The Church: Right or Left?

September 25, 2007

When Catholic bishops meet in Puebla, Mexico, in October for the III General Conference of the Latin American Episcopacy (CELAM) they will be setting the course of the institutional church for years to come. The number one item on the hidden agenda is whether the church is to follow the progressive guidelines laid down ten years ago at the II General Conference (at Medellin, Colombia), or pull back to a more cautious conservative position. At the 1968 Medellin Conference, the bishops approved statements expressing their consensus on religious, social, economic and political conditions in Latin America. Their documents were a clear call to reform, though their analysis of the situation was better than their guidelines for remedies. They denounced "institutional violence," the "international imperialism of money" and the neo-colonialism of both national oligarchies and "international monopolies." They condemned the flight of capital, the brain drain, the growing foreign debts, the imbalances in international commerce caused by the decline in the prices of raw materials and the rise of those of manufactured goods, tax evasion, and the repatriation of profits by foreign companies "without contributing the adequate reinvestments to the progressive development of our countries." BACKING OFF FROM MEDELLIN As progressive sectors of the church began to echo the Medellin documents and work to implement them, they frequently ran into indifference or opposition from bishops who seemed to have forgotten what they voted for at the II General Conference. Bishops are generally conservative and there are not many who will stand up to business interests when they criticize progressive priests for being "Marxists" or "communists" when they promote social change or defend the rights of workers, Indians or peasants. Many bishops backed away from the positions adopted at Medellin. They were the ones responsible for the election in 1972 of Auxiliary bishop (Bogota) Alfonso Lopez Trujillo to be Secretary General of CELAM. Lopez Trujillo is a leading member of Colombia's reactionary church hierarchy, which supports the country's oligarchy and is the only Latin American hierarchy to openly reject the Medellin call to liberation. He is leading a group of bishops who are trying to steer the church into a position which is basically not critical of the established order. PREPARATORY DOCUMENT His office has circulated a study book for the Puebla meeting known as the Preparatory Document (PD). The PD has come under heavy fire from progressive Catholic groups in Latin America. Its 214 pages avoid a unifying theme that would have required a clear formulation of issues and a definite stand. There is something in it for everyone. The Brazilian theologian Clodovis Boff, in one of the most serious critiques of the PD, sees it as a call for a new Christendom, a Catholic civilization. This aim, he says, entirely overlooks the process of secularization in Latin America, a process that Christians should welcome. Peruvian liberation theologians Gustavo Gutierrez and Alejandro Cussianovich fault the PD on many counts. Their principal complaint is that it reveals a serious ignorance of the real situation of Latin America's poor people, of their sufferings and struggles and of their creative presence in the church. While the PD sees Latin America's principal problem to be industrialization, it is relatively silent, they say, on the situation of injustice and violence. While carrying out various changes in CELAM's departments, all aimed at centralizing control, Lopez Trujillo's closest attention has been focused on the theology of liberation. He has tried to convince the bishops that liberation theology is synonymous with Christians for Socialism, creates clerical militancy and disobedience, challenges national security and leads to communism and atheism. It is natural for a person of L6pez Trujillo's orientation to be suspicious of the theology of liberation. The movement differs in two radical ways from the usual styles of theologizing. First, the social sciences are used as an indispensable part of the theologizing process and the influence of Marxist scientific methodology has been strong. Second, theological reflection is linked directly with action in a framework of praxis. The Secretary General's opposition to the theology of liberation is total, but his strategy is not one of direct attack. Instead, he insists that "there are various tendencies and currents in the theology of liberation." The position of those who recognize that class struggle exists and who see socialism as necessary thus becomes simply one variety of liberation theology. He thus establishes a pluralism of theologies of liberation. Brazilian theologian, Fr. Boaventura Kloppenburg, who Lopez Trujillo had installed as head of CELAM's Pastoral Institute, says that the principal danger of this type of theology is the "temptation to reduce theology to politics," or, more specifically, to reduce it to so-called "Christian socialism." Kloppenburg warns, "The new stress placed on humanism and the priority given to the social and political dimension of the Gospel may well eliminate our concern for personal interior sanctification and the eternal salvation of individual souls." Kloppenburg adds, "If that were to happen, we would have lost the very essence of the gospel." But theologians of liberation point out that trying to keep the "essence of the gospel" in the sanctuary and out of the world of politics is in itself a political decision which legitimizes the existing situation. The Secretary General follows a similar line in his opposition to most of the Medellin documents. He does not attack them; he reinterprets them. The church, he says, must get back to the original meaning and intent of the bishops at the II Conference. Essentially, what he seeks is for the church everywhere to adopt the status quo role it plays in Colombia: to protect its own institutions, close ranks against the communist threat and avoid internal conflicts. ________________________________________________ PREACHING "ECONOMIC DEMOCRACY" TO THE POPE The issues at stake at the CELAM ///ll conference (see accompanying article) go far beyond the setting of church policy. As the dominant religious institution in Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church's policies have farreaching implications for the political economy of the region. The following excerpts from a New York Times article titled "The Pope Clarifies His Economic Views" published ten years ago (April 21, 1968), illustrates how capital views what is at stake in the formulation of church social policies in Latin America. One year ago Pope Paul VI declared in a controversial encyclical [Populorum Progressio, or On the Progress of Peoples] that "the world is sick" and proceeded to suggest economic and social remedies that were widely interpreted as more hostile than sympathetic to private enterprise. Two weeks ago, on the anniversary, he denied any such intent. His anniversary declaration stemmed in part from the efforts of a group of three dozen American, European and Latin American businessmen who had asked formally for a "clarification." ... United States participation included George C. Moore, chairman of the First National City Bank of New York, Gustave L. Levy, a partner in Goldman, Sachs & Co., John S. Bugas, vice president of the Ford Motor Company, and Leo D. Welch, a director of the Communications Satellite Corporation. The businessmen's concern was ... the effect of the encyclical in Latin America - the part of the "sick" underdeveloped world where the influence of the Roman Catholic Church is greatest "It is nonsense for us to try to achieve economic development in Latin America if we haven't got the church with us," Mr. Moore commented the other day. "If the priests are telling people to throw out businessmen, we have a rather hard time."... "There are 600,000 priests and nuns and lay apostolates in Latin America, deeply involved with the people there," he [Mr. Moore] said. "This document is the text for what they preach..." "Everybody thinks we have self-interests, which we do. Now we want to convince the priests that economic democracy - I think that's probably a better expression than 'capitalism' - is in their interest. They are looking for social progress. This is how to get there. We're glad they're listening to us. Latin America is the key. If they can make economic democracy work there, then it can be applied elsewhere." ___________________________________________________ A HOUSE DIVIDED When the World Synod of Catholic bishops opened in Rome in October 1974, some 500 Colombian Catholic priests called upon the prelates to come to grips with the religious and socio-economic realities in Latin America. The priests' statement (entitled "Some Aspects of Evangelization in Latin America") mentioned that there are now "two types of Christianity - one allied with the political and economic system and another dedicated to changing it. One is the practice of submission, the other of liberation. There is evidenced here the division of the church into bourgeois and proletarian Christians." That division is deeper today than it was in 1974. The church faces a multitude of problems, but the basic problem to which all others are related is a split between a sector, generally sympathetic to socialism, that seeks to identify the church with the poor and dispossessed, and another group, fearful of socialism, revolution and communism, that tries to keep the church firmly on the side of the established order and free enterprise capitalism. The division in the church becomes steadily more acute and will be out in the open for all to see at the Puebla meeting. _____________________________________ Adapted from an article by James Goff, director of Latin- America Press, a weekly bulletin covering the church and social changes (Apartado 5594, Lima 1, Peru, $35/yr. including air mail).

Tags: Catholic bishops, CELAM, Puebla, liberation theology

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