Despite his left-wing politics, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador used to pride himself for having a good relationship with the Catholic Church, unlikeEvo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

But that all came to an abrupt end in July, when Correa, a former lay missionary who once wanted to become a priest, released a new constitution, drafted by foreigners, that contains openly pro-abortion, pro-same-sex "marriage" language. To take effect, the constitution must pass a national referendum on Sept. 28.

Ecuador's bishops immediately released a statement extremely critical of the constitution, and have launched a publicity campaign to see that it fails in the polling booths.

"The document is the most dangerous text ever presented for approval in any country in Latin America," Carlos Polo, director for Latin America of the Population Research Institute, told Our Sunday Visitor.

"The language has been construed to become a time-bomb: Although at present, the largely Catholic country rejects abortion and gay 'marriage,' the smallest anti-life change in the culture will find perfect constitutional ground for the most liberal policies," he said.

In fact, in its statement, the Ecuadorian bishops' conference argued the constitution would "disproportionately increase the power of the state," "jeopardize the protection of the unborn's right to life," "undermine parental authority in the field of education" and "make same-sex unions equivalent to marriage."

Spanish influence

"The most disturbing and revealing thing is the open interference of Spanish socialist politicians in the drafting of the constitution," Polo said.

In fact, Correa confirmed in early August that two Spanish left-wing intellectuals received some $18,000 monthly as "advisers" to the Ecuadorian government in the drafting of the constitution.

Correa said the advisers were not paid directly, but rather through the institute they belong to, the Center for Political and Social Studies (CEPS,) based in Valencia, Spain.

CEPS is a think tank founded in 1993 by a group of left-wing researchers who support the ruling socialist party in Spain. The activities of CEPS in Latin America include supporting feminist organizations and radical left-wing sympathizers of Marxist rebels groups in Colombia.

According to Ecuadorian pro-life leaders, the presence of Spanish socialists explains the markedly secularist and anti-life tone of the new constitution.

The Church's resistance to the constitution has provoked personal attacks from the president.

"The cassocks have taken the side of the pelucones [slang for rich people]," and "the bishops are traitors that have stabbed me in the back," Correa said on his weekly radio program.

The target of his wrath has been in particular the president of the Ecuadorian bishops' conference, Archbishop Antonio Arregui Yarza of Guayaquil.

On Aug. 1, the archbishop announced that the Church would launch a "catechetical campaign" to instruct Catholics on "the real dangers" of the constitution.

The bishops' conference has prepared a weekly sermon script that is being used in nearly every parish in Ecuador. The sermons parse the dangers of the constitution's subtle language.

In a meeting with young followers, Correa responded by saying: "Let [the priests] catechize 6- or 7-year-olds, but you should not have to put up with sermons or instructions from anybody." "We need to say 'yes' to the future, without being afraid and without the old fear of the clergy or the vengeance of the devil."

Correa's aggressive words ignited passions on the street. Groups of young followers desecrated the Eucharist in three churches in Guayaquil, threatened the life of Archbishop Arregui and started a legal process to jail the bishops for "violating the separation of church and state."

On Aug. 18, the bishops' conference voiced support for Archbishop Arregui and renewed their criticism of the constitution.

"In fulfillment of our mission, we will continue offering pastoral guidance regarding the [new constitution]. We will try to enlighten reality with the Word of God so that Catholics and people of good will, after informing themselves properly, can freely and deliberately vote with their consciences," the bishops responded.

Grass-roots campaign

Groups of Catholic laity are also taking an activist role in education campaigns.

One of them, the Ecuadorian Council of Lay Catholics, demanded Correa tone down his rhetoric against the Church. During a news conference, council president Max Loaiza said that "it is important, Mr. President, that you change your language and correct what you are saying, because you are encouraging others to commit sacrileges, offenses and threats against the hierarchy of the Church."

Lay Catholics have also launched a grass-root campaign that, according to analysts, may hurt Correa's popularity, and could even succeed in preventing the government from getting the 51 percent of the votes required to approve the draft.

Correa has a 68 percent approval rating. But recent polls show approval for his constitution is hovering around 50 percent, while 20 percent oppose it and 30 percent are undecided.

"Correa wants to win by a landslide, and politically, he needs to maintain the number of 'white votes' below 5 percent," said the daily El Universo in an editorial. Because voting in Ecuador is mandatory, "white votes" express lack of interest or indecision.

The group of lay activists has launched a door-to-door campaign to inform Ecuadorians of the consequences the constitution will have. They are also running ads in the few media outlets that dare to oppose Correa.

"It is definitively an uphill battle, because [the president] has launched an aggressive campaign against any kind of opposition, controls most of the media and even uses goons to intimidate Catholic activists," a lay leader told OSV on condition of anonymity.

The leader also said that Correa has rounded up top Ecuadorian businessmen with ties to the food industry to pressure them to keep food prices low during the campaign, so that people will remain favorable to the government.

"Correa has demonstrated before that he is willing to play dirty to intimidate and force people to go his way," she said.

But she concluded: "We are still going full speed against the odds. [Correa] knows that if he wins by a small margin, it would still be a political defeat."

Spanish red hand

Spain's socialist government, by far the most anti-Catholic in the Spanish speaking world, is using its cultural ties and significant economic muscle to influence ideologically in Latin America.

In June, the ruling PSOE party sent a radical gay activist, Pedro Cerolo, on a "doctrinal tour" to South America. During the trip, Cerolo established "working relationships" with feminist and gay organizations in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

Nevertheless, PSOE's most significant ideological influence has been achieved in Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa hired two Spanish Socialist intellectuals to draft the new constitution (see main story)and also to launch a local experiment of the mandatory course "Education for Citizenship."

Known by its Spanish acronym, EPC, "Education for Citizenship," is a mandatory course all school students in Spain have to take, and has been described by parents' associations as a "brainwashing in secularism, relativism and gender ideology."

While Spanish parents are contesting EPC in the courts, article 347 of the future Ecuadorian Constitution would make it mandatory in the South American country.

Moreover, in the last year, some children in Ecuador have already been attending the Education for Citizenship course financed through an agreement between the governments of Ecuador and Spain.

The Ecuadorian daily El Universo reported that 640 teachers in the country have been trained in Spain to teach the course and teachers may be required to be certified in the course in order to qualify for promotions and raises.

Alejandro Bermudez writes from Peru.