issue 155 | January 1986
Rome silences the critics
IT'S not often the Vatican pounces publicly on those it considers to have strayed from the doctrinal paths of Catholicism. But when it does it seems to be the Latin Americans that feel the full weight of Rome's iron hand.
Pope John Paul II has clearly admonished priests for mixing faith and politics. The Church must be deeply concerned with the poor, he told thousands during his 1983 tour of Latin America and the Caribbean. But this concern, he warned, must not tempt priests to hold political office.
The only country in Latin America where the Catholic clergy has been intimately involved in government is Nicaragua. As if to underline the seriousness of his message the pontiff openly chastised Nicaraguan Culture
Minister Father Ernesto Cardenal at a huge welcoming ceremony in Managua. Fr Cardenal is one of four priests in the ruling Sandinista government. He is also a deeply faithful Catholic and a passionate believer in the theology of liberation.
Liberation theology is now familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics the world over. It's more than 20 years since the Second Vatican Council put the plight of the world's poor at the centre of the Church's agenda. At the 1968 meeting of the Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, the theology of liberation was affirmed by the bishops who called on the Church to identify more with the poor and to struggle with them for their total liberation. The Church, they said, must deal with structural conditions that cause human suffering - to try and build a more just, more equitable social order.
Liberation theology has always been regarded with suspicion by Latin America's ruling elites who see this 'option for the poor' as straightforward political meddling. And there is no denying that liberation theology has inspired a whole generation of community and labour leaders in the last two decades.
But the Vatican is not only worried about priests who flirt with politics. It's also upset with Catholic theologians whose academic probing in the intellectual minefield of liberation theology threatens to challenge the hierarchy of the Catholic Church itself.
Earlier this year the Vatican once again jumped into the fray by publicly muzzling one of Latin America's most respected liberation theologians, Fr Leonardo Boff.
The Brazilian priest ran into trouble with Rome because of a 1981 book recently translated into English (Church: Charism and Power - Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church). In this work Boff shifted the traditional focus of liberation theology away from the political and social structures which create and maintain poverty to structural faults within the church itself. The hierarchy was not amused.
Fr Boff's archbishop, the conservative Cardinal Eugenio Salles, referred his book over the heads of the national conference of Brazilian bishops to the chambers of the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Sacred Congregation is led by another arch-conservative and number two at the Vatican, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The book was described darkly as containing 'dangerous ideas'. Boff himself was ordered to make no public statements and to abstain from preaching, teaching and writing for the Brazilian Catholic magazine of which he was a staff member. He was also told to submit for censorship any theological writings he wanted to publish.
Boff's punishment sparked worldwide protests both inside and outside the Church. In a note issued immediately after the Vatican's censure, ten Brazilian bishops said the action was 'damaging to human rights and to theologians' freedom of investigation and contrary to the testimony of Christian liberty and charity'.
Boff was obedient. He accepted the punishment with grace, issuing only a brief statement to clarify some of his beliefs which he said were commonly misunderstood. For starters, Boff stressed that he was not a Marxist. Nor did he believe the Gospel was intended only for the poor. But in circumstances like the present, he underlined the clear mission of the Church as one of liberation.
In this emphasis on liberation Fr Boff is no different from hundreds of other Latin American priests and nuns. This new socially conscious theology was a breath of fresh air for the Church in Latin America. In the late 1960s and early 1970s a kind of shock wave rippled through Catholic slum communities and rural villages from El Salvador to Brazil. In its wake came a vigorous new energy.
In Brazil, especially, there emerged a radically different 'church of the people' which broke away from the traditional style of worship dominated by the clergy. Comunidades de base, small gatherings of 20-50 people, sprung up throughout the country. Today there are more than 80,000 of these small Catholic groups in Brazil alone.
These 'base communities' began to interpret Christ's message in the light of their own social conditions. The Gospel was not only a source of spiritual succour, it now became a kind of godly imprimatur for social action. These Catholics, mostly rural peasants and city slum dwellers, were learning that politics were also God's concern and that being true to Christ's teaching meant organizing to defend the interests of the poor - their interests.
The 'base communities' also forced the institutional, church to take a hard look at itself. In these small, intimate gatherings power is shared and positions of leadership rotated. Each member of the community is respected. The goal is to make a kind of universal priesthood of all believers.
This democratic structure was understandably threatening to the priestly status quo. Redistributing leadership power through each member of the group radically changed the role of the priest. It made him no longer an isolated authority figure, but instead an equal member of the community of faith.
It is no coincidence that these 'base communities' have been most influential in Fr Boff's Brazil. Indeed, it is Boff's enthusiasm for these dynamic Catholic groups that has landed him in hot water with the Vatican.
According to Fr Boff these 'base communities' offer a new vision for the Church. He questions the current centralization of power and argues that decision-making has been dominated overwhelmingly by a male elite, alienating most of the laity, and especially women. He accepts the legitimacy of the authority of the Church but maintains that it must be open to change. The Church does not exist for itself, he believes. It must be in service of the community of faith.
Intolerance and fear of change, Boff intimates, may be the death knell of the Church. The major problem is that the Catholic Church operates out of a centuries-old authoritarian system which conflicts with the role of liberation that it is called on to play in the modern world.
It is this focus on the power structure of the Church itself that the Vatican appears to fear. But it's hard to see how gagging those who drag these 'dangerous ideas' into the public arena will help solve the problem.
Whatever the outcome of the Boff case, liberation theology is here to stay - with all the 'dangerous' consequences that implies for the Church hierarchy in its palaces in Rome and elsewhere.
With files from Nick Terdre in Sao Paulo