A group of Discalced Carmelite sisters issued a statement with their reflections on the new constitution being put to a plebiscite, provoking reactions within the church, including from other nuns.
"If we reject the proposal of a new constitution," the Carmelites' statement said, "we are rejecting the possibility of taking a big step forward in the future of our country."
Chileans vote Sept. 4 on a new constitution, which would replace a document dating back to the military dictatorship of President Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in a 1973 coup.
The new constitution has been described as progressive by supporters and derided as "woke" by critics. A lengthy document with 388 articles, it declares Chile a "pluri-national" state, in which Indigenous peoples are recognized. It also enshrines environmental protections, guaranteed education access and gender equality.
Chile's Catholic bishops urged people to participate in the referendum and supported the process, but have not said how to vote. The vote comes as the bishops' deal with the fallout of clerical sexual abuse scandals, which have cratered their credibility in Chilean society.
The Carmelites, based in San José de Maipo, showed support for many of the progressive articles. Their statement said of the recognition of Indigenous peoples "is a gesture that dignifies Chile and profoundly rejoices Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe."
Their statement pointed to an article reading, "Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion" and another saying, "the state recognizes spirituality as an essential element of being human."
The sisters continued, "This new constitution is ecological, respects and legislates on nature, as Pope Francis asks us in the encyclical 'Laudato Si'', in which he calls us to respect and love the 'common home,' the earth and common natural assets."
Other Carmelites did not share the sisters' reflections, however.
The statement "causes us great pain," the Association of Discalced Carmelites said in a statement Aug. 23. "It does not represent the opinion of the Carmelites in Chile. It only represents the voice of a monastery, the only one that is not associated with the 13 monasteries of the Discalced Carmelite of Chile."
The association added, "As women and citizens, each Carmelite nun, in the exercise of our freedoms and in conscience, will decide the best for Chile," and emphasized, "We defend life from conception until natural death."
A group of 35 Chilean women religious backed the San José de Maipo Carmelites, noting their statement was written by an assembly of "ordinary citizens" with gender parity, who had to reach two-thirds approval on each article.
"We believe that when voting, we cannot take into account only one or two articles that make noise; rather we must consider the full set of norms and not fall into moralism that overshadows the broad landscape, full of hope, that this constitution represents," the women religious said in a statement.
"We reiterate our backing of our Carmelite sisters, who, like us, try to scrutinize the signs of the times without our eyes fixed on Jesus."
Auxiliary Bishop Carlos Godoy Labraña of Santiago sent a letter to the Carmelites, asking them to "clarify that your statement respects the life of the unborn."
In a June statement, the Chilean bishops' conference called for discernment on the constitution and for people to "put the common good of the country first."
The bishops offered a "positive assessment" on the constitution's sections on social rights, the environment and Indigenous peoples.
But they said, "We make a negative assessment of the norms that allow the interruption of pregnancy, those that leave open the possibility of euthanasia, those that disfigure the understanding of the family, those that restrict the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children, and those that that pose some limitations on the right to education and religious freedom."
The bishops especially expressed unease with the constitution's sections on religious freedom.
"The problem is that the project ... supports the right to abortion, assumes a questionable orientation of sexual education where parents participate in a very insufficient way, and promotes a radical theory of gender, all aspects incompatible with the Christian faith," the bishops said.
"By being subject to what is established in the proposed Constitution, religious freedom is put at risk."
The new constitution was drafted by an elected assembly of 154 men and women, who were convened after protests over social conditions and the stark inequality stemming from the neoliberal policies of the Pinochet regime -- even though Chile has become the wealthiest country in Latin America on a per capita basis.
A poll published Aug. 19 by Cadem -- on the final day polling for the plebiscite was permitted -- showed 46% opposing the new constitution, 37% supporting it and 17% uncertain or not responding. If the new constitution is rejected, the current one remains valid.