02/05/2013 11:05 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

A Colombian Kind of Faith

On the off chance that you're ever in Colombia's capital city of Bogotá looking for a nearby place where you can get a sonogram and check how the baby's coming along, you'll find in the Profamilia headquarter, at the traditional Teusaquillo neighborhood, the most central point in the city. But better make sure you've got the right address, for almost every other of the numerous surrounding businesses specializes on the daily scheduling and execution of abortions. All of their facades, though, which spread all over that block, the adjacent one, and the next one north, declare "PREGNANCY TEST" as their official service; for their practices are illegal. Everyone is aware of this zone as a bountiful assortment of informal pregnancy-interruption services and around 300,000 women in the country keep them busy every year. Nevertheless, if you're ever unsure whether you got the right address, you can simply spot a police station located right on the same block, where they'll gladly dispense directions.

Official, truly competent, hospitals reserve their Pregnancy Interruption services for the three instances when it's constitutional: when the mother's life is in jeopardy, grave fetus malformation, and rape. Recently, the Catholic Church (along with the Conservative Party) promoted a bill that was mainly written for the penalization of abortion in all cases (for both women and doctors involved), but its content incises all the way to cases of euthanasia, emergency planning, and assisted fecundations. Five million Colombians have given their signatures in support of the bill.


Liberal senator Juan Fernando Velasco stating: "I understand that the Church, through conservatism, wants to impose its views in this debate, but Colombia is a secular state and cannot make decisions based on dogmas."

But when it comes to any political issue that steps into ethical controversies, Colombians have always tended to synchronize their views with those of the Church. This is not surprising to me, not in a country where the vast majority defines themselves as Catholics, and where, literally, everyone I know has been baptized. But this inclination is not truly a case of authentic dogmatic devotion. The average Colombian Catholic seems to personify some paradoxical kind of "unfaithful faithful." His Catholicism is not a matter of actual belief, but a loyal identification of Colombia as traditionally Catholic.

According to El Tiempo newspaper a national survey showed that:

66.4 percent of Colombians think they 'can be a good religious person without going to church.' Among Catholics, that percentage is close to 72 percent, which is reflected in the fact that less than half (45.1 percent) attend church once a week. In addition, 73.6 percent of respondents think that religion is an individual experience (among Catholics, 71.1 percent shared that view).

Yet the same survey, showed that more than 80 percent of the population consider themselves either Catholics or, in a much lesser percentage, Evangelic Christians, and that the vast majority of citizens take the side of the Church when it comes to controversial subjects as euthanasia, abortion and same-sex marriages.

Colombia's relationship to the Church is not grounded on the actual practices of faith, nor is it exactly founded on moral congruence either. In fact, if there is one single image that defines the essence of our particularly crooked religious experience it is that of the "persignating" gunman (the killer who makes the sign of the cross). Colombian author Fernando Vallejo capitulated this figure in his novel La Virgen de Los Sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins), also a movie. The protagonist, Alexis, is an expert killer, which contrasts with his attachment to Mary Help of Christians (a Marian devotion).

This incongruous depiction is absolutely accurate. It is all over the culture. It touches both fiction and reality. Recently, during an investigation for a noir story I was writing, I came to know an ex-hitman, now a military bodyguard assigned to a close friend of mine. He told me he bought a new laminated card of the "Divino Niño" (Baby Jesus) every single time he set out on risky business. He did this, one might say, religiously.

Here we are dealing with a perfect contradiction that is intrinsic to our religious experience. One that is harmoniously inscribed into our way of life, and comes as no shock. How exactly is it that we, in Colombia, accept the co-existence of corruption and religious faith?

On order to truly grasp Colombia's special condition in this regard, we need to peek into our history and see how we came today to avow an overwhelming 90 percent majority of Catholic citizens.

We first saw the Holy Cross during the Spanish colonization. It was all like a passive-aggressive, well-funded, and effective product campaign. (The traumatic evangelization that swooped the nation!)

After our independence (1819), we stopped fighting the Spanish so that we could fight more comfortably with ourselves (Federalists versus Centralists). In 1886 we instituted a centralist government, with the Catholic Church as the constitutional fundament of national unity, and made a concordat with the Vatican, giving them full control over our educational system (this surely must have caused some tensions for the guy who taught philosophy, for just a year earlier Nietzsche had killed God).

We then fought a little more (Liberals versus Conservatives) in what is known as "The War of a Thousand Days." Although a nice title for a Hollywood summer movie, not the most harmonious political move. In 1973, we acquired the constitutional privilege of a pluralist educational system. This wasn't truly de facto, though. I know this because I attended a "non-religious" school, where they taught a class that closely resembled a doctrinal sermon on Roman Catholicism. A class they succinctly named "Religion."

Finally, it wasn't until 1991, that constitutional reform granted egalitarian treatment from the government to all the religions.

Under the weight of such a history, it is no wonder why, in the recent debates regarding legislation on euthanasia an abortion, the coalition of Catholics and Christians have stood as an effortless opposition to their clearance. The ideological battleground is not simply constituted by the usual, rather universal, theoretical struggles (the one incited by the fetus: where exactly does human life begin? The one incited by the body in vegetative state: where exactly does human life end?), because even if the progressive elites were somehow able to smuggle Peter Singer himself into the presidential seat, and comfortably add abortion and euthanasia to the list of regular medical services, there is still a very real antagonistic discourse left to disentangle. That is, the one put forward by many doctors during the public debating of these issues. As a doctor and a Catholic, even if the law commands me to carry out an abortion, I am still protected by the "veto de conciencia" (veto of conscience), which allows me to reject a procedure if it violates my personal religious beliefs.

This is not simply the outcry of a few sensitive orthodoxes who happen to be doctors. In a bigger, more systemic level you'll find that there's a significant amount of Catholic and Jesuit hospitals in Colombia, which operate under such persuasions. So basically, they may one day be obliged to accept the new rules of the game, but they wouldn't necessarily have to play the game itself.

What is it that produces this kind of deadlock?

What is it that makes the vast majority of Colombians reach for the Church?

Obviously, the reasons are numerous and deep, but there's one that stands very close to our heart: every other institution seems more hopelessly corrupt.

According to an institutional legitimacy study carried out by the IEPRI in 2007, the Church is the institution that generates most trust among citizens, more than the army, the very popular president and the Office of the Attorney General.

As we know, modernity and the Cartesian stance triggered in the individual an anthropocentric logic: "I don't really need God, because I have the sense for ethics, a society founded on rational justice, and the trust in my fellow reasonable citizens." Colombian citizens survive on the exact opposite logic, an escape from man's moral insufficiency into metaphysics and divinity: "I don't operate from a sense of ethics, our justice system is absurd, and I can't trust my fellow citizens (politicians), so I need God."

In my country, corruption and Catholic faith are almost symbiotic. We've almost entirely lost our hope in men who can bring about some change. It is as if Colombians were only able to save their basic believe in goodness through the Church. Never mind the president and its petty government, the Church is the only official institution that is ultimately run by someone with greater influence, who we can trust.

He must exist.