The Church's Role
The Church Divided
The U.S. Connection
excerpted from the book
Cry of the People
The struggle for human rights
in Latin America
and the Catholic Church in conflict with US policy
by Penny Lernoux
Penguin Books, 1980, paper
Colombia is not the only Latin-American country where crime is
epidemic. The number of homicides in Mexico is nearly twice that
of Colombia, and Colombia itself records six times as many murders
as England, with half of England's population. Yet Colombia and
Mexico are among the few surviving formal democracies in Latin
America. The military regimes have legalized crime in the name
of national security; in Brazil, for example, by smalltime racketeers
in the Rio slums and big-time drug operators like Sergio Fleury,
Police Commissioner of Sao Paulo. Thus "institutionalized
violence" affects and infects rich and poor alike. Contrary
to the old fear that the Latin-American slums would explode in
political revolution, they are spawning a different kind of violence-one
that seeks material gain or vengeance, but not justice.
As everywhere in Latin America, the violence
in Colombia can be traced to the land. Because of the physical
and economic insecurity in rural areas, millions of peasants and
small farmers migrated to the cities during the 1950s. Today,
with 93 percent of the arable land occupied by 25 percent of the
farms, the rural exodus continues. By the end of the century the
majority of Colombians will live in cities. The same trend can
be observed on the entire continent: by the year 2000 two thirds
of the projected Latin-American population of 630 million people
will be crowded into megalopolises, nearly half their areas given
over to slums. Or 210 million people living in tin and cardboard
shacks with no running water, no electricity, no schools, no jobs-with
nothing to hope for and nothing to lose. The statistics are overwhelming
and terrifying: Mexico City, already circled by shantytowns, will
be the largest city in the world, with 32 million people; Sao
Paulo, where everyone, rich and poor, now spends on average three
hours a day getting to and from work, will explode to 26 million
Urbanization is a world phenomenon, but
what makes it so dramatic in Latin America is that, whereas in
Europe industrialization preceded the vast growth of cities, here
big-city life is what lures the peasant. The urban industries,
which have copied the developed nations' labor-saving technology,
cannot supply jobs for these new millions. But once in the city,
the peasant cannot go home again. Agribusiness has mechanized
the countryside and agrarian reform has nowhere changed the pattern
of land tenancy, not even in Mexico for all its myths of the "glorious
revolution." Mortgaged to the international banks and corporate
industry, faced with an ever-mounting oil import bill, these city/nations
have set up their own nemeses of social alienation and economic
privation: just beyond the glass skyscrapers distrustful, frustrated
people subsist in miles and miles of slums. However mean their
rural past, these people had at least a set of values that held
agrarian society together; in the cities most of those values
are denied or forgotten, and nothing replaces them.
Fifty Million Slobs
One institution, at least, has begun to
appreciate the scope of the problem-the Latin-American Church.
While there are different interpretations of the problem, and
as many solutions are proposed, the most dynamic sector of the
Church is coming to believe that the only answer is-to make over
society from the bottom up. The idea is not as farfetched or as
paternalistic as it may sound. In these churchmen's opinion, Latin
America is governed by an elite of wealth, totally alienated from
its own people and its own culture. Hence the attempt to ape the
industrial programs of Europe and the United States; hence the
unquestioning adoption of the Pentagon's national security theories,
and an almost slavish imitation of American culture, to the denigration
of indigenous customs and beliefs. Whether the country be El Salvador
or Brazil, the rich inevitably view the common people with contempt.
As one Brazilian government official put it: "There are one
hundred million of us Brazilians. Fifty million are no more than
poor, ignorant slobs whom the other fifty million must civilize.
And even of those others, forty million are incapable of civilizing
anyone. That leaves an elite of ten million whose job-and right-is
to rule the other ninety million.''
An inheritance of the Spanish and Portuguese
colonizers, this superiority/inferiority complex admirably suits
the multinationals' desire to homogenize the world's wants and
tastes (Coca-Cola must be better than the native fruit juice because
it is American), though it is precisely this ambiguous attitude
that has brought Latin America's city-nations to their desperate
plight. Foreign aid and local development programs have failed
repeatedly because they imposed foreign, elitist solutions on
the people, with no thought to their real needs or wants.
The idea that development could be achieved by following the processes
of the developed societies was historical folly, for the conditions
that gave rise to industrialism in Europe and the United States
in the nineteenth century had ceased to exist by the middle of
the twentieth century. Trade patterns, science, economics, and
the balance of power had changed so radically that no developing
nation could hope to repeat the same process successfully.
Yet very few wealthy Latin Americans perceived
that they were mere satraps in the industrialized world's empire.
Like the man who beats his wife after his boss has bawled him
out at the office, these "decision makers" could always
compensate for their dependence on foreign ideas, companies, and
gadgets by demonstrating their superiority to the "slobs."
To see such men fawning on the foreign executive who has dropped
by to check on how they are running the corporation's subsidiary
is to wonder if anything has changed since colonial times: the
Spanish viceroy has simply been replaced by the vice-president
in charge of Latin American operations.
From the perspective of the poor, Latin-American history is a
story of religious, political, and economic repression. Although
they are unable to express the causes of their situation in scientific
language, their popular legends and beliefs repeatedly reveal
this sense of oppression. When history is looked back upon from
where the losers stand today, it turns out that neither European
colonialism nor U.S. capitalism has been a good thing for Latin
America, not, at least, for the majority of the people (native
fruit juice is cheaper and more nutritious than Coca-Cola, propaganda
For Latin-American Christians who view
the world through the eyes of the poor, who see the slums beyond
the glass skyscrapers, the next logical step is to reexamine their
faith in the light of reality, and this leads them to reread the
Bible. Gradually the biblical story is perceived to be more than
a history lesson; it also describes the contemporary scene. As
U.S. religious writer Robert McAfee Brown points out, these Latin
Americans "see the Bible as a very revolutionary book, which
is from first to last the account of Jahweh's liberation of his
people. The exodus story is the paradigm event: Jahweh frees his
people from oppression. The oppression is not just the oppression
of sin, but also the oppression of unjust social structures, enforced
by a political tyrant and a repressive economic order. So the
story is about political and economic liberation as well. The
Old Testament prophets pound home the same theme, inveighing against
corrupt judges, against the rich exploiting the poor, against
religious leaders siding with the rich, against the few living
in outrageous comfort while the many starve. Jesus stands in this
same prophetic tradition: He, too, denounces exploitation, and
proclaims a gospel of 'freedom to captives' and 'liberation to
the oppressed.' His story of the Last Judgment indicates that
nations (and not just individuals) are held accountable to God
for whether or not they have fed the hungry, clothed the naked,
taken sides with the oppressed.
"The biblical account of the liberation
of oppressed Israel is likewise a description of the possibility
of the liberation of oppressed peoples today. If the God of the
Bible took sides back then, it is clear that He continues to take
sides today, identifying with the oppressed and challenging their
oppressors. And this means that all who claim to believe in Him
and are trying to carry on His work must take sides, too. Those
who reject that conclusion usually argue that the Church should
not take sides. They ignore the fact, however, that the Church
has always taken sides in the past, but that it has almost invariably
been on the side of the rich oppressors. The plea now is not that
the Church should take sides for the first time but simply that
it should change sides. Having sided with the wealthy, it must
now side with the poor; having been the support of those with
power, it must now cast its lot with those deprived of power;
having enjoyed privilege in the past, it must undergo risk in
From reflections like these evolved the
theology of liberation, the Third World's controversial, politically
explosive contribution to theology that marks religion's coming
of age in Latin America. It is an outburst similar to the flowering
of fiction and art on the continent. For Gustavo Gutierrez, leading
proponent of the new orientation, theology is not only a body
of spiritual and rational knowledge but also a critical reflection
on the Church's pastoral work. The challenge now facing the Church
in the midst of growing violence, poverty, and repression, says
Gutierrez, is "how to say to the poor, to the exploited classes,
to the marginalized races, to the despised cultures, to all the
minorities and nonpersons, that God is love and that all of us
are, and ought to be in history, sisters and brothers. This is
our great question. If theology has any meaning, it is an attempt
to respond to this question and to discover ways in this social
struggle to form a new society of sisters and brothers."
Gutierrez believes "Liberation"
is a more appropriate word than "development" in the
context of poverty and repression, because it suggests that "man
can begin to change himself as a creative being, directing his
own destiny toward a society in which he will be free of every
kind of slavery. When history is seen as the process of man's
emancipation, the question of development is placed in a larger
context, a deeper, more radical one. Man is not seen as passive
element but as an agent of history."
"Liberation theology is new in our time because its object
is the transformation of society rather than purifying-and forming
the faith for the Church," explained C. Ellis Nelson of the
Union Theological Seminary. "This stance makes a radical
difference in how the Church is understood. The Church is not
a colony of heaven; it is not a neutral institution in society.
The Church is part of society, and if it does not speak against
social injustice, it silently supports the oppressors. The task
of liberation theology is to analyze and criticize the role of
the Church in order to help the Church use its institutional power
to change society.
"Because liberation theology has
society as the object, everything in theology is turned upside
down. One does not start with God, one starts with man. One does
not seek truth and apply it to man's condition. One does not take
the past and find a lesson for the present, one takes the future.
One does not ask: 'What must I do to get to heaven?' but 'How
can I find fulfillment of my life here on earth?' Humanity, according
to liberation theology, is the temple of God."
But it is most concerned with a particular
type of temple-"the wretched of the earth." In Scharper's
words, "the Scriptures have been used too long to comfort
the afflicted; the Scriptures are also meant to afflict the comfortable."
This is all very well, skeptics might
say, but how do you go about it? For such a gigantic endeavor,
there must obviously be faith. Or as Brazil's Dom Helder Camara
says, "It is high time at Don Quixote rode forth again."
In a culture impregnated with religion, as Latin America's popular
culture is, the religious message penetrates where the school
can never reach, and by very subtle means," said Father Hoornaert.
"Thus religion can really determine a society's evolution."
The problem has been that, until recently,
the message encouraged fatalism. Because God is viewed as remote
and powerful, like the local dictator, most Latin Americans ask
the saints or souls of the dead to intervene for them.
The principal fault of this narrow you-me relationship with the
saint or animita is that it induces an acceptance of all things
and events as inevitable. Church studies conducted in 1972 in
the Santiago slum of La Victoria showed that the people believed
that it is their destiny to be poor. Nor did they expect any happiness
in the afterlife, since dead souls spend their time haunting the
living, a concept similar to that of Mexico's Otomis. "Religiosity
/ animism is basically something that helps the person to get
through this life," said Chilean theologian Antonio Bentue,
the author of the survey. "The person at least has the possibility
of offering the saints or souls a gift to intercede." In
this very narrow relationship, he said, change is impossible "because
authority and tradition are accepted without criticism. Nor is
there any social conscience within the community. If there were,
the people would join together to protest the economic and social
realities responsible for their poverty, instead of trying to
bribe God through the saints or the souls of the dead."
But popular religiosity need not be narrow
and fatalistic- much depends on where the emphasis is placed.
Any number of historical experiences have shown that when the
Church emphasizes the positive aspects of folk religion, such
as willingness to share in happiness and suffering, the people
respond with a heightened sense of solidarity. Brazilian theologian
Hoornaert cites the example of Father Jose Antonio Mana Ibiapina,
a remarkable lawyer-priest who worked in northeastern Brazil in
the second half of the last century. Ibiapina encouraged the discipline
of work by giving the people a sense of dignity and by emphasizing
the value of their manual labor. To do so, he used such peasant
traditions as the mutirao, a Brazilian form of community barn
raising, and the compadre system, which is based on the godfather
and godmother relationship but is much deeper than those ties
in Europe or the United States. Because Ibiapina was everybody's
compadre, he could get the people to accomplish an incredible
number of public works, from dams to homes for orphan girls who
later formed the backbone of the Northeast's elementary school
faculties. Unlike his European predecessors, Ibiapina did not
patronize the people or their beliefs but helped them break the
culture of oppression. His legacy is Juazeiro do Norte, a progressive
town in the otherwise backward fiefdom of northeastern Brazil.
When at last the Church saw the connections among poverty,
popular religion, and education, it could
open a new, more authentic dialogue with the people. Local churches
began to rewrite the liturgy in the language and symbols of the
natives, new forms of instruction were developed to reflect Indian
traditions, and old taboos, such as dancing in church, were swept
aside. But perhaps the most important revelation to come out of
this dialogue was the realization that the religious leader in
Latin America must be a man of his people. While priests and nuns
could live with the poor and identify with them, they would always
carry with them their own cultural inheritance. Thus their interpretation
of what the people were saying would inevitably be tinged by their
different cultural experiences. Once the local churches recognized
this gulf, many came to the conclusion that the only long-term
answer for Catholicism in Latin America was lay ministers and
While the Vatican steadfastly refused
to countenance married priests on the grounds that "they
have no European training" and that such approval would open
the floodgates elsewhere in the world, celibacy became increasingly
a moot point with Latin-American bishops, who were placing so
much emphasis on lay leaders. In its search for popular roots,
first in consciousness-raising and later in folk piety, the Latin-American
Church was reaching back to the historical origins of the universal
Church in the primitive Christian communities. As more and more
poor Latin Americans began to take responsibility for Church affairs,
a model emerged for small groups of committed Christians. Some
call them "Abrahamic minorities"; others, the "People
of God"; but everywhere they are known as comurudades de
base (Christian grass-roots communities). The Christian communities
are the building blocks of a new society-religious groups that
are also people's councils, linking Catholicism with civic action,
education with freedom, and solidarity with Christ. That association
of piety, learning, and civic action is revolutionary on a continent
where the only solidarity hitherto known has been one of oppression.
Needless to say, most of the military regimes think the whole
The communities vary according to country
and region but all exhibit certain basic traits. They are definitely
communities for adults, a shift from the Church's earlier practice
of concentrating its educational efforts on children and youths.
(Experiments in Chile showed that attempts to duplicate such communities
among young people were premature, because the young were not
yet ready to set up stable, closely knit societies. )
The communities also discourage individualism.
There is no "your" God and "my" God, "your"
saint and "my" saint. People are urged to pool their
experiences and feelings, thus liberating themselves from the
sense of isolation and insecurity caused by political and economic
repression. The sharing is extended to other Christian communities,
so that there is mutual support, each encouraging the others and
exchanging experiences. The communities are also strong antidotes
to defeatism, since every member must commit her- or himself in
one way or another. Nor does any member stand above or below another.
The most successful communities are in
rural areas or poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of the cities
where social values have survived. They are almost always composed
of poor people because, despite repeated efforts to interest the
upper and middle classes in such organizations, very few churches
Some communities place more stress on
religion; others on civic action. Some are just beginning; others
are advanced. All have the structural support and protection of
the diocesan priests and bishops, who act as advisers and coaches.
Unlike the rigid parish structure, however, the communities are
encouraged to develop on their own and not depend on the Church
to solve their problems. Here again, the cardinal rule is to listen
and learn, to talk together with humility. Thus, when fifteen
Brazilian bishops met at Vitoria in 1976 with representatives
from the country's eighty thousand Christian communities, it was
the peasants and the slum dwellers, not the- bishops, who did
the talking, who drew up the list of priorities for the grass-roots
communities, at the top of which was land.
During the week-long meeting it was agreed
that if the peasants were threatened or driven from their land,
they should lodge a protest with the authorities, hire a lawyer,
and themselves study the law to see that it was enforced, and
join with other people having the same problems (small landowners
and landless peasants often &d themselves in conflict with
one another when in fact they are all victims of the large landowner).
If all else failed, the peasants and bishops decided, the people
should attempt to stay on the land for as long as possible. Observed
a worker from Sao Paulo at the end of the meeting: "Up till
now I thought we were struggling alone in our own corner. Now
I know that all over Brazil we have brothers and sisters involved
in the same struggle and living the same faith."
Breaking away from the client-patron relationship between Latin
America's poor and those with political power and money, the Santiago
slum dwellers proved quite independent, and many learned to distinguish
between what was owed them as citizens and what was given them
as a political favor. Thus they absorbed a fundamental element
of democracy, learning to use the political parties instead of
being used by them. Although these communities tended to confine
their political aspirations to concrete demands, such as a school,
the survey indicated that the shantytowns would in time become
political forces to be reckoned with by the national government.
Nor was there any doubt that, given a free choice in elections,
increasing numbers would vote for some form of socialism.
While the Santiago slums obviously could
not be used as a prototype for the estimated twenty thousand shantytowns
throughout Latin America, they disproved the theory that slum
dwellers were socially irresponsible, politically conservative,
and prone to crime. Only in Chile, of all the Latin-American nations,
were the slum poor given an opportunity to develop their own institutions
and to express their political preference in free elections where
all ideologies were represented. Even in countries that permitted
populist or left-wing candidates to run for office, the poor soon
learned that they were wasting their votes on such people, because
they would either be illegally deprived of victory, as occurred
in the 1970 presidential elections in Colombia, when a populist
ex-dictator won the count but lost the elections, or eliminated
by a military coup. Indeed, it was the fear of a people's socialism
that ended the experiment in Chile.
However, the solidarity and hope experienced
by the slum poor under the Allende government did not entirely
die. It was the backbone of the school lunch program and the new
Christian communities. While the people running these programs
were afraid and economically insecure, theirs was not the fatalistic
fear sociologists ascribe to the culture of poverty, but the result
of the military's ongoing political and economic repression. None
would dream of shouting "Down with Pinochet" in a public
plaza, yet these slum dwellers were neither cowed nor resigned.
"We have not forgotten the social gains we made in the past,"
said a slum mother. "We cannot say anything now, but there
will come a time when 'those people' must go, and then we will
build a better society in which there is equality and justice
for all of us."
The Church Divided
Very few of those now planting the seeds of a better society in
the political desert of Latin America will live to see the fruit
ripen. Political liberty, for example, remains a remote prospect
in most Latin-American countries, given the military's determination
to stay in power through the end of the century. Such is the future
of Chileans, Paraguayans, and Argentines. Even in countries like
Uruguay and Peru the armed forces, having reluctantly agreed to
allow elections, announced their intention to supervise the civilians'
running of things. "I see no possibility of liberation for
Latin America in this century," was the grim summation of
theologian Jose Comblin, a specialist in military affairs. "We
have to look forward to twenty years of slavery."
Capitalism is on the block-even conservatives
in the Latin-American Church question the behavior of the multinationals
and the terms of trade imposed by the industrialized nations,
particularly the United States. But if capitalism is the wrong
formula for Latin America, what are the alternatives? The record
in Chile shows that the poor, if given the opportunity for self-development
and expression, will choose socialism. Although the Christian
communities started from a different premise than that of the
shantytowns in Chile, they are tending toward the same conclusions.
Indeed, some churchmen working with these communities, among them
the bishops of northeastern Brazil, openly support a grass-roots
Christian socialism. Sao Paulo's Cardinal Arns describes it as
a Christian system of socialism based on solidarity and charity,
nonviolent and genuinely Latin-American; a creation of the poor,
not the pseudo-copy of U.S. and European economic systems imported
by the rich. According to the cardinal, this tendency is "emerging
spontaneously" from the people.' "We have no objection
to private property," adds Dom Helder Camara, "provided
that each person can own it."
Though the forms of socialism are many,
as the Vatican itself admits, the word smacks of communism to
Latin-American Church conservatives. "Too frequently,"
says Guadalajara's Cardinal Jose Salazar Lopez, "Christians
attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in very generous terms:
good intentions of justice, solidarity, and equality. They deny
the historical basis of socialistic movements, which were and
are conditioned by the ideology of Marxism."
Helder Camara disagrees. "There is
no such thing as a universal model of socialism. Socialism is
not necessarily linked with materialism, nor need it designate
a system that destroys the individual or the community. I do not
accept the Russian 'model.' It appears to me primitive, elementary.
Russia continues to interpret Marxism as a dogma: what was true
in Marx's time is still professed in Moscow as THE TRUTH. Since
Marx denounced a religion that was, in his time, the opium of
the people, communists continue to see and to persecute religion
as an alienated and alienating force; whereas we have, right here,
the living proof of a Christianity that is no longer either alienated
or alienating, but the contrary. Soviet Russia cannot concede
that a certain pluralism exists within socialism.
"What we need to find for Latin America
is a line of socialization adapted to Latin-American needs. I
am thinking of a conscious participation by more classes of the
population in the control of power and the sharing of wealth and
culture. The world trend is toward socialism. At this time, Christians
offer to it the mystique of universal brotherhood and hope."
For men like Cardinal Salazar Lopez, however,
such views are ingenuous. Only when it is too late, he warns,
will it be perceived that socialism is a facade for totalitarianism.
The difference in viewpoints goes deeper
than rhetoric; it has divided bishops and protests, fellow prelates,
and even entire hierarchies of one country and another. Much depends
on whether the country is controlled by a repressive military
government, as in Brazil, or by a formal democracy, as in Mexico.
In military regimes, where the principal threat is fascism, the
bishops are more disposed to discuss the merits of socialism;
many also understand the distinctions made by Camara. Conversely,
the majority of bishops in Latin America's remaining democracies
still believe that the foremost danger is communism. (Their colleagues
living under military regimes point out that they have had no
experience of military repression.) While the Brazilian Church
harbors a dissident minority of conservative bishops and a progressive
minority persists in the Mexican hierarchy, for all practical
purposes the Brazilian Church seeks basic structural changes and
the Mexican Church supports the status quo. The split also affects
priests and nuns, although statistical evidence shows clear support
for change. The laity tends to divide between the rich, who identify
with the conservative sector of the Church, and the poor, who
find hope in the progressive wing.
.. by the end of the century more than half the world's Catholics
will live in Latin America, and by far the largest number will
be in Brazil, which also has the continent's most progressive
A Chorus of Dissent
Nearly two decades had passed since the
early 1960s ... During that time much had happened to change the
Latin-American Church's understanding of itself and of the society
it was supposed to serve. The Alliance for Progress was dead;
so were Camilo Torres, Che Guevara, and Salvador Allende. Almost
every statistic of social development showed a decline in the
living standards of the average Latin American. The region's foreign
debt was staggering, the highest in the developing world, with
some nations spending up to 40 percent of export earnings just
to pay the interest. Meanwhile, South America had been engulfed
by military dictatorships.
Yet the first working document for Puebla
[1972 Puebla, Mexico Catholic Church Bishops' Conference] barely
touched on these questions... the 214-page document rejected Medellin's
strong call for social justice. Known as the "green book,"
the document avoided the central issue of poverty by resurrecting
the colonial church's fatalistic message of resignation: the poor
were once again to accept misery in the hope of a better hereafter...
The "development" models of the 1960s that had been
rejected by Medellin were once again presented as the only solution
to Latin America's economic and social problems, although it had
been proved, in country after country, that such models served
only to increase the gap between rich and poor. Similarly, the
wealthy elites trained at the continent's universities would continue
to be the leaders of Latin America and the Church's "chosen
So narrow was the vision of the document
that within weeks of its release in December 1977' a chorus of
indignation and dissent rose throughout the region. While no bishops'
conference publicly rejected the document, such being contrary
to Church diplomacy, a majority criticized it for failing to deal
with the principal challenges to the Church. ("An encyclopedia
of everything and nothing," as Dom Pedro Casaldaliga put
it.) The Brazilian Bishops' Conference even went so far as to
draft an alternate document containing 128 "Contributions,"
or specific recommendations, for Puebla.
The public release of the "green
book" was the first of Lopez Trujillo's several tactical
errors. Contrary to expectations, the obscurantist document became
an instant best seller, reprinted by the thousands in Latin-American
countries. As the liberation theologians have frequently noted,
no amount of chicanery can change reality; and at the time when
the "green book" came out, the reality of Latin-American
Catholicism was an increasingly "horizontal" Church
in which bishops consulted with laity in the thousands of Christian
grass-roots communities that had sprung up since Medellin.
Thus, on a continent dominated by dictators,
the release of the document proved an extraordinary event, sparking
a democratic debate on political, economic, and social issues
for the first time in more than a decade.
In response to widespread criticism of the "green book,"
a l small group of bishops representing South and Central America
met at CELAM headquarters in Bogota in mid-1978 to rewrite the
working document for Puebla under the guidance of Cardinal Lorscheider,
the organization's president. Based on the reports submitted by
the individual bishops' conferences, the second document was shorter
and more concise, its main purpose being to reaffirm the Church's
commitment to social justice in the strong language used at Medellin.
For Lorscheider, who wears a pacemaker, the price of this achievement
was high: such were the tensions between the cardinal and Lopez
Trujillo that Lorscheider
The struggle will doubtless be bitter, yet only a fraction of
the Puebla document's multiple objectives are achieved, such as
a priority on education for the poor, the results will be far-reaching.
As the Pope's amazing reception in Mexico showed, the power of
the Church to sway Latin America is far greater than that of any
government or political system.
It was precisely the fear of an unassessed religious power that
led President Carter to order the CIA to intensify its watch on
the Latin-American Church, according to a report on closed hearings
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Disclosed by Mexico
City's influential center-right newspaper Excelsior, the report
brought a letter of protest from Harvard theologian Harvey Cox
and other representatives of the one hundred and fifty or so Americans
gathered at Puebla, who described the order as "an insult
to our neighbors, friends, and brother Christians in Latin America.
What would President Carter think if a Latin-American government
announced a plan to examine and study the churches of the United
States, including his own church, the Baptist church? How would
Carter like to have a spy in his Bible class? It is a very grave
violation of the most basic human rights and of the heart of the
Fausto Fernandez Ponte, the newspaper's
Washington correspondent, reported that Carter had ordered the
agency to study and examine the movements of religious and lay
dissidents in Latin America after committee members, noting U.S.
"unpreparedness" regarding religious currents in Iran,
expressed concern that a Latin-American country might become "another
Business groups were also concerned, among them spokesmen for
the right-wing Puebla Chamber of Commerce, said to have ties to
Mexican subsidiaries of the multinationals. The businessmen's
group charged that "Marxists in priests' dress" were
to blame for "independent unions, economic instability, crazy
strikes, and inflationary salaries." Among several "Marxist"
bishops named was Peru's moderate Cardinal Juan Landazuri, the
then vice-president of CELAM.
The multinationals themselves remained
discreetly silent, possibly because past experience had shown
there were other means of influence. A decade earlier, for instance,
a blue-ribbon committee that included the chairman of Citibank,
the president of Ford Motor Company, and other business luminaries
had by quiet maneuvering persuaded Pope Paul to deny that he had
meant to debunk capitalism in his encyclical Populorum Progressio,
one of the inspirations for Medellin. The "clarification"
was necessary, said Citibank's then Chairman George C. Moore,
because "it is nonsense for us to try to achieve economic
development in Latin America if we haven't got the Church with
us. If the priests are telling people to throw out businessmen,
we [shall] have a rather hard time.... 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."
As of 1979, when the bishops met at Puebla,
"economic -democracy" had produced a neocolonial system
in which the multinational banks and corporations controlled the
region's finances, the majority of its industrial exports and
capital imports, and its natural resources. As to "social
progress," both the Pope's speeches and the Puebla document
clearly stated that there had been none.
"The dominant groups in the United
States and their partners in Latin America want to maintain a
social and political system that enables them to continue exploiting
the people," said Gustavo Gutierrez. "Because the Church
is a strong institution in Latin America and a legitimate part
of the social and political fabric, its commitment to the struggle
of the people is a source of concern. They cannot attack religion
frontally; they cannot say that the struggle to eat is atheistic,
communist. But the multinationals are obviously worded."
Dom Helder Camara
"Those who think that we are acting
too precipitously in [seeking] a change in structures in Latin
America should remember that the continent has been waiting for
nearly five centuries."
The U.S. Connection
Can Americans understand what is happening to their neighbors,
the Latin Americans wonder. The two societies are so different.
| True, there are poor people in the United States, and economic
and social prejudice, but not on the scale of Latin America, with
its sharp class divisions. Minority groups in the United States
have protested, though usually on racial or sexual grounds. In
Latin America, in contrast, race and sex are less important than
a person's social condition, his or her place in a wealthy minority
or among the abundant poor. Black theology and women's liberation
seem esoteric to the Latin Americans, who are looking at the bigger
picture of poverty and repression. Conversely the Latin Americans'
theology of liberation can be understood only in the context of
a region where two thirds of the people live in desperate poverty.
It isn't pleasant to be called an oppressor, yet that is how many
people in Latin America see the United States. And there is considerable
documented evidence to support the Latin Americans' point of view-in
the Pentagon's encouragement of military regimes, in the CIA's
interference in Latin-American political affairs, and in corporate
industry's business practices. Critical Christians are asking
Americans to look at the record and reflect on it. "Whether
we like it or not, to be white Americans in the latter part of
the twentieth century is to be part of that group in the world
that has the most power, influence, and affluence," wrote
Robert McAfee Brown, one of the most eloquent spokesmen for a
new moral order. "The record is pretty clear that all these
things are used for self-aggrandizement rather than for the welfare
of others. Of those who have much, the Scriptures inform us, much
shall be required.
Americans also have lost town with their past ... They have forgotten
that the United States was conceived as a refuge for the rejected
of the world-the persecuted, the condemned, the poor. However
romantic it may sound today, the Statue of Liberty still recalls
those origins: "Give me your tired, your poor . . . the wretched
refuse of your teeming shore." In the process Americans have
somehow lost the will to change, not only in their relations with
other people in distant lands but also in their own country. "Knowledge
of our socioeconomic dilemmas is widely disseminated, certainly
among the intelligentsia," said Herzog. "The horror
is, we do not have the will to get well. Because of our blind
spot to exploitation, we are blind all around to the causes of
rising crime, the drug problem, etc."
El Paso's Bishop Flores agreed: "We
may shed tears at the murders at Southern University in Louisiana,
at the sight of a child screaming from napalm burns, at the eighty-dollar
annual income of a family in one of the nations of Latin America,"
he told the ninth General Assembly of the U.S. National Council
of Churches. "Often we give thanks for our blessings and
say: 'A11 the rest is just too complex to deal with.' We permit
the injustice that imprisons both the affluent and the poor to
go on and on.
"The use of capital and the development
of a corporate economy have without doubt procured great benefits
for mankind. But it has become increasingly evident that large
corporations reaching across national boundries drain natural
resources and labor from poor countries primarily for the benefit
of a small proportion of affluent people in the world. Such an
ordering of a world economy is immoral and must be rejected and
fought by the Church. It is not sufficient to weep for the priest
who is martyred by the regime in Brazil, without acting to prevent
the complicity of the United States of America in that act of
murder. The system as we know it holds in bondage, not only those
who are exploited to maintain the flow of wealth largely in one
direction, but it also holds in the bondage of unslaked thirst
for goods and power and sense of superiority those who reap the
"Typically, when we speak of modern
corporate life, we are speaking of companies where ownership is
so diversified that corporate managers are really responsible
to no one. Our government has proved unable to regulate corporate
life to produce for the benefit of all; indeed, if one looks at
the large corporation and its alliance with the military, or its
behavior overseas, it is apparent that government and corporate
managers are hand in glove. Even at home it is representatives
of capital management who most often sit on and control the very
regulatory agencies that were once designed to see that the corporation
"Some say the system is not perfect,
but that it is the best ever devised by man. Well, it is not perfect.
Man must do better, or the large corporation, managed by men shielded
from public control, will otherwise be the imperialism of the
And how escape this vision? Critical Christians
argue with Flores that it must begin with the system of education.
The bishop gives the example of the educational problems in Texas,
citing the state government's own report:
Most Texans recognize the role of the
public schools in building socially acceptable behavior.... But
it is clear that traditional forms and methods have failed to
equip the disadvantaged for constructive citizenship in modern
complex society. That failure has contributed heavily to such
crucial problems as delinquency, unemployment, and soaring welfare
"Examples like this abound throughout
the United States," said Bishop Flores. "Education in
the West has become a handmaiden of corporate production, of a
bourgeois society, of a society bent on acquisition. Western education
imprisons the affluent in a psychology of acquisitiveness and
exclusivity of moral vision, and at the same time perpetuates
the dominance of the affluent over the poor."
Yet to acknowledge that "our entire
social structure is sick at the core is not only a message we
may not like, but a message with which we may not, in fact, be
able to come to terms," warned Robert McAfee Brown. "It
may challenge the social legitimacy of the kind of work we do
to earn our incomes, it may leave us with the nagging question
of why we are entitled to such splendid homes when most of the
human family lives in substandard dwellings, and it may leave
us unsure that the creation of a few splendid human relationships
is really a sufficient answer to the not-so-splendid squalor that
continues unchallenged in the midst of those relationships."
of the People