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How the Separation of Church and State Is Under Attack in Uruguay

By: Priscila Guinovart - @PrisUY - Jan 5, 2017, 2:26 pm
Separation of Church and State Under Attack in Uruguay
Uruguay is, in proportion to its population, the Western country with the highest number of atheists. (Presidencia)

Uruguay seems to have an almost supernatural obsession with stagnation. By now, we might well call it a relationship.

Not only are we drowned in the ruling party’s ideology of the past, but now, as if we need more blindness and fanaticism, Cardinal Daniel Sturla has urged Uruguayans to remove the “secular bucket imposed over this country 100 years ago.”

The Cardinal explicitly called on believers to make an ardent proselytizing: “Let us not remain with that secular bucket inside ourselves … With a dogma that states that anything religious, especially Catholic, must remain within the scope of the individual consciousness. That is the denial of what Christianity is.”

Like it or not, a cardinal does not have to read a constitution, though it would be good in Sturla’s particular case to do it. Uruguay has been, since 1917, a secular country. Article five of the constitution of the same year establishes the Church-State separation.

Uruguay is, in proportion to its population, the Western country with the highest number of atheists. Perhaps this is why the cardinal feels somewhat persecuted. In an interview for El País, Sturla stated, “no one bothers us, as long as we do not lean out the window, otherwise we could receive a blow.”

Sturla is very wrong. Nobody “attacks” Catholics for expressing their beliefs. Respect for all religious groups is guaranteed not only in our constitution, but is also one of our most solid and respectable traditions.

On the other hand, secularism is not a synonym of anti-Catholicism, as the cardinal wants to make his followers believe. Secularism, threatening as this concept seems to be for the religious leader, is nothing more than the absence of a dominant and official religion.

In this context, the Catholic Church of Uruguay launched the campaign “Christmas with Jesus.” They printed a series of advertisements for people’s balconies, and urged Uruguayans to acquire them, because “you cannot celebrate a birthday without the birthday boy.” It was somewhat aggressive, taking into account that Uruguay does not officially celebrate “Christmas” on December 25th, but rather the “day of the family.”

Uruguayans immediately reacted to Sturla’s statement, as well as President Tabaré Vázquez, who swiftly hung an image of Jesus from his own balcony. Is this a violation of the secularity established in our constitution?

Many say no, because Vázquez did so from the balcony of his private house. However, the argument in disagreement is strong.

Víctor Rodríguez Othegy, representing the Uruguayan Association of Free Thinkers (AULP), stated to Montevideo Portal that “it is in fact a violation since the Presidency of the Republic is an institution that represents society as a whole.”

He added that “the President is not a common citizen. He acts on behalf of the Uruguayan state, and in that sense he must follow Article five of the constitution, which points out that the state does not maintain any religion.”

According to Rodríguez Othegy, it is irrelevant whether Vázquez owns the balcony or not, since “the investiture of the Presidency is not subordinated to the concept of property.”

“The President is the President everywhere, regardless of whether he is in a private or state property,” he added.

For former president Julio María Sanguinetti, the discussion itself does not belong to the Uruguay of the 21st century. In his column Palabras Cruzadas, he wrote, “Cardinal Sturla has been making statements that take us back to the past, reopening a debate that seemed to be definitively closed.”

“Naturally, in this debate there were also certain excesses of the defenders of the secular republic, such as what we see today, but it is the inevitable response to a Catholicism that claimed to remain the state religion, and imposed its codes and beliefs, including its archaic conception of the family, with a subordinate woman,” he wrote.

In Uruguay, there is a worrying trend of collectivism, completely uprooted from its time. Tabaré Vázquez is, of course, free to practice the faith that he finds most coherent, but he cannot impose it. Not to all Uruguayans, nor to a handful of them or to his neighbors.

Both politically and religiously, the mission of some people seems to be to crush the individual. And Vázquez has repeatedly proved he belongs to this tyrannical group.

Priscila Guinovart Priscila Guinovart

Priscila Guinovart is an Uruguayan teacher and writer. She has written for outlets in Latin America, the U.S., and Europe. While in London, she wrote her book La cabeza de Dios. Follow her: @PrisUY.