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Morality crusade stirs storm in Guatemala

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Maria de Jesus Ordóñez, an avid Pentecostal, is the behind-the-scenes promoter of a controversial series of public school classes on morality and religion that have brought Guatemala to the brink of church-state conflict.

Ordóñez's morality agenda has received support from Guatemala's first lady, Patricia Escobar Dalton, a Catholic. Although advisers to Escobar's husband, President Alvaro Arzú, have urged the elimination of the program, Escobar has persisted in backing Ordóñez, a member of the Pentecostal megachurch Hebron, despite furious opposition from Catholic officials here.

The Ordóñez episode illustrates the growing influence throughout Latin America of independent, fundamentalist and often Pentecostal groups. The independent churches, referred to by Catholic church officials as "sects," have been successful in winning large numbers of converts from Catholicism. In this case, a leading Pentecostal has found an official forum in a government agency.

Both President Arzú and his wife are devout Catholics, but Ordóñez has stepped over confessional boundaries and found sufficient ideological common ground with Escobar to convince the first lady to launch a frontal attack on what the two women decry as the "moral decomposition" of Guatemala's youth.

After months of planning, "Free and Triumphant Youth," a series of classes in public secondary schools, got off the ground in late August. The classes are taught by teachers chosen and trained by conservative Pentecostal pastors who supervise the program.

The head of the union representing middle school teachers, Edgar Juarez, called the program a "social and religious time bomb," destined to provoke conflict between parents, teachers, Catholics and fundamentalists.

Because the program clearly violates the constitutional mandate of lay education, it is run out of Escobar's Secretariat for Social Projects rather than the Ministry of Education. With the possible exception of Escobar herself, Ordóñez has final say over the program's curriculum and methods.

The morality courses are theoretically optional for students. Initially they were offered only in Guatemala City, the nation's capital. But the program has brought strong criticism from the country's Catholic bishops and others who say it goes beyond mere lessons in morality and civics and provides a platform for proselytism by evangelical right-wingers.

On Oct. 29, Guatemala's Catholic bishops condemned the morality program publicly, claiming it was incompatible with the Catholic faith and doctrine, that it denied Guatemala's "multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious" reality and that it failed to promote the "critical and reflective capability of youth."

Lambasting the program's "fundamentalist framework" and "cosmological dualism," the bishops declared the project unconstitutional and forbade Catholic schools or Catholic public school teachers to participate in it.

Guatemala's progressive evangelicals on Oct. 30 joined their Catholic counterparts in opposing the program. The Conference of Evangelical Churches -- CIEDEG -- released a statement calling the program "sectarian and slanted" and criticizing Escobar for an "abuse of authority."

Escobar countered church opposition on Nov. 5, saying that for many years, Catholics and progressive evangelicals "have done nothing to improve the quality of education of our youth, who find themselves in a lamentable state of moral decomposition."

"Free and Triumphant" was designed by pastors from the Hebron, El Shaddai and Christian Fraternity Pentecostal churches.

According to a confidential document prepared by project staff, these pastors exert absolute control over the program. Each teacher "will be under the authority, coordination and spiritual formation of a pastor and church that support the project, because it will be a personal project of the church," according to the document, whose prelude praises pre-secular humanistic public education in the United States as the model to follow. It goes on to state that a "fruit" of the project is that "those persons who convert will be given to that church."

The program's content certainly reflects the theological view of the conservative Pentecostal community. Women, for example, are painted as inferior (a "fragile vessel").

Guatemala's weekly newsmagazine Cronica editorialized Nov. 8 that the project "is nothing more than a religion imposed from the heights of the state." It argued that the program can't be considered truly voluntary when it is the first lady's personal project. "That fact constitutes moral coercion, against which neither public school students nor teachers can resist," the editorial stated.

National Catholic Reporter, December 6, 1996