Secular Institute of Contemporary Studies (ILEC)
The concept of the divine origin of power, founding postulancy of all religions, was defeated for
good on the American continent in the first half of the 19th century. Nevertheless the prevalence of
the civil power in the governmental and public institutions’ decisions is neither an obvious reality
nor commonly accepted yet.
In the fight for the definite political independence from the Spanish monarchy, the patriots had to face two mighty rivals: the Spanish monarchy and the Roman Church. This one used all its influence and resources to prevent this stronghold of Catholicism represented by Spain from weakening. Popes Pie VII and Leon XII published two encyclical letters: “ETSI longissima Terrarum” and “I” “ETSI Iam Diu” which called the American Catholics not to cooperate with what they called “the devil’s tyranny” and claimed submission to the Spanish authorities represented by “Our dearest Jesus-Christ’s son, Ferdinand, your Catholic king “ in order to uproot and wipe out the deadly riots and the insurrectional bad lots, a clear reference to the Freemasonry’s established criminal activities. As a consequence the first constitutional document of Jose Miguel Carrera’s independent Chile’s government stated: “ the catholic religion is and will be Chile’s” leaving off the
“Roman” concept since not only did the apostolic capital refuse independence but it was also reluctant to recognize the new republics like in 1831. This is thus no surprise that the government
required from the Church administration to register in the parish books all the ones born on the
Chilean territory as Chilean and not as Spanish.
Trade liberalization, new newspapers and the freedom of the press allowed liberal and rationalist
ideas which advocated the separation of divine and terrestrial problems to spread even if the
conservative landowners closely tied to the Roman Church politically ruled the country.
Supreme Director Ramon Freire, a member of the Lautaro Lodge, demanded in 1824 that the
clergy’s goods obtained thanks to privileges granted by the monarchy, except for the ones for
religious service should be confiscated. They were later given back by Minister Portales.
A major factor which favored the spread of secularism in Chile: the 1842 literary society led by two
characters who had first joined the Masonic Order, Jose Victorino Lastarria and Francicso Bilbao
Barquin. They supported the intellectual break with clerical and conservative Spain creating a new
Among the most noticeable postulancies in Chile’s burgeoning liberalism which had been
influenced by the Enlightment and the Masonry’s principles we can find the end of clericalism as
the church interfering in public life through the practice of powers which were normally the state’s.
The Spanish monarchy had provided the Roman Catholic Church with privileges which were
considered as too inconsistent by the new republican authorities. The 1865 interpretative Law on
the freedom of religion allowed religious service in private buildings to all the people who didn’t
profess the catholic religion, allowing at the same time the dissidents to create and keep private
schools for their children to be taught according to their parents’ belief. The 1874 Penal Code and
the Court Organic Law abolished the ecclesiastic law which freed “canonical people” from being
judged by civil courts for any civil or criminal cases.
In this background of ideological battle between monarchists and the remains of republican ideas
the conditions emerged for the so-called secular laws to be adopted between 1883 and 1884 under
liberal President Domingo Santa Maria’s government. According to these laws the state is
entrusted with the duties which used to be fulfilled by the Roman church.
The Law on the burial of corpses of August 2nd 1883, signed by Home Secretary Jose Manuel
Balmaceda and President Domingo Santa Maria banned the discrimination based on religious
belief at a time when burial had been on the agenda in Chile since the beginning of the postindependence
years when Freemasonry had played a key role defending the principles of equality
in front of the law, non discrimination and tolerance. The Roman church which was in charge of
churchyards and pretended to rule over humans’ life and death opposed the celebration of non-
Catholic religious ceremonies. In 1854 the dissidents’ garden is created on a side of the
churchyard for the ones who don’t profess the Roman Catholic religion. The official church of this
time had a 7-meter-high, 3-meter-long wall built to reach the garden and split the terrace from the
rest of the churchyard not to contaminate the Christians with “the apostate, the evil-doers with
suicidal tendencies” which shows that it had nothing to do with a minor issue. Indeed up to that
time the dissidents who allegedly didn’t deserve a holy place were buried in a dump on the East
side of the Cerro Santa Lucia.
On January 16th 1884 the law on civil marriage was passed. The Roman church lost its power to
consecrate and register marriages. Since then the marriages which didn’t meet the Civil Code
didn’t produce any legal effects and the spouses remained free and not submitted to the
requirements and procedures prescribed by the religion they belonged to.
The climax would be the July 1884 law on legal registration which entrusted this State institution
with the registration of births, marriages and deaths.
As a consequence the Roman Church would no longer be in charge of the registration mission as it
used to through parish registration books.
Liberal President Domingo Santa Maria who was behind these secular laws stated one day about
them: “Having secularized my country’s institutions one day my country will say thank you. That
way I have acted without any fanatic hatred or any narrow-minded anticlerical notions, I have had a
higher and broader vision. The level of awakening and culture reached by Chile deserved that my
fellow citizens’ consciences should be freed from medieval prejudices. I have fought against the
Church and more than the Church against the conservative sect because it represented in Chile
the sanctimonious party, the major obstacle against the country’s moral advancement.”
The political social cultural and economic changes in Chile challenged the oligarchy giving new
leaders to the country and allowing a new coalition to run the nation. This new reality is
represented by Free Mason Arturo Alessandri Palma with his liberal reform agenda and a broad
popular support. The new 1925 constitution had led these new leaders along with a presidential
representative regime and the secularism of powers including the separation of the Roman Church
and the State. Thus the Chilean Republic has no official religion stating that way the freedom of
On October 14th 1999 the 19638 law on religion was published in the Official Journal. It
established standards for the legal constitution of the religious churches and organizations. Thanks
to this law the State guarantees the freedom of religion and belief. Nobody can be discriminated
against on the basis of his religious beliefs. They can’t be referred to to suppress, limit or affect the
equality inscribed in the Constitution and in the law. That way the law puts an end to the Roman
Church‘s discrimination against the other religions.
However and despite the legal developments in favor of a non denominational state, even in Chile,
we can’t say that the State is effectively neutral towards the religion. Indeed the Roman Church is
still deeply involved in the government’s activities and in the nation’s budget. Religious symbols
displayed during official events, chapels’ institutions, State’s official events with religious
ceremonies, official visits of Chilean civil servants who are eventually more pilgrims than
representatives of all the Chileans draw our attention on the reality of the non denominational
character of the Chilean State. The long process to achieve a truly secular State in Chile
introduced by the Republic forerunners has a long time running and hardships to overcome.