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 CNS Story:

Latin America: Controversy, strong stands marked pope's work

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Pope John Paul II put his personal stamp on Latin America and its controversial issues of social justice, liberation theology and church political involvement.

He also supported bishops under the gun of military and Marxist governments.

In January 1979, fewer than 100 days after being elected, the pope traveled to Mexico to attend a major meeting of Latin American bishops, and, in initial news stories, his principal addresses were widely misunderstood as calls for the socially active Latin American clergy to stay out of politics.

In reality, the first pope from a communist-ruled country was warning church leaders during the Cold War to avoid entanglements in partisan politics or in partisan political ideologies. He did not tell them to sidestep political issues, nor did he avoid them.

Neither did the pope flinch from internal church controversies. He led a concerted counterattack against the use of Marxist concepts by church theologians, social thinkers and pastoral planners. This included strong criticisms of aspects of liberation theology coupled with disciplining priests and cutting into the authority of the Confederation of Latin American Religious to name their own leaders.

His influence also reached into the region's political life, shaping church priorities in dealing with secular leaders, especially the military governments in place when the pope took office in 1978.

Pope John Paul promoted democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Latin America, said Dominican Father Edward Cleary, political science professor and director of the Latin American Studies Program at Providence College in Rhode Island. He reinforced the social justice orientation of the Latin American church and encouraged the region's indigenous populations to work for their own identity and rights, Father Cleary said.

Msgr. Cristian Precht, who headed the Chilean church's main human rights agency under the military dictatorship of the 1970-80s, praised the pope for supporting bishops' conferences in countries where human rights were being violated.

The pope also took a direct hand in many specific situations in Latin America, a part of the world where the church has wielded strong social influence since the days of Spanish colonialism and where the overwhelming majority of the people profess Catholicism.

Papal actions included:

-- Successfully mediating a territorial dispute that had moved Argentina and Chile to the brink of war in the late 1970s.

-- Steering liberation theology away from the influence of Marxist social analysis while encouraging its thrust toward social reforms in a poverty-ridden region of the world.

-- Disciplining several priests who refused to leave their high government posts in Nicaragua's Marxist-influenced Sandinista government.

-- Traveling to Chile and Argentina to criticize human rights abuses under their military governments.

-- Advocating religious freedom and democratic reforms in communist-ruled Cuba.

-- Promoting major celebrations in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in Latin America while admitting that the missionary church's ties to the Spanish conquest produced "lights and shadows" for the region's indigenous inhabitants.

-- Stressing the need for tighter unity of the church in the Americas by organizing a Synod of Bishops for America in 1997 and issuing a major papal document in 1999 based on the synod. The document called for new evangelization programs and greater solidarity with the poor.

-- Going to Mexico in 2002 to canonize Juan Diego -- the 16th century Indian who saw the Marian vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe -- as a sign of the church's inculturation in Latin America.

Msgr. Precht, associate general secretary of the Latin American bishops' council from 1995 to 1999, noted that the pope's trips to Latin America "left a deep mark on people whose roots are Christian and Catholic."

The pope's globe-trotting included 18 trips to Latin America. The visits gave him firsthand knowledge of the region having the world's largest Catholic population. About 42 percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America.

The trips also "rekindled the loyalty to the church of the people," said Brian Smith, religion professor at Ripon College in Ripon, Wis., and a former missionary in Chile.

"He not only preached social justice, but fostered the strong pastoral renewal of the church," Smith said.

The pope held youth rallies and went to remote areas of countries in a part of the world where personal relationships are important, he added.

"The pope attracted incredible crowds. People could see the pope," he said.

The long papacy also allowed Pope John Paul to remake the Latin American hierarchy.

Msgr. Precht said the pope chose bishops who reflected his criticisms of free-market capitalism, his views on issues within the church, and his firm support of traditional family and sexual values.

Smith said the pope looked for bishops who were spiritually oriented and in tune with the church's position on celibacy, abortion and moral issues.

But the pope still wanted bishops committed to social justice and teaching the social doctrine of the church, Smith said.

The pope tried to reach a balance between social concerns and traditional moral issues, said Smith.

In the process, Pope John Paul "tried to rein in some strains of liberation theology" that used Marxist concepts, such as class struggle as the motor of history, said Smith. Some strains even tried to apply the theory of class struggle to the inner workings of the church, Smith said.

Papal measures included requiring Peruvian Father Gustavo Gutierrez, who coined the term "liberation theology," to revise some of his writings and silencing Franciscan Father Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian who eventually left the priesthood.

During a 1983 trip to Nicaragua, the pope wagged both his index fingers in anger at Father Ernesto Cardenal, who tried to kiss the papal ring, because the priest had joined the Marxist-influenced Sandinista government against papal wishes. The pope later suspended Father Cardenal from the active ministry and disciplined several other priests who held prominent government posts.

In a 1991 show of displeasure, the pope cut into the autonomy of the Confederation of Latin American Religious by having the Vatican choose its officers instead of allowing them to be chosen by the membership. The decision was made after several years of controversy over the content of a confederation evangelization program considered too Marxist by Latin American and Vatican officials.

On the pastoral level, however, the pope allowed a certain amount of flexibility and innovation.

While standing firm on an all-male celibate priesthood, Pope John Paul allowed an increase in the number of women serving as parish administrators in Latin America, Smith said.

Before Pope John Paul was elected in 1978, about one in eight parishes in Chile was run by a nun or laywoman because of the shortage of priests, he said. The situation was similar in many other Latin American countries, he added.

This ratio has quietly increased throughout Latin America, said Smith. These women are baptizing, burying the dead and conducting prayer services with the distribution of previously consecrated hosts, said Smith. They are doing basically what a permanent deacon does, he added.

"The pope didn't stopped this. He's provided the opportunity for pastoral practice to develop without changing the discipline," Smith said.


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