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Reprinted with permission from the U.S. National Catholic Reporter, July 2 and July 9, 2003

Changes in the Latin American Church During the Pontificate of John Paul II

José Comblin

JOÃO PESSOA, Paraíba, Brazil -- For Latin America, the pontificate of John Paul II began under the seal of a restoration. From Rome's point of view, the church in Latin America had to be freed of two evils: liberation theology and the basic Christian communities with their new way of reading the Bible. Pope John Paul announced his program in his address opening the third general conference of the Latin American Bishops at Puebla in 1979.

Then in 1984, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith condemned liberation theology in an extraordinarily severe document. This theology was treated as if it were a synthesis of all heresies. In 1985, the pope wrote a letter to appease the Brazilian episcopate, but liberation theologians were more or less persecuted; they were excluded from the large majority of dioceses and from all the seminaries and clerical formation centers.

The basic Christian communities were discredited, treated with suspicion and finally, suppressed in many dioceses. The new way of reading the Bible was condemned and since then has been restricted to a few dioceses. The pope's victory is almost complete. What he persecuted exists now clandestinely or in a few independent dioceses.

The basic core of this restoration was very clear: it was a return to the Council of Trent that would limit the active participation of the laity and restore full authority to the clergy. The basic goal was the return of clericalism. The new Code of Canon Law published in 1983 renewed the structure of the church that was determined in the code of 1917. The new code added a few inspiring phrases from the documents of the Second Vatican Council, but none had any juridical importance.

Thus it became clear that after the Second Vatican Council everything continued just as it was before, and nothing was changed in the structure of the church. The parish structure was consolidated. Anything that seemed to change it in any way was immediately limited and everything returned to normal, that is, just as it had always been. Everything that had come into being after the Second Vatican Council was limited to an insignificant minority that had no role in the structure of the church.

To complete this restoration program, Rome had to repress the institutions and groups that were the bearers of a new message based on Vatican II.

In the first place, the Vatican curia strived to devaluate the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) that had promoted the assemblies of Medellin in 1968 and of Puebla in 1979. The curia controlled the election of the directory of the conference in 1972. This did not cause a disruption at the assembly at Puebla, but it did make the assembly at Santo Domingo in 1992 insignificant.

The curia's best inquisitor, Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, ruled the conference with an iron hand. After this, little has been heard from CELAM. It still exists formally, but it has become totally irrelevant. It takes no more initiatives and simply applies the decrees that come from Rome. CELAM as an institution is dead.

The Latin American Conference of Religious [CLAR] existed beside and in harmony with CELAM. Thus Roman intervened and CLAR received a new directory that was totally subordinate and without creativity. CLAR also is dead, even though it still exists on paper.

Besides this, the Religious in Latin America feel controlled. All those who were committed to social change became hesitant after Fr. Pedro Arrupe, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) from 1965 to 1983, was deposed and two interventors were installed. This measure was a signal to the Jesuits in Latin America, and especially to the Jesuits in Central America. The pope also demanded the resignation of three priests who were ministers in the Sandinista Government in Nicaragua. Also he demanded that Fr. Fernando Cardenal be expelled from the Jesuits.

The signs of Rome's disapproval were clear, even as the Jesuits of Central America continued to act out their commitment to the poor and suffer the consequences, such as the death of their six companions at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Since then the majority of Religious have felt constrained, and they became more and more marginalized.

Pope John Paul chose conservative lay movements to be the protagonists of the new evangelization. These movements began in Europe in the context of or just after the Second World War: Communione e Liberazzione, Focolarinos, the Neocatechumenate and other less important groups. In Latin America, these movements strongly supported by the pope, grew quickly and became ever more important in the course pastoral activity would take. The Charismatic Renewal Movement joined with them and also received firm support.

Today, many dioceses in Latin America are completely orientated by these movements. These are lay movements, but they remain strictly subordinated to priests. They have been very efficient in the restoration of clericalism because they all are based on a personality cult, the cult of the priest.

Part Two

After the Second Vatican Council, Latin America had a significant number of bishops with strong personalities who tried to put into practice the aspirations of the council. They also made a commitment to the cause of the oppressed poor in their countries. The majority of the episcopal conferences also entered into the spirit of Medellin*.

Nowadays, the Latin American bishops are almost completely different from what they were 24 years ago. Pope John Paul has systematically chosen bishops who are against this spirit that permeated Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. The bishops appointed under this pope have weaker personalities and are completely submissive to the authority of the Holy See. They lack initiative and have no social commitment or option for the poor. Furthermore, the nunciatures in each country keep close watch over the clergy and do not permit any priest with personality or clearly defined social positions on to the list of candidates to the episcopate.

Bishops who followed the inspiration of Medellin have almost always been replaced with bishops who were contrary to this spirit. Their mission was to destroy everything that their predecessors had done. Some of these cases were scandalous. For example, in Brazil, we saw this happen with the successor of Archbishop Helder Câmara in Recife, and in São Paulo, Goiânia and Fortaleza.

Outside of Brazil similar situations transpired in San Salvador, Lima, and Santiago. We saw it with the succession of Bishop Samuel Ruiz in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. These are some of the worst cases, but the same thing occurred in hundreds of less known and less important dioceses. One can only imagine how many human and pastoral dramas were the result of these destructive successions.

As the bishops changed so did the national episcopal conferences. Only the Brazilian conference still has an independent voice. (But for how much longer?) A few have maintained a certain continuity with the past, as in Bolivia and Guatemala, but these are the exceptions. In other countries, the church has taken refuge in the sacristies from which they administrate their past. The pope has called for a "new evangelization," but he has chosen the least likely people to carry it out.

Fifty years ago, the shortage of priests seemed to be Latin America's foremost problem. At that time, Brazil had one priest for every 10,000 inhabitants. Today, after countless vocation campaigns, Brazil has one priest for every 11,000 inhabitants. There has been a certain increase in the number of ordinations, but the shortage persists. The vocation drives continue as if people believe that by continuing in the same way the problem will be solved one day. Perhaps 200 or 300 years from now.

The new clergy appearing on the scene are totally ignorant of what the church was and did in the 1960s and 1970s. They have been educated far from the real world, protected from all contacts that could be "dangerous" to their vocations. They live and work in their parishes, ignorant of what is happening in today's world. They are administrators of a parochial church. They are faithful observers of all canonical rules.

They are, above all, so worried about their priestly identity that they feel obliged to constantly affirm and strengthen it. They feel that today's world does not give them the prestige that priests received in the past.

John Paul has succeeded in forming a new priestly generation that conforms to his desires.

This evolution explains the passivity of the church as it faces social and human disasters caused by the neo-liberal economic system adopted in all Latin American countries. The poor in Latin America now face a crisis worse than we have ever seen, but the church has a strong voice only in Brazil.

The church is greatly responsible for the increase in social inequalities, for unemployment, for the misery the majority live in, for the unjust distribution of wealth among the workers, and for the progressive disappearance of all the socially positive laws that were passed in the last half-century.

What we need are concrete, significant actions. The bishops, of course, repeat the social doctrine of the church, but their message is so distant from reality that even the most fervent defenders of the neo-liberal system can affirm that they follow the teachings of the church.

Ecclesia in America, the official document of the synod on the church in America, suppressed all allusions that the bishops proposed about basic Christian communities and the martyrs of Latin America. Anything that could be a remembrance of the Vatican II church or that of Medellin was suppressed. The document presented two options for American Catholics: the media or the universities. These are -- by no coincidence -- the two paths to power in our modern society. It could not be made clearer that the priority of the church today is power.

Opus Dei and the Legionnaires of Christ are -- by no coincidence -- the perfect instruments for the conquest of power in politics or in the economy. The dominant sector of the church in Latin America thinks we are at a favorable moment for the conquest of more power in today's society. Implicitly, they imagine that this power will be useful for evangelization. Naturally, they know how to say this in a refined ecclesiastical vocabulary. However, translated into everyday language, they are saying you have to have power to be able to evangelize.

What do those who are not convinced by this strategy want? They want to return to what the church was during and after the Second Vatican Council; they want a return to the spirit of Medellin and of Puebla. Clearly, we are living in a different situation. In many ways the situation is worse now than it was then. The poverty that exists now in Latin America is worse than it was 50 years ago. Much of our traditional culture has been destroyed, not only the material culture, but also the moral culture.

We would have to return to our heritage, deepening it and widening it according to the demands of a crueler age. But the guidelines of the past are still valid because they were based on a return to the Gospel lived in the concrete existence of a people.

There are many people open to this vision, but they need a sign, they need leaders. And they have to keep on waiting because Rome will do nothing to stimulate, mobilize, or to bring together the tremendous energy of the People of God.


Fr. José Comblin, 80, was born in Belgium and has worked in Brazil since 1958. His name is listed among theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Hugo Assmann, Leonardo Boff, Clodovis Boff, Virgil Elizondo, Ignacio Ellacuria and others who brought liberation theology to the world's attention. In July, he taught a course called "Theology of the People of God" at the Maryknoll Summer Mission Institute in Maryknoll, N.Y.