Casting Out the 'People's Church

by Penny Leroux, August 27/September 3, 1988


Selections from
The Nation magazine

edited by Katerina Vanden Heuvel

Thunder's Mouth Press, 1990, paper


Penny Lernoux began writing for the Nation in 1971. As the magazine's Latin American correspondent, Lernoux wrote frequently about the fight for the soul of the Catholic Church in Latin America.


Twenty years ago, in August in the Columbian city of Medellin, Latin America's Catholic bishops signed a remarkable document that would become a religious magna carta for political and social change. The "Medellin Conclusions" led to a radical shift in religious attitudes among the Catholic masses, millions of whom joined church-sponsored organizations seeking economic and political justice. The post-Medellin Latin American church also had a profound influence on Catholic churches in other Third World regions as the philosophical nets of liberation theology spread. Ironically, while celebrations are in progress throughout the Catholic world in honor of the twentieth anniversary of "a historic monument," as Pope Paul VI called the Medellin Conclusions, Pope John Paul II is engaged in its destruction. If his efforts succeed, little will remain of Latin America's socially committed and theologically innovative church.

From the viewpoint of the Latin American poor the timing of the shift in Vatican policy could not be worse. Two decades of pastoral work and the martyrdom of thousands of Catholic activists have produced a network of some 300,000 Christian communities that are the seeds of a more democratic society. Composed primarily of poor people, these groups (known officially as ecclesial base communities) have for the first time in the region's history given voice to the voiceless on a local and national level. But they are fragile buds, still dependent on the institutional church for guidance and support, and the institution is rapidly losing its prophetic character because of the Pope's appointment of conservative bishops.

While the papal crackdown has affected churches around the world, Latin America has been singled out for attention because it is the most populous Catholic region (more than half the world's 907 million Catholics live in the Third World). Latin America is also the birthplace of liberation theology and the site of the first successful Christian-Marxist revolution, in Nicaragua. In addition, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, among the Catholic world's largest, leads the universal church's progressive wing, often clashing with Rome over the rights of local churches.

Like other socially committed church leaders, many of Brazil's bishops are adherents of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, a watershed in the early 1960s that ended centuries of "holy isolation" by exhorting the church to participate in humanity's struggle for peace and justice. Vatican II triggered reforms throughout the universal church, among the most important being a greater respect for cultural diversity and pluralism and a modernization of rituals, such as the change from Latin to the vernacular in the Mass. The latter created new interest in the Bible and a more Christ-centered church, in contrast to the traditional caste system dominated by European clerics in Rome.

The council described this new church as the "People of God," a phrase that has become part of the Catholic vocabulary. The expression conveyed the biblical image of the Hebrew people in exodus, and for the church of Vatican II it symbolized a community on the move in search of a deeper understanding of faith. When translated into Portuguese and Spanish, however, "People of God" took on an even deeper meaning, for it became Pueblo de Dios-and pueblo has always been understood as the masses, the poor.

It was this reality of poverty that made the Medellin meeting different from earlier bishops' conferences to discuss directives from Rome. Instead of parroting what they had been told, the bishops took a hard look at political and economic conditions in Latin America, going beyond Vatican II by interpreting conciliar changes in light of the poverty and injustice in their underworld. Heretofore allies of the upper classes and the military, the bishops shocked the region's elites by denouncing the "institutionalized violence" of the rich against the poor and by committing the church to help the poor organize themselves to achieve greater political, social and economic equality.

Medellin's "preferential option for the poor' sent a strong message to the masses, who discovered that God had historically been on their side. In a culture imbued with Catholicism that discovery was-and still is-political dynamite. Whereas Catholicism had previously encouraged fatalism among the Latin American poor, the post-Medellin church taught that all people were equal in the sight of God and that the impoverished masses should take history into their own hands by seeking political and economic change. It was not God's will that their children die of malnutrition but the result of sinful man-made structures, the bishops said. Suffering, which had traditionally been endured in the expectation of a better life in the hereafter, gained a different symbolism through identification with the hope of Christ's death and resurrection: It suggested that a community of believers could overcome their wretched conditions by working together for the common good and a better future.

By the mid-1970s, when Catholic base communities had spread throughout Latin America, it had become clear to the upper classes and the military that the church of the poor was a threat to their entrenched privileges. At the time, most of Latin America was under the boots of military dictatorships determined to wipe out all dissent. But while they were able to destroy political parties, labor unions, a free press and other opposition, they failed to stop the growth of the base communities because the institutional church gave them its protection. Hundreds of priests and nuns, and even some bishops, were threatened, arrested, tortured, murdered and exiled; yet the church stood firm. Because of its institutional power-most dictators were Catholics, as was a majority of the population-the military regimes did not close the churches, and the churches, particularly the base communities, became a surrogate for democracy.

The experience of the 1970s, when tens of thousands of people were assassinated or "disappeared" and when the poor became even poorer, strongly affected the Latin American church. While the bishops' declarations at Medellin had shown intellectual and pastoral vision, it was only in the 1970s that the institution really became a church of the poor, by suffering along with and on behalf of the victims of repression. In such countries as Brazil the church's call for democracy in secular society was echoed in the church structure itself, which became more pluralistic, open and dedicated to such priorities of the poor as agrarian reform and a more equal distribution of national wealth.

Unfortunately, the trend toward a more pluralistic church is anathema to John Paul's Vatican, which, said a Brazilian cardinal, "thinks it can tell the colonies how to behave." Long before he became Pope, John Paul showed a clear preference for a hierarchical church. During Vatican II, which he attended while Archbishop of Krakow, he opposed a definition of the church as the "People of God," meaning a community of equals, each with a different charisma to share. He envisioned not a church of the people but a "perfect society" defined in all aspects-secular as well as religious-by a clerical class under which the laity worked. French theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu, one of the stars of Vatican II, put it bluntly: John Paul harks back to the "prototype of the church as an absolute monarchy."

The Pope's belief in such absolutisms derives from his Polish heritage. The church in Poland has survived and flourished in the midst of persecution because it functions as an absolute monarchy, ruled from the top by the cardinal primate and his fellow bishops. Unlike the South American church, which developed an internal democracy in response to external dictatorship, the Polish hierarchy has demanded and received absolute loyalty from its troops. The loyalty may be pro forma in some respects-abortion and divorce rates are surprisingly high-but the church is undoubtedly the principal mediating force in Polish society, whether for labor unions, peasant farmers or university students. It does not need its own political party because it has the political allegiance of a majority of the people.

It is this church that formed the Pope's zealous commitment, theological orthodoxy and belief in absolute obedience and absolute power. A man of great compassion, he understands the sufferings of the Poles and of the other peoples who live under Soviet domination, but democracy is an alien experience to him. In Polish terms the concept of a People of God-or a more democratic church that accepts diversity as a sign of unity-is suicidal, for it has only been by speaking with a single voice that the church in Poland has survived. As explained by Father Adam Boniecki, who worked for John Paul when the Pope was Archbishop of Krakow, "There is not, and cannot be, any difference of opinion in the Polish church."

Although the Pope has frequently spoken out against human rights violations and on behalf of the poor, his message is belied by the Vatican's actions in strengthening control from Rome to the detriment of local churches that work with the poor and on behalf of human rights. The appointment of conservative bishops and the emphasis on orthodoxy above all else have forced liberal church leaders into a defensive position. Rome's open disapproval of the Sandinista regime has also sent a message to socially activist church groups to avoid leftist politics. While church-state relations in Cuba have improved substantially in recent months-to the point that Fidel Castro has agreed to receive 10,000 nuns-the Vatican remains hostile to the Nicaraguan experiment. Despite its past opposition to organized religion, the Cuban government did not attempt to establish a parallel Catholic church. In Nicaragua, however, Christian revolutionaries, including priests in the government, have refused to take orders from Rome, while at the same time insisting that they, too, are members of the church. This so-called popular church presents a different challenge to the Vatican than the more familiar problems posed by Communism, because it symbolizes the fusion of Catholicism with left-wing nationalism. John Paul's experience in Poland has shown him that the church can survive and thrive alongside a Marxist government, so long as it represents nationalistic aspirations. But in Nicaragua nationalism is identified with Sandinismo.

The Vatican claims that the popular church has become a political tool of the Sandinistas, and it is true that priests and nuns identified with it are strong supporters of the government. At the same time, the pro-Vatican faction of the Nicaraguan church led by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo has also played politics on behalf of the contras, with the Pope's blessing. While the Vatican has good reason to worry about the polarizing effects of church involvement in politics- the Nicaraguan church is effectively in schism-it is in no position to throw stones, because of its own association with the political right.

Yet stones Rome is throwing, and hard-hitting ones. Progressive Latin American church leaders who earlier championed the Sandinistas' cause have become less outspoken in the past year because support for the Nicaraguans means another black mark against them in Rome. Liberation theologians are writing about less controversial themes, such as spirituality, and many speak of a "time of hibernation." "Everyone is keeping his head down," admitted one theologian.

For example, in Peru, which is the birthplace of liberation theology, six bishops, or one-ninth of the hierarchy, belong to the extreme-right Catholic movement, Opus Dei, and the only remaining liberal archbishop is Lima's Cardinal Juan Landazuri Ricketts. But Landazuri must retire at the end of the year because of the church's mandatory age limit, and there is widespread fear that his replacement will be a conservative. Among those likely to suffer from the change is the Peruvian priest Gustavo Guiterrez, generally considered the father of liberation theology. Gutierrez has been repeatedly targeted by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a latter-day version of the Inquisition. Only Landazuri's intervention has protected Gutierrez from Vatican sanctions.

Similarly, in Chile the pattern for the appointment of bishops has been uniformly conservative. Santiago's Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno is a pale reflection of his outspoken predecessor, Cardinal Raul Silva (the cautious Fresno is known as renos, or "Brakes," among inhabitants of the capital's shantytowns). Nevertheless, Fresno has occasionally spoken out against the Pinochet regime's acts, and his administrative style is low-key. But Fresno, too, is due to retire. Liberal Chilean Catholics worry that his replacement could be a right-wing hard-liner, such as Miguel Caviedes Medina, the Bishop of Osorno and a critic of liberation theology and the church of the poor. As in other countries, the Vatican's local representative will play a key role in the succession. Bishop Angelo Sodano, until recently the papal nuncio to Chile, was influential in the appointment of Medina and other conservative bishops and publicly showed his support for the Chilean dictator by attending a televised meeting of government sympathizers to promote Gen. Augusto Pinochet's plebiscite campaign.

Even in Brazil, where the church has strongly resisted Vatican encroachment, the pendulum is swinging to the right, threatening to end the prophetic leadership of the country's bishops. Thanks to the steady appointment of Vatican yes-men, conservative archbishops now outnumber progressives. Indicative of the consequences is the shift in church priorities in the country's impoverished northeast, which once led the Brazilian church in denouncing human rights abuses and economic injustice. Since John Paul's advent, conservative prelates there have come to dominate the region and are now in charge of the leadership of its regional bishops' conference. When Dom Helder Camara, the outspoken Archbishop of Recife, resigned on reaching the mandatory retirement age, he was replaced by a conservative, Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho, who has ceased church support for consciousness-raising work with the poor. He has also forbidden Dom Helder to speak publicly in the Recife archdiocese. Meanwhile, Cardoso has reopened the local seminary to provide orthodox training for priests; the seminary competes with the Recife Theological Institute, which teaches liberation theology and encourages students to live in poor communities as part of their training. If the competition proves tough enough-the northeast's traditionalist bishops prefer to have their future priests trained by Cardoso's seminary-the Theological institute could be forced to close. "At a time when church communities would like priests who are more familiar with their people," said one theologian, "there appears to be a growing tendency to form them behind closed doors, to make them more concerned with the internal institutional order than with the church's mission in the world."

Prayer and religious rituals have always been the glue that held the Catholic base communities together, but Medellin gave the religious vision an added social impulse through its emphasis on peace and justice. The rightward shift in the church threatens to alter that vision by reemphasizing piety at the cost of solidarity and by slowing the institutional momentum behind the base communities.

Nine years ago, when the region's bishops reaffirmed the commitment made at Medellin during a follow-up meeting in Puebla, Mexico, the communities seemed likely to serve as a trampoline for other popular movements, such as women's clubs, slum theaters, unions and peasant federations. In many countries the lessons in democracy learned in the communities proved vital to the creation of other neighborhood groups that gave the poor a public voice. These spinoffs will continue to grow, but increasingly they will have to do without the support of the institutional church. Progressive church leaders say that a hierarchical church determined to reassert control over the laity and reduce tensions with right-wing governments may also help isolate activist base communities.

As the Rome representative of an international religious order pointed out, the ongoing appointment of conservative bishops will inevitably alter the pastoral direction of the Latin American church because the training given to its pastoral agents, particularly priests and nuns, will reflect the hierarchy's conservatism. Although some base communities have advanced to the stage that such pastoral agents are no longer needed, the majority depend on the organizational support and spiritual leadership of the local church. Then too, most poor Latin Americans remain in awe of their bishop. If there is a confrontation between the liberal leadership in the communities and a conservative bishop, said a Brazilian lay leader, the people "will always support their bishop. And we [progressives] will be seen as heretics." Still, the memory of Medellin cannot be entirely erased, for too many changes have occurred in Latin American Catholicism in the intervening two decades. As Archbishop Camara says, those who seek a new path, whether in the church or secular society, should not expect roses but must be prepared to endure the prophet's life in the desert. Yet, as the Archbishop notes, "The desert also blooms."

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