It is very difficult to communicate to senior churchmen through the medium of ideas alone what is really happening in the Latin American church, Father Leonardo Boff told me in Rio de Janeiro recently. “They must come and experience it for themselves,” he said.

Three European cardinals did just that this summer. The cardinals and their particular destinations were highly significant, showing that they came for more than the pleasant climate.

The two countries visited, Brazil and Peru, have been at the center of Vatican moves on liberation theology in recent years. The person at the center of those moves, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, visited Peru as the guest of its bishops’ conference for a week in late July. It was a set of negative “observations” on the theology of Lima priest Gustavo Gutiérrez sent by Cardinal Ratzinger to the Peruvian bishops’ conference in early 1983 which opened the recent series of Vatican moves on liberation theology.

Brazil, which later came center stage in the liberation theology controversy with the summoning of Father Leonardo Boff to Rome in September 1984 and his subsequent silencing for almost a year, was the destination of Utrecht’s Cardinal Adrian Simonis and Cardinal Jerome Hamer, prefect of the Congregation of Religious. Under Cardinal Hamer’s direct scrutiny come the many religious who are at the forefront of liberation theology and the pastoral practice derived from it. Both have caused deep tensions between the Brazilian church and Rome in recent years. Cardinal Simonis’s appointment as Dutch primate, it will be remembered, was widely regarded as a move to bring the rebel Dutch church into line.

In themselves, these visits could be seen as an indication of the Vatican’s now apparent new openness toward liberation theology, expressed in last March’s second Instruction on the subject and most especially in the pope’s warm letter to the Brazilian bishops’ conference in April. The March instruction was widely welcomed by Latin American liberation theologians as indicating a far more positive tone than the first instruction of August 1984. Still, as Leonardo Boff told me, “it did not capture the deepest intuition of liberation theology” and was written more from a European point of view.

Pope John Paul’s letter, written following a March meeting with the leadership of the Brazilian bishops’ conference, is seen in an entirely different light. For Boff, it takes “a step beyond Ratzinger... It was very prophetic, very pastoral, and a great support. It says something you come across nowhere else, that liberation theology is not only useful and opportune but also necessary.... The pope gives a kind of mandate to the Brazilian church to create the conditions for elaborating an effective theology against injustice, not only for Brazil, but for all the Latin American sub-continent, and for other countries in similar (socio-economic) situations.”

The impact of the pope’s letter on the Brazilian church can only be fully appreciated when it is realized that many bishops there held genuine fears that their conference was going to be intervened by Rome, its elected leadership deposed, and a more conservative leadership put in its place. Bishop Mauro Morelli of the diocese of Duque de Caxias and Sao Joao de Meriti on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro explained to me that for some years “a small group of Brazilian bishops in partnership with a group in Rome have been trying to change the course of the church in Brazil. There have been so many letters to Rome, so many denunciations against many of us. It’s all part of a long process, trying to keep the relationship with Rome tense and have the Holy See intervene here.”

“Boff’s punishment has, for me, to be placed within this long fight between those who believe the faith is in danger, the church is running away from its spiritual mission and will be destroyed, and those of us who believe that faith is more alive today, love for the church is stronger, and participation is greater than ever before.” For Bishop Morelli, the pope’s letter “opened a new moment. I think that the more conservative were defeated, at least for the moment. Those of us who are more open and, though I don’t like to use the word, more progressive, are gaining control of the situation, especially in terms of our relationship to Rome.”

The visits of Cardinals Hamer and Simonis, therefore, which just a few months previous would have been seen by progressives in an ominous light, were regarded as opportunities to further introduce key European churchmen to the reality of church life in Latin America. As if to confirm the existence of a new mood in Rome, Cardinal Hamer brought with him a letter from the pope to Brazil’s conference of religious, repeating the warm tone of the previous papal letter to the bishops’ conference. Furthermore, Cardinal Hamer was the guest of the controversial president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Ivo Lorscheiter, whose diocese of Santa Maria in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul he visited. Both are close personal friends since they were students together in Rome.

Cardinal Simonis was hosted by a Brazilian family who had promised “to introduce him to both sides” From what Bishop Morelli and Father Boff told me, both of whom had long conversations with the Dutch cardinal, the highlight of the visit for him was attendance at the sixth national meeting of base Christian communities. Leonardo Boff, who attended the same meeting, said that Cardinal Simonis wept with joy to see poor Christians sharing their faith so openly in the presence of over fifty bishops. “He said he understood now that liberation theology springs from faith and the terrible suffering that Brazilian people are going through,” Bishop Morelli said.

The desperate poverty of Peru seems to have had a similar impact on Cardinal Ratzinger. He visited the huge shanty town of Villa El Salvador on the outskirts of Lima where the pope had had a highly emotional meeting with an estimated two million slumdwellers during his Peruvian visit in February 1985. The cardinal got an opportunity the pope never had. He walked the sandy, unpaved streets among the people’s simple homes made from reed matting.

Again I have it from an eyewitness that Ratzinger, too, shed tears when he was taken to visit a poor woman in her hut who, despite having cancer and having lost her husband in a road accident recently, still leads a group of family catechists who come to gather around her bed once a week. The cardinal also met with the sixty members of the shantytown’s pastoral team during which some members spoke openly of their attempts to build “a church of the poor.” One U.S. missionary priest told the cardinal that he had come “as do so many U.S., Irish, or German missionaries” thinking he had so much to tell the people, only to find that the people evangelized him. (The reference to the cardinal’s German nationality was not lost on those present.)

A letter from the pope brought by Cardinal Ratzinger expressed hope for “a continuation of the fraternal ecclesial dialogue begun during recent ad limina visits in order to analyze and deepen together certain themes of common interest.” The one such theme mentioned by name was liberation theology. The tone of the letter appears a marked change from the pressure on the Peruvian bishops’ conference throughout 1983 and 1984 to reach agreement on a statement on liberation theology which was finally issued only when all Peru’s bishops were summoned to Rome in October 1984. A second papal letter in July strongly commended the stance taken by the Peruvian bishops after the June 19 massacre of some 250 prisoners by troops in Lima.

Perhaps more significant than the two lengthy and highly theoretical public talks given by Cardinal Ratzinger in Lima (one on the ecclesiology of Vatican II and the other on the second Vatican Instruction on liberation theology), was his statement that there are now no processes pending in his congregation against liberation theologians. The prestigious Lima bi-monthly Que Hacer, which is close to progressive church sectors, summed up the visit by saying:

Those who wished to “open Ratzinger’s eyes,” those church sectors which surrounded him all the time (much to the annoyance of some), are undoubtedly feeling let down at having their constant nostalgia for condemnations unfulfilled. It seems obvious that the German cardinal was infinitely more shrewd than they in seeing the true problems of the country and the Peruvian church. It seems then, that the pretended “orthodoxy” of these sectors is much closer to the pre-conciliar and conservative Lefevbre than to the ecclesial and theological outlook of the cardinal prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Behind these words can be sensed the sigh of relief felt that Cardinal Ratzinger said or did nothing during his visit that could be taken as lending support to the militantly conservative wing of the Peruvian church. Unlike the situation in Brazil, where liberation theologians can count on the support of their bishops’ conference, Peru’s bishops are deeply divided on the subject.

On the eve of the Ratzinger visit, Father Gustavo Gutiérrez published his first book directly commenting on the liberation theology debate, La verdad los hara libres (The Truth Will Make You Free). Significantly his two previous books—Hablar de Dios desde el sufrimiento del inocente (Speaking of God from the Suffering of the Innocent) and Drink from Your Own Wells—dealt with spiritual themes.

As Bishop Morelli put it, the big question now is how much the pope’s more favorable words on liberation theology will be translated into practice. Already theologians are chaffing at Cardinal Ratzinger’s blocking of a major compendium of theology in fifty-four volumes being produced by over 100 liberation theologians with the support of 115 bishops.

The first three volumes have appeared and a further five are ready for publication. But Cardinal Ratzinger has blocked their release until he is given “supplementary guarantees of orthodoxy,” says Leonardo Boff. At the moment the situation is at an impasse with the Vatican demanding that the conservative Latin American bishops’ conference (CELAM) be allowed to appoint three bishops to join three bishops named by the Brazilian bishops’ conference and one named by the Vatican to overview the collection’s publication.

Whatever the outcome of disputes like this, it does seem clear that a new era has opened for liberation theology. Though heartily disagreeing with my compatriot, Conor Cruise O’Brien, who argued in the August 1986 issue of The Atlantic Monthly that the pope has effectively been defeated in his attempt to stamp out Latin America’s new faith in the “Dios de los pobres” and has instead decided to join what he could not defeat, there does seem to be a new sympathy, at least in certain sectors of the Vatican, for this theology and the new model of church emerging under its inspiration. While the controversy is far from over, it can reasonably be hoped that it has become a dialogue between two positions that basically understand one another, rather than a full-scale Vatican offensive on something more feared than understood.


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