By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI closed his five-day trip to Brazil with a speech that, in some ways, he has been waiting thirty years to give. Its heart was that attempts to solve social and political problems without Christ lead to ruin – and, he said, the 20th century offered spectacular examples in the failures of both Marxism and capitalism.
Preaching Christ, the pope implied, is not a distraction from working for justice – it is working for justice.
In a 6,000 word address to open the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, the pope said that both of the main ideological rivals of the recent past, Marxism and capitalism, failed to deliver on their promises for building a better world, because both have tried to do so without reference to God.
“Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves; they declared that not only would they have no need of any prior individual morality, but that they would promote a communal morality,” the pope said. “And this ideological promise has been proved false. The facts have clearly demonstrated it.”
The pope’s message in Brazil matured over a long period of theological reflection.
It was almost 30 years ago, in 1968, that the bishops of Latin America famously declared a “preferential option for the poor,” and no nation embraced that credo with greater zest than Brazil. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as pope, Joseph Ratzinger has been wrestling with the issues raised by liberation theology, for which Brazil is the primary laboratory, ever since.
Liberation theology pioneered the notion of “structural sin,” meaning the sinfulness embedded in social, economic and political structures that perpetuate situations of injustice. Benedict agreed with the diagnosis, saying that “just structures are a condition without which a just order in society is not possible.”
In his address to CELAM, Benedict even endorsed the “preferential option for the poor,” saying it is implicit in the “Christological faith in the God who became poor for us.” The key question, Benedict said, is not whether just structures are desirable, but rather where they come from. His answer was that they can only come from the spiritual and moral values provided by religious faith.
Benedict said that the failures of both Marxism and capitalism illustrate his point.
“The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful destruction of the human spirit. And we can also see the same thing happening in the West, where the distance between rich and poor is growing constantly, and giving rise to a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.”
In that light, Benedict said, the greatest contribution the Catholic church can make is to credibly and passionately proclaim Christ. People who order their lives on Christ, he argued, naturally pursue the values of peace and justice.
“Where God is absent – God with the human face of Jesus Christ – these values fail to show themselves with their full force, and a consensus does not arise concerning them,” the pope said.
Benedict indicated that he didn’t mean to say non-Christians can’t contribute to a just society. Yet, he argued, the tug of egoism, private gain, and indifference to the suffering of others is simply too strong for a society divided about its core principles.
“I do not mean that non-believers cannot live a lofty and exemplary morality,” he said. “I am only saying that a society in which God is absent will not find the necessary consensus on moral values or the strength to live according to the model of these values, even when they are in conflict with private interests.”
Supplying faith and values, not direct political solutions, is therefore the contribution of the church, Benedict said.
“If the church were to start transforming herself into a directly political subject, she would do less, not more, for the poor and for justice,” the pope said, “because she would lose her independence and her moral authority, identifying herself with a single political path and with debatable partisan positions. The church is the advocate of justice and of the poor, precisely because she does not identify with politicians nor with partisan interests. Only by remaining independent can she teach the great criteria and inalienable values, guide consciences and offer a life choice that goes beyond the political sphere.”
Surveying the challenges facing Latin American Catholicism, Benedict acknowledged that both “the harmonious development of society” and “the Catholic identity of these peoples” are in jeopardy. The former was a reference to the on-going problems of poverty and violence in Latin America, while the latter referred to dramatic losses the Catholic church has suffered to both Pentecostal and Evangelical movements, as well as a growing number of people who say they have no religious faith at all.
Benedict began by saying that under the weight of disillusionment with modernity, some Latin Americans long for a return to a pre-Western culture, including pre-Christian religion. But Christianity, the pope argued, was not an “imposition” on indigenous cultures, but rather a way of “purifying” them that maintained the best elements of those cultures – elements which survive, he suggested, in the popular religiosity for which Latin American Catholicism is well-known.
“The utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbus religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal church, would not be a step forward,” Benedict said. “In reality, it would a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past.”
Neither, however, does modern globalization offer a satisfactory response to the needs of society, Benedict said, citing “the risk of vast monopolies and of treating profit as the supreme value.” The pope said that “the liberal economy of some Latin American countries must take account of equity, because of the ever increasing sectors of society that find themselves oppressed by immense poverty or even despoiled of their own natural resources.”
At the same time, he suggested, populist left-wing movements today associated with Latin American nations such as Venezuela and Bolivia are not the answer, referring to “authoritarian forms of government and regimes wedded to certain ideologies that we thought had been superseded.”
The pope catalogued a series of what he sees as other dead-end roads, including “secularism, hedonism, indifferentism, and proselytism by numerous sects, animist religions and new pseudo-religious phenomena.”
Facing the urgent social justice challenges of Latin America, Benedict conceded that accenting Christ, the sacraments, and the spiritual life can seem like putting one’s head in the sand.
“Could this priority not perhaps be a flight towards emotionalism, towards religious individualism, an abandonment of the urgent reality of the great economic, social and political problems of Latin America and the world, and a flight from reality towards a spiritual world?” he asked rhetorically. Precisely those accusations were sometimes made by liberation theologians against traditional forms of Catholic piety.
In fact, Benedict argued, the question presupposes a vision of reality that marginalizes God.
“This was precisely the great error of the dominant tendencies of the last century, a most destructive error, as we can see from the results of both Marxist and capitalist systems,” he said. “They falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality, which is God.” Doing so, he warned, is a “recipe for destruction.”
“Hence the unique and irreplaceable importance of Christ for us, for humanity,” the pope said. “If we do not know God in and with Christ, all of reality is transformed into an indecipherable enigma.”
To promote the centrality of Christ, Benedict recommended a renewed focus on the Bible, stronger catechesis and faith formation, greater use of the media, a deeper devotion to the Eucharist and commitment to Sunday Mass. He also called on lay Catholics to be active in public life, in the media and in the universities, lamenting what he called a “notable absence” of committed Catholics in those spheres of life.
The pope singled five topics for special mention: the family, priests, men and women religious, the laity, and the young. On the family, the pope warned against “secularism and ethical relativism,” leading to “civil legislation opposed to marriage, which, by supporting contraception and abortion, is threatening the future of peoples.” Benedict called on governments to adopt comprehensive pro-family policies.
The pope told lay men and women that they must consider themselves “jointly responsible,” along with their pastors, for “building society according to the criteria of the gospel.” He advised the young to steer clear of “the facile illusions of instant happiness and the deceptive paradise offered by drugs, pleasure, and alcohol” and to “oppose every form of violence.”
Benedict also criticized currents in Latin American culture which do not recognize "the equal dignity and responsibility of women relative to men."
The Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean is taking place at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Aparecida, the largest Marian shrine in the southern hemisphere. Coincidentally, the opening session also coincided with the 90th anniversary of the Marian apparitions in Fatima, Portugal.