"It was an enormous somersault for a church that for centuries had lived in comfortable concubinage with the powerful. When the bishops went home and discovered that the dictators were ready and willing to torture and kill not only lay leaders but even the priests and bishops who had previously enjoyed a taboolike protection, many began to waver."


October 25, 1996

pages 4-5






In Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1992 when he presided at the fourth general assembly of the bishops of Latin America, Pope John Paul proposed "a still wider exercise of episcopal collegiality."

He was thinking, he said, of a meeting of representative bishops of the Americas to help "unite even more closely all the peoples that make up this great continent; ... to find ways to solve the dramatic situations of vast sectors of the population who aspire to a legitimate overall progress and to more just and decent living conditions."

A truly laudable objective. It was repeated in 1994 in Tertio Millenno Adueniente, John Paul's apostolic letter for the upcoming third millennium. Now we have a further step in the process: the publication by Cardinal Jan Schotte of the Vatican's Synod of Bishops of the lineamenta, a preliminary document intended "to foster a common reflection and prayer on the topic as well as to generate suggestions and observations." The meeting will occur before the year 2000.

But is that the whole story? When the project was first unveiled at Santo Domingo, many who had been involved in or had been following the Roman curia's 24-year campaign — ever since the Medellin Conference of 1968 — to domesticate or emasculate CELAM (the Council and Conference of Bishops of Latin America), suspected that this was yet another curial scheme.

CELAM and the Synod of Bishops are radically different bodies. To replace the Conference of Latin American bishops with a Synod for America (North, Central, South, Caribbean) would mean a major dilution of the identity of the church of Latin America, as well as a major recentralization of decision-making in Rome. The power struggle has been going on almost from the creation of CELAM in 1955 at the initiative of Bishops Manuel Larrain of Chile and Helder Camara of Brazil. Its constitution — confirmed by Pope Pius XII — gives it substantial autonomy. The curia, resenting a body not under its control, quickly set up the Commission on Latin America, to ride herd on it.

In the anti-Curial atmosphere of the Vatican Council, however, CELAM succeeded after a bitter struggle in establishing its autonomy. The result was the historic 1968 meeting at Medellin, Colombia, at which the Latin American church made its preferential option for the poor, calling for "global, daring, urgent, and radically renewing change," and offering a concept of a liberating God to replace the God of unrestrained greed.

It was an enormous somersault for a church that for centuries had lived in comfortable concubinage with the powerful. When the bishops went home and discovered that the dictators were ready and willing to torture and kill not only lay leaders but even the priests and bishops who had previously enjoyed a taboolike protection, many began to waver.

Within four years a conservative backlash had made Archbishop (now Cardinal) Alfonso Lopez Trujillo head of CELAM. A hard-nosed, hard-driving business executive, Lopez lost no time in getting a firm grip on CELAM's administrative machinery, centralizing its major activities and agencies — now staffed by his own people — in Bogota.

The mystique of Medellin, nevertheless, survived.

At Puebla, Mexico, where the Latin American bishops held CELAM III in 1979, the Lopez Trujillo onslaught, although solidly backed by curial friends, achieved only a stalemate. The final document was schizophrenic in its repeated efforts to shift the focus from oppression (the Latin American reality) to secularization (the European reality).

It denounced the growing poverty, which it correctly identified as systemic. But when it came to solutions, it ignored its own analysis, insisting instead that the problem was secularization, to be resolved by evangelization of the culture and not oppression of the poor calling for a radical change of the social system. Evangelization of the culture has ever since been the slogan of the opponents of Medellin, a slogan the content of which remains ill-defined.

The assault on Medellin was renewed still more vigorously and openly, at times with little regard for either truth or fraternal charity, during the two years leading up to the 1992 CELAM meeting in Santo Domingo. But once again the bishops refused to be steamrolled. There was theological recession, but the principles of Medellin and Puebla were not repudiated. The conference ended in a draw, neither side giving an inch.

So what is the next step? If the unwavering goal of the curia is to reverse Medellin, to get rid of liberation theology and put back in the bottle the genie of the preferential option for the poor, why not try a Synod of Bishops?

Thanks to the decisions made by Pope Paul VI when he created it in partial fulfillment of a petition of the Vatican Council, this body has no will of its own. The pope summons it into existence if and when he wishes. He sets its theme. Its role is limited to advising him on that theme. He can accept or ignore its recommendations. Indeed, not only can he rewrite its recommendations and present the revisions as its work, but he has done so.

In the Synod for America, for which no date has been set, the Latin American voice will be diluted by those of the United States and of Canada. And the American voice will be further diluted by an as yet unknown number of outsiders—Cardinal Schotte has said they can form as much as 49 percent of the delegates—to be named by the pope.

Now come the lineamenta, or working document for the gathering. Bishops are asked to comment as the process moves toward a final draft. Within this context, their purpose is clear. The first thing that leaps from a perusal of the document's 20,000 turgid words, is what Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino said of the conclusions of Santo Domingo: Historical reality is no longer seen as a sign of the times in a theological sense. The See-Judge-Act approach developed by Belgium's Young Christian Workers and integrated into liberation theology has become Judge-See-Act. Theology accordingly comes first, then observation of the world, and finally the application of theology to the world. This means, says Sobrino, "'judging' from God's viewpoint what has not yet been 'seen.' "

The change simply gets rid of liberation theology, a theology that is radically historical because it considers the liberation of the poor and oppressed of the Third World — not just people who happen to be poor, but people who have been made "artificially" poor by unjust structures — as the central problem of our times.

The change also introduces a different Christology, one no longer based on Jesus of Nazareth but on an abstract Christ. The historical Jesus disappears, and we are left with two irreconcilable visions of church:

Everything else follows. We are back in a world in which the "way of salvation" is strictly individual and ahistorical: Receive the word, be converted, believe, be baptized, receive forgiveness of sins and, later, the gift of the Spirit. This is to return to a cosmetically modernized version of the European, pre-Vatican II church, a church stressing authority that is sacral, hierarchical, monarchical and canonical, an authority based on an anthropology that is feudal and opposed to the contemporary world.

The cosmetic modernization takes the form of a "theology of solidarity" to replace the theology of liberation. Webster defines solidarity as "unity that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards." A theology so defined denies the obvious fact of class conflict, insisting on a community of interests and objectives in society.

For the lineamenta, solidarity is "a morally necessary reaction to the existence of injustice in social conditions which many individuals suffer today." Note that injustice has ceased to be a social reality, the "institutionalized injustice" of Medellin. It is a problem affecting individuals, not groups or classes.

We are no longer in the world of Medellin "faced with a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence." What we need, says the document, are dedicated people who run centers of charity and assistance, because the shared task of solidarity provides the laity with "a great potential for generosity."

Solidarity would thus seem to be nothing more than another name for charity. Clearly it is quite different from justice, a word that is operationally absent from the document. Not only absent, but superfluous, because "most of the problems afflicting the various peoples of the continent have their origin in socioeconomic causes, which can be overcome if each person or group—including nations—applies the principle of solidarity." So much for Medellin's clarion call for "global, daring, urgent, and radically renewing change."

It has long been clear that many in the Vatican resent liberation theology as the product of "colonials" who think they are entitled to share in what had long been a European monopoly. But that is not the whole story. In the final analysis, we have here the confrontation of a Christian church with its own evangelical identity.

The challenge of liberation will persist as long as do the conditions of oppression. Shall we deal with it simply as something peripheral, the object of alms, or as a questioning of our raison d'etre as church ?

This is the issue the document does not face. Its authors are struggling with words designed to obscure their real purpose, which is to get rid of that troublesome theology of liberation. How could they evoke in the reader or hearer the emotions of Amos or the emotions of Romero, the emotions of anyone who had heard the cry of the people, the suffering people?

"Guatemalans receive communion from the pope during Mass in the town of Esquipulas in Guatemala last February." - [picture caption]

Gary MacEoin attended and reported on Vatican II and the Latin American bishops conferences at Medellin, Puebla and Santo Domingo. He is currently traveling in China. NCR will soon carry his reports of that trip.