RELIGION IN SOCIETY
In the 1980s an estimated 92 to 97 percent of all Paraguayans
were Roman Catholics. The remainder were Mennonites or members of
various Protestant groups. The 1967 Constitution guarantees freedom
of religion, but recognizes the unique role that Catholicism plays
in national life. The president must be a Roman Catholic, but
clergy are enjoined from serving as deputies or senators and
discouraged from partisan political activity. Relations between
church and state traditionally were close, if not always cordial.
A papal decree created the Bishopric of Asunción in 1547, and
the first bishop arrived in the diocese in 1556. In 1588 three
Jesuits came with the intent of pacifying and converting the
Indians. After the arrival of additional Jesuits and Franciscans,
the priests began working in the southeastern area of modern
Paraguay and on the shores of the Río Paraná in parts of what is
now Argentina and Brazil.
The Jesuits soon realized that they had to protect the Indians
from enslavement by the growing numbers of Spanish and Portuguese
if they were going to convert them. They accomplished this by
settling the Indians in reducciones (townships) under Jesuit
direction. At one point about 100,000 Indians lived in the
reducciones; the system lasted a century and a half until
the Jesuits' expulsion (1767). Following the end of the Jesuit
regime, the reducción Indians were gradually absorbed into
mestizo society or returned to their indigenous way of life
(see The Sword of the Word
, ch. 1).
For much of the nineteenth century, church-state relations
ranged from indifferent to hostile. The new state assumed the
prerogatives of royal patronage that the Vatican had accorded to
the Spanish crown and sought to control bishops and the clergy.
José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814-40) was committed to a
secular state. He suppressed monastic orders, eliminated the tithe,
instituted civil marriage, and cut off communication with the
Vatican. Francisco Solano López (1862-70) used the church as a
branch of government, enlisting priests as agents to report on the
population's disaffection and signs of subversion.
Church-state relations reached their nadir with the execution of
the bishop of Asunción, Manuel Antonio Palacio, during the War of
the Triple Alliance (1865-70). By the war's end, there were only
fifty-five priests left in the country,and the church was left
leaderless for eleven years.
The modern Paraguayan church was established largely under the
direction of Juan Sinforiano Bogarón (archbishop of Asunción, 1930-
49) and Aníbal Mena Porta (archbishop of Asunción, 1949-69). Both
envisioned a church whose role in the country's endemic political
struggles was that of a strictly neutral mediator among the rival
Starting in the late 1950s, the clergy and bishops were
frequently at odds with the government. Confrontations began with
individual priests giving sermons calling for political freedom and
social justice. The activities of the clergy and various lay groups
like Catholic Action (Acción Católica) pushed the church hierarchy
to make increasingly critical statements about the regime of
Alfredo Stroessner Mattiauda (president since 1954).
In the 1960s the Catholic University of Our Lady of Asunción
became a center of antiregime sentiment. Students and faculty began
cooperation with workers and peasants, forming workers'
organizations as an alternative to the government-sponsored union.
They organized Christian Agrarian Leagues (also known as peasant
leagues) among small farmers. The organizations sponsored literacy
programs, welfare activities, and various types of cooperatives. In
addition, Catholics operated a news magazine and radio station--
both critical of the government.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were sporadic student
demonstrations and government crackdowns. The church criticized the
lack of political freedom and the government's human rights record.
The government's principal countermeasures included expelling
foreign-born clergy and periodically closing the university, news
magazine, and radio station. In response, the archbishop of
Asunción excommunicated various prominent government officials and
suspended Catholic participation at major civic and religious
(see Interest Groups
, ch. 4).
On a popular level, Catholicism was an essential component of
social life. Even the poorest of homes contained pictures of the
saints and a family shrine. Catholic ritual marked the important
transitions in life: baptism, confirmation, marriage, and burial.
Participation in the rites of the church reflected class and gender
expectations. The poor curtailed or delayed rituals because of the
Sex roles also affected religious participation. Devotion fell
into the female sphere of activities. Men were not expected to show
much concern about religion. If they attended mass, it was
infrequently, and normally men stood in the rear of the church
ready to make a quick exit. Women were supposed to be more devout.
Regular participation in church services was seen as a virtue on
their part. They were more likely to seek the church's blessing at
critical points in the family's existence.
Religion served as perhaps the only institution in society that
transcended kinship relations. Both politics and economic
activities were enmeshed in the relations of kin; they reflected
the family feuds and the accumulated loyalties of generations past.
It was in popular religion, however, especially in the communal
religious fiestas, that Paraguayans of every social stratum
participated and the concerns of family and kin were, to a degree,
muted. Fiestas were community and national celebrations; they
served as exercises in civic pride and Paraguayan identity. Church
holidays were public holidays as much as religious occasions.
The populace enjoyed the celebrations associated with fiestas,
but actual belief and practice were typically uninformed by
orthodox Catholic dogma. Especially in rural Paraguay, the saints
associated with popular devotion were often no more than revered
Religious societies played an important role, planning and
organizing local fiestas and undertaking welfare activities.
Various lay brotherhoods assumed responsibility for assisting
widows and children, among other duties associated with the care of
Data as of December 1988