Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

Fellowship Title:

Prophets of Change in Latin America
Catholic Bishops Challenge Military

Penny Lernoux
April 27, 1976

Fellowship Year

BOGOTA, Colombia — When Pope Paul returned to Rome after a tumultuous welcome in Bogota as the first Papal visitor to Latin America, most journalists figured the story was over. Very few travelled to Medellin in western Colombia, where the Latin American bishops were attending a follow-up meeting sponsored by the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM), the hierarchy’s service organization, and then only on the off-chance of some anecdote about the Pope’s visit.

Since CELAM had never said or done anything unusual in its 13-year history, no one could have predicted that that meeting in Medellin in 1968 would become the story of the decade, a milestone in Latin American history with more impact than Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s death in Bolivia or Salvador Allende’s fall in Chile.

Reversing four centuries of history, the bishops of Latin America startled this Catholic continent by issuing a scathing attack on its ruling classes, on foreign capitalism, poverty and social injustice. Known as the Medellin documents, the bishops’ criticisms have since become a rallying cry for social reform in Latin America as well as a precedent for Catholic churches in other developing regions. Few may recall the Pope’s visit today, but the bomb that CELAM dropped is still ticking.

Although the documents were written in response to the reforms proposed at the Vatican’s Council II (1962-5), they were remarkably radical for a hierarchy traditionally identified with Latin America’s wealthy classes — too radical, in fact, to be carried out by more than a minority of bishops. While there were no public retractions, many members of the hierarchy found it expedient to shelve the documents once they realized the extent of the storm they had unleashed, and by 1972 the “retreat from Medellin” was being publicly acknowledged by bishops, priests and laymen.

The retreat might have become a rout were it not for political events in Latin America which caused another swing in the pendulum. With the sudden upsurge in military dictatorships and the increase in violence in Latin America in the past four years, many national hierarchies have found themselves in a position of protest, particularly over the violation of human rights. By February of this year when the bishops met in Bogota under CELAM auspices to review the 1968 documents, many had come full circle back to the church’s original position at Medellin, only now, more than a minority of bishops are ready to act on their criticisms.

As the bishops explained in a document on human development, the situation in Latin America has considerably worsened since 1968. “It is enough to point out the progressive and constant violations of human rights that are daily denounced under governments of all political persuasions,” noted the document.

“Moreover, many of these (violations) are accompanied by increased militarism. But even in those (countries) that are not governed by the military, there has been a failure to encourage a fair distribution of wealth or a lessening of the tremendous social and economic differences which were denounced at Medellin.

“While it is true that many of these evils are common to all mankind, there can be no doubt that they have been exacerbated in our continent because of its past and present economic dependence, political confusion and social injustice.”

Archbishop Aloisio Lorscheider, who is president of the Brazilian Conference of Bishops as well as CELAM, is even more forceful in his criticism. “We are seeing institutionalized violence in the form of extremely strong repression,” he said. “The rationale of security is not acceptable when it means destroying human beings. This is the socially critical and prophetic position that the church takes in the light of the gospel in its fight against sin.

“We also believe that the economic system does not take sufficient account of the need for respect and development of the human being but emphasizes money and profits instead.”

Lorscheider feels that it is time the hierarchy followed words with actions, particularly now that there is “widespread regret” for the church’s historical role in Latin America as an ally of the rich. “We hope that as a result of the meeting (in Bogota) the church will assume a stronger stand in today’s society in support of the development of the Latin American people, or what we describe as the liberation of every human being to become an active agent in his or her destiny.”

“It is no longer enough for a bishop to criticize,” added Renato Poblete, a Chilean Jesuit who is the executive secretary of CELAM’s Social Action Department. “There must be action, and that is why the bishops are rereading the Medellin documents — to push ahead.”

Once the most conservative hierarchy in Central America, the Guatemalan bishops are a good example of this change in approach. According to Bishop Luis Manresa, CELAM’s second vice-president, the February earthquake that destroyed large areas of his country is being interpreted by the church as a sign of the need for religious and social reform. Instead of immediately rebuilding the 49 churches partially or totally destroyed, said Manresa, the church will concentrate its financial resources on helping the homeless and poverty-stricken.

As the bishops explained in a recent pastoral, the earthquake was “a voice from God that drew aside the curtain that was hiding reality and the painful story of people being lacerated by injustice, of men crushed by oppression, of a living church torn by disunity and the negative witness of all Christians, including bishops, who are spiritually ill, grasping for power and engaged in the devastating fratricidal battle that has blood-stained the soil of the nation and brought grief to so many homes.

“So much suffering would be even more tragic,” they added, “if we failed to heed the call to join forces to construct a new nation with new men who, as the gospel teaches, know how to be free and responsible. Guatemala cannot be the same as it was before the terrible morning of February 4.”

Like most Latin American countries, Guatemala presents enormous contrasts between a small, wealthy minority and a mass of poverty-stricken peasants who eke out a bare existence on tiny agricultural plots known as “minifundia.” Two percent of the ranches occupy 70 percent of the arable land while 88 percent of the farms are squeezed onto 14 percent of the land. The annual per capita income of these subsistence farmers is less than $300. Two-thirds are illiterate.

The statistics of poverty are not unique to Guatemala but are the norm in most Latin American countries. Even so, they are not sufficient in themselves to explain the hierarchy’s change in attitude. Poverty and injustice have been a feature of Latin American life ever since the Spanish conquest, as was chronicled by the 16th century church reformer, Bartolome de las Casas. What is new is the addition of other factors to pressure the bishops.

On the one hand, there is the challenge from right-wing military regimes that claim a monopoly on Christianity, thereby questioning the church’s traditional authority over moral matters. On the other is the growing number of priests and nuns who have developed a social conscience and are in opposition to these regimes. But perhaps the most important factor is the religious crisis in Latin America since it threatens the church’s very survival.

As a result of the statistical plunge in vocations, attendance of Mass and use of the sacraments, the church has been forced to take a hard look at its institutional apparatus in Latin America, including the thousands of schools in which it has educated the continent’s upper and middle classes. Church statistics show that these groups have traditionally been the backbone of Latin American Catholicism, providing priests, nuns and bishops, money, land and temporal influence. Whatever the causes — materialism, rationalism or Marxism — there has been a marked drop in support by middle and upper class youth since World War II, a decline that was accentuated during the 1960’s. Because of this erosion, the church has gradually turned to the impoverished masses for support.

While Latin America’s poor have a deeply religious cultural tradition, their links with the Catholic Church have always been tenuous. With the exception of such traditional good works as orphanages and homes for the aged, there was little attempt to reach the masses through schools or social action programs. The middle or upper class priest educated in urban seminaries usually found it impossible to understand or identify with the cultural values of illiterate peasants even though anthropologists have amply documented the importance of such values. In areas with Indian or African populations, the communications break-down was almost total since no attempt was made to synthesize the customs and beliefs of a Spanish Christian heritage with those of the native populace.

This situation is now changing in many Latin American countries. Either out of genuine concern for the poor or because of a realistic assessment of the statistics, hierarchy and base are gradually assuming a new role as spokesmen for and servants of the poor. In Mexico, for example, the Jesuits have closed or are closing many of their schools for the upper classes, including the prestigious Instituto Patria. Funds from the sale of these properties are being used to finance educational programs in the Mexico City slums to help stem an illiteracy rate that is expected to climb to 50 percent by 1990 if new schools are not opened.

CELAM’s Missions Department also is following an innovative course to help the church communicate with the masses. According to Maryknoll missioner John Gorski, the department’s executive secretary, the church is making “profound studies of popular faith as expressed in voodoo and spiritism, for example, in order to understand the people’s language and means of expression.

“The problem with the missionary was that he imposed a foreign culture on the people. Such appurtenances as schools and hospitals had little cultural meaning within society except for a privileged minority who by education were foreign-oriented and therefore the worst possible witnesses to their own culture.”

Many missionaries believe that a natural extension of popular faith is the married priest. This is due less to a debate over the spiritual importance of celibacy than the realities in Latin America, where there is only one priest for every 5,000 baptized Catholics and the majority of religious in seven countries are foreign-born.

Missionary programs to encourage vocations among native peoples frequently are unsuccessful. For example, only two out of one thousand Aymara Indians who started a seminary program in Peru and Bolivia actually were ordained. Then too, marriage often is a prerequisite for spiritual leadership in such native populations as the three million Aymaras, who have an unbroken cultural tradition dating back to the 5th century B.C.

“Why must a community find itself in the impossibility of frequently commemorating our Lord’s passion?” asked Lorscheider. “Why can’t the community choose for itself someone who will then be deputized by the bishop for the celebration of the Eucharist?

“Naturally there comes to the fore the problem of married priests, or rather, of the ordination of already married men where it may be necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist.

“This doesn’t mean that the celibacy of the priest isn’t needed, but along with it, where the need demands it, why can’t there also be married priests! It is a problem of which the church in Latin America is very much aware.”

Like “liberation,” popular faith and married priests have been under discussion in Latin America for nearly a decade. But it is only now, in a context of poverty, repression and religious crisis, that the bishops are beginning to see the need for an active commitment to change.

A jovial Brazilian intellectual, Lorscheider is viewed by church progressives as the ideal prelate to steer CELAM towards the goals originally stated at Medellin. Respected by conservatives for his diplomatic skills, he is not afraid to speak out with the progressives, particularly on the issue of human rights. Thanks largely to his efforts, the Brazilian military regime recently gave permission to leave the country to Manoel da Concecao dos Santos, a popular peasant leader imprisoned four times by the government. Concecao stayed in Lorscheider’s home in Fortaleza for over two months until the permission was granted.

Leader of the Catholic world’s second largest hierarchy after Italy, the Brazilian archbishop will need all his skills and authority to guide the Latin American Church through this decade. Although divisions are less apparant than in the early seventies, the church still is torn by factions on the left and the right. As a man of dialogue and consensus, Lorscheider believes it is possible to bridge these gaps by encouraging more communication between hierarchy and clergy, conservatives and progressives, particularly now that “a majority of the bishops are committed to Medellin.”

Church relations with the military regimes that rule two-thirds of the Latin American people pose a more difficult problem, precisely because of that commitment. Both hierarchy and base are under attack in seven Latin American countries where repression ranges from the imprisonment of religious and clergy to the closure of church schools and radio stations and, in the extreme cases of Brazil and Uruguay, to the threat of or actual expulsion of bishops.

Typical of this repression was the recent bombing of the San Salvador diocesan printing shop which publishes the church’s weekly newspaper “Orientacion,” Right-wing reactionaries have taken strong issue with the paper’s critical pastorals written by Mons. Luis Chavez y Gonzalez, the 75-year-old archbishop of El Salvador’s capital. Led by Chavez y Gonzalez, the country’s bishops have condemned the repression of Col. Arturo Armando Molina’s regime and blamed poverty and inflation on local hoarders, multi-national corporations and the consumer economy. The bishops also have protested the massacre of peasants and police brutalities in clashes with students.

In an interview after the bombing, the archbishop stated that “the people of El Salvador are highly dedicated to work, and I would thank those who are responsible for maintaining peace and order if they would give these people the opportunity to emerge from the poverty in which they find themselves to a state more worthy of a human being.”

It is this sort of plain speaking that has caused the hierarchy so many problems in Brazil and Chile. As Lorscheider points out, “Oppressive regimes are afraid of a conspiracy against the established order and we are questioning that established order.

“Life is not static but dynamic, and it is necessary to seek more perfect societies. We are saying that the style of existing regimes is not satisfactory and that other models must be found.”

The role of prophet has never been easy, however, particularly when in conflict with entrenched political and economic interests. In Latin America it poses a series of hazards, both spiritual and physical.

When bishops and priests protest, for example, it is not only at their personal risk. An outspoken critic of Brazil’s military regime, Dom Helder Camara says with justification that “the only reason I haven’t yet been jailed is because I am a bishop.” Yet many of Dom Helder’s followers have suffered imprisonment, torture and even death because of their association with him. The burden of that pain is clearly etched on the face of the gentle bishop.

As Jesuit writer Brian Smith notes, the Latin American Church must also confront the dilemma of how to protect its institutional network because without schools, newspapers and radio stations, for example, its prophetic voice would be greatly reduced. The bishops know, too, that while the church can act as society’s conscience, it has no real power to force reforms or a change in government.

For these reasons the hierarchy faces a difficult balancing act: criticism invites repression yet silence could cost the church its future following among the masses.

With all its current limitations, the church is the only surviving institution in the military regimes that offers some hope of change. Its task is to reach the mass of the people in its evangelization and renewal programs, writes Father Smith, since “awakening in them a sense of personal dignity, hope and confidence that they can change their fate will be crucial not only for the vitality and integrity of the church as a gospel community, but also for the future shape of Latin American societies.”

In taking up that challenge, the Latin American Church is fighting a historical adversary, too, by proving that Marx was wrong when he contended that religion is the opium of the people.

Received in New York on April 27, 1976

©1976 Penny Lernoux

Penny Lernoux, freelance writer and Latin American correspondent for The Nation, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Her subject is the theological, political, and sociological impact of the revolution in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. This article may be published with credit to The Nation, to Miss Lernoux as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and to the Rockefeller Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of either Foundation.