I went down to check out the church occupation in the main square today, as it entered its fifth day.
The Catholic church is the dominant building in Copan Ruinas, as in most Honduran towns. It’s nice - two bell towers, a centre tower with a clock that usually shows the right time.
Right now, the facade is spotted with hand-lettered signs protesting - politely - the transfer of the local priest.
It’s only the second local protest I’ve been aware of since we’ve been here. The first was a road blockade on the highway to Guatemala when people got fed up with a couple of months of frequent power outages.
I like protests, even if I disagree with the cause. (Hate groups and their ilk excepted.) It seems good if people take a stand for what they believe in.
This one is especially interesting because it involves the church’s role in society.
Some parishioners are angry because the bishop, based in Santa Rosa de Copan, about three hours away, has transferred 14 priests in the diocese, including Father Daniel Humberto Corea of the Church of St. Joseph the Worker in Copan. He’s been here for 13 years and has many supporters.
The decision was at least partly political. The bishop thought the priests were getting too active in joining with some parishioners’ push for social and economic change.
The bishop says the rotation is normal, but critics say, convincingly, that’s simply not true based on past practice and canon law.
And the bishop undermined his own position when he complained the protests are being led by supporters of Libre, a new leftish party that could do well in November’s presidential elections.
The Roman Catholic church is still important here. Newspapers regularly cover statements by the church on public issues. A Honduran cardinal is a longshot candidate for the next pope.
And it has a political past. In the 1960s, the doctrine of liberation theology began to gain ground among Catholic clergy in Latin America. Priests and parishioners saw a religious duty to champion the poor and oppressed and, logically, denounce the rich and oppressive.
That made many people nervous. The U.S.government saw Latin America as another front in the Cold War. It didn’t want the Catholic church even indirectly threatening governments the U.S. saw as allies. Powerful people in Central American countries didn’t want the church pushing for changes in the status quo.
And of course, many people in the church hierarchy - including the outgoing pope - were unhappy with the movement.
It wasn’t just a philosophical debate. Groups in the U.S. - including, famously, Oliver North of the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan years - encouraged and funded evangelical missions to Latin America as a counterbalance.
In the 1960s, Honduras was virtually a Catholic country.
Reliable numbers are hard to come by, but a 2007 national survey found 47 percent of respondents identified themselves as Roman Catholics, and 36 percent as evangelical Protestants, a huge change.
Unlike Canada, almost everyone counts themselves as Christian, and a member of some church. Hondurans are genuinely baffled when I try to explain Canadians’ lack of religious affiliation.
And, unlike in Canada, churches don’t seem to be much interested in helping others or building a stronger community. The things Canadian churches do - providing shelters, running meal programs - just aren’t considered.
Partly, that’s a result of the way evangelical churches have developed. In Copan Ruinas, there are a huge number of tiny, informal churches, often meeting in homes. Congregations are too small to consider launching any collective efforts to make the community better. (That concept might not exist anyway; charity appears to extend, at most, to immediate family. There is no real equivalent to a United Way campaign or tradition of philanthropy here, even among the very rich.)
It’s also, I expect, a legacy of the Roman Catholic church’s decision to step back from an activist theology and focus on the next world, not this one.
Whatever the reasons, Honduran churches are failing. They could be champions of an effort to work with others to make a better life for Hondurans. They aren’t, at least as far as I can tell.
If the people occupying the church on our square can change that a little, more power to them.
Footnote: Hundreds of faith-based groups from North America come to Honduras every year to help people, building schools and water systems and providing health care.
I recall discussions about whether people without religious faith had a reason to help others. Of course they do, I would say.
But it’s interesting that the people who actually show up to do the work almost all share a religious conviction of some kind.