Catholic Church

Medellin and the aftermath of the Sccond Vatican Council

It was from a situation of dependence on Europe that liberation theologians sought to free themselves. In so doing, they could call upon original tradition worth reviving. But the awareness of the tradition grew slowly. In 1968, the conventional date for the start of 'liberation theology' in the modern sense, the stress fell on what was new. The Latin American bishops, meeting at Medellin/ made the crucial move. How was the Christian doctrine of 'salvation' to be presented in terms that would be intelligible to the suffering peoples of Latin America? 'Salvation' always implies a metaphor, whether of restoration to health after sickness or 'redemption' from slavery. The Latin American bishops decided that the best translation of Salvation' for their oppressed peoples was liberation. To be meaningful, however, they would have to stand with their oppressed peoples. The phrase 'option for the poor', first used in a letter from Pedro Arrupe to the Jesuits of Latin America in May 1968, expressed this truth.

'Liberation theology'3 came into being to expand on and explain these two insights. Its originality consisted in the fact that it was not just a theology about liberation, as the theology of 'grace' was about grace. It was for liberation, promoting and propagating it. Likewise, it was not just a theology about the poor, it was theology for the poor. So it would be an active practical theology intended to make a difference in the real world: the Marxist concept of praxis indicated that. The stress of liberation theology lay as much on orthopraxis (right action) as on orthodoxy (right thinking). But despite these claims to practical effects, liberation theology could only qualify as serious theo-logos, discourse about God, if it spoke relevantly of God,

The Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II) had such momentous consequences for the Catholic Church. Yet Latin American theologians admit that in many respects the agenda of Vatican II did not concern them. The more progressive bishops, like Helder Camara from Recife, Brazil, were committed to the idea of the 'Church of the poor', but they were a minority among Latin Americans. The Council was in danger of passing Latin America by* There was little cohesion at Vatican II between the Latin American bishops. Yet the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM), the body designed to bring them together, had been in existence for ten years. In 1955 they had met for a 'conference' during the Eucharistic Congress in Rio de Janeiro. This was a novel type of meeting, unprecedented in Church history. It was summoned by the Holy See, presided over by a Cardinal Legate, Adeodato Piazza, named by Pope Pius XII, and its conclusions were revised by Rome before being published. This meeting of seven cardinals and ninety bishops was devoted to a 'new pastoral programme'. Four questions prevailed; the priest shortage, religious education, social problems, and the plight of the Amerindian population.

Towards the end of Vatican II Pope Paul VI delivered a substantial pastoral exhortation5 to the Latin American bishops on the tenth anniversary of the foundation of CELAM. It was devoted to the need for pastoral planning on the continental level. Paul VI was briefed by the president and vice-president of CELAM, Manuel Larrain, Bishop of Talpa, Chile, and Helder Camara,

Paul VI had measured the problem of two models of the Church, In the triumphalist model the Church was the unabashed ally of the established order which it sanctioned. In Chile and Colombia Our Lady, Mary the mother of Jesus, was regarded as honorary commander in chief of the armed forces. In Brazil the arch-reactionary Cardinal Sigaud equated modest proposals for land reform with 'atheistic communism'.4 Paul VI warned that the gap between rich and poor was widening, and that Catholics had to become sensitive to social justice otherwise what he called 'the social messianism' of Marxism would prove attractive and promote 'violent revolution'. The remedy, Paul VI averred, was not sterile anti-communism but that integration of life and faith which Gaudium et Spes, the Council's pastoral constitution recently promulgated, had so strongly asserted: 'The Christian who neglects his temporal duties, neglects his duties towards his neighbour and towards God, jeopardising his eternal salvation.' This was the starting point for the denunciation of any false 'dualism' that would lead Christians to shirk action here below on the pretext of otherworldly spirituality. That was decidedly not the wave of the future.

Pope John XXIII spoke frequently of the need to 'discern the signs of the times*.5 Pope John used this idea to draw attention to (what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Churches1. What this meant in practice was that the Holy

Spirit speaks through the people and movements of our time, Grace does not come merely through institutional channels. Speaking of the concern for human rights and where the impulse to defend them comes from, Caudium et Spes says: 'God's Spirit, who with a marvellous Providence directs the unfolding of time and renews the face of the earth is present to this development {adest huic evolutioni). The ferment of the Gospel arouses in men's hearts a demand for dignity that cannot be stifled' (GS26). This 'demand for dignity' is another sign of the times, another appeal of the Holy Spirit-Moreover, the magnificent opening chord of Gaudium et Spesy declaring the solidarity between the 'hopes and the fears, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of our time' and those of the Church, added the all important clause 1 especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted\

1971 was the annus mirabilis of liberation theology. In May Octogésima AdvenienS) marking the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, admitted that social situations were so diverse that no one teaching could be given to cover them all. 'Such is not our intention, nor our mission/ Paul VI admitted. He meant that the task of 'discerning the signs of the times' would henceforward have to be done on the level of the local church. He could provide some guidelines, as he did in presenting a discriminating approach to variants of 'socialism'. It could take the form of sociological analysis, a strategy for radical change, a commitment to the class war, or a totalitarian philosophical system atheistic in character. There was much argument about whether it was possible to make such distinctions. The Jesuits, in the person of Pedro Arrupe, thought it might be possible to use Marxist analysis while rejecting its philosophical positions.

Liberation theology scored an even greater success in October 1971 when the Synod of Bishops declared the 'proclamation of justice' to be *a constituent part of the preaching of the gospel'. It was not an afterthought or postscript to be tacked on when the spiritual message was complete: it was integral to the gospel. However this victory was challenged at the next Synod in 1974. The Brazilian cardinal Alfredo Scherer, a papal nominee, complained that liberation theology was provoking grave dissension in the Church. More menacing was the challenge from Alfonso López Trujillo, then auxiliary bishop of Medellin and secretary of CELAM, Trujillo charged that liberation theology was unduly influenced by Marxist thinking, identifying the poor of the Gospels with Marx's proletariat and thus encouraging the class war. This anticipated later CDF (Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) criticisms. But its only immediate effect was to make Paul VI very cautious in Evangelü Nuntiandi¡ the synthetic document in which he tried to resolve the contradictions of the 1974 synod. Cautious - but not negative. Base communities were all right, provided they were ecclesially

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