Something akin to a resurrection is taking place in the Catholic Church in Latin America, thanks to Pope Francis. The memory of great church leaders is being revived and honored; the sacrifice of bishops and priests killed under military dictatorships is being recognized and venerated; and some theologians once accused of unorthodoxy are being embraced.
The first Latin American pope has given the church in his home continent full citizenship in the universal church. Before his election, that 500-year-old church was treated somewhat as a second-class citizen by Rome. Some local church leaders were challenged for their defense of human rights under military dictatorships; many were regarded with distrust, in particular for sympathizing with or embracing liberation theology in its various articulations or for their different style of church leadership.
While this attitude first emerged in the last years of Paul VI’s pontificate, it flourished under St. John Paul II and, to an extent, also under Benedict XVI. This caused much suffering not only to theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez (in Peru), the Boff brothers (in Brazil) and others, but also to courageous pastors like Paulo Evaristo Arns, Ivo Lorscheiter and Hélder Câmara (Brazil), Juan Landázuri Ricketts (Peru), Taita Proaño (Ecuador), Óscar Romero (El Salvador), Samuel Ruiz García (Mexico) and many more.
Things have changed radically in the Vatican since Francis became pope. Here are four significant indicators of this change.
The first two relate to Latin America’s martyrs. Last February, Francis declared Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador a martyr, after the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints concluded that he was killed “out of hatred for the faith.” He was beatified on May 23.
Then on April 21, the Vatican gave clearance to open the cause for the canonization of Bishop Enrique Angelelli of La Rioja, Argentina, who was killed on Aug. 4, 1976. He was the first Latin American bishop to be killed “out of hatred for the faith” under the military dictatorships of the 1970s. Bergoglio knew and esteemed him; and in 2006, as president of the bishops conference, he celebrated Mass on the 30th anniversary of his death. As pope, he ordered the release of secret Vatican documents that led to the killers’ conviction last July.
A third indicator is the opening of the cause for the canonization of Bishop Hélder Câmara in the Diocese of Olinda and Recife in Brazil on May 3. The memory of this courageous pastor and great friend of the poor can now inspire a new generation of Christians.
The fourth relates to the new freedom theologians are experiencing in Latin America and elsewhere. Persons once suspected of holding unsound theological opinions and not trusted by Rome are experiencing a new climate under Francis. Two cases illustrate this.
Shortly after his election, Francis appointed as archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, the Argentine theologian who was his advisor at the Latin American Episcopal Conference meeting in Aparecida in 2007. Some years earlier, Bergoglio had to fight with the Vatican to have him named rector of the Catholic University of Buenos Aires. Pope Francis appointed him to participate in last fall’s meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family.
Another theologian, Peru’s Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P., the father of liberation theology, is also experiencing this new freedom. A holy and humble man, he studied theology in Belgium and France and came to know some of the great theologians of the Second Vatican Council, among them Yves Congar, O.P., Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., and Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P. But the Vatican did not trust him after his 1971 ground-breaking work, A Theology of Liberation, and was still investigating him in 2004. He joined the Dominicans when Cardinal Ricketts, his protector, died. Although some prelates still consider him theologically unsound, Pope Francis celebrated Mass with him and Archbishop (now Cardinal) Gerhard Müller on Sept. 11, 2013. In May Gutiérrez appeared on a panel at a Vatican press conference, and he delivered one of the keynote talks at the general assembly of Caritas Internationalis. All this would have been unthinkable five years ago.
There are more indicators of development, but I think the four given suffice as strong evidence that a new day has dawned for the church in Latin America under Pope Francis.