Catholics in Latin America

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CNS Photo/Felipe Caicedo, Reuters

The Catholic faith of Latin America is one of the great trump cards of the Church, at least in theory. A good third of all Catholic Christians of this globe live between the Rio Grande and Fireland. If we include the Latin West Indies, this amounts to about 185 million people.

It would be totally wrong to think of all these people as practicing Catholics, but it is equally foolish to make the more familiar error of writing them off as Christians, of regarding them as unconverted heathens or neo-Pagans. Many of them do not know the catechism, have no clear concept of a Christian way of life, and are unable to rid themselves of the superstitions of their ancestors. Still, there is one mental shortcut one ought not to indulge in, i.e., to equate brutally such diverse aspects of religious life as obedience to ecclesiastical laws, faith, piety, sacramental life, and religious-moral thought and action. These are rather different matters which occasionally can achieve a harmonious synthesis in a single person but never in entire nations.

With these distinctions clearly in mind, there is still no doubt that the Church in Latin America is in a very critical situation. The reasons for this malady, however, are not everywhere the same. To simplify our analysis, we will divide Latin America into three zones: the racially mixed Hispanic America from Mexico down to Paraguay; “white” Hispanic America (Chile, Argentina, Uruguay); and Brazil, with its Luso-African elements a world all its own. Admittedly this is gross simplification because even the individual nations of each group show an enormous variety. Costa Rica, for instance, is far more different from either Nicaragua or Panama (its two neighbors) than Oregon is from Florida.

To all this must be added a painful element of division: the violent nationalism of Latin America expressed in deep-seated mutual animosities. The altars almost everywhere are decorated with the national colors. In Cuzco’s Jesuit church, for example, one can admire a statue of St. Isidore as President of Peru—with boots, sombrero, tails and red-white-red ribbon across the boiled shirt.

THERE IS, however, one grave problem common to all Latin America: the lack of priests. According to newer statistics there is need for 140,000 additional priests. The reason for this sad state of affairs is simple: the scarcity of vocations and the large number of apostasies. The main cause for the inadequate number of vocations is the dreadful material misery of a large part of the secular clergy, its minute social prestige, and, above all, celibacy, which, we must bear in mind, implies a fourfold sacrifice. It is precisely the renunciation of legitimate progeny, the “survival of Earth” through generations, which, in family-conscious Latin America, prompts the parents so frequently to oppose and undermine budding vocations. And if we talk about misery, we do not mean poverty. The religious societies live in poverty which pleases God. Misery does not. If the hungry, shabbily clothed, perhaps even freezing priest asks for little donations for the Sacraments, he is quickly denounced by the people as sacerdote metalico, a “money-hungry priest.”

The local secular clergy is being supplemented by the much “richer” religious orders and by an even larger additional number of North American and European priests, the latter mostly concentrated in the larger towns and cities since they have to live in community. One might wish that some of the non- contemplative orders could be used for parish work, but the grave emergency would hardly be remedied. However, it would be delightful if monastery and convent churches further south would be kept open during the afternoon; not only the wicked tourists, but even the more pious faithful could profit by such liberality. (In Northern Brazil, outside of services the churches are always hermetically sealed, all "sight- seeing” being done at the expense of the concentration of the faithful at prayer.)

It must be stated in all candor, that the native clergy is not always enthusiastic about their foreign helpmates who enjoy material aid from their home countries. For they can lead a middle class existence and engage in works of charity, as the desperately poor native priests cannot. They also introduce man- ners, fashions and institutions which are criticized—occasionally with good reason. (The less essential the change, the more energetic and desperate the protest. The rejection of the cassock by American, German or Dutch priests has frequently resulted in minor explosions. One native bishop was aghast at the temerity of American missionaries who invited the young to dance in the parish hall.) What this can mean in the countries of South America becomes clear when we note that Peru, with a population of over ten million, has eight hundred foreign priests and only seven hundred native priests.

The most popular foreign priests are the German and the few French missionaries. The Spaniards are generally considered to be too stern and severe. They labor under a historic animosity (artificially) fostered by history instruction. The Spanish missionaries are practically expected to act as descendants of cruel Francisco Pizarro and they, in turn, “expect” to come to a basically Spanish country. They are at once too much like and too different from the Latin Americans. Yet thanks to their discipline, their numbers and their dedication, they are also absolutely indispensable. The American “missionary” is more practical and given to direct action; even if he does not forget his Baltimore Catechism, he frequently enjoys great popularity.

In Guatemala City, for example, the American Franciscans occupy a real position in the community. The parish of the Maryknoll Fathers in Linse, a suburb of Lima, has established a school and modern church, and they have a credit union with its center in Puno.

THE CRISIS of the Church in these “mixed” nations, however, is not at all a sign of decadence, but rather a “childhood disease” (which, it is true, can also be fatal). Latin America’s independence was not sufficiently prepared for. As long as New Spain and New Granada were ruled by Madrid (or Seville), the Indian and the Cholo (Mestizo) were somewhat protected, and the Church, at least externally, was kept in good working order. But too little was done to prepare them for their entry into the modern world. Since the Wars of Independence, Hispanic America has been unable to regain its religious, political or social balance, nor has it achieved an organic, internal growth as the United States did. The tourist in North America usually admires achievements of the present time pointing to the future while the traveler in the Mixed Hispanic regions is fascinated by the mute witnesses of a great past...

In the Mixed Zone, however, not only are priests lacking but so too is regular religious education. Thus the Constitution of Guatemala provides for religious instruction in public schools, but there are neither sufficient priests nor trained laymen to take advantage of this opportunity. On the other hand, nobody can deny the simple and natural, if sometimes pagan, piety of the masses. I have seen a pilgrimage of 150,000 workers in Guadalupe, Mexico, and Indians in their plumed costumes dancing in honor of God’s Mother. I have listened, deeply moved, to Cholos spontaneously making music before an altar in Cuzco Cathedral. Nowhere in Europe or in the United States does one see a similar effortless and natural religious enthusiasm.

In order to come to a true understanding of the “mixed Northwest” one must realize that these countries were Christianized only four hundred fifty years ago. With the exception of a small, white upper class (which is larger in Costa Rica but hardly perceptible in Ecuador or Bolivia), we see that Christianity made a profound appeal to the masses, but that it has not yet permeated and fashioned their flesh, their bones and their blood.

In noting this fact it is salutary to remind ourselves of Europe’s early Middle Ages, when the concubinage of the secular priests, theological ignorance, the worship of spurious local saints, and the ineradicable fear of sorcery and evil spirits flourished, as it now does in large parts of Latin America. We also have to ask ourselves in all candor how long pagan usages have kept their vigor until—as in some European regions—they become harmless customs, mere items of folklore.

IN THE Andean region, concubinage is such a regular phenomenon that priests who maintain celibacy (unless they are “crazy foreigners”) invite diverse suspicions. Yet these irregularities are not quite so monstrous if we investigate them more closely. A young priest just out of the seminary is exiled to a village in the Andes, many days on mule-back from the next bus station. There he has no friends, no social life, nobody with whom he can converse as an equal; there is no rapport between him and a population just emerging from a relatively primitive period. The temptation he faces is not purely sexual; it stems, rather, from the profoundly human need to overcome loneliness, to have companionship. The regulars have their community life, but he...?

All this does not mean that the “North-West” is without a ray of hope. It is true that most of the church interiors in Central America have ten statues of Our Lady for one representing Christ (always a suffering Christ, usually collapsing under the weight of the Cross), while God the Father or the Holy Ghost are conspicuous by their total absence. To judge by externals, “Marianism” would seem to be replacing the Trinitarian Faith.

Yet there are also more encouraging sights and aspects: good, highly modern churches in Mexico, Catholic universities, even well-organized Catholic Action. Mexico, which has produced so many martyrs, is the leading Catholic country of Latin America. Here the clergy is genuinely beloved by the people, which is quite an experience for the immigrant Spanish priests. In Colombia too, the Church is active and lively. Bogota is the seat of C.E.L.A.M., the Latin American Bishops-Conference and, therefore, a center of activity. It has a good Jesuit university, sponsors ecumenical discussions, and has an enterprise grown famous under the name of the little village of Sutatenza.

Monsignor Salcedo, former pastor of the village, conceived the idea of missionizing the illiterates of Colombia with the aid of the radio. Today Sutatenza runs an entire radio network, trains teachers and village-instructors who are directed by the radio how to instruct the peasants.

THE THREE southern Hispanic-American nations—Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—are faced by a wholesale transposition of European populations: the share of Indian blood is hardly worth mentioning. Here we find no analogies to the early Middle Ages, but to the fin de siecle. The time-lag is not one of a thousand, but of fifty years. Yet even this analogy is not quite correct because certain contemporary currents, especially from Paris, actually succeed in crossing the South Atlantic. But studying the slogans painted on the National University of Buenos Aires one becomes painfully aware of the fact that in the secular mind of Argentina Emile Combes is still the last cry. There are flaming appeals against Catholic schools, warnings against individual professors and proclamations that "Science rests on truth not dogmas!” This kind of thing can be found also in the Andine region; only recently a Catholic professor was relegated from Cuzco University because, with his views, he “disturbed the harmony of the faculty!”

In Uruguay, just as in Ecuador or Bolivia, there is total separation of Church and State, and there the Church is as hemmed in, dormant and handicapped as everywhere else in the South.

In Santiago de Chile, for instance, about thirteen percent of the women and seven percent of the men go to Mass on Sunday. This, of course, does not allow us to make final judgments on their general piety. In most parts of South America, a regular Catholic education exists, by and large, only for the middle and upper classes; only they are financially able to send their children to private schools of a distinctly Catholic character, thus giving rise to the notion that the Catholic faith is linked to wealth, and, on the other end of the scale, to illiteracy. Yet, real efforts are being made to overcome this dangerous equation.

The vigor of the Faith in the South is present only in narrowly circumscribed groups and circles; here the overly zealous person (beato) is common and he acts as a deterrent on others. All this does not eliminate the fact that there exists a minority of Catholic men and women with an excellent family life and intellectual as well as spiritual aspirations. But here too we find the phenomenon of intimate ties between the parishes and the ladies of the upper social class. It is largely because of their financial contributions to the various domains of parish work that the worst is usually prevented. This, needless to say, is not an ideal situation, for it fosters not only the old Latin suspicion that the Church is primarily for women, but the equally strong feeling that the Church never will or can oppose the rich.

IS THERE, perhaps, in Latin America, a special problem of “Social Justice”? I would answer this differently than have a number of observers and critics, including some native bishops. Certainly, the very marked differences in wealth, the abysmal poverty existing next to tremendous riches, has harmful moral and political effects. Yet the poverty of most of Latin America is not due simply to an “unequal distribution” of wealth.

One can calculate what the results of a radical egalitarian redistribution of wealth would be. In nations with a sudden and steep social pyramid such social engineering would produce, it is true, a sudden decrease of individual envy and jealousy, but by no means an end of poverty. Why? Because only a few additional centavos would be the share of every individual Colombian as a daily increment.

What is indispensable to Latin America is an ethos of work and saving. The work-mania of modern man, fostered by the introduction of “labor-saving devices,” curiously enough, has not yet reached South America, where prehistoric and medieval weariness toward hard toil is dangerously mixed with a desperate thirst for modern luxuries and comforts.

In Southern South America the grande bourgeoisie still has a hankering after the old-fashioned liberalism, which saw in the Church an obstacle to “progress,” but Peronism taught them a lesson. (The Peronist danger, owing to its extraordinarily demagogic subterranean propaganda, is by no means eliminated.) Thus the old liberals cease to see irreconcilable opposites in Church and freedom. One has only to compare the tenor of the liberal Argentine press today with what it was in the days before Peron. Yet while the clergy of Argentina is heavily Italianized, that of Chile is more international. In Santiago there is actually a very good Catholic university with professors from all over the world, whereas the Catholic universities of Argentina, now only in the early stage of organization and afraid of nationalist criticism, try to restrict themselves to purely Argentine faculties.

THE BRAZILIAN sub-continent is so different from the rest of Latin America that it should be dealt with separately. It is probably the most hopeful part of South America and at the same time the most irrational. Nowhere do we find a greater joie de vivre, a greater sense of human brotherhood, less of social or racial prejudices. At the same time one encounters the most contradictory traits. It sometimes seems as if the twentieth century, the Victorian period and the Neanderthal period had gotten mixed together.

The crisis of the Church in Latin America is not of yesterday. For the Church universal the Latin American branch is like a check with many figures which, unfortunately, cannot be cashed in. The people of Latin America have, almost everywhere, a tremendous readiness for the Faith, even if its forms and its spirit do not coincide with those of the Summa.

For the countless shortcomings “down there” we too readily blame the native clergy, the arrogant foreigners, egoistic American firms, the lack of “social justice,” dancing the Samba or the fading memory of the Inquisition. (The Inquisition once also was most active in Belgium and that country still has a flourishing Catholic spiritual and intellectual life.) But we should look for the real culprits in those much higher quarters which have known about the situation in Latin America for decades and have done nothing.

They did not know what to do because they were and probably still are, convinced that the worldwide Mystical Body has to be treated according to one specific formula and has to conform to one single pattern. Yet unity (and uniformity) should be enforced only in necessary things. He who wilfully and methodically ignores the manifoldness, the individuality and the wealth of expression so characteristic of the human race, challenges fate itself, and is asking for trouble. The lament of St. Augustine will then be a fit epitaph to his tragedy: Acceperunt mercedem suam, vani vanam.

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