Pope John Paul II in Mexico City in 1979 (CNS photo)

Latin America is currently reenacting the scenario developed at the level of the universal church during the years of preparation for Vatican Council II. The Council of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) will hold its third meeting at Puebla, Mexico, 12-28 October next. Starting more than two years ago, and now building up to a crescendo, supporters of each of two mutually incompatible ecclesiologies are engaged in a struggle for the minds of the bishops, with control of the church in Latin America envisioned as the prize.

The issues are basically the same as those at stake at Vatican II. Should the church continue on its traditional course and in its traditional forms: structurally, a pyramid of power, stressing religious practices, seeing itself as an international institution, the universal instrument of salvation? Or should it continue on the new lines already significantly developed in places (particularly Brazil): horizontal structures developed by grassroots groups with a stress on lay ministries and a concern for ethical practices, especially in the area of politics, and understanding themselves as a community rather than a society, a network of communications, and a sign of universal salvation?

In Latin America, the issue has immediate political implications. To return to the old ways, cosmetically modernized, would be supportive of the status quo economically and politically, favoring the objective interests of the oligarchs and the middle sectors dependent on them. To change would benefit economically and politically the 80 percent of Latin Americans living in extreme poverty in the countryside and the mushrooming city slums.

Many thought that CELAM II (Medellín, Colombia, 1968) had resolved the conflict, as many thought in 1965 that Vatican II has resolved the same problem at the level of the universal church. CELAM II made a positive option in favor of the poor, the voiceless, the oppressed. It identified the oppression as institutionalized violence, the neocolonialism of the national oligarchies, and the external neocolonialism of “the international monopolies and the international imperialism of money.” Such situations, it concluded, call for “global, daring, urgent and basically renewing change,” an unambiguously clear choice for radical transformation.

As with the Council Fathers, however, the concept of basic change was interpreted differently by some on their return home. Others who started serious implementation had second thoughts when they found priests and people wanted to run faster and farther than they judged prudent. Yet others buckled under the pressures of the national oligarchies and their international overlords who recognized that the church envisaged by Medellín was a greater threat than the previous whipping boy, the Communist conspiracy.

In the decade since Medellín, the distortion of the economy of every country but Cuba has escalated. Capital-intensive production techniques mean less work and more hunger in the cities. Expansion of luxury crops (strawberries), non-food crops (orchids), and beef--all for the U.S. market has transferred the best land to the transnational corporations, leaving less and poorer land for beans, corn and rice. To keep wages low and maintain this order without justice has forged a massive expansion of structures of oppression: new techniques of control ranging from brainwashing in the controlled mass media through psychological torture to sophisticated weapons and computerized surveillance.

A further factor is that many clergy continue a long- standing emotional attachment to Christian Democracy as a way to modernize and uplift the people while keeping the reins of power firmly in church hands. The theology of liberation that grew out of Medellín has proved a greater threat to the Christian Democrats as a political force than the Communists ever were. Some of its more extreme expressions have convinced innately conservative churchmen that its triumph would destroy the church as an institution.

Finally, many cannot see how, with the personnel and material resources available, the emotional Catholicism of Latin America rooted in traditional practices and transmitted by social relationships, could be successfully transmuted into an intellectually based, personal commitment to Christ. For them, the only viable solution is a neo-Christendom in which the moral and material support of the state will guarantee a society and culture expressing the Catholic instincts they see as deeply rooted in all Latin Americans.

As before and during Vatican II, the two opposing ecclesiologies have never faced each other in rational dialogue. Now as then, the conservatives hold the principal power structures: and now as then, they prefer to use their ability to manipulate rather than rely on the justice of their cause and the reasonableness of their position. Now as then also, the innovators are on the outside, have little financial support, so they must stress the issues. They do have two important factors in their favor. The level of theological ability on their side is much higher than on the other; and the extraordinary network of “grass-roots” communities in most countries of the hemisphere gives them a power base that may prove decisive in their favor, even if CELAM III can be manipulated to declare that the era of change has ended.

Vatican-watcher Peter Hebblethwaite, former editor of The Month (London), recently analyzed the power structure. Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, has been named a co-president (with Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider of Brazil and Archbishop Corripio Ahumada who was recently promoted from Puebla to Mexico City). Hebblethwaite surmises that Baggio may dominate the troika. His office gives him immense power over all bishops. In addition, he spent twenty years as a Vatican diplomat in six Latin American countries. A typical curialist, he puts the interests of the church as he sees them before those of people; and like almost all Italian bishops he strongly supports the Christian Democrats.

In league with Baggio and equally hostile to the theology of liberation is Bishop Alfonso López Trujillo, auxiliary of Bogotá and Secretary-general of CELAM’s permanent secretariat. Colombia’s bishops are strongly supportive of the country’s corrupt oligarchy. They are solidly reactionary in church matters, the only Latin American hierarchy to openly reject the Medellín call to liberation. López Trujillo shares this attitude fully.

The orchestra leader is Belgian Jesuit Roger Vekemans, who fled Chile in 1970 when he failed to prevent the election of Allende, and found a congenial home in Bogotá to continue his vendetta against the theologians of liberation. He has been publicly identified at various times as a conduit for CIA money, and he also has major financial support from Bishop Franz Hengsbach as head of Adveniat, German church aid agency. A group of major Catholic and Protestant German theologians, headed by Karl Rahner, Johann Baptist Metz, Martin Niemoller and Erns Kasemann, in November 1977 protested the “virulent” campaign against the theology of liberation. They charged that López Trujillo, Vekemans, and Hengsbach were using German church funds for their partisan purposes, causing “the German church again to fall under the grave suspicion of being on the side of the powerful and of overlooking the inhuman behavior of dictators who call themselves Christian.”

One of the more blatant uses of power was the choice of theologians to participate in preparing the materials sent by the CELAM secretariat to the bishops. Ignoring the prominent Latin Americans who had prepared CELAM II and subsequently carried the theology of liberation to all parts of the world, they concentrated on conservative Europeans, such as Paul Dognin, a consultor to the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, and Georges Cottier, a consultor to the Secretariat for Non-Believers. The Vekemans Center in Bogotá sent to all Latin American bishops complimentary copies of Dognin’s Introduction to Karl Marx and Cottier’s Hopes in Conflict: Christianity and Marxism. Dedicated to the thesis that Christianity and Marxism are totally irreconcilable, these books call all Latin Americans to join the struggle against atheistic Communism. One of them acknowledges a subvention from the De Rance Foundation (Milwaukee), and the Ecumenical Council of Costa Rica has said that both books were “a generous gift” from the United States.

The 214-page Preliminary Document (PD), the official working paper of the secretariat distributed some months ago to the bishops, was prepared in strict secrecy, without input from any of the major Latin American theologians. Its contents and its omissions alike indicate the hands of the already mentioned European theologians. After a rambling and often self-contradictory overview of religion in Latin America today, throwing in references to all kinds of moods and movements to ensure completeness, it opts firmly for what it variously describes as a new Christian culture, a new Christian civilization, a new society, a new order. While sedulously avoiding the term, it urges a neo-Christendom.

Even more remarkable is the way it proposes to achieve this new Christendom. Latin America, it correctly notes, is moving from a pastoral to an urban-industrial society. All such societies today are based on one of two models: totalitarian collectivism or economic capitalism, both secularitsic and atheist in their philosophical underpinnings. It is for the church to find a third way. This, it urges, requires the Christian religiosity of the people to be safeguarded during the transition so that the new society will be defined by its Christian religion.

The scenario, in part spelled out, in part assumed, presents the evolution as continuing along its present lines. Instead of following Medellín in its challenge to internal and external neocolonialism, it looks to “a new civilization of love animated by the church” to achieve a unity of goals and motivations among all Latin Americans, the exploiters and the exploited, that will resolve the social, economic and political problems.

Not only in Latin America but in all parts of the world anguished cries of protest are growing in number and stridency. The basic criticism is that this purely idealist approach runs counter to all historical experience. More concretely, it is easy to define what will happen if the fox and the chickens have equality of opportunity in the chicken coop. What is presented as “a third way” is in reality a defense of the status quo repudiated by Medellín, this in spite of the fact that the gap between rich and poor in Latin America has grown significantly since Medellín, and the objective misery of the poor has intensified in almost all countries.

In addition, if by a miracle the approach worked, all it would mean for the poor and powerless would be a change of masters, paternalistic masters perhaps but still masters. Liberation is not a gift from others. The slave must liberate himself.

Those who would want CELAM Ill to start from and go beyond Medellín are opting for one of three overlapping approaches. Many of them are making detailed critiques of the PD to alert the bishops to its underlying ideology. Outstanding critiques include Pablo Richard (of the Lebret Center, Paris) in Foi et Développement; CRIE (Regional Center of Ecumenical Information) in Christus (Mexico City); a team of Peruvian theologians in Latinamerica Press (Lima); Fernando Danel Janet Of Mexico, J.B. Libânio of Brazil, and others in an upcoming Vol. 28, No. 1 issue of Cross Currents.

Others led by Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay are concentrating on having the PD simply rejected, as Vatican II dealt with the curial schemata presented to it. In two weeks, they say, a document of this extent and internal confusion could not possibly be reformulated. Instead, they would offer a few brief statements supportive of and supplementary to Medellín.

Clodovis Boff of Brazil approves of all efforts to get from the meeting something better than the PD, but he introduces another consideration. The conditioning of many of the bishops encourages them to opt for the “easy” solution offered by the document. But even if they do, it is not too important. Secularization is an irreversible historic fact. The dream of a neo-Christendom is naive. The church has already lost its monopoly of influence not only in the ideological but even in the religious sphere. What is now important is the steadily growing “diaspora” church, the church of the grassroots communities. So no matter what the bishops may decide at Puebla, the march of events will not be significantly affected.

Thanks to all the conflicting advance input, it is likely that the bishops will come to Puebla with a broad range of attitudes. It may well be that they will find it impossible to reach a consensus on anything like the PD. In that case, one can safely prophesy that there will be several of the pro-Medellín theologians within reach with alternative documents that will reflect less than they want but will at least save Medellín and hopefully take some steps beyond it.


Gary MacEoin is the author of numerous books, most recently The People's Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz and Why He Matters (Crossroad ).

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