CELAM update: 'Option for the Poor' alive and well in Latin America

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Rumors of the death of the “option for the poor” in Latin American Catholicism have, it appears, been greatly exaggerated.

With ten days left to go, the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin American and the Caribbean (CELAM), meeting in Aparecida, Brazil, has clearly identified several major challenges facing the Catholic Church in the region: poverty, a severe priest shortage, Catholic losses to Pentecostalism and to secularism, and a new political climate sometimes hostile to the church. Growing economic inequalities on the "continent of hope" have loomed especially large.

What seems less clear, at least so far, is what to do about it. Several bishops have said that current pastoral models are “exhausted,” and that the structures of the church must be “transformed.” While there’s general agreement that evangelization, or spreading the faith, must be a priority, what exactly that would look like, and who will do it, is still to be fleshed out.

After three weeks, the CELAM gathering has heard dozens of speeches from bishops, priests and religious, as well as various observers, and then spent time in 15 small working group sessions discussing the issues raised. This week, the bishops will be working on their final report, expected to be presented when the conference closes May 31. That report is designed to elaborate a pastoral strategy for Catholicism in Latin America, home to half the world’s Catholic population, for the next decade.

Like a Synod of Bishops in Rome, the CLEAM conference is sometimes less interesting for its final conclusions, which are often fairly cautious and predictable, than for the “markers” laid down during the open discussion in the meeting’s initial phases.

Though no one has explicitly used the phrase “liberation theology,” several of the bishops have strenuously defended the “preferential option for the poor,” the signature concept of the liberation theology movement, citing Pope Benedict XVI’s affirmation in his May 13 address to CELAM that this option is implied in the church’s faith in Christ “who became poor for us.”

Bishop Gonzalo Duarte García de Cortázar of Valparaíso, Chile, warned of “many signs of despair and even anger” in Latin America related to “the neo-liberal economic model” that “favors the rich minorities at the expense of the impoverished majorities.” Duarte urged a “brave examination of conscience,” to ensure that the church heeds “the cries of the poor.”

Archbishop Héctor Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo, Peru, told the CELAM meeting that “the poor need our solidarity, and our help in their daily problems.” Cabrejos recalled Pope John Paul II’s cry when he visited the Villa El Salvador, a settlement for impoverished Peruvians, in 1985: “Hunger for God yes, hunger for bread no.”

Cabrejos, a Franciscan, cited poverty, inequality and violence as among “the most urgent challenges” facing Latin America.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, highlighted the region’s “scandalous inequality, which damages both personal dignity and social justice.” Bergoglio, a Jesuit, said that in Argentina from 2002 to 2006, poverty grew by 8.7 percent, now leaving 26.9 percent of Argentines below the poverty line.

“We live, apparently, in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least,” Bergoglio said. “The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers.”

Bergoglio’s comments are considered significant, given that he was, in effect, the runner-up to Pope Benedict XVI in the papal election of April 2005, and is considered part of the more conservative wing of the Latin American church.

Bishop Alvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri of San Marcos, Guatemala, told the CELAM assembly that his country is among the top ten in the world in terms of income inequality, and has the fifth highest rate of chronic malnutrition among children aged 1 to 5. Ramazzini referred to Guatemala’s 30-year civil war, which left more than 200,000 dead or disappeared. That experience, he said, helped shape a culture of violence in Guatemala which endures. Between 2001 and 2005, he said, there have been 23,450 murders in the country “with total impunity.”

Ramazzini said that Central America is the “victim” of a form of globalization “in which the distance between rich and poor grows, the fruit of idolatry of pleasure and of money.” He said this process especially disadvantages the indigenous peoples of the continent.

“Our pastoral commitment is in contributing to a just order in society, collaborating in the creation of just structures,” Ramazzini said.

Bishop José Francisco Ulloa Rojas of Cartago, Costa Rica, said that 20 percent of the people of his country live in poverty, and 5.5 percent in extreme poverty. Ulloa also said that violence is spreading, linked to the drug trade.

Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga of Tunja, Colombia, also struck a social note.

“The Latin American continent continues to grow economically, but this growth has not been translated into fair, integral, and inclusive development,” Castro said. “Therefore, it is indispensable that we reaffirm our option for the poor.”

Yet, Castro, said, “this option does not suffice. We should also opt for the evangelization of the political world, of the business world, and of the world of capital, so that an ethical sense of solidarity with those in need penetrates these worlds.”

None of this is to suggest, however, that the cautions associated with the old battles over liberation theology have been forgotten in Aparecida.

Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle of El Salvador, a member of Opus Dei, told the assembly that the top priority of the church must be “personal holiness,” and that the social engagement of the church must not succumb to a mentality of “class warfare.”

Sáenz cited his predecessor, Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero of the liberation theology movement: “We do not just cry for changes in structures, because new structures accomplish nothing if there are not new men and women to manage and live those structures.”

Observers at CELAM believe it’s likely the final statement will contain strong language on the preferential option for the poor, in part because of the composition of the editorial committee. The group is chaired by Bergoglio, and its other members are: Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Madariaga, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa; Archbishop Carlos Aguiar Rietes, President of the Mexican Bishops’ Conference; Cardinal Claúdio Hummes of Brazil, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy; Archbishop Ricardo Ezzati of Concepción, Chile; Bishop Julio Edgar Cabrera of Jalapa, Guatemala; Bishop Mario Moronta of San Cristóbal, Venezuela; and Bishop Ricardo Tobón of Sonsón-Río Negro, Colombia.

Several bishops have referred to the toll taken on the Catholic church both by Pentecostal and Evangelical “sects,” as well as by a growing secularization and privatization of religion, associated by many with the spread of economic liberalization under the aegis of globalization.

Archbishop Roberto Octavio González Nieves of San Juan de Puerto Rico was the most explicit in making this link, suggesting that the American colonization of his nation – despite generous economic aid and the promotion of democracy – nevertheless involved a “collision” between a Catholic culture, “and one of Protestant origin with a strongly anti-Catholic spirit.”

The spread of American-style economic and social models, González said, has meant “the need to destroy the Catholic mentality of the Puerto Rican nation.” González said this is the same challenge that confronts Hispanic immigrant communities in the United States itself.

González said that a media-driven evolution in social values, including the redefinition of marriage and family, is one fruit of this assault on the traditional Catholic cultures of Latin America.

However they analyze its causes, several bishops joined González in identifying the secularism and the collapse of traditional social values as a worrying trend.

“Post-modern, globalized individualism favors a lifestyle that debilitates development and the stability of the bonds between people who form communities,” Bergoglio said. “We see this in conflicts in the family, in the breaking down of ties in the nation and the disintegration of the continent.” Bergoglio warned of a progressive erosion of identification with Catholicism, a failure to transmit the faith to new generations, and an “exodus” of Catholics to other communities.

Archbishop Ubaldo Ramón Santana Sequera of Maracaibo, Venezuela, flagged “the dictatorship of postmodern moral relativism” as a growing worry for Latin American pastors, which he too linked to the spread of “globalized neo-liberalism.”

At the level of new pastoral energies, several bishops called for a stronger commitment to reach out to sectors of the Latin American population sometimes neglected by the Catholic Church.

Bishop Carlos Aguiar Retes of Texcoco, Mexico, president of the Mexican bishops’ conference, said that the church must not attend merely to those Catholics who knock on its doors, but must reach out to those who are distant, especially in the new peripheries of Latin America’s sprawling urban centers, as well as rural and isolated populations.

Several bishops called for a renewed attention to the Word of God, calling for enhanced Bible study and the use of lectio divina, a form of prayer and devotion centered on meditation on scripture. The bishops argued that Protestant movements have exploited the “vacuum” of Biblical knowledge and appreciation sometimes left by faulty Catholic formation.

“The sects and the fundamentalist Protestants are gaining followers among Catholics who have little Biblical formation,” Sáenz said. “There is a hunger for the Word of God that is not being satisfied, which requires a combination of study of the text as well as meditation upon it.”

Other bishops called for a renewed emphasis on catechesis and on the Sunday Eucharist.

What seemed less clear is who, exactly, will take responsibility for this outreach and formation. Indirectly, several bishops noted that the severe priest shortage across Latin America hinders the delivery of even basic pastoral care.

Ramazzini of Guatemala addressed the problem in the most explicit terms.

“What pastoral attention can a priest give to 40,000 faithful?” Ramazzini asked, referring to elevated priest-to-person ratios in much of Latin America. (By way of comparison, the priest-to-person ratio in the United States is 1 to 1,300.)

“What alternatives can we offer when there are communities that barely celebrate the Eucharist once every three months, and even then the celebration is often done rapidly because the priest has an excessive number of communities to care for?” Ramazzini asked.

Privately, some bishops, along with lay observers and theologians, have floated the idea of ordination for the viri probati, or “tested” married men, to the priesthood. At this stage, however, especially in light of Pope Benedict XVI’s ringing defense of priestly celibacy in his May 13 address, observers consider it improbably that CELAM will formally take up the celibacy question.

The other option is a much more aggressive approach to encouraging laity to become missionaries and pastoral agents. Santana of Venezuela, for example, said that if Latin American Catholicism is to become more missionary, it will be “mainly the laity who transform the present realities of our continent.” Castro of Colombia called for “a pastoral vision in which the laity, in the light of the Spirit, will be truly protagonists of the church’s pastoral mission, and not merely faithful executioners of it.”

Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval of Bolivia called on the CELAM conference to support the “base communities” movement in Latin America, efforts to form small groups of Christian faithful, especially in light of the priest shortage.

A similar message came from one of the lay participants in the CELAM meeting, Ilva Myriam Hoyos of Colombia, a professor at the University of La Sabana in Bogota, who called on the bishops to accent the role of laity.

“Our richness is precisely in diversity,” she said. “We do not seek homogeneity, we want to be diverse in the unity of our faith.” Calling for special attention to the role of women, Hoyos said, “The answers to the challenges the church faces in the moments our peoples are now living must come not just from the hierarchy, but from all Catholics.”

To date, however, it’s not clear what precise form this empowerment of laity might take.

One final concern expressed by several bishops has been the emergence in several Latin American nations of a brad of left-wing populism sometimes hostile to the church. Unsurprisingly, bishops from Venezuela and Bolivia, countries ruled by Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, were most outspoken.

Terrazas of Bolivia told the CELAM meeting that Morales’ election was initially greeted with “joy and hope” by many Bolivians, optimistic that he would finally be able to remedy the country’s chronic structural injustices. In fact, however, Terrazas warned that Morales has exploited resentments among Bolivia’s indigenous populations to such an extent that some fear armed revolution. Morales is hostile to the Catholic church because he regards it as an agent of colonization, Terrazas said, pointing to a secular education law as one example.

“On this point, the church in Bolivia does not defend privileges, but the right to religious liberty to continue announcing the Gospel of Life,” Terrazas said.

The Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean concludes on May 31.

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