/** nacla.report: 329.0 **/
** Topic: Church and Revolution by Phillip Berryman **
** Written 12:49 PM May 1, 1997 by nacla in cdp:nacla.report **
Reprinted from the March/April 1997 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas.
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Phillip Berryman's latest book is Religion in the Megacity: Catholic and Protestant Portraits from Latin America (Orbis, 1996)
In 1994, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, whose writings have made liberation theology known worldwide, observed that the period which had given birth to that theology was apparently "coming to an end." This was due to a "series of economic, political and ecclesial events, as much worldwide as Latin American or national." Noting "the end of certain political projects" (presumably socialism), he observed that "everything would seem to indicate that a different period is beginning."
For over 30 years, progressive church activists--including, but not limited to the practitioners of liberation theology--have had a significant presence in Latin American society. If we are in fact moving into a significantly different period, that progressive presence faces a major challenge--a challenge that requires a forthright examination of the role religion has played in the region's recent past.
The somewhat surprising emergence of Catholicism as a progressive political force was a Latin American response to the decisions made by Catholic bishops at Vatican Council II (1962-65). Out of that meeting came dramatic changes, including the switch from worship in Latin to the vernacular languages, and a moving away from suspicion toward "the world"--not unlike that of Christian fundamentalists today-- to an embrace of modernity. The post-Council period opened the door to further questioning. In Latin America that meant asking what the role of the church should be in a society of extremes of wealth and poverty. During the 1966-68 period, radicalized priests formed national groups and issued manifestos critiquing both the church and society in a number of countries.
This was happening just when Latin American intellectuals were becoming disenchanted with existing models of "development," and calling for more radical models that could address the national and international structures that were at the root of inequality and poverty. Many sensed that their countries faced similar problems, and that their destinies were linked, perhaps in a future Patria Grande. These ideals were emerging in a period which was simultaneously a time of relative intellectual openness and, in many countries, a time of severe political repression. Indeed, the very violence used to repress the left seemed to confirm not only that the struggle for liberation was just and necessary, but that the prospects of victory were bright. Progressives believed that their work, as modest as it might be, was ultimately helping to build a different kind of society.
In the mid-1960s--before the advent of liberation theology itself--the Colombian priest, Camilo Torres, noted a central insight: that Christianity means love of neighbor, and that such love could not be expressed simply by individuals, but demanded "a whole change of political, economic, and social structures--a revolution." Born into an upper-class Bogota family, Torres had received a degree in sociology in Belgium and returned to Colombia where he first worked in a university setting. Preparing a number of studies on Colombian cities and land issues, he became personally familiar with the plight of the poor, especially in the countryside, and he became radicalized. In 1965, he and others formed the Broad Front, a political coalition seeking to appeal to a majority of Colombians. Hounded out of political life by authorities of both church and state, he joined the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, and fell in combat in February, 1966.
For years Camilo Torres was an icon of what came to be called the "progressive church," not because he chose to fight with the guerrillas, but because he was willing to follow his insight into the political nature of Christian love to its ultimate consequences. A generation of church people, primarily Catholic, but also including some from the historic Protestant denominations, sought to live by that insight and conviction.
Beginning in the late 1960s, in an effort to come closer to the people they served, thousands of Catholic sisters and priests moved out of traditional convents and religious houses, and into poor neighborhoods to share the living conditions of the people. The initial impulse was pastoral rather than directly political. It was partly a recognition that the church's resources had been disproportionately devoted to the middle and upper classes, especially through schools which depended on tuition payments. The individuals themselves were seeking a more authentic way to live their religious vocation.
In their concern to avoid paternalism, they found the educational approach of concientizacion (consciousness raising) developed by the Brazilian priest Paulo Freire to be made to order. Evangelization itself was reconceived as group reflection on life experiences rather than as imparting doctrine. To the extent that those leading these group reflections urged people to look for "root causes," they had a radicalizing effect. In rural areas, discussion would move from immediate problems toward matters such as land tenure and from there to class structure. Consciousness-raising leads naturally to organization. Priests and sisters generally avoided being leaders or spokespersons for the people, but rather sought to stimulate people to form and run their own organizations. Over the past three decades there have been countless initiatives--barrio associations, peasant leagues, cooperatives and soup kitchens--both to bring about immediate improvements and to put pressure on government officials for needed services.
This work often took the form of "Christian base communities," small lay-led groups meeting in homes to read and discuss the scriptures, pray together, and sometimes to become engaged in community issues. For a time it was hoped that base communities would become the predominant model of the Church in Latin America, so that, for example, the parish would be primarily a network of such communities.
Such sisters and priests were in a privileged position. They were freer than virtually any other outsiders to live in poor communities and still retain ties to other sectors of society. Leadership development in poor Latin American communities during these decades owes much to the daily work of those church people--mainly sisters--who simply knocked on doors, visited people, made themselves available, provided lifts in their vans, and spent long hours in conversation. At the same time, they could interpret the world of the poor for those outside it, and their presence might offer at least a degree of protection from repression.
It should be kept in mind, of course, that these initiatives never represented a majority trend in the Catholic Church. A Brazilian sister doing research in the mid 1980s found that only 4 to 5% of sisters had gone to live with the people. Similarly, despite talk from theologians and others about a "church being born among the people," base communities have never become a mass movement and have remained dependent on the work of sisters and priests servicing them.
The term "liberation theology" emerged in the mid-1960s as a number of Latin American theologians--spurred on by the priests and sisters working with the poor--started asking whether the peculiar circumstances of their continent might demand their own theology as opposed to the one-size-fits-all assumption of Catholic theology around the world. Like other Latin American intellectuals, these theologians were influenced by Marxism and in dialogue with it. While most of them never discussed Marxism in any detail--in part because to do so would make them vulnerable--they assumed that a broad process of liberation was underway, and sought to probe the implications for believers and the church.
Peru's Gutierrez presented the first explicit sketch of liberation theology at a meeting of priests in the Peruvian seaport town of Chimbote in 1968. He presented liberation theology as a theological rationale for doing pastoral work among the poor, and as a way of telling the poor that God loves them. Gutierrez's work was devoted to defending the legitimacy of that work in the light of official Catholic teaching itself, as well as the scriptures. This was the meaning of his [RIGHT?] term, "option for the poor." The new theology not only explored the topics that have always preoccupied Catholic theologians--God, Christ, salvation, the church, and so forth--but critiqued the existence of massive poverty, and denounced unjust social structures as "sinful."
The churches were most effective precisely under the most extreme circumstances, such as the period following the 1973 military coup in Chile. With political parties, unions and other organizations outlawed, and the press muzzled or acquiescent, the church was the only force that could in some way resist the military. Most immediately this meant sheltering those being pursued, and helping them leave the country. Although it was several years before the Chilean bishops directly criticized the repression, Catholic and Protestant churches helped people survive economically and documented human rights abuses, and tried to help people locate family members, almost always in vain. In addition, Church organizations documented the thousands of deaths and disappearances under the Pinochet dictatorship, and Church documents became prime sources for human rights groups as well as for journalists.
The same was true shortly afterwards in Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere. Economic elites and the military saw such church work as dangerously meddlesome, and many church people--most notably in El Salvador--paid with their lives. In some sense the highest calling of Christian life is martyrdom--in the likeness of Jesus. The killing of priests, sisters, lay people and even bishops brought home that genuine martyrdom was a live possibility at least in some circumstances. In the late 1970s, journalist Penny Lernoux documented hundreds of incidents of violence against church people throughout Latin America in her book, Cry of the People.
In country after country, sisters and priests played key roles in human rights work. In Brazil in the early 1970s, at a time of repression and extreme press censorship, the Brazilian Catholic bishops and pastor Jaime Wright conceived the idea of publishing a brochure containing the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," adding to each right a relevant quote from the scriptures or from church tradition. Operating in secret until the brochures were ready, they then distributed them with no announcement, to the chagrin of the military. The generals could hardly put themselves in the position of impounding scripture quotes, even though the document was clearly aimed at delegitimizing their own practices of torture, imprisonment and the general muzzling of society. In 1975 in Sao Paulo, Cardinal Arns joined pastor Wright and Rabbi Henry Sobel to celebrate the funeral of Wladimir Herzog, an investigative journalist who had been murdered. Defying military threats, several thousand people attended the service in downtown Sao Paulo, in the first massive show of resistance to the military government since the late 1960s. Several years later Arns, Wright and others secretly worked at gathering and photocopying literally millions of pages of army records documenting human rights violations. The compilation became a best seller when published in the form of Brasil, Nunca Mais.
Those working at the village or barrio level interpreted their own work as solidarity or as "accompaniment"--standing by the people, especially in times of repression. They felt called to prophetic witness, analogous to activities of prophets in Hebrew scriptures and to Jesus himself. In Nicaragua under Somoza there were significant contacts between the small struggling Sandinista movement and church people. A Sandinista leader later candidly admitted that they had seen church organizations as "quarries" from which to mine grassroots leaders. Priests and sisters working at the village and barrio level sometimes resented the work of organizers who skimmed off leaders that they had spent years training, and who were then lost to the local organization-- or who remained, but introduced another agenda.
Another political role played by church people was that of mediation. Shortly after the outbreak of guerrilla war in 1981 Salvadoran Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas made numerous efforts to urge a negotiated end to the conflict. At a time when the very word "dialogue" was tantamount to treason, the Salvadoran bishops --and Pope John Paul II-- helped make it acceptable, and Rivera frequently delivered proposals from the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) to the government. His role became less important after the 1987 Central America Peace Plan, but he had played a critical part in making negotiations acceptable, against the opposition of the army and the Reagan administration. The Guatemalan bishops, especially bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruno of Zacapa, played a similar role in the 1988-92 period, to the chagrin of the military. In a somewhat different context the Chilean bishops, and particularly Cardinal Fresno in Santiago, played a crucial role in encouraging much of the anti-Pinochet opposition and giving it legitimacy, even while excluding the more hardline opposition, especially the Communist Party.
As early as 1972, conservative Latin American bishops began to organize systematically against liberation theology. They began by taking control of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM). Their efforts accelerated with the papacy of Pope John Paul II, whose own experience in Poland led him to adamantly oppose any hint of sympathy with Marxism. In 1984, the Vatican issued a letter strongly critical of liberation theology, at about the same time that it silenced the influential Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff, who in 1992 resigned from the priesthood. Perhaps more importantly, the Pope systematically appointed new bishops on the basis of their loyalty to Rome. For example, Archbishop Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, who had rankled the military in the 1970s and was known worldwide as a champion of the poor, was replaced by a bishop who quickly dismantled as much as he could of Helder's work.
Pressures from the Vatican and from increasingly conservative bishops have had their impact on progressive church forces. Even more decisive, however, has been the scaling back of possibilities and expectations in the broader society. Even by the mid-1980s many on the left, including church people, were concluding that necessary social change would not come quickly. Hopes now rode on a longer-range process that would be the result of a broad variety of social movements, including traditional labor and peasant struggles, as well as women's, ecological, indigenous and Afro-Latino movements.
In recent years, liberation theologians have insisted that their theology did not come from socialism although as Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga of Brazil remarked, it had "proved helpful in the critique of capitalism and in nourishing certain utopian horizons." Bishop Casaldaliga expressed the view of many: "Today the option for the poor is more timely than ever. There are two reasons: There are more of them, both in Latin America, and in all the Third World; and they are ever- poorer." Not surprisingly perhaps, women in the church tend to be less nostalgic for their socialist hopes, and are developing their critique of patriarchy, most often on the margins of the official churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
"A few years ago," a Brazilian priest working with the poor in Sao Paulo's crowded downtown tenements recently told me, "we had many answers and few questions. Today we have many questions and few answers." His remark, I believe, reflects the mood of many who recalled the heady days of struggle against dictatorship, or perhaps the hopes for the Workers Party, when it arose out of strikes in which church people had been involved in 1980.
Today, civilian governments are the rule, and democratic institutions operate routinely, even if the poor have relatively little access. Hundreds of human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations, many of which arose under church sponsorship, now operate on their own. Many of the roles that church people played in a situation of emergency are no longer necessary, although certainly Bishop Samuel Ruiz in Chiapas continues to play the roles of both prophet and mediator.
Some church analysts now speak of "social apartheid," referring to the ever-sharper divide between the wealthy protected by security guards, and most people facing job losses, insecurity and crime. The main theme progressives drew from the 1992 meeting of the bishops in Santo Domingo-- analogous to earlier meetings at Medellin and Puebla--was "inculturation," meaning the Catholic Church's recognition that it must allow people, especially indigenous groups, to find their own cultural forms of expression. Thus far in the 1990s, however, there seem to be no new paradigms analogous to Liberation Theology.
A very important development today is the rise to prominence of Protestants, and especially Pentecostals, now estimated to be around 15%--with considerable variation from country to country--of the Latin American population. Although over 80% of the population may still be baptized Catholic, only a small proportion can be described as practicing, and hence in some ways Catholicism and Protestantism are on a par. Many progressive church people and secular leftists have criticized Pentecostalism for diverting people from their real earthly problems, but the actual behavior of Pentecostals is not very different from that of their neighbors. In Brazil, for example, a significant proportion of the leftist Workers Party has been Protestant. Benedita da Silva, a black woman from a poor family in the northeast, who became a social worker and then a federal senator, is both an outstanding representative of the poor and a practicing member of the Assemblies of God. This does not mean that the evangelical churches are ripe for the left, but simply that organizers and activists should dispel their own stereotypes and seek to learn from, and dialogue with, this new social force.
If, as Jean Franco wrote in NACLA a few years ago, it is not only the left but the "print oriented intelligentsia" that feels displaced in a Latin America that is simultaneously pre-literate and post-literate, it is not surprising that the progressive church should also feel perplexed. Gutierrez perhaps wisely refrains from defining in detail the new era that is arriving. The legacy of the progressive church may yet be picked up by a younger generation that has come of age in the world of globalization, and shares a passion for justice.