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 Global Perspective

July 2, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 14

Global Perspective
Fr. José Comblin, 80, was born in Belgium and has worked in Brazil since 1958. His name is listed among theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Hugo Assmann, Leonardo Boff, Clodovis Boff, Virgil Elizondo, Ignacio Ellacuria and others who brought liberation theology to the world's attention. He is teaching a course called "Theology of the People of God" July 17-18 at the Maryknoll Summer Mission Institute in Maryknoll, N.Y.



The basic Christian communities were discredited ... The new way of reading the Bible was condemned ... The pope's victory is almost complete. What he persecuted exists now clandestinely or in a few independent dioceses.

Changes in the Latin American church during the pontificate of John Paul II

Part One

By José Comblin

JOÃO PESSOA, Paraíba, Brazil -- For Latin America, the pontificate of John Paul II began under the seal of a restoration. From Rome's point of view, the church in Latin America had to be freed of two evils: liberation theology* and the basic Christian communities with their new way of reading the Bible. Pope John Paul announced his program in his address opening the third general conference of the Latin American Bishops at Puebla in 1979.

Then in 1984, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith condemned liberation theology in an extraordinarily severe document. This theology was treated as if it were a synthesis of all heresies. In 1985, the pope wrote a letter to appease the Brazilian episcopate, but liberation theologians were more or less persecuted; they were excluded from the large majority of dioceses and from all the seminaries and clerical formation centers.

The basic Christian communities were discredited, treated with suspicion and finally, suppressed in many dioceses. The new way of reading the Bible was condemned and since then has been restricted to a few dioceses. The pope's victory is almost complete. What he persecuted exists now clandestinely or in a few independent dioceses.

The return to Trent
The basic core of this restoration was very clear: it was a return to the Council of Trent that would limit the active participation of the laity and restore full authority to the clergy. The basic goal was the return of clericalism. The new Code of Canon Law published in 1983 renewed the structure of the church that was determined in the code of 1917. The new code added a few inspiring phrases from the documents of the Second Vatican Council, but none had any juridical importance.

Thus it became clear that after the Second Vatican Council everything continued just as it was before, and nothing was changed in the structure of the church. The parish structure was consolidated. Anything that seemed to change it in any way was immediately limited and everything returned to normal, that is, just as it had always been. Everything that had come into being after the Second Vatican Council was limited to an insignificant minority that had no role in the structure of the church.

To complete this restoration program, Rome had to repress the institutions and groups that were the bearers of a new message based on Vatican II.

CELAM devaluated
In the first place, the Vatican curia strived to devaluate the Latin American bishops' conference (CELAM) that had promoted the assemblies of Medellin in 1968 and of Puebla in 1979. The curia took controlled the election of the directory of the conference in 1972. This did not cause a disruption at the assembly at Puebla, but it did make the assembly at Santo Domingo in 1992 insignificant.

The curia's best inquisitor, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, ruled the conference with an iron hand. After this, little has been heard from CELAM. It still exists formally, but it has become totally irrelevant. It takes no more initiatives and simply applies the decrees that come from Rome. CELAM as an institution is dead.

Religious come under fire
The Latin American Conference of Religious [CLAR] existed beside and in harmony with CELAM. Thus Roman intervened and CLAR received a new directory that was totally subordinate and without creativity. CLAR also is dead, even though it still exists on paper.

Besides this, the Religious in Latin America feel controlled. All those who were committed to social change became hesitant after Fr. Pedro Arrupe, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) from 1965 to 1983, was deposed and two interventors were installed. This measure was a signal to the Jesuits in Latin America, and especially to the Jesuits in Central America. The pope also demanded the resignation of three priests who were ministers in the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua. Also he demanded that Fr. Fernando Cardenal be expelled from the Jesuits.

The signs of Rome's disapproval were clear, even as the Jesuits of Central America continued to act out their commitment to the poor and suffer the consequences, such as the death of their six companions at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Since then the majority of Religious have felt constrained, and they became more and more marginalized.

Lay movements become conservative
Pope John Paul chose conservative lay movements to be the protagonists of the new evangelization. These movements began in Europe in the context of or just after the Second World War: Communione e Liberazzione, Focolarinos, the Neocatechumenate and other less important groups. In Latin America, these movements strongly supported by the pope, grew quickly and became ever more important in the course pastoral activity would take. The Charismatic Renewal Movement joined with them and also received firm support.

Today, many dioceses in Latin America are completely orientated by these movements. These are lay movements, but they remain strictly subordinated to priests. They have been very efficient in the restoration of clericalism because they all are based on a personality cult, the cult of the priest.

* Properly speaking liberation theology stems from the 1968 assembly of the Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia. That session endorsed a "preferential option for the poor" on behalf of the Catholic church in Latin America. A similarly significant council meeting was in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979

End of first of two parts. To read part two, follow this link: How Pope John Paul II has changed the church in Latin America.

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