Latin America

Chile’s constitution vote raises difficult questions for Catholics about equality and abortion

Update Sept. 7: More than 60 percent of Chileans voted to reject the proposed constitution on Sept. 4. In a discussion with the Chilean newspaper, El Mercurio, members of the Episcopal Conference of Chile praised the peacefulness and professionalism of the referendum process, suggesting that the experience was “a good start” toward moving past polarization in Chilean society.

Bishop Isauro Covili Linfati, O.F.M., who leads the diocese of Iquique, criticized the rejected constitution as a text that a minority sought to impose without welcoming the  input of important institutions like the church. At the same time, the bishop said that the rejection of the proposed text did not mean Chileans want to keep the existing constitution—an earlier plebiscite in 2020 saw nearly 80 percent of voters in favor of a new constitution—just that Chileans want “a new and better text that brings [forth] unity” for a majority of the country.

On Aug. 21, the Discalced Carmelites of San José de Maipo in Chile issued a statement endorsing an effort to replace the nation’s constitution. The Carmelites highlighted the proposed constitution’s protection of the environment and commitment to enhancing the rights of Indigenous communities, according to the Chilean news site Interferencia.

“If we reject the proposal of a new constitution,” the Carmelites said, “we are rejecting the possibility of taking a big step forward in the future of our country.”

In place since 1980, the current constitution was created under the Pinochet dictatorship and had been influenced by neoliberal ideas that have guided Chile for decades. Following massive protests in 2019 and the election of Gabriel Boric, a president critical of neoliberal policies in 2021, Chileans will vote on the proposed constitution on Sept. 4.

The Carmelites’ statement quickly proved controversial—first, because it was a clear political endorsement, typically avoided by Catholic leaders and religious orders in Chile, and also because the new constitution includes language that codifies and strengthens existing abortion rights.

In response, the auxiliary bishop of Santiago, Carlos Godoy Labraña, sent a letter asking the nuns to clarify their position on abortion, and 12 other Carmelite communities issued their own joint statement, pointing out that one community’s position did not reflect that of the Discalced Carmelites as whole. The statement also pointed out that the monastery at San José de Maipo is the only one not a part of the Association of Santa Teresa. The official website of the Discalced Carmelites in Chile also does not list it as part of the Discalced Carmelites community.

The episode was just part of the fracas surrounding the referendum on Chile’s proposed new constitution, which, according to the most recent polls, looks like it will end up a loser at the ballot box. The vote against the proposed constitution is predicted to reach 60 percent at the final tally. But the campaign has raised uncomfortable questions for Chilean Catholics about how to respond to a document that promotes Catholic values of community and equality yet also protects an intrinsic evil like elective abortion.

The campaign has raised uncomfortable questions for Chilean Catholics about how to respond to a document that promotes Catholic values of community and equality yet also protects an intrinsic evil like elective abortion.

Juan Diego Galaz Carvajal, S.J., is a researcher of constitutional law in Chile. He explained that under the neoliberal political and social model prescribed by the existing constitution, maximizing individual prerogatives over communal obligations, the capabilities of the Chilean state have been reduced to the bare minimum. Over time, he said, communal life has suffered in Chile.

For example, water privatization is common. According to Father Galaz, who lives in the coastal community of Tirúa, water resources in his community have been diverted on a first-come, first-serve basis primarily to irrigation for thirsty, non-native crops like eucalyptus and pine trees.

Little water remains for much else, he said, a resource depletion that has contributed to local drought. Father Galaz criticized this as the failure of privatization—in the absence of state regulation—to allow for the adequate replenishing of water resources.

The proposed 178-page new constitution attempts to rectify this issue under Article 57 by guaranteeing water as a human right and assigning the responsibility for maintaining these water resources for future generations to the state. Chapter Three, which covers Articles 127 to 150, says that “nature has rights,” creating new protections for the maintenance of the water cycle and further defenses for water reserves belonging to Indigenous communities in Chile.

Beyond the new attention to environmental practices, the proposed constitution also grants new autonomy to Indigenous communities.

Though Father Galaz is critical of Chile’s current neoliberal model, the Jesuits of Chile have not issued an official position statement on supporting or rejecting the proposed constitution. The Jesuits did, however, publish a reflection that considers the components they would desire in a new constitution. Citing Chilean Saint Alberto Hurtado, S.J., the Jesuits suggest the inclusion of protections for Indigenous Chileans, primarily the Mapuche people, improved standards of educational access and commitments against poverty.

When the proposed constitution was unveiled in July, the Episcopal Conference of Chile issued a statement that broadly supported the constitutional concept of “plurinationality” for Indigenous Chileans—that is, the establishment of a new political structure that would establish the Indigenous communities of Chile, as separate, distinct and autonomous.

While supported by some, including the Jesuits of Chile, plurinationality is a divisive topic in Chile. The idea has also faced criticism for being out of step with Chilean law and for potentially inspiring acts of terrorism by members of the Mapuche Indigenous community, another major anxiety in Chilean political discourse.

Despite these expressions of limited support, the Chilean bishops did not shy away from criticizing other components of the proposed constitution, namely the codified access to abortion.

The bishops’ conference was cautiously optimistic about Indigenous autonomy as offered by the new constitution, recognizing the importance of repairing historic injustices for Indigenous people in Chile, but they also highlighted the need for integration rather than isolation between Chilean and Indigenous cultures. The Chilean bishops, despite these expressions of limited support, did not shy away from criticizing other components of the proposed constitution, reserving its strongest criticism for articles that codified access to abortion.

They urged Chileans to participate in the referendum and supported the process but have not said how Chileans should vote. The referendum comes as the bishops deal with the fallout of clerical sexual abuse scandals, which have cratered their credibility in Chilean society.

For most of Chile’s democratic history, abortion had been prohibited. In 2017, the Chilean Senate approved exceptions in cases of rape, fetal inviability and risk to the mother’s life. If implemented, the proposed constitution would go much further.

Its Article 61 ensures the right to “a voluntary termination of pregnancy” for all “women and pregnant people.” There are no specifications on limitations, fetal viability, health of the mother or any other explanation of what this article would entail mentioned elsewhere in the constitution, and it would make Chile the first country in Latin America to have the right to an abortion in its constitutional text.

In March, the bishops’ conference issued a statement describing Article 61 as “a grave assault on the dignity of the human person and their fundamental rights.”

Bishop Francisco Javier Stegmeier, representing the diocese of Villarrica, Chile, went even further, arguing that it should be impossible for anyone to support a pro-abortion constitution. He charged that the convention that wrote the new constitution had an anti-Christian ideology.

Sebastián Soto, a law professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, does not agree that the inclusion of abortion rights can be perceived as an offense directed specifically against the Catholic Church or against religion as a whole. He told America that the constitutions’s broad language on abortion was the result of a “radical, extreme agenda” from a varied progressive movement with politics contrary to the teachings of the church.

“There is no constitution in the world … that contemplates what this constitution signals on matters of [elective] termination of pregnancy,” said Dr. Soto. Criticizing the text’s lack of legal rigor, he argued that the issue should have been treated more carefully.

Abortion “is a tremendously complex topic that needs to be addressed with a lot of specificity, with a lot of details, not just simply saying that the [unlimited] right to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy exists.”

Besides abortion, Chile’s bishops also deplored the constitution’s proposed protections for euthanasia and nontraditional family structures, as well as its lack of protections for religious liberty and education.

Beyond their qualms about claims for abortion, Chile’s bishops also deplored the constitution’s proposed protections for euthanasia and nontraditional family structures, as well as its lack of protections for religious liberty and religious education.

Creating constitutional protections for private education was a particular concern, according to Dr. Soto. In Chile “from the 19th century until now, state education shared a space with private education,” said Dr. Soto. The Catholic Church administers much of the nation’s private schools.

The proposed constitution includes the right to an education and plenty of protections and provisions for public universities, including free tuition. However, it prioritizes state education and terminates state funding for private education, ending the previous system of the government being able to fund schools regardless of being private or state-run. Given that a majority of private schools in Chile depend on state funds, that heavily tilts the balance in favor of state-run schools.

Dr. Soto argued that the constitution unjustly favors state education over private education when it comes to funding, limiting current rights to education and the “freedom to teach” in Chile. As a professor at a private institution, Dr. Soto worried that the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile—one of the best schools in the Americas—would struggle to receive support from the government under this new, pro-state paradigm.

The proposed constitution may fail to muster enough public support to pass this time, but conditions that challenge the status quo in Chile are likely to persist, and a revived effort to approve a new constitution is likely.

“The discussion is not solely over the text of the constitution, over what it does or does not say,” said Dr. Soto. Many had hoped that the process itself could have proved a period of healing for Chile, he said, an opportunity to go beyond the divisions surfaced by three years of protests against the Pinochet-era constitution. “Unfortunately, the convention [and] the radicalism of the convention forces us to conclude that this was a lost opportunity,” he said.

But “even if the constitutional plebiscite is rejected on Sept. 4,” said Father Galaz, “the social process is irreversible.

“What is already being created, in terms of recognizing Indigenous communities, in terms of female participation, in terms of protection for the environment, in terms of rights for disabled persons—that is irreversible.”

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