Brazilian bishops protest changes to CELAM text on base communities

New York

Some Brazilian bishops are charging that behind-closed-doors revisions to the final document from last May’s General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) have softened its support for base communities, a pastoral approach associated with liberation theology, according to reports in the Brazilian media.

The Brazilian newspaper Estado broke the story last week, reporting variations between the text approved by the Latin American bishops at the close of their May 13-31 assembly in Aparecida, Brazil, and the version sent to Pope Benedict XVI for his approval in mid-June. Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz of Chile, the president of CELAM, later acknowledged that changes were made by himself and the body’s secretary general, Argentinean bishop Andrés Stanovnik.

At least in Brazil, some bishops are crying foul.

“We consider the alteration of the text to be disrespectful to the participants of the Aparecida conference,” said Bishop Pedro Luiz Stringhini, president of the Brazilian conference’s Pastoral Commission for the Service of Charity, Justice, and Peace. According to the Estado report, several bishops said they intended to raise the issue at an upcoming meeting of the executive body of the Brazilian bishops’ conference.

Other observers argue, however, that the changes are largely cosmetic, and that the overall positive treatment of base communities remains intact.

“There is no backpedalling,” said Monsignor Carlos Quintana Puente, a former CELAM official and currently the executive director of the Secretariat for the Church in Latin America for the U.S. bishops. Quintana spoke to NCR August 21.

The term “base community” refers to small groups of believers in various parts of Latin America who come together for Bible study, faith formation, and reflection on social and political topics. They became controversial in the 1970s and 1980s because of their link with liberation theology, a movement which sought to place the Catholic church on the side of the poor in struggles for social change. Critics accused liberation theology of over-reliance on Marxist analysis and politicizing the faith. Famed liberation theologian Leonardo Boff saw base communities as the model of a "church from below," as distinct from the hierarchy.

The positive treatment given to the base communities in Aparecida was therefore considered a victory for a moderate form of liberation theology, suggesting that after decades of debate it had stood the test of time.

According to side-by-side comparisons provided by Estado, however, some language endorsing the base communities in the final document was deleted before it was approved by the pope, including this passage: “We want to decisively reaffirm and to give a new impulse to the life, prophetic mission and holiness of the base ecclesial communities and their discipleship of Jesus. They are one of the great manifestations of the Spirit in the Church of Latin America and the Caribbean after the Second Vatican Council.”

Additions to the text include:

•tA reference to base communities as a positive experience in Latin America and the Caribbean has been changed to read “for some churches” in Latin America and the Caribbean;
•tCautionary language about base communities from the Puebla meeting of the Latin American bishops in 1979 was added, warning against “members of communities or whole communities which, attracted by entirely secular institutions or radicalized ideologically, were losing the ecclesial sense”;
•tA positive reference to “parochial groups, associations and ecclesial movements” in addition to base communities was inserted;
•tBase communities are warned “to take care not to alter the precious treasure of the Tradition and of the Teaching of the Church.”

While some Brazilian bishops are inclined to protest, according to Estado, others believe that Aparecida was less important for precise verbal formulae than for its overall positive spirit.

“The interference with CELAM was a mistake that should not have occurred, but I think that Aparecida is more important for its context, and that’s why we have to assimilate the blow in order to not lose the positive climate that the conference brought,” said Bishop Luiz Demétrio Valentini of the Jales diocese in Brazil.

In his August 17 comments to the media, Errázuriz described the revisions as “minimal” and said “they don’t have the importance that’s being attributed to them.”

In support of that point, Quintana noted that the prelate largely responsible for the positive language about the base communities in Aparecida, Auxiliary Bishop Alfredo Gualberti Calandrina of the Santa Cruz de la Sierra archdiocese in Bolivia, was recently elected to head the CELAM commission responsible for working with base communities.

“That means there’s no change in the line of CELAM,” Quintana said.

The May 13-31 assembly in Aparecida was formally opened by Pope Benedict XVI. It brought together almost 270 participants over 19 days, and ended with the approval of the final document, intended as a pastoral blueprint for Catholicism in the region. Unlike a Synod of Bishops in Rome, the pope does not issue the final document from the assembly in his own name. Instead, he approves the text, but it remains a document of the Latin American bishops.

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