Church-state bond may be weaker as culture changes

A.M. Costa Rica/Kayla Pearson
Wise men bearing gifts for the Baby Jesus make their way across the lawn of the court building.

Costa Rica is a country where one may wish anyone a Merry Christmas (in Spanish, of course) without fear of committing a social sin.

The patrols of the American Civil Liberties Union have yet to visit here. And the Costa Rica Constitution both defines Catholicism as the state religion and defends the freedom to practice other religions.

During seasons like Christmas there are outward displays of faith all over, including on government property.

Few homes would be complete without a portal or nativity scene. Neither would a government office. There is a life-size nativity scene on the small lawn in front of the Tribunales de Justicia, the courts, in San José.

The Municipalidad de San José has invested money in Christmas lights, and there was a big event when the portal at the front door of the Teatro Nacional was inaugurated with choirs, fireworks and other displays.

All year long there are obvious displays of faith. Taxi drivers hang rosary beads from the rear view mirror or perhaps put a photo of a saint on the dashboard. More than one public bus bears the name of a saint, and some even have “Jesus Christ is my savior” painted across the rear.

Jesús is a common name for a male, and María is much used as both a female name and male second name.

Of course, the Christmas season is marked with a vacation that might be as much as 10 days. Easter means about a week off for many workers, including government ones.

Still the beaches call at Christmas and at Easter. Today San José approaches a ghost town because many families are already on vacation.

In late July and the first day of August each year perhaps a million pilgrims make the trek to Cartago to honor the Virgin de los Ángeles there and seek special favors. Even during the year small statues of the Virgin, known as the Negrita, can be seen in the most unexpected places, such as above a fast food firm’s cash register.

Yet with all the outward display, the culture is changing.

The U.S. State Department in its religious freedom report for 2011 estimates that there are approximately 47 percent of the population identified as practicing Roman Catholics, 23 percent as non-practicing Catholic, 16 percent as evangelical Protestant, 6 percent as belonging to other religions, and 8 percent as having no religious affiliation. The report cites a Universidad de Costa Rica survey.

There are about 2,800 Jews in Costa Rica, it said.

Despite the preponderance of Catholics, there are proposals for a lay state, an estado laico, The topic usually comes up during presidential election campaigns, but there is a bill in the legislative hopper that would remove the designation of Catholicism as the official religion for the Constitution.

The Catholic Church also seems to be on the short end of demographics and modern culture. Even Archibishop Hugo Barrantes admits that his successor has the job of attracting more young persons to the church. He retires shortly at age 75.

Barrantes and the other bishops of the nation have opposed sex education in the public schools and in-vitro fertilization. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights just ordered Costa Rica to legalize in-vitro fertilization within the next six months and to regulate all aspects of in-vitro fertilization to ensure implementation. It also ordered the country to implement continuing education courses and training on reproductive rights for judicial officials throughout the country, according to an assessment by an advocacy group, the Center for Reproductive Rights. The church has vowed to fight this ruling.

The church also opposes sex education in the public schools despite the fact that Catholicism also is taught in the schools on an opt-out basis.

But it may be economics and creeping commercialism that have the biggest impact on the Costa Rica culture. Retailer giant Walmart said that its stores will be open Christmas Day this year.

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