Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

Fellowship Title:

The Catholic Church’s Quiet Revolution in Latin America

Penny Lernoux
March 25, 1976

Fellowship Year

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela — In the decade since Camilo Torres died in an army ambush in the Colombian Andes, the legend of the guerrilla-priest has gradually faded. Though still revered in some left-wing student circles, Torres no longer inspires the emulation of rebel Latin American religious, many of whom look back on his gesture of joining the guerrillas as misguided or useless.

Not only has rural guerrilla warfare failed as a political weapon in the Latin American countries, violence itself is now viewed by the Catholic Church’s progressive wing as counter-productive to meaningful change in political and economic structures. More than Cuba, the recent political upheavals in Chile have shown the Latin American church how easy it is for the “oppressed to become the oppressors.” Any earlier enthusiasm for a Marxist “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Chile has withered with the experience of a violent right-wing military regime. Whatever democracy’s failings, it now seems infinitely preferable to the right- and left-wing dictatorships that rule two-thirds of the Latin American populace. And so Dom Helder Camara, the gentle Brazilian archbishop who preaches non-violent resistance, has replaced Torres as the continent’s prophet.

In contrast to the Colombian’s short-lived, much-publicized guerrilla exploits, hundreds of other priests have been carrying out a quiet, altogether different and more effective revolution during the past four years by making a political commitment to the poor. Non-partisan, non-violent but deeply profound, this commitment has propelled the Latin American church into a role of leadership in the Third World. By becoming “the voice of those without a voice,” by defending human rights and denouncing injustice and poverty, the church not only has renounced its historical ties to the traditional ruling classes of Latin America, but it also has sparked a religious revival with political and economic implications far more important than any guerrilla action.

Although a commitment to the “voiceless” was formally announced eight years ago in Medellin, Colombia, when the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) launched an unprecedented attack atainst the continent’s economic and political structures, it was left to the religious base to fulfill that commitment and most particularly to the Latin American Confederation of Religious (CLAR), representing 457 orders with 170,000 priests and nuns.

While the bishops have a general idea of economic and social conditions in their dioceses, it is the nuns and priests who deal with the daily problems of poverty. “There is an enormous difference between a statistic and the reality,” explained a Venezuelan Jesuit. “The bishops may agree that there is ‘institutionalized violence’ in Latin America because statistics show that two-thirds of the people are undernourished, badly housed, illiterate and poverty-stricken. But only by living in a slum or a rural village can one really appreciate what that violence means in human terms, in the unnecessary death of a child, in a family’s hunger, in the loss of faith.

“Some of the bishops may have thought the Medellin documents were more words. For us at the base they are a plan of action.”

It was the base, too, that first realized the full dimensions of the erosion of Catholicism in Latin America. Though 90 percent of the 310 million people are baptized Catholics, making Latin America the largest Catholic population in the world, less than 20 percent understand what being a Christian means. And this also explains the church’s political option for the poor. “The fundamental question that must guide us is, how to tell our brothers, to tell all men, of the love of God in a context of undernourishment, illiteracy, economic dependency, political margination, unemployment and unjust wages?” states a CLAR document entitled “Religious Life and the Political-Social Commitment.”

CLAR believes that the church must help to “liberate the people from all forms of oppression” so that “a new consciousness can be born that will replace fatalism with self-awareness.”

“Is it God’s will that an Indian child should die of hunger, or is it because of my country’s feudal land structures and the subhuman poverty of 2.4 million Indian peons?” asked Father Delfin Tenesaca, an Ecuadorian Indian priest.

“How can we expect people to be generous, loving Christians when it is a daily struggle to obtain enough money for even one bowl of meatless soup?” added Father John Halligan, a Brooklyn-born Jesuit working with Quito’s slum children.

Confronted with this sort of reality, CLAR maintains that no spiritual revival is possible in Latin America without physical well-being. The church must “insist that celestial goods are already here in this world,” explains CLAR.

The religious base also is coming to grips with the communication gap in Latin American Christianity. Religious orders working in the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano, for example, have encouraged the Indian population to develop a “popular religiosity” using local traditions and language to understand Christianity Instead of imposing European or U.S. cultural interpretations on the Indians. Here as in Brazil the result has been an upsurge in Catholicism but of a very different nature from the traditional Indian mission, much closer in spirit and form to Rome’s early Christian communities.

Unlike the United States or Europe where attempts at religious revival still are bogged down in theological hair-splitting, the Latin Americans have based their rescue mission on the larger issues of poverty and injustice. For example, the vow of poverty in CLAR’s definition means living, eating and working with the poor and identifying with their frustrations and aspirations, language and cultural traditions.

CLAR President Carlos Palmes reports an “exodus” to the alums and impoverished rural regions by priests and nuns formerly stationed in wealthy or middle-class dioceses. The Sacred Heart Congregation, for instance, has announced that new educational projects will only be started in the poorer regions of Latin America. The Jesuits at their last world congress likewise agreed that an option for social justice and for the poor is an essential part of evangelization. And in countries as diverse an Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, nuns are leaving the schools of the wealthy to start social action programs in the slums and rural areas.

Although CLAR recognizes the value of traditional good works, such as hospitals and orphanages, the emphasis today is on “conscientizing” the poor to their rights and responsibilities in cooperatives and labor unions, Indian communes and community action groups and through these to learn what democracy and participation mean. In Brazil, for example, 40,000 Catholic community “base groups” are learning from scratch how democracy works after 12 years of military dictatorship.

Church-sponsored “conscientization,” or civic awakening, is under bitter attack in most of the Latin American military regimes, but the violence arising from this conflict is quite different from that espoused by Camilo Torres and his early followers. While guerrilla warfare was a violent Marxist solution to Latin America’s social and economic inequalities, and therefore unacceptable to the vast majority of priests and bishops, quite the reverse is true of conscientization, which essentially means equal rights in a democratic society.

Church denunciations of illegal imprisonment, torture and other human rights violations are bad enough. But conscientization programs strike at the very heart of the power structures in Latin America.

Hungry, illiterate peasants do not lead revolutions in Latin America as Ernesto “Che” Guevara discovered to his grief in Bolivia. On the contrary, the record shows that political dissent grows in proportion to education. For years Argentine sociologists have been predicting the possibility of a civil war, and today their country is in the throes of a bloody conflict between right and left. The Argentines are the best fed, most literate people in South America. Cuba, it should be added, had one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean when Fidel Castro launched his successful revolution.

Although CLAR admits it may be utopic to believe that the church can guide the Latin Americans towards new, nonviolent political solutions that are neither of the extreme left nor the extreme right, the confederation insists that it is important to try. “Otherwise, the church will be left behind and will lose whatever influence it still has in Latin America,” explained a CLAR spokesman.

By political definitions, CLAR does not mean political parties since Latin America’s priests and nuns feel they would lose their effectiveness if they took a partisan position. Catholic conscientization of base groups aims to promote civic maturity and Christian values, particularly the commandment to love thy neighbor. For example, in Brazil if a member of a base group is imprisoned, the other members of the community make sure that his family is cared for and, if it is an agricultural area, that his small plot of land is tilled. Here again the spirit of the group is very similar to the small, democratic organizations of the early Christians but in a more modern context, such as a community barn raising in which all the neighbors participate.

In countries like Brazil where a long reign of military dictatorship has eliminated most political traditions, the church’s conscientization programs offer the only possibility for the birth of political ideas. “It is now being openly stated in Brazil that the church offers the only institutional alternative to the military government,” said a Brazilian Franciscan.

This is not to suggest a theocracy or even a Christian Democratic government. Rather, the Brazilian church sees itself as a beacon, the one institution in the country powerful enough to challenge the military government on the violation of human rights and to encourage the gradual growth of democratic traditions which “one day will allow the people to choose their own form of government,” explained the Franciscan.

As in Chile and Paraguay, the Brazilian church’s power no longer depends on material possessions or its influence on those in government. (Most of Brazil’s bishops are in open opposition to the military regime.) It stems instead from a decision to come out clearly on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Because of the church’s moral authority and because it has no partisan motives, it has endured where labor unions, student federations and political parties have not.

While the Catholic Church has always been a political institution in Latin America, this is an entirely new stance, rejecting the churches old ties to the landed aristocracy and industrial elite for a more critical, even defiant attitude towards existing power groups.

The change has not taken place overnight. Nor is it uniform everywhere in Latin America. But the denominators are common even if the pace of change is not.

Just as education encourages political awareness, repression has forced the church to question its traditional political ties in Latin Aserica, particularly since the Vatican Council II of 1962-5 when the church denounced poverty and social injustice.

By asking questions, by criticizing injustices, the church has invited more repression, and this in turn has further alienated state and church. It also has increased church unity. In Paraguay and Brazil, for example, where military regimes have ruled longer than anywhere else in South America, bishops, priests and nuns are singularly united in their opposition to the government. Equally significant, these churches are in the vanguard of the progressives with an enlightened political outlook.

The Mexican church, in contrast, is “conformist,” according to Brother Jose Luis Razo, one of CLAR’s representatives in Mexico, and this is due in large part to religious freedom, he believes. “The situation probably would be quite different if the Mexican church had to face the repression experienced by the Chilean church or if priests working in the slums were harassed by military intelligence services as has happened in Argentina.”

The other important denominator in the change has been the push from the religious base, which while rejecting Camilo Torres’ violent methods and Marxist partisanship has come to recognize the justice of his complaints against poverty and repression. CLAR has played a major role in this awakening through 400 hemisphere conferences and national seminars and a constant flow of publications emphasizing the need for a better understanding of the economic and political causes of poverty and injustice in Latin America. Last year, for example, the Bogota-based organization held six courses for Latin American superior generals, many of whom subsequently organized their own local courses to pass on what they had learned at the CLAR meetings.

“Priests and nuns are like the oars of a boat; without them a bishop cannot row,” runs a church saying. And this is increasingly evident in Latin America. Vatican II not only encouraged the development of a social conscience, it also laid the foundations for a more democratic church in which laymen, priests and nuns are as important, in their own way, as the bishops. While ecclesiastical authority still is a basic precept in the Latin American church, the bishops no longer can expect the flock to follow blindly where they lead, not when the floodgates were opened by Vatican II. Moreover, every priest and nun in Latin America counts because there are so few to cover the population’s needs – only one priest for every 5,000 baptized Catholics versus one for each 730 Catholics in the United States. Consequently, there has been more consultation and more exchange of ideas between bishops and priests, and in this sense the base is gradually conscientizing the hierarchy.

The combination of repression and conscientization can work radical changes in a country’s church, the best example of which is Chile. Deeply divided during the Socialist government of Salvador Allende, it has closed ranks since the right-wing military regime took power in 1973.

While its role was primarily to mediate and pacify in the early days following the coup (churches were used for the voluntary return of arms by the civilian population), the church was soon thrust into a position of protest against the violation of human rights. It also is keeping alive some memory of Chile’s democratic traditions by giving its protection to labor unions and slum community action groups. “The church is the only institution in Chile today that can afford the luxury of protest,” said a Chilean Jesuit.

Unity in diversity is not unusual. In Chile’s case, however, it has been reinforced by a change in theological and political thinking.

The primary cause of the split in the church during the Allende regime was the militancy of a small, left-wing group of priests called Christians for Socialism. Like Allende’s own Socialists, they were impatient, extreme and sometimes narrow-minded. Many of their attacks against the church hierarchy were personally insulting, particularly against Cardinal Raul Silva, who was cast in the role of chief villain because the church was not willing to rush headlong into revolution. Yet it is Cardinal Silva, more than any other man in Chile, who is responsible for the church’s strong defense of human rights under the military regime.

Just as many of Allende’s followers have since had cause to reflect on the folly of rushing revolution, priests and nuns all over Latin America have learned from this experience that violence only engenders more violence. The legend of Camilo Torres died with Allende.

While one group of religious was retreating from the brink on the extreme left, another was moving away from the right because of the repression of Chile’s military regime. Both have been forced to rethink the positions they assumed under the Allende government with the result, said a Chilean priest, that there is “a far greater degree of political tolerance.”

This is also reflected in the lay population. “People who used to say that a Marxist revolution would be carried out at any cost, even if it meant killing wealthy Chileans, have changed their opinions entirely because they themselves have suffered imprisonment and torture,” he said. “They and their families now know that the political price is too high in human suffering.”

As in Uruguay, which also is run by a right-wing military regime, a popular art has emerged from the prisons emphasizing love of fellow man and forgiveness. “It is a terrible price to pay, but this repression has been a cleansing experience,” said the Chilean priest.

The experience in Chile also has brought the theologians down from the clouds. The theology of liberations a theological explanation for conscientization first formulated in the late sixties, has since been renamed the theology of captivity to reflect the change in political conditions in Latin America. But it is more than a change in name. Born of the experience of religious on Latin American university campuses where the revolutionary ferment is always the strongest, the theology of liberation was one of elites, said a Brazilian theologian, because it conceived solutions to political and economic problems from the viewpoint of those at the top of the social ladder. “The theology of captivity goes right back to the bottom and will work up from there,” he said. “How can we develop a theology of the masses unless it comes out of the experience of the base groups?”

So far, that experience suggests some form of Catholic socialism, not the rabid excesses of Christians for Socialism but a more human, truly Christian form of government suited to Latin America’s peculiar cultural heritage. “The Europeans are extremely wary of this sort of thinking,” said Father Enrique Systermans, secretary general of the Union of Superior Generals in Rome. “But that is because they have had a different historical experience. It may be that socialism would fit the Latin Americans’ needs.”

“Socialism is a bad word for many people,” added Father Albert Dumont, secretary of the Canadian Confederation of Religious, “but only because of different interpretations. In Canada, for example, we may not call it that but we have a socialist government for all practical purposes.”

Whatever the political answers, they will not be immediate or easy. “Liberation is the fruit of a long and painful process,” warns the CLAR document on social-political commitment. “That is why the religious, more than any other, must continue to hope even though there is no hope of immediate change. The religious will sow, probably without seeing the seed grow, the flowers bloom or the fruit ripen.”

The religious also sows at the risk of his or her life. “The time has come for the church to take a stand and to put its life on the line,” explained Msgr. John Joseph Fitzpatrick, president of the Latin American Division of the U.S. Conference of Bishops. “And there can be no doubt that in Latin America this will mean a new form of martyrdom.”

But not the sort of spectacular death chosen by Camilo Torres. Now there is another sort of risk and commitment, the quiet courage of unarmed people working against all odds in slums and impoverished rural areas. Last year two such men were killed in Honduras, one an American, the other a Colombian. Fathers Jerome Cypher and Ivan Betancourt were brutally tortured before they were murdered by the henchmen of the large landowners in Olancho Department in eastern Honduras. Their crime was in giving support to a local peasant union.

Honduras is one of nearly a dozen Latin American countries where priests and nuns have been imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed. Thirty clerics have been imprisoned in Brazil alone. And there will be more repression, warns CLAR’s president, Carlos Palmes.

For all this, the frustrations of the sixties when Torres’ option seemed the only means of protest have tended to disappear with the clarification of political and social goals. At the same time the religious life is undergoing a profound renewal through the church’s commitment to the poor. The number of desertions from the church is declining and vocations are beginning to climb, reports Palmes. Although the church still faces innumerable problems, priests and nuns agree that there is a greater sense of hope, and of challenge, than there has been for years.

Meeting in Los Teques, Venezuela, in February for CLAR’s sixth general assembly, 90 delegates from 20 Latin American countries described a hundred different problems, in their work with the poor, in social communications, in the religious life itself. But there was no sense of despair. On the contrary, most agreed with Palmes that “the Latin American church is at the richest moment in its history.”

Received in New York on March 25, 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.