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The Catholic Historical Review 88.4 (2002) 723-744

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The Catholic Church, Human Rights Advocacy, and Indigenous Resistance in Paraguay, 1969-1989

René Harder Horst

Despite the famed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuit missions, by the mid-twentieth century few indigenous people in Paraguay identified themselves as Catholic. Indigenous ethnicities in Eastern Paraguay largely practiced tribal beliefs and those west of the Paraguay River had joined Anglican and Mennonite Protestant denominations, often because Catholic nationals harbored deep-seated prejudice against indigenous people. As late as 1960, the Mbyá chief, Remigio Benítez in Caaguazú, rejected baptism into the Catholic Church and explained, "Sure, allow myself to be baptized so that when they [non-Indians] see me pass by they point at me and say: 'see that imbecile avá [native] who puts on airs of being civilized!'" 1 As a career missionary, José Seelwische, emphasized, "civilizing and educating them towards a Christian way of life [had] not succeed[ed] in any way to convince indígenas to abandon their superstitions, pagan rituals, and primitive customs. Missionaries felt their work was impossible." 2

Traditional studies of religious proselytism in Latin America have portrayed missionaries as conveyors of civilization to backward native peoples. By ignoring how indigenous peoples themselves shaped their interaction with missionaries, earlier works relegate indigenous ethnicities to a non-historical past as passive recipients to outside influence. Beginning in the 1980's, the introduction of anthropological perspectives into historical analysis has altered earlier works by integrating indigenous [End Page 723] perspectives and goals. 3 With an ethnohistorical perspective, this article documents growing sympathy by many indigenous people in Paraguay for the Catholic Church during the last half of the Stroessner regime. At the same time, this work highlights the important role the Church played in supporting indigenous human rights at a time when few were concerned about the indigenous situation. Curiously, it was only after the Church abandoned its attempts to proselytize and instead began to actively defend human rights that more indigenous people found greater religious identification as Catholics attractive. By the time indigenous ethnicities and the Catholic Church joined the opposition to the declining Stroessner dictatorship, many indigenous people experienced both religious fulfillment and institutional legal support within the largest denomination in Paraguay.

The Catholic Church and the Stroessner Regime

At an all-time low by the mid-twentieth century, Catholic missions received a boost in 1958 when the young Stroessner regime designed a plan to integrate indigenous ethnicities further into national society. The project, similar to indigenista efforts elsewhere in the Americas, encouraged religious agencies to improve native conditions and alter their cultures. In 1965 the Department of Indigenous Affairs (DAI) asked the Holy See to catechize the 40,000 indigenous people "without pastors and professing their native religions." Still focused on proselytism, bishops in Paraguay urged the pope to send missionaries to "guide natives towards an agricultural lifestyle and be supplied with the economic means to strengthen the socioeconomic bases of native families." 4

All religious organizations in Paraguay co-operated with the regime's plans, but Protestants shared a more successful history of proselytism among indigenous peoples. Anglicans, for instance, had been active in the Chaco since 1888 and agreed to government integration efforts; almost the entire Enxet tribe had joined the Anglican Church. 5 During the 1960's, likewise, indigenous settlements at the Mennonite Colonies experienced messianic movements and three ethnicities were baptized [End Page 724] en masse into that Protestant denomination. These communities found their new affiliation helpful in the recreation of an indigenous identity in opposition to Catholic peasants, who strongly discriminated against them. 6 Both Anglicans and Mennonites promised the regime to prepare a large and willing population of indigenous workers. 7

Despite requests from Paraguay for further evangelism, the Holy See overlooked Paraguay because it was concluding the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, where Pope John XXIII called on the Catholic faithful to defend human rights, grant greater authority in the laity, and actively promote social justice. 8 Latin American bishops agreed in...


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