SANTIAGO, Chile, April 15 — "What religion do you profess?"
It is a simple and straightforward question, one of more than two dozen that Chileans are obliged to answer when a census is taken here on April 24, but it has managed to create a rift between church and state and ignite a furious debate about the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Chilean society.
Irritated by what they see as the interference of cardinals, bishops and priests in politics and their conservatism on social issues, critics of the church have opted to use modern tactics to undermine its authority. They are sponsoring an e-mail campaign that urges the country's estimated 15 million people to avoid declaring themselves as Catholics to census takers.
"Everyone knows the great influence that the Catholic Church exercises on the decisions taken in this country," one widely circulated message begins. It goes on to urge Chileans to "say no" to the church when census takers arrive at their homes and concludes: "Future generations will thank you, your children will thank you, you will thank yourself."
The church hierarchy, with Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz in the lead, has reacted indignantly.
"At this moment we are confronting a campaign that has been unleashed, from what origin we do not know, but which is utterly pernicious, virulent and ugly," he complained during an interview broadcast Easter Sunday on the Catholic University's television station here.
Further inflaming the controversy, Cardinal Errázuriz has accused Chile's center-left government of tacitly encouraging the e-mail campaign. He did so after hackers sympathetic to the church determined that some of the messages had been forwarded by government employees from their office computers.
President Ricardo Lagos has since acknowledged the lapse and issued an apology, saying that "the position of the government is one of the greatest respect for the Catholic Church."
Cardinal Errázuriz rejected that statement of regret, however, saying it "cannot undo the damage that has been done."
But some of Mr. Lagos's supporters, particularly feminists and Socialists, think it is the church that has damaged Chilean society and should apologize. Though Chile has the most open and unregulated economy in Latin America, it has, at the behest of the church, recoiled from social legislation that is routine everywhere else in Latin America, the world's most heavily Roman Catholic region.
Chile remains, for example, the only country in the Western world other than Malta that still prohibits divorce. As a result, the rate of marriage here is declining, the number of children born outside marriage is rising rapidly and women abandoned by their husbands have no practical way to obtain alimony or child support.
In addition, during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet 1973 to 1990, abortion laws were actually toughened. Legislators have been unable to remove those restrictions since the return of democracy in 1990, and as a result therapeutic abortions are prohibited without exception, even to save the life of a pregnant woman.
Sex education in public schools and legalization of the "morning after pill" have been additional points of contention, with the church opposing both. At the moment, the church is also vigorously fighting a bill that would remove the property tax exemption of any private school that charges more than $75 a month in tuition.
"This is a country with an authoritarian, patriarchal culture, and the church reinforces that," said María Antonieta Saa, a member of Congress who has sponsored divorce legislation. "It does not hesitate to exercise its power boldly, openly pressuring the government and political parties."
The longstanding tensions have also spilled over into relations between the Chilean government and the Vatican. During a nine-day trip to Europe in February, Mr. Lagos, who favors a liberalization of social legislation, was unable to meet with Pope John Paul II, ostensibly because the pope could not find room in his schedule. "If this continues, I'm going to freeze relations with the Vatican," Mr. Lagos said when he learned of the snub, according to Chilean press reports.
But at the same time, government leaders acknowledge that they have a moral debt to the church, or at least its progressive wing. During the Pinochet years, several members of Mr. Lagos's cabinet and advisory staff benefited from efforts by the Vicarate of Solidarity, a church organization, to prevent their arrest or to free them after they had been arrested.
"There is a respect for the Catholic Church because of the role it played on human rights during the dictatorship," said Ms. Saa, a former president of a national Catholic student group who is no longer a practicing Catholic.
Even without the e-mail campaign, the percentage of the population that is Roman Catholic had been expected to decline, just as it has in every census over the past half century. Only 77 percent of Chileans described themselves as Catholic in the last census in 1992, compared with 90 percent in 1952.
Nevertheless, Cardinal Errázuriz and other church leaders have begun to cast doubts both on the anticipated results and the impartiality of census takers. "If there are dirty tricks to lower the figure, then we cannot recognize the validity of this," said Msgr. Orozimbo Fuenzalida, a spokesman for the Chilean National Bishops Conference.
Some pro-Catholic commentators have gone so far to suggest that evangelical Protestant denominations, the fastest-growing religious group here, are behind the e-mail effort. But Francisco Anabalón, the director of the Committee of Evangelical Organizations, rejected such insinuations and has openly mocked the complaints of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.
"Do we need foreign observers to come and monitor the census?" he asked sarcastically last week.