Politicization of the pulpit: conservative Catholic strategies in Peru.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
IN PERU, THE HIERARCHY OF THE Catholic church is largely made up of members of the conservative Catholic order known as Opus Dei. Juan Luis Cipriani, the cardinal of Lima, and 15 of the country's nearly 30 bishops are all members of this order.
Opus Dei is one of the most radically conservative orders in the world and is unequivocally opposed to sexual and reproductive rights. While everyone is entitled to his or her own religious beliefs, in the case of Opus Dei and similarly conservative factions within the Peruvian Catholic church these beliefs become problematic when they become politicized, serving as the basis for pressuring policymakers and influencing public policy.
Political activism around issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights by members of the most conservative elements of the Catholic church has been a recurring theme in Peru for the past two decades. Typically, the Catholic hierarchy generates political pressure on elected officials, and on those running for office, in the following ways:
1. By issuing public statements, open letters and press releases and organizing press conferences, the hierarchy outlines its position on issues related to SRHR and then calls on politicians to make "moral" decisions about these matters. In a country in which the overwhelming majority of the population is Catholic, and in which the hierarchy has the ability to mobilize voters at the local level, politicians tend to listen closely to statements made by church leaders, so much so that these lessons on "morality" are oftentimes integrated into the candidates' political rhetoric. This is true even when a politician's own agenda, or the agenda of his/her political party, is in direct conflict with the position promoted by the hierarchy.
2. Conservative elements within the church, especially Cardinal Cipriani, convene private meetings with religious officials in which they discuss religious matters, among others. The conclusions from these meetings are typically broadcast on television, as well as in other media outlets. Although Peru is officially a secular state, this practice links elected officials and the church hierarchy in the public's perception, and creates the perception that secular officials maintain some reverence for the church, religious authorities and Catholic principles generally.
3. Cardinal Cipriani, and other members of the hierarchy, have used Mass and other religious celebrations to expound upon their political opinions. To give a recent example: during the run-up to Peru's 2011 presidential election, members of the church hierarchy made their preference for one specific candidate clear during religious celebrations. Official statements by Cardinal Cipriani expressing his opposition to another candidate were also read during Mass.
This most recent example of the church attacking a political candidate drew tremendous media coverage, but it was hardly novel. During the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, who governed Peru from 1990-2000, Cardinal Cipriani and other bishops and priests often expressed their support from the pulpit for Fujimori's authoritarian regime. In subsequent years, members of the hierarchy have spoken out against Peru's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was established to shed light on the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity committed during the Fujimori regime. The hierarchy has also publicly spoken out against some political candidates, opposed sexual and reproductive rights and sexual diversity, and in some cases spoken out against human rights organizations and the human rights movement as a whole.
In short, members of the Catholic clergy constantly involve themselves in Peruvian politics and make no bones about publicly stating their political opinions on a variety of issues. In Peru, the Catholic church is, in fact, a political entity, with many millions of faithful supporters. However, it is important to note that this does not mean that the church intervenes directly in policymaking.
In fact, there has been a clear shift in the political strategies employed by the hierarchy and particularly by its most conservative elements--from a purely theological discourse to one that has grown increasingly technocratic vis-a-vis the institutionalized democracy that emerged in the years following the Fujimori administration. As part of this shift, conservative factions within the church have established new organizations to pressure decision makers on matters related to public policy.
These conservative Catholic groups in Latin America are rooted in the most traditional branches of the church, which themselves are closely related to the region's economic and political oligarchies, as well as the armed forces. This new expression of Catholicism emerged as part of church efforts to reclaim the faithful and exemplifies the tension between what was traditionally considered sacred and the modern way of life. According to those who adhere to this way of thinking, transcendental theocratic values should form the basis of public policy. Groups such as Tradicion Familia y Propiedad, Focus on the Family, La Iglesia Universal del Reino de Dios, Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ exemplify the outlook of the conservative groups that emerged during the second half of the 20th century, which emphasize family, traditional values and religious morality as absolute, inviolable principles.
However, during the past two decades, massive social changes and the widespread embrace of human rights have forced cracks in this hegemonic conservatism. Beginning at the end of Fujimori's regime, and the transition to democracy and opening of Peru's economy which followed, members of social groups which were previously excluded from positions of power and society's "elite,"--including women, indigenous peoples and the poor--have increasingly come into their own as full citizens. In this context, the traditional, theological discourse lost its power and was no longer widely embraced by the public.
As a result, these traditional, conservative groups have been forced to reframe their messaging in response to rapid political, economic and social change in which openness and liberty are highly prioritized. Far from rejecting their historical embrace of traditional values, these values have been combined with concern for the "right to life." This framing creates an intersection between principles of international human rights and the principles traditionally espoused by moralistic, conservative theology.
The conservative groups which emerged during the latter half of the 20th century rejected a more traditional, "hermetic" religious life and abandoned their theological discourse, opting instead to join civil society. Their traditional views on morality, however, are articulated indirectly through their "prolife" discourse, which supports only heterosexual, monogamous relationships. In addition, their views place God at the center of society and see law and public policies as vehicles for imposing Christian morality on society. These groups portray themselves as defenders not only of tradition and family values, but also as defenders of life and, as such, as human rights defenders and humanity's protectors. In short, conservative groups have staked a claim as defenders of moral values, and it is through this framework that religious, antichoice activism emerged in the region.
These groups position themselves politically as antagonists of feminist movements, of sexual diversity and of sexual and reproductive rights in general. This politicization of religious beliefs means that conservative religious activists have inserted themselves into the political debate using democratic mechanisms. To facilitate its political activism, the conservative religious sector has created ostensibly secular civil society organizations and has learned to be "strategically secular." From international groups such as Human Life International (HLI) and the Population Research Institute (PRI), to local groups in every country in Latin America, a whole new sector of faith-based organizations has been created within civil society, with structures, strategies and actions not so different in appearance, if not in content, from those utilized by prochoice human rights organizations.
These groups provide politicians and other government officials with "secular" arguments against sexual and reproductive rights, eliminating the need to explicitly cite conservative religious principles. Similarly, these conservative, ostensibly secular groups lobby political candidates, senators and members of congress, and succeed in blocking or modifying policy agendas.
Many of these conservative religious groups do not invoke theology or religious doctrines when engaging in public debate. Rather, they focus their arguments on preserving morality, common decency and justice. In some cases, religion and the church are used as scaffolding by politicians and government officials, legitimizing the morality of their public discourse. Regardless of how explicitly (or not) religion is invoked, however, when politicians try to achieve greater political legitimacy by invoking religion in and of itself, this legitimizes the use of religious principles and language in the public arena. This legitimization of a role for religious morality within a secular society blurs the secular principles that undergird democracy.
Their many efforts to distance themselves from their overtly religious formation notwithstanding, these conservative groups have benefitted from the support of the Catholic hierarchy, which in some countries is comprised of members of Opus Dei. The bishops' conferences, along with other official church institutions (in countries such as Peru and Colombia, for example), have remained in control to a certain extent and, above and beyond any direct participation in politics (a role now filled by the conservative activists), have become a platform for advancing "traditional morality."
What are the key lessons learned from the evolution of the Catholic church's role in Peruvian politics?
First, that the transformation of conservative religious groups from hermetic, inwardly-focused organizations to politically active NGOs is characterized by the secularization of their political discourse.
Second, the "secularization" of conservative religious organizations and their formal involvement in politics via professional spokespersons, civil society groups, political parties, etc., does not, in fact, imply a fundamental change in the conservative beliefs of these organizations.
Third, the emergence of a secular state has not resulted in a decline in political participation by conservative groups, nor in their influence over policymaking, but rather in a transformation of their strategies.
Fourth, that the moralistic discourse of the conservative wing of the church hierarchy is now housed in its associated civil society organizations which have, in effect, become a political wing of the church.
In sum, the evolution of the Catholic church's role in Peruvian politics amounts to nothing less than the reconstruction of an important political participant, which participates in politics and exerts political, economic and moral pressure over policymakers as active members of Latin America's renewed civil society.
SUSANA CHAVEZ, is a Peruvian feminist, teacher of public health, sexual and reproductive rights activist and director of PROMSEX. JARIS MUJICA is an anthropologist, doctoral candidate, researcher and the director of research at PROMSEX.