CTSA: Latin American bishops flag poverty, ecology and indigenous peoples

Los Angeles

Strong commitments on poverty, ecology and the continent’s indigenous persons were among the most important results from the recent Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM), the President of the Guatemalan bishops’ conference told an American audience today.

Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, also claimed that the spread of Pentecostal-style Christianity in Guatemala has been “exaggerated,” and said that he does not believe Pentecostalism will help Latin Americans achieve a deeper spirituality.

Ramazzini spoke this afternoon about the CELAM conference, held in Aparecida, Brazil, May 13-31, at a session of the Catholic Theological Society of America’s annual convention in Los Angeles.

Ramazzini said the Latin American bishops concluded that under the form of economic globalization dominant today, “the values of efficiency and productivity regulate human relations, giving priority to profits, and resulting in the concentration of power and wealth in hands of a very few.”

Catholicism’s “option for the poor” means the church must protest the “exclusion and tremendous inequality” this economic system generates, he said, describing the conclusions of the CELAM gathering.

Ramazzini argued that modern societies produce an astonishing array of consumer goods, yet “great majorities in these societies don’t have the basic goods which are necessary just to live and survive.”

In terms of ecology, Ramazzini said the Latin Americans expressed special concern for the Amazon and the other great natural spaces which are “the lungs of the planet,” as well as the problem of global warming.

Ramazzini gave special attention to the indigenous persons of Latin America, in part because 60 percent of Guatemala’s 12 million people belong to one of 26 different indigenous groups, each with its own language and cosmology, he said.

Overall, one-eighth of the population of Latin America, or roughly 65 million people, belong to one of almost 600 linguistically differentiated indigenous groups.

Ramazzini described a series of “serious commitments” the Latin American bishops made with respect to the indigenous:

•tTo accompany indigenous peoples in strengthening their identities
•tTo defend their territories, including support for land reform
•tTo promote bilingual inter-cultural education
•tTo defend their rights
•tTo promote awareness in the broader society and in the media about indigenous peoples, including their values
•tTo denounce everything that opposes the full life of indigenous peoples
•tTo continue evangelization of the indigenous peoples

Ramazzini said he hopes the bishops will be able to honor those commitments, joking that sometimes “in the euphoria of a meeting, we commit ourselves to many things.”

One vexed issue on this front has been the question of “Indian Theology” in Latin American Catholicism, which is an attempt to reflect critically on the historical experience of indigenous peoples. Critics sometimes regard it as liberation theology in another guise.

Such concerns were apparently behind comments from Pope John Paul II aboard the papal plane during a 1999 trip to Mexico, when the pope said Indian Theology is of concern because it involves “another version of Marxism.”

The Archdiocese of Mexico City later put out a statement indicating that while Pope John Paul fully supported the rights of Indians, he rejected "Indian theology" insofar as it “tends toward Marxism and class confrontation.”

“John Paul II energetically condemned the attempt to replace liberation theology with Indian theology, of Marxist inspiration, which is obviously not in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church,” the statement said.

Against that backdrop, Ramazzini said he was surprised to find that the current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada of the United States, who was present for the Aparecida meeting, expressed “openness to continue speaking about this process of indigenous theology.”

In the end, Ramazzini said, the Latin American bishops voted down a proposal to include a positive reference to “Indian Theology” in their final document, but he noted that 59 bishops out of roughly 130 or so who cast votes were in favor, suggesting a broad base of support – especially telling, he said, given that the bulk of Latin America’s indigenous population is concentrated in a few countries in Central America and the Andes.

Ramazzini said the bishops also affirmed inculturation of the faith for indigenous populations, including translations of the Bible and liturgical texts into indigenous languages, and the promotion of indigenous in various church ministries, including the diaconate.
Ramazzini added that he was speaking about the Amer-Indians and not Latin Americans of African descent because he did not their situation as well.

On the subject of Pentecostals, said that while many Catholics have left the church to join one of the varieties of Pentecostalism in the country, the numbers have been exaggerated. Although a recent Pew Forum study reported that just 52.6 percent of Guatemala is Catholic today, Ramazzini said the “global impression” of the bishops is that the actual Catholic share of the population is 75 percent.

“They say they have 40 percent, but that’s an exaggeration,” he said. “In my diocese, you see many, many Protestant chapels with huge loudspeakers, but you go inside and there are ten people.” He asserted that “a strategy of religious marketing is being used.”

Whatever the real numbers, Ramazzini offered three reasons why some Catholics have deserted the church for Pentecostalism:

•t“Part of it is our own responsibility, weaknesses in our pastoral approach, and we are trying to change,” he said.
•tDuring the period of armed conflict in Guatemala, he said, “to be Catholic was to be a subversive, a terrorist.” Ramazzini said that many Catholics converted under Efraín Ríos Montt, the country’s former military ruler.
•tWhen a society is “in great pain,” Ramazzini said, “a religious offering which eases that pain will be accepted.” He suggested that in general, Pentecostalism does not place heavy demands on its followers and is easier to reconcile with the desire for “well-being and a superficial sense of happiness.”

“I don’t think this Pentecostalism entering into many parts of Latin America today helps us,” Ramazzini said. “It doesn’t make us truly a praying people.”

Monsignor Carlos Quintana, Executive Director of the Secretariat for Latin America of the U.S. bishops and a former official of CELAM, said that quite often Catholics who become Pentecostal “are not rejecting the church,” but rather “honestly searching for God.” The fact that they could not find God in Catholicism, he said, suggests a failure of pastoral care.

Quintana quoted a Latin American witticism: católico ignorante, future protestante, roughly meaning that “an ignorant Catholic is a future Protestant.”

Holy Cross Fr. Robert S. Pelton of the University of Notre Dame, an expert on Latin America, focused on the discussion of “base ecclesial communities” at the CELAM conference. These small groups devoted to Bible study, faith formation and social action have been a cornerstone of Latin American pastoral work, though they remain controversial in some quarters because of their links to liberation theology.

Pelton said that while the preparatory document for Aparecida did not give much attention to base ecclesial communities, the final document is strong on the subject, including a clear call to these groups to be “prophetic.”

Fr. Virgilo Elizondo, a native of San Antonio, Texas, and a leading voice for Hispanics in American Catholicism, recalled a comment of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador during the CELAM conference in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. A Roman cardinal, Elizondo said, expressed concern that some of the prayer services in the base communities might be confused with the Eucharist.

He quoted Romero’s response: “Your Eminence, you’re absolutely right that there’s a danger it could be confused with the Eucharist. But there’s an even greater danger that a faith that is not celebrated will die.”

Pelton also praised the document’s emphasis on martyrdom as a form of evangelization, saying that it underscores the memory of Latin American heroes such as Romero.

“That means we’re playing for keeps,” he said.

In comparison with the last CELAM conference in Santo Domingo in 1992, Pelton said, he was impressed with the “wonderful diplomatic and respectful handling” of adherents of liberation theology in Aparecida, especially on issues facing Amer-Indians.

Quintana told the CTSA session that the idea for holding the fifth conference of CELAM originated with Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in a 2001 meeting in Caracas, Venezuela. At the time, Quintana said, Rodriguez made three arguments as to why a new general conference was needed:

•tTo reflect on the rich magisterium of Pope John Paul II for the universal church
•tTo meet the challenges of a new millennium for the society and the church
•tTo confront the reality that the church’s option for poor “has done little to improve the situation of the poor in Latin America.”

Elizondo identified several themes from the CELAM conference of importance for the United States, including “the priority of excluded peoples,” inculturation, and popular piety.

In terms of the excluded, Elizondo said in the United States, that means above all a commitment to undocumented persons.

“The greatest challenge facing the American church is how we address this very human issue,” Elizondo said. He charged that a “distorted image” of illegal immigrants has been presented in the United States, especially in the media. Most come to this country under difficult circumstances, he said, and make enormous sacrifices to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

“These are the heroes of our society,” Elizondo said, asserting that their “plight cries out to Heaven.”

Another form concern for the excluded should take, he said, is attention to those in jails, prisons and detention centers – “the one institution in this country where Hispanics are over-represented,” Elizondo said, because “they don’t have lawyers to get themselves out.” He argued that the church should help them “reestablish themselves” after release.

“The dynamism of the Latin American church is just fascinating,” Elizondo said. “They really believe the church can make a difference. For us, it’s a tremendous model to be inspired by and to be challenged by.”

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