BUENOS AIRES The Catholic Church's failure to derail a gay marriage law in Argentina shows once powerful clergymen losing their influence in Latin America, where pressure is growing for more liberal social legislation.
The law, which lets gay couples marry and adopt children, was approved last week to the cheers of hundreds of gay couples gathered outside Congress despite opposition from churchmen, who called gay families "perverse."
"We shouldn't be naive: this isn't just a political struggle, it's a strategy to destroy God's plan," Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the head of the Church in Argentina, said in a letter before the vote, urging lawmakers to reject the bill.
Mexico City and Uruguay upset the conservative Catholic hierarchy by passing similar legislation last year, and more liberal laws on social issues are likely in the region.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has vowed to give more rights to same-sex couples, and Dilma Rousseff, a leading candidate in Brazil's presidential race, has said she favours the legalization of abortion in a country that has the world's largest Catholic population.
"Evidently the Church has been losing presence and influence regarding political decisions, which is part of a secularization process," said Ana Maria Bidegain, a religious studies professor at Florida International University.
"People are still Catholic and they still believe in the fundamentals ... but they no longer agree with what (the Church) says regarding morality," she said.
Among other reasons, she said that churchmen have seen their influence ebbing because the vast majority of Latin Americans live now in urban areas where people have "their own personal ways" to live Catholicism, and also due to highly publicized sex abuse scandals among priests worldwide.
A DOMINO EFFECT?
Extending gay rights and other social legislation being pushed through by the region's politicians suggest Latin Americans are becoming more liberal in contrast with the Church's unbending views on sexual freedom, contraceptives and abortion.
"We're confident this is going to inspire other countries in the region to follow suit ... Sometimes there's a lot of fear to be the first, and that's precisely what we've done in Argentina, we've broken new ground," said Cesar Cigliutti, president of Argentina's CHA gay association.
For Socialist Party deputy Ricardo Cuccovillo the strong influence the Church still has on some Argentine lawmakers is because they "don't understand that the Church plays a role in the field of faith only, and deputies have to play a role in the field of democracy."
He pointed out that many Latin American nations were ruled by oppressive military regimes that had strong ties with the Church until the end of the 1970s, and the region is now burnishing its democratic credentials and slowly pushing the clergy out of politics.
"Other countries move forward in other areas and we have advanced the gay rights aspect and that's how we complement each other in the region. I think that in this particular case the approval of the law will have a pulling effect," he said.
The prospect of other Latin American countries following Argentina's lead seems to have put clergyman on their guard.
The Archbishop of Lima Juan Luis Cipriani urged politicians last week to forego the gay rights issue ahead of a regional election in October.
"I think there is no need to imitate Argentina," he was quoted as saying by Peruvian media.
(Editing by Eric Beech)