Walking Hand in Hand: Chile’s Military Chaplaincy and the Rising Southern Church

DISCLAIMER: The ideas of this blog are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views of the department of Defense. (Los ideas aqui son solamente del autor y no son los opiniones del Departmento de Defenso del EE.UU)

Research undertaken by Rev. Kristian Carlson, a Navy Chaplain (Lieutenant Commander) attending Duke University’s Divinity School in October 2020.

17 OCT 2020. 3:08PM. Cary, North Carolina.

Walking Hand in Hand: Chile’s Military Chaplaincy and the Rising Southern Church

A close look at the military Chaplaincy in Chile[1] offers an intriguing window into the evolving Christianity there. A fusion is underway of Catholic and Protestant ministers which has the potential to bring greater unity to the country and lead the way for other Latin American countries.  The fusion is born of a significant demographic shift. Catholics who until recently represented over 80% of the population, have now dropped to 66%. Protestants, meanwhile, have increased to 16%.[2]  The Chaplaincy in Chile is an intersection of this shift.  When I began this research I asked, “Does the structure of the chaplaincy program and the religious affiliation of the clergy reveal any changing religious demographics or tension between Catholics and the Protestants?” I now see that the evolution of the military Chaplaincy in Chile, and wider Latin America, is alive and ongoing. Recent reports[3] from the U.S. Department of State offer clues that many South American countries’ chaplaincies are not yet inclusive of minority faiths.[4] This is partly the case in Chile, where, although separation of church and state was constitutionalized in 1925,[5] the nation remains on a journey to ensuring equality to rising non-Catholic faith groups. A path toward equality in Chile involves authorizing and commissioning a religiously diverse military Chaplaincy. Such inclusion is a victory for civil rights, but also underscores to students of Church History the remarkable growing influence of the “Next Christians” of whom Philip Jenkins writes.[6] This Christianity is often charismatic, theologically conservative, and at times politically progressive. Chile’s “next Christians” are no different, and today they are asking for the chance to serve their country as Chaplains. Because of Chile’s wide political and economic influence[7], their actions in this arena will reverberate in Latin America.  Incorporating diverse Chaplains may even ease tensions in the nation and signal the positive social change many Chileans want.

Chile’s present population is 18.2 million.[8] It’s Armed Forces are comprised of 80,000 active personnel. 45,000 in the Army; 22,000 in the Navy; 13,000 in the Air Force; and approximately 45,000 Carabineros, their National Police.  The country places a premium on military readiness and strength. Adjusted for size, they have an even larger number than those serving than in the U.S. Military.  The Chilean Chaplaincy tasked with ministering to these servicemembers is led by the Obispo Castrense de Chile, or Bishop of Chilean Chaplaincy. The Chaplains whom he commissions are all Roman Catholic priests who serve as active duty officers in the various military branches.[9] Due to changes in regulation since 2008, civilian pastors increasingly support them on a contracting basis. These changes have resulted in the appointment of four National Evangelical Chaplains, who as civilians, help identify and meet the needs of non-Catholic service members. 

Juan Francisco Galli, Chile’s undersecretary for the Armed Forces, explains that 58 Chaplains currently serve. 45 are commissioned officers and 13 are contract chaplains.[10] He describes their function, “they are necessary… anywhere in the world, in crisis, or catastrophe, to support…the force.” [11] In conversation with a Catholic Chilean Navy Chaplain of 15 years of service, a Lieutenant Commander, I learned about the steep educational requirements of Chile’s military Chaplains and of their storied history accompanying soldiers in critical times of war, to include Chile’s 1810 War of Independence. The Chaplain explained that his interactions with Evangelical pastors ministering to Sailors has been mainly positive. He also acknowledged the lack of commissioned non-Catholic Chaplains within the military. This is a process yet underway.

An online interview with a retired Chilean Air Force Sergeant Major expressed that, “there is not equality between evangelical Chaplains and Catholic Chaplains in Chile’s Armed Forces.”[12]  This tug and pull of the traditional Church and the political state’s support of the rising Southern Church is a developing process. Pope Pius X authorized Chile’s Chaplaincy in 1903. Pope John Paul 2 furthered it by establishing a Military Chaplaincy Archbishopric in 1983. The Vatican II Council (1962-1965) softened the Church’s relationship with Protestants. In October 1999 President Eduardo Frei signed into law a provision to ensure equality of all religions. But actual changes to the Chaplaincy were nearly 10 years away.

In 2006 Evangelical leaders met with the incumbent president Michele Bachelet. Her campaign had promised to enhance Evangelical’s rights.[13]  After the meeting, one prominent Pastor interviewed, Juana Albornoz, celebrated the previous President’s appointment[14] of evangelical chaplains to serve legislators in the Capitol, in the prison systems and in Chile’s Police School of Investigations.[15]  Pastor Albornoz hoped that the next step would be the appointment of evangelical military Chaplains.[16] Her hope demonstrates two roles that government legitimization might play.  First it underscored the legitimate religious needs of non-Catholic Chileans, which under the old system were at best neglected.  But more significantly for this study, such a step underscored the movement of Chile’s non-Catholic Christians toward mainstream acceptance.

The breakthrough law came on May 26th, 2008. Bachelet regulatedreligious ministry to the Armed Forces. The law allowed for the armed forces and law enforcement agencies to permit “registered religious groups to appoint chaplains to serve in each branch of the armed forces, the national uniformed police, and the national investigative police.”[17]

In an interview on a Pentecostal Church blog, Chilean Air Force Sergeant Major Alejandro Cuellar, an Evangelical, shared personal challenges from his 30 years in the military without pastoral representation. The experience led him to become president of an interdenominational civil-religious group of Evangelicals called Misión Evangélica Uniformada.  He explained in 2009 that, “We are not as we should be even though we lend evangelical spiritual care to Soldiers, in practice there does not exist an evangelical Chaplaincy, we only have a National Evangelical Chaplain in each branch of the service. Evangelicals have fought to obtain (the opportunity), but political pressure and religious opposition have impeded religious equality in the Armed forces of Chile. (We keep insisting) before Congress that they change the laws that pertain to granting religious equality.”

To further color non-Catholics’ experience in the Chilean military let’s turn to an article by Fabian Escobar.[18] He explained that by 2002, 25% of the Chilean Army were Protestant.  “For years uniformed Pentecostals, Methodists, Baptists and other (religious) brotherhoods, up until the 2008 regulation, had to worship in a semi-clandestine way.” He told the tragedy of Antuco where a Sergeant and 44 conscripts died on a sub-zero high-terrain training march. Over half, he writes, were evangelicals without faith representation. The article illuminated the disciplinary dangers faced by “Next Christians” such as Sergeant Godoy who put on unauthorized meetings with other evangelicals and preached the Gospel to those on guard duty. The first National Evangelical Chaplain of the Army, a Presbyterian named Dr. Jorge Cardenas, was interviewed for the article.  He explained the evolution of additional ministry supports serving alongside Chile’s military chaplains, “if Chile wanted to play in the Big Leagues, they had to improve…and stop appearing in UN reports as a country of religious discrimination inside the Armed Forces, just having religious liberty for Catholics and not for Evangelicals.”

Chile’s Chaplaincy today is facing national scrutiny. In June 2019, following Santiago’s Channel 13 investigative report on the Chaplaincy, Chile’s president, Sebastian Pinera, directed the head of the Fiscal Budget to revert the high salaries and privileges of Chilean military Chaplains. Per his spokesperson he instructed the Ministers of Defense and Interior to resolve the situation as soon as possible.[19] An Active Duty Lieutenant Commander Chilean Navy Chaplain shared a personal opinion of what this might look like: Chile’s current Chaplaincy could be scrapped in the upcoming potential constitutional rewrite of 2021-22. One can imagine that the military branches may deal with the issue themselves by writing new policy to devolve and share the authority of the Roman Catholic Bishop.

To conclude, there are exciting positive examples of the evolution of the Catholic-Protestant relationship. In one online video from JUNE 2020, a ministry partnership between two Chaplains is on display. The brief recording shows the Catholic Chaplain, in military uniform, walking alongside the evangelical Chaplain, in ecclesiastical attire, together they offer words to encourage deployed service members and their families during COVID19. The recording showed passion, maturity, and unity among the two ministers.  Perhaps their relationship is indicative of the growing flexibility of the Catholic Church, and the strength of the rising Evangelical Church[20] to be relevant to the public, collaborative in effort, and authorized by the government. In another recent development, the Navy’s National Evangelical Chaplain, Bishop René Ojeda Oyarzun, dedicated a newly constructed Protestant Naval Chapel, called “The Good Shepherd.” The event was attended by Chile’s Naval Commander in Chief Admiral Larrañaga and other significant leaders.[21] 

On 25 October 2020, Chileans head to the polls for a referendum on whether to write a new constitution. This arose from violent protests last October over the raising of Metro Fare Rates.  Complaints grew to include demands for a fairer pension system, universal healthcare, and education guarantees. According to the CIA, Chile’s “severe income inequality ranks as the worst among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.” Many view Chile’s current Constitution as problematic as it was ratified under Pinochet. The March 2020 vote was postponed due to the COVID19 Pandemic, but it will now go forward, despite health concerns.

The Catholic Church in Chile has an honored legacy of courage. Many priests resisted Pinochet. Some, like Fathers Woodward and Alsina, were killed for their stands. Professor William Cavanaugh writes, “In the days and weeks following the Coup, tens of thousands (of Chileans)…were killed or taken prisoner. Bodies appeared in rivers, and the soccer stadiums were filled with supporters” of Allende.  But to the Catholic Church’s credit, the Vicaria, stood up by Cardinal Silva, became “the foundation of moral and legal resistance to the military dictatorship.” Perhaps a fusion is taking place. The former revolutionary courage of Chilean Catholics, pointed out by Jenkins, is indicative of the DNA of today’s rising Southern Church. One wonders if the other non-Catholic “Next Christians” of Chile will help the nation to again stand for civil liberty. This time as Catholic and Non-Catholic Chaplains who speak together, both authorized to wear the cloth of the nation, calling for unity and for a better tomorrow.

To repeat the heartfelt words of retired Sergeant Major Cuellar, the experience of Evangelical Chaplains is one of not having yet arrived. Perhaps a bit like Christians’ inaugurated eschatology—the Kingdom begun, though not yet here. But the goal to them seems worth the struggle. When answering why chaplaincy matters so much to him, Cuellar explained with the passion characteristic of “Next Christians,” “just as the pastorate is a call of God, in my case the field to which I am called, is to uniformed (personnel).” That calling is strong, and it is why he longs to break ground and become a military Chilean Chaplain.


Catoggio, María Soledad. “Argentine Catholicism During the Last Military Dictatorship: Unresolved Tensions and Tragic Outcomes.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 22, no. 2 (2013/06/01 2013): 139-54. https://doi.org/10.1080/13569325.2013.803954. https://doi.org/10.1080/13569325.2013.803954.

CIA., U.S. World Fact Book   https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_ci.html (Accessed October 12, 2020.)

“Historical Overview of Pentecostalism in Chile.” Spirit and Power: 10 Country Survey of Pentecostalism (October 5, 2006). https://www.pewforum.org/2006/10/05/historical-overview-of-pentecostalism-in-chile/

Jenkins, Philip. “The Next Christendom : The Coming of Global Christianity.” New York : Oxford University Press. (2007).

Matte Varas, José Joaquín. “Historia Del Vicariato Castrense En Chile.” Boletín de la Academia Chilena de la Historia 48 (2013-02-24 1981): 167. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/docview/1308689776?accountid=10598

Meneses, Alejandro Cuellar. ““There Is Not Equality between Chaplains with A.C. Meneses” “. interview by Hermógenes Carril Torres, Blog of the Autonomous Assemblies of God Church of Santiago, Chile (2009). http://www.otromenguante.cl/algokleer/noticias/n-capellania.htm.

Ruderer, Stephan. “Between Religion and Politics: The Military Clergy During the Late Twentieth-Century Dictatorships in Argentina and Chile.” Journal of Latin American Studies 47, no. 3 (2015): 463-89. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022216X15000012. https://www.cambridge.org/core/article/between-religion-and-politics-the-military-clergy-during-the-late-twentiethcentury-dictatorships-in-argentina-and-chile/EFD0E4861FCF8B05004E1650717F3C93.

Seiple, Chris. “Ready…or Not?: Equipping the U.S. Military Chaplain for Inter-Religious Liaison.” Article. Review of Faith & International Affairs 7, no. 4 (2009): 43-49. https://doi.org/10.1080/15570274.2009.9523414. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=75304642&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

U.S. Department of State. “Report on International Religious Freedom: Colombia “.  (2019). https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/colombia/.

Torres, Charles. ” “Evangelical Leaders Meet with President Elect Bachelet.” “. Noticia Cristiana. (January 17 2006). https://www.noticiacristiana.com/politica/2006/01/lideres-evangelicos-se-reunieron-con-presidenta-electa-michelle-bachelet.html.

U.S. Department of State, Office of International Religious Freedom. “2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Peru “.  (June 10, 2020): 1-8. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/peru/.

U.S. Department of State. “Chile 2019 International Religious Freedom Report.”  (June 10 2020): 1-7. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/chile/

Vidal, Hernán. Las Capellanías Castrenses Durante La Dictadura : Hurgando En La ÉTica Militar Chilena. Santiago de Chile: Santiago de Chile : Mosquito Comunicaciones, 2005., 2005. https://find.library.duke.edu/catalog/DUKE004195532.

[1] A Chilean Chaplain, Lieutenant Commander (He is an Active Duty Chaplain of 15 years in Navy) in discussion with the author, October 13, 2020, explained the history of Chile’s Chaplaincy. The Holy See was closely involved. Pope Pius X and Pope John Paul 2 were both instrumental. The opinions of Chaplain Carvallo are his own and do not reflect those of the Chilean Armed Forces.

[2] Roman Catholics account for 66.7%, Evangelicals for 16.4%, other faiths account for 5.5%, and 11.5% claim no faith. Before the rise of Pinochet, 80.9 percent of the country were Catholic.  In the 2012 census that number dropped 13.5 points to 67.4%. In this same period the number of baptized Protestants jumped from 6.2% of the population to 16.6% by 2012. The shift poses a challenge for Chile’s Chaplaincy leadership.   They must ensure ministry care to 33% of their personnel who are not Catholic, but the actual structure of their chaplaincy does not make this a simple task.

[3] “Colombia 2019 International Religious Freedom Report.” https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/chile/

[4] In Peru, current laws allow the military to only employ Catholic clergy as chaplains. 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Peru “. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/peru/

[5] “Historical Overview of Pentecostalism in Chile.” Spirit and Power: 10 Country Survey of Pentecostalism (October 5, 2006). https://www.pewforum.org/2006/10/05/historical-overview-of-pentecostalism-in-chile/.

[6] Jenkins, Philip. “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.” New York: Oxford University Press. (2007).

[7] Chile has the oldest Latin American Chaplaincy, one of its most respected militaries, and one of its strongest economies. 

[8] US. CIA. World Fact Book. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/print_ci.html.  Accessed October 12 2020.

[9]  The office is called “Misión de la Capellanía Nacional Evangélica en el Ejército.” The military bishop is the equivalent ecclesiastical rank of all other Bishops in Chile. He is also a military general officer.  Obispo Castrense de Chile Silva was appointed in 2015 by Pope Francis. “Organization of the Chilean Chaplaincy Bishopric” https://www.obispadocastrensechile.cl/organizacion.php (accessed September 23, 2020).

[10] The Bishop’s Chaplaincy office lists an additional 24 Chaplains who likely serve under contract. The number of “auxiliary” ministers serving in a Chaplain role is not available.

[11] Juan Francisco Galli was interviewed by Channel 13 of Santiago in its July 2019 investigative report on Chile’s Chaplaincy.

[12] Alejandro Cuellar Meneses,  “There is not Equality Between Chaplains with A.C. Meneses,” interview by Hermógenes Carril Torres, Blog of the Autonomous Assemblies of God Church of Santiago, Chile, 2009,  http://www.otromenguante.cl/algokleer/noticias/n-capellania.htm.

[13] Pew Research considered this January 2006 meeting historically significant as a Pentecostal pastor calls on Bachelet’s government to support…evangelical chaplains.” PEW, ALC, Jan. 16, 2006

[14] President Richard Lagos served from 2000-2006.

[15] Their work is like the US’s FBI.

[16] Torres, Charles. Noticia Cristiana. “Evangelical Leaders meet with President Elect Bachelet.” January 17, 2006. https://www.noticiacristiana.com/politica/2006/01/lideres-evangelicos-se-reunieron-con-presidenta-electa-michelle-bachelet.html

[17] U.S. Department of State. Office of International Religious Freedom: Chile 2019 International Religious Freedom Report.  Washington DC, June 10, 2020: Pages 1-7. Accessed September 22nd, 2020. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/chile/

[18] Escobar, Fabian. “Uniformado evangelicos: El lento camino de la iqualidad religioas” October 23, 2009. PuroPeriodismo. Article entitled “Uniformed Evangelicals, the slow road to equality. Materials translated by Kristian Carlson http://www.puroperiodismo.cl/uniformados-evangelicos-el-lento-camino-de-la-igualdad-religiosa/ Accessed October 12, 2020.

[19]Lara, Emilio y Beatriz Vallejos.  02 JUL 2019. https://www.biobiochile.cl/noticias/nacional/chile/2019/07/02/pinera-pide-revertir-altos-sueldos-y-privilegios-de-capellanes-de-las-ffaa-con-cargo-al-fisco.shtml accessed 12 OCT 2020

[20] Jenkins’ “Next Christians”.

[21] Director of Welfare, Chilean Navy. “Inauguration of Navy’s Evangelical Chapel, The Good Shepherd” https://www.bienestararmada.cl/inauguracion-capilla-evangelica-de-la-armada-el-buen-pastor/prontus_bienestar/2017-04-26/132217.html (Accessed 12 OCT 2020)

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