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 people.

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 notwithstanding).

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 the future."

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 married priests.

Grassroots Communities

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 idea subversive.

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 have succeeded.

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 Church.

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 few."

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.

"Another Iran"
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 Gospel."

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 Iran."

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 benefits.

"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 served society.

"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 twenty-first century.''

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 costs.

"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."

Cry of the People

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