Other significant forces in the Protestant camp included World
Vision, an evangelical development group based in California, and
the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). The Texas-based SIL
dispatched linguists to remote areas of Ecuador to study and codify
tribal languages. The eventual goal of such efforts was to
translate the Bible.
The phenomenal pace of conversion--some observers estimated
that evangelicals and Pentecostals totaled 40 percent of the
population in Chimborazo Province in the late 1980s--had an impact
on social relations in rural areas. Change in religious affiliation
was a major rupture with an individual's past traditions and social
ties, effectively removing him or her from participation in
fiestas--a major focus of much of community life. Families and
extended families found the break with the rest of the community
easier in the company of fellow converts. Protestantism replaced
the patterns of mutual reciprocity characteristic of peasant social
relations with a network of sharing and support among fellow
believers. This support system extended to migrants; converts who
left for the city or the coast sought out their coreligionists for
assistance in finding lodging and employment even as Catholics
looked to their compadres.
Data as of 1989