Cover Stories Taming the Liberation Theologians

  • In Nicaragua, four Roman Catholic priests remain as officials in the Marxist- led Sandinista government in defiance of canon law, which prohibits priests from holding public office. One of the priests was expelled from the Society of Jesus in December; the other three priests were forbidden in January by the Vatican to perform their sacerdotal duties if they did not resign in two weeks. Insists Fernando Cardenal Martinez, the former Jesuit and Nicaragua's Education Minister: "There is no basic religious problem between the church and the revolution. What exists is a political confrontation."

    In Brazil, a mild-mannered Franciscan friar awaits a ruling from Rome over possible "theological errors" in his latest book, Church: Charism and Power, published in 1981. In the book, Theologian Leonardo Boff attacks the "monarchic and pyramidic" structure of the Catholic Church, which, he says, inevitably aligns the church with the rich. Father Boff wants the pyramid of power turned upside down, so that "the church would be, not for the poor, but by the poor."

    In Peru, a diminutive parish priest chooses his words carefully as he discusses the controversy over his writings that virtually paralyzed the deliberations of his country's 54-member Episcopal Conference for 13 months. Father Gustavo Gutierrez, 56, is a psychologist and author of the 1971 seminal work A Theology of Liberation, which critics have said is imbued with Marxist concepts. Says Gutierrez: "I preach the gospel, nothing else."

    When Pope John Paul II set foot on Venezuelan soil last week, a familiar challenge awaited him. On his sixth evangelizing mission to Latin America in six years, the Pope is once again being asked to put his formidable energies and charismatic appeal to work at resolving a conflict of potentially continent-wide proportions. John Paul is determined to prevent that conflict from distorting what he sees as the true nature of Catholicism. The challenge: liberation theology.

    Originally minted in Latin America in the 1960s, liberation theology is a controversial current of religious thought that has, in less than two decades, gained widespread currency. To many, it is the duty of Christians to support the rights of the poor and oppressed. But among its extreme proponents, liberation theology has been used as an apologia for revolutionary upheaval in the Third World that strives to link the imperatives of Christian charity with the dictates of Marxist class struggle.

    What distinguishes liberation theology from the mainstream of church thinking is its strong emphasis on social change in the process of spiritual improvement. As Father Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit liberation thinker living in El Salvador, puts it, the aim of liberation theology in Latin America is to "give a new form to a now wretched reality." In analyzing that social reality, some liberation theologians make heavy use of left-wing social science, and in that sense, writes Sobrino, "the influence of Marx on the conception of theological understanding is evident."

    So far as John Paul is concerned, liberation theology in its most militant form has come to embody a struggle over the fundamental values and even the institutional nature of the church. Says Monsignor Carlo Caffarra, a theologian at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University: "It is a contest that now aims at the very truth of the Christian creed and hence the truth of the church itself."

    The intensity of that contest varies widely in Latin America, the home of 42% of the world's 810 million Catholics. Strikingly diverse in political circumstances, geography and ethnic makeup, the countries of the area share staggering social dislocations caused by rapid modernization, near intolerable combinations of inflation, unemployment and foreign debt, and enormous economic disparities. Says Radomiro Tomic Romero, a former Christian Democratic candidate for President in still dictatorial Chile: "We see a region crossed with injustice. Then we ask ourselves: Is this what God wanted for us?"

    Answering this question has divided the Latin American church. The struggle harks back to 1968, when the second Latin American Bishops' Conference met in Medellin, Colombia. A liberal minority at the conference won approval of a series of documents supporting the church's newly stated "preferential option for the poor," which denounced "institutionalized violence" and other social ills, thus providing the opening wedge for liberation theology. In the '70s, as armed insurrection and military dictatorship spread across Latin America, liberation theology took on a more explicitly political dimension. The radical fringe of liberation theology eventually seemed to find its model of change in the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution. Priests and Catholic laymen united with the Marxist-Leninist Sandinistas to overthrow Dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. In the ensuing euphoria of the Sandinista triumph, the Rev. Paul Schmitz, a U.S. priest who is now a bishop in Nicaragua, declared that the country "is a laboratory for all of Latin America."

    In fact, a swing away from revolutionary fervor had already begun. Five months before the Sandinistas took power, at a third bishops' conference early in 1979 at Puebla, Mexico (the scene of the newly elected John Paul's first visit to Latin America), the assemblage followed the Pope's lead in striking a careful balance in defining Catholic activism. While endorsing a strong mandate for church involvement in social issues, the Puebla conference condemned Marxist strategies and cautioned priests to "divest themselves of all political ideologies."

    / Ever since Puebla, during his globetrotting papacy, the Pope has consistently spoken out on behalf of the poor and against social injustice, more often and more vigorously than any of his predecessors. He has relentlessly continued to stress both the evils of Marxism and the need for priests to avoid direct involvement in politics. In effect, his aim has been to co-opt the acceptable themes of liberation theology, while trimming away its objectionable elements. As one high official of the Roman Curia puts it, John Paul's strategy is "to show that he is the premier liberation theologian."

    Despite the furor that it has aroused, liberation theology has never swayed all Latin America. In Venezuela, the Pope's first stop last week, church officials estimate that liberation theology has scarcely had any impact at all. The same is true of Argentina and Mexico.

    The influence of liberation theology is strongest in Brazil, the world's largest and most populous (131 million) Roman Catholic country. Nonetheless, the debate over the propriety of that support continues to rage within the Brazilian hierarchy. Eugenio Cardinal de Araujo Sales, the conservative Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro, charges that liberation theology "constitutes one of the gravest risks to the unity of the pastors and the faithful."

    Sales was referring to the significance that some liberation theologians have bestowed upon "base communities," Latin America's most notable evangelizing innovation. Perhaps as many as 150,000 of these grass-roots Christian communities are scattered across Latin America, roughly half of them in Brazil. In the main, the base communities are a promising attempt to solve an endemic problem in Latin America, the chronic shortage of priests to instruct the majority of the impoverished but deeply religious masses of citizenry and see to their spiritual and social needs. (In Latin America, there is one priest for every 7,000 Catholics, vs. one for every 880 in the U.S.)

    Within the base communities, which average ten to 30 members each, the stress is on shared religious instruction, prayer and communal self-help. Local priests provide guidance to community leaders, but the principal focus of the groups is on relating the lessons of the Bible to the day-to-day activities of their members, be they urban slumdwellers or rural campesinos.

    At a typical base community in the town of Campos Eliseos, 14 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, 30 local residents meet every Friday night in a cinder- ^ block home to read the Bible and discuss their problems. Antonio Joinhas, 44, a railroad signalman, relates how one study session inspired a local public health center. "After reading how one biblical community helped another to overcome a problem, we decided we could work together too. We all supplied the manpower and raised money for materials from the community. Now we've got a health center, and it came from the Bible."

    For liberation theologians like Brazil's Boff, the base communities are also the true pillars of a church-to-be--as he puts it, the "church being born from the faith of the poor." Boff's views provide a theological underpinning for the so-called Church of the People, a grass-roots vision of Catholicism that sees the base communities as a separate source of spiritual inspiration for the faithful--an alternative, in other words, to the inspiration of Rome.

    Last September Boff was invited to Rome for a discussion with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's watchdog Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Boff recalls the four-hour meeting as "cordial--Ratzinger mainly just sat and listened." The cordiality may have been influenced by the presence at the Vatican of two of Brazil's most influential Cardinals, Paulo Evaristo Arns, Archbishop of Sao Paulo, and Aloisio Lorscheider, Archbishop of Fortaleza, who accompanied Boff on his trip.

    Boff's escort underlined the delicacy of the meeting, and perhaps even signaled to the Pope the need for compromise in dealing with the liberation theology issue. In Boff's case, the Vatican's concern was that if the friar took a defiant stand, he might gain further support from important elements of the Brazilian church, turning a disciplinary action into a no-retreat showdown.

    Similar diplomatic considerations may have played a role in the publication in early September of a 36-page Ratzinger "instruction" on liberation theology, castigating those forms of the doctrine that "uncritically borrow Marxist ideas." The report promised a companion document that would deal with the "great richness" of the theme of liberation for church life and doctrine. The study has not yet appeared, and Rome has reportedly found the subject more complex than initially expected.

    The problem of grappling with liberation theology is nowhere more evident than in Peru, the third stop on John Paul's itinerary. Nearly two years ago, the Doctrinal Congregation urged the Peruvian bishops to pass judgment on the acceptability of the writings of Radical Theologian Gutierrez. In September those bishops met with the Pope and managed to forge a fragile consensus: no explicit censure of Gutierrez, but an agreement to the condemnations of Marxism outlined that month by Ratzinger.

    No such maneuvers were necessary last month when Rome issued the suspension order to Cardenal and the three other rebellious political priests in Nicaragua: Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, Culture Minister Ernesto Cardenal Martinez, and Edgard Parrales, Ambassador to the Organization of American States. In the Vatican's view it was merely a question of enforcing canon law.

    The tensions and maneuvers that accompanied the Boff and Gutierrez affairs are quite likely to continue. However successful the Pope has been so far in fixing the limits of church orthodoxy, an informed Jesuit in Rome acknowledges that "the church in Latin America is changing, and everyone accepts that a long-term process has begun." For the Supreme Pontiff, the task of defining liberation also may be a long one.