Good News From Brazil: A report on the Latin American bishops' meeting
Author’s note: The following reflections were written in June, a few weeks after the Fifth General Conference of the Episcopate of Latin America and the Caribbean was held (May 13-31) in Aparecida, Brazil. The conference focused on what it means to be disciples and missionaries of Christ today. I was in Aparecida, not as a delegate, but as an adviser on the outside to several Peruvian bishops. I wrote this article in the light of the fourth and last revision of the bishops’ document, before the Vatican approved a final version in mid-July. In the light of that official text, known as the Aparecida document, I have had to make only one minor change in what I had written. The official text, with only very minor changes, has turned out to be what the bishops in Aparecida sent to Rome at the end of the conference.
What does the Aparecida conference mean for the Latin American church? The gathering is significant as an important reaffirmation of the Latin American church’s identity after the Second Vatican Council, an identity first vigorously affirmed at the bishops’ conference in Medellín in 1968. The meeting also marks a new beginning for a church conscious of important changes that have taken place with regional effects, such as the impact of globalization; the growing disparities between the wealthy who benefit from the new economic reality and millions of the poor who are excluded; the threat of ecological devastation; and the significant presence of Pentecostal churches in many countries. The Aparecida document tackles these and other challenges, and on the whole it deserves high marks.
The inaugural address of Benedict XVI served as a benchmark for the bishops’ work. The pope touched on themes that for the last 40 years have been central to the Christian experience in Latin America. He made a slip when he said that the Gospel was not “an imposition” on the Indian populations of the continent during the conquest and colonization. Certainly that great Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas would have had a problem with such a statement. While the press and Hugo Chávez made hay with it, the slip certainly ought not overshadow the basic thrust of Benedict’s remarks. Upon his return to Rome, Benedict quickly clarified what he had really wanted to say in that sentence.
The basic thrust of the address stems from the pope’s affirmation that “the preferential option for the poor is implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us in order to enrich us with his poverty” (see 2 Cor 8:9). Benedict’s affirmation explicitly confirms the thesis grounding both experience and theological reflection in Latin America: that God’s love extends to all persons and is most especially directed to the poor. The preferential option for the poor excludes no one; it declares the universality of God’s love. Benedict’s words were also an implicit rejection of the idea that such an option, which is not “optional” for followers of Jesus, is based on sociological or ideological premises. Instead, its ground is faith in Jesus.
The words quoted above do not come at the beginning of Benedict’s address, but throughout his talk, the pope discussed themes that can be understood in light of the preferential option for the poor [see sidebar]. He also raised concerns related to the internal life of the church—the need for more priestly vocations, religious life, the role of the laity, the urgent need for greater attention to adult formation in the faith—and devoted whole sections to family and youth. None of these topics is new. As a friend said, “All the stuff in the speech is ‘old hat;’ he is saying the same thing we have been saying for many years.” That is precisely the point: Benedict put his seal of approval on a way of reflecting and living out the Gospel that has its roots in Medellín and in the succeeding episcopal conferences. The pope’s address invited the bishops to be faithful to their inheritance when facing up to the challenges of today’s world.
The Work of the Conference
More than 160 bishops and 35 to 45 delegates worked overtime for nine days (the time dedicated to writing a final draft) to produce a text that may guide the Latin American church for the next decade. Their document went through four revisions, and the one sent to Rome filled 120 legal size pages of small print.
The bishops’ first order of business was deciding how to structure the document. The Medellín and Puebla documents had been structured on the Christian social discernment process “see, judge, act.” The 1992 Santo Domingo conference rearranged that method. It put judging (i.e., theological reflection) before seeing (i.e., the assessment of reality), reasoning at the time that Christian reflection and action cannot be grounded on mere sociological considerations. A fallacy lay in their thinking that for a Christian “seeing” reality is only a sociological task, when actually, from a Christian perspective, the effort to “see” is always made in the light of the Gospel. Before the gathering at Aparecida convened, a great majority of national episcopal conferences requested that the see-judge-act structure of the bishops’ document be reinstated. Despite attempts by a small minority at the conference to stay with the Santo Domingo method, the assembly overwhelmingly chose to return to the structure initiated in Medellín. That decision may not appear to be significant, but it is. Since many bishops had voiced a hope that Aparecida would not be a rerun of Santo Domingo, which had been dominated by the Roman delegation, the decision on how to structure the document was crucial. The outcome was not in any way a declaration of independence from Rome, but rather an affirmation of Latin American Catholic identity. And Benedict’s opening address played a role in the bishops’ decision.
Several major themes laid out in the bishops’ document will, one hopes, serve the church and Latin American society well in the coming years. Four of them merit discussion.
A glaring omission in the preparatory document leading up to the gathering in Aparecida was a virtual lack of reference to the kingdom of God, a central focus of Jesus’ preaching and practice and a dominant theme in Latin American theology. The kingdom reminds us that what Jesus proposed and initiated was a transformation of humanity individually and collectively, according to God’s will. The church is the servant of the kingdom whose full realization extends to all. The kingdom cannot be reduced in the life of the church to preaching and catechetics, however important these activities obviously are. Accepting the invitation to become disciples of Jesus includes a commitment to take part in our small, often fumbling ways in this transformation of the whole of life, both personal and social, so desired by the Lord. The Aparecida document (No. 384) reaffirms the centrality of the kingdom for true Christian living:
As disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ so that our peoples attain life in him, we are called evangelically and in the perspective of the kingdom to assume the urgent tasks that contribute to the dignity of every human being. [We are called] to work with all citizens and institutions for the well-being of every human person.... Structures must be created that serve a social, economic and political order in which inequalities are overcome and in which opportunities are open for every person.
The preferential option for the poor is placed within the perspective of the kingdom, God’s will for a new humanity, especially for the poor. To emphasize this the document cites a decisive Gospel text: “Everything that has to do with Christ has to do with the poor, and everything related to the poor refers to Jesus Christ: ‘Whatsoever you did to any of these my least sisters and brothers, you did it to me’” (Matt 25:40 at No. 393).
Ecology is a major concern of the Latin American bishops today. Not only is South America one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, but it contains the Amazon rain forest, which alone produces close to 30 percent of the planet’s oxygen. The continent also has immense resources in water, minerals, timber, oil and gas—all of which are endangered by unfettered economic exploitation. The conference document forcefully expresses the bishops’ concern over the growing devastation and contamination of the continent and, in particular, concern for the campesinos and native populations whose livelihood is curtailed by such damage. The struggle to defend the natural world is a new way of living out the preferential option for the poor. The document puts it this way (No. 473):
The natural resources of Latin America suffer today an irrational exploitation, which leaves [in its path] a march of destruction and even death throughout our region. The present economic model must assume an enormous responsibility. It privileges the excessive search for wealth, over and above the lives of individuals and peoples and the care of the natural environment. The devastation of our forests and its biodiversity by selfish and depredatory practices implies a moral responsibility of those who so act. It puts in danger the lives of millions of persons and, especially, the habitat of campesinos and Indians.
The Aparecida document declares that the present style of globalization has produced “new faces of the poor”—migrants, for example, and vast numbers of people without access to the new technologies. Globalization benefits a select few, not a majority. The document proposes that the church join the struggle for a new form of globalization, which the bishops call the globalization of solidarity (No. 406), which would entail working for the common good:
Work for the common global good must promote a just regulation of the world’s economy, financial movements and commerce. It is urgent that external debt be cancelled to make investment in the social sector viable. Regulations must be put in place to prevent and control capital speculation. Justice in commerce must be promoted along with the progressive lowering of protectionist barriers by the powerful. Just prices for the raw materials produced by poor countries are urgently needed. There must be norms created for attracting and regulating foreign investment and other services.
The bishops also insist that the church in its work for the common good give special attention to the political leaders of our countries, a majority of whom call themselves Christian, but some of whom are frequently unfaithful to the demands of the Gospel in their public lives and actions.
One of the most significant pastoral experiences in Latin America over the last 40 years has been the growth of grassroots Christian communities, which go by different names in different countries. But whatever the name, these are small groups of men and women, especially among the poor, who gather together each week to reflect on the Gospel and its relevance for daily living. The base communities have been accused of “Protestantizing” the Catholic faith, because they invite a supposedly dangerous, free interpretation of Scripture. In fact, most of these communities are integrated into the pastoral plans of the local parish; they are not embryos of any parallel or competing church. The communities have served as a way for poor people to come to know and practice the Gospel.
The Aparecida document (No. 178) puts its stamp of approval on the base-community movement in Latin America:
In the experience of some Churches in Latin America and the Caribbean the Ecclesial Base Communities have served as schools, which have helped form Christians committed to their faith, missionaries and disciples of the Lord, as witnessed by the unselfish giving of so many of their members even to the shedding of their blood. They recover the experience of the first communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles (2:42-47).
The document goes on to urge the bishops to be careful that the base communities do not identify the Gospel with any particular ideological or political movement. That may have been the case with a few communities, but it certainly does not reflect the experience of most base communities throughout Latin America. That the document approves the pastoral experience of the base communities is good news indeed.
A Final Word
The Aparecida document is good news for Latin America and its church. It is not, however, a perfect document. It contains quasi-silences on topics that one would have hoped the bishops would address more forthrightly, such as the place of women in the church and in society and the critical shortage of priests. Both concerns are treated in the text, but what is said is simply not enough. On these points, the document does not get a passing grade. But in fairness to the bishops, it must be noted that these concerns touch on structures present throughout the church; they are not just Latin American problems.
I have not been able to keep up with all the press reactions to the conference and its document. A minority of those I have seen strike me as the type of nit-picking criticism that sees a tree, but not the forest. This is especially true in the attention some gave to the Roman delegation, suspecting that there had to be some kind of top-level conspiracy afoot. In fact, the Roman contingent was surprisingly subdued. Benedict’s initial address had something to do with that. In no way was the Roman presence felt as it was in Santo Domingo.
At Aparecida, the bishops took the ball that Benedict threw them and played their own game. One of the priest delegates at the close of the conference put it this way, “The spirit of Medellín is alive!” It is a spirit alive and well and open to the new challenges of our day.