SANTIAGO, Chile — The usually soft-spoken archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa, surprisingly abandoned his non-confrontational style in mid-November to lock horns with an unlikely rival: the Great Masonic Lodge of Santiago.

The cardinal went so far as to compare the Mason's leadership with Taliban terrorists, responding to an unusual public statement issued by the Masonic Lodge that accused the Catholic Church of being “fundamentalist and intolerant” on life and family issues.

Cardinal Errázuriz's intervention was the highest point in an unusual escalation of confrontation surrounding the upcoming congressional elections scheduled for Dec. 6.

The relationship between the Catholic Church and Freemasons in Chile has been coldly civil for several decades. But Church leaders have not forgotten the leading role the Masons played in the anti-clerical governments of the 19th century, while Masons resent the frequent reminders Chilean bishops make to the incompatibility of being Catholic and belonging to any of the 108 Masonic lodges in the overwhelmingly Catholic country of 17 million people.

And the truce was broken Nov. 11 when Jorge Carvajal, Grand Master of Chile's Grand Masonic Lodge, signed a full-page paid newspaper statement accusing the Catholic Church of engaging in “open interventionism” in the upcoming elections by telling Catholics not to vote for candidates who favor divorce (which is still illegal in Chile), the legalization of abortion, or distribution of the so-called “morning-after” pill.

The Church's action, the Masonic statement claimed, “goes far beyond the moral limits of any religious creed, since it is aimed at imposing specific values on the entire country.”

A source from the Chilean Bishops' Conference, who spoke to the Register on condition of anonymity, said “the masons' unprecedented attack against the Catholic hierarchy is a “desperate” action aimed to prevent the victory of political forces opposed to abortion and divorce.

The bishops' conference source added that Carvajal's statement was “a very bad, clumsy political move, since it will not help the candidates they prefer and will further alienate Masons from Chile's mainstream politics.”

Political Struggle

Senator Sergio Diez, a legislator from the conservative movement Renovación Nacional, commented that the shared fear of both the Masons and the influential Socialist Party is “ the growing likelihood that the Christian Democratic and Socialist Coalition will lose control of Congress for the first time in 11 years.”

While Chile's Christian Democratic party was once close to Church positions, today most of its members favor divorce and some even favor legalizing abortion.

Patricio Forado, a spokesman for the Grand Masonic Lodge, said that the Masonic statement “was not politically motivated but concerned for the defense of the separation of church and state.”

Sen. Diez countered that this “concern” is “at least quite suspicious, if we consider the timing in which it was expressed.”

In fact, the parliamentary elections are occurring as Congress is debating several initiatives that would make divorce legal in Chile, give final approval to the morning-after pill and open the door to the legalization of abortion. The most recent polls suggest that the center-left ruling coalition will definitely lose ground and could even lose control of the Congress to Alianza por Chile, an alliance between Reno-vación Nacional and the Unión Demócrata Independiente party.

“Value-based issues will really make the difference, since most of our domestic and foreign policies are very similar,” said Diez.

An editorial in the daily paper La Tercera called the Masonic intervention a “bear's hug” in support of the ruling coalition. “The attack on the Catholic Church, definitely the most prestigious Chilean institution, was completely unnecessary and it will have a political price,” La Tercera predicted.

Cardinal's Reply

Cardinal Errázuriz, who is president of the Chilean bishops' conference, said in a Nov. 13 response to the Masonic statement that the Masons “use the same words that would have been used by the terrorists that organized the attack of Sept. 11.”

He said that the Masons “have raised serious questions regarding their alleged openness to Catholicism,” and their criticism of the Church as “fundamentalist” for its pro-life and pro-family position was not unexpected.

“We are used to being the only ones swimming against the current,” Cardinal Errázuriz said. “Moreover, criticism is a source of joy when it comes as a consequence of defending the human person, the right to life and the family.”

In an even firmer tone, Father Joaquín Alliende Lucco, spokesman for the Chilean Bishops' Conference, rejected the “low treatment” of the Church at the hands of the Masons.

The Church's commitment to human rights for every individual “benefited numerous members of the Masons when other institutions did not protect them,” Father Alliende added, alluding to the repression waged by the dictatorship of former president General Augusto Pinochet. “While many of the Masons remained silent, Chilean bishops were risking their lives.”

Seeking to defuse the confrontation, Carvajal said after the statement was published that its primary intent was not to criticize the Catholic Church, but rather to publicize the Masons' own known positions. “We just had to pay for the advertisement, because we don't own media and no media covered our statement when we called for a press conference a week earlier,” Carvajal complained.

The Masonic staement had no visible effect on the bishops' determination to communicate their views to Catholic voters. On Nov. 16, the bishops' conference reelected Cardinal Errázuriz for another three-year term as president, and issued a document energetically restating the call to Catholics not to vote for candidates who support abortion or divorce.

Said the document, “We don't intend to impose our beliefs on those who have no faith; but we believe that the truth about family, marriage, children and society is self-evident, and accessible to any human being capable of natural reasoning.”

In response to the bishops' appeal, a pro-life organization called Acción Familia blanketed the country with questionnaires that voters can address to candidates.

The questionnaire included precise questions intended to identify the candidates' positions on family, marriage, life of the unborn, homosexuality, morality in the media and parents' rights.

By late November, the pro-life campaign, entitled Operación Verdad (Operation Truth), had collected the responses of 40 candidates. Of those, 16 had expressed public commitments to support pro-life and pro-family legislation.

Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru.