National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
?Signup Here For  Weekly E-mail

   1Archives  | 

 Global Perspective

July 9, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 15

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.



"Naturally, they know how to say this in a refined ecclesiastical vocabulary. However, translated into everyday language, they are saying you have to have power to be able to evangelize."

Desperate for leadership

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

By José Comblin

Editor's Note: Part one of this essay, which appeared last week, examined how the Vatican after the election Pope John Paul II discounted liberation theology and basic Christian communities and laid plans to supplant their influence.

JOÃO PESSOA, Paraíba, Brazil -- After the Second Vatican Council, Latin America had a significant number of bishops with strong personalities who tried to put into practice the aspirations of the council. They also made a commitment to the cause of the oppressed poor in their countries. The majority of the episcopal conferences also entered into the spirit of Medellin*.

Nowadays, the Latin American bishops are almost completely different from what they were 24 years ago. Pope John Paul has systematically chosen bishops who are against this spirit that permeated Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The bishops appointed under this pope have weaker personalities and are completely submissive to the authority of the Holy See. They lack initiative and have no social commitment or option for the poor. Furthermore, the nunciatures in each country keep close watch over the clergy and does not permit any priest with personality or clearly defined social positions on to the list of candidates to the episcopate.

Replacing bishops
Bishops who followed the inspiration of Medellin have almost always been replaced with bishops who were contrary to this spirit. Their mission was to destroy everything that their predecessors had done. Some of these cases were scandalous. For example, in Brazil, we saw this happen with the successor of Archbishop Helder Câmara in Recife, and in São Paulo, Goiânia and Fortaleza.

Outside of Brazil similar situations transpired in San Salvador, Lima, and Santiago. We saw it with the succession of Bishop Samuel Ruiz in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. These are some of the worst cases, but the same thing occurred in hundreds of less known and less important dioceses. One can only imagined how many human and pastoral dramas were the result of these destructive successions.

As the bishops changed so did the national episcopal conferences. Only the Brazilian conference still has an independent voice. (But for how much longer?) A few have maintained a certain continuity with the past, as in Bolivia and Guatemala, but these are the exceptions. In other countries, the church has taken refuge in the sacristies from which they administrate their past. The pope has called for a "new evangelization," but he has chosen the least likely people to carry it out.

A new clerical generation
Fifty years ago, the shortage of priests seemed to be Latin America's foremost problem. At that time, Brazil had one priest for every 10,000 inhabitants. Today, after countless vocation campaigns, Brazil has one priest for every 11,000 inhabitants. There has been a certain increase in the number of ordinations, but the shortage persists. The vocation drives continue as if people believe that by continuing in the same way the problem will be solved one day. Perhaps 200 or 300 years from now.

The new clergy appearing on the scene are totally ignorant of what the church was and did in the 1960s and 1970s. They have been educated far from the real world, protected from all contacts that could be "dangerous" to their vocations. They live and work in their parishes, ignorant of what is happening in today's world. They are administrators of a parochial church. They are faithful observers of all canonical rules.

They are, above all, so worried about their priestly identity that they feel obliged to constantly affirm and strengthen it. They feel that today's world does not give them the prestige that priests received in the past.

John Paul has succeeded in forming a new priestly generation that conforms to his desires.

A supplanted social vision
This evolution explains the passivity of the church as it faces social and human disasters caused by the neo-liberal economic system adopted in all Latin American countries. The poor in Latin America now face a crisis worse than we have ever seen, but the church has a strong voice only in Brazil.

The church is greatly responsible for the increase in social inequalities, for unemployment, for the misery the majority live in, for the unjust distribution of wealth among the workers, and for the progressive disappearance of all the socially positive laws that were passed in the last half-century.

What we need are concrete, significant actions. The bishops, of course, repeat the social doctrine of the church, but their message is so distant from reality that even the most fervent defenders of the neo-liberal system can affirm that they follow the teachings of the church.

Evangelizing with power
Ecclesia America, the official document of the synod on the church in America, suppressed all allusions that the bishops proposed about basic Christian communities and the martyrs of Latin America. Anything that could be a remembrance of the Vatican II church or that of Medellin was suppressed. The document presented two options for American Catholics: the media or the universities. These are -- by no coincidence -- the two paths to power in our modern society. It could not be made clearer that the priority of the church today is power.

Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ are -- by no coincidence -- the perfect instruments for the conquest of power in politics or in the economy. The dominant sector of the church in Latin America thinks we are at a favorable moment for the conquest of more power in today's society. Implicitly, they imagine that this power will be useful for evangelization. Naturally, they know how to say this in a refined ecclesiastical vocabulary. However, translated into everyday language, they are saying you have to have power to be able to evangelize.

What is the future?
What do those who are not convinced by this strategy want? They want to return to what the church was during and after the Second Vatican Council; they want a return to the spirit of Medellin and of Puebla. Clearly, we are living in a different situation. In many ways the situation is worse now than it was then. The poverty that exists now in Latin America is worse than it was 50 years ago. Much of our traditional culture has been destroyed, not only the material culture, but also the moral culture.

We would have to return to our heritage, deepening it and widening it according to the demands of a crueler age. But the guidelines of the past are still valid because they were based on a return to the Gospel lived in the concrete existence of a people.

There are many people open to this vision, but they need a sign, they need leaders. And they have to keep on waiting because Rome will do nothing to stimulate, mobilize, or to bring together the tremendous energy of the People of God.

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

Top of Page   | Home
Copyright © 2003 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 
TEL:  1-816-531-0538   FAX:  1-816-968-2280