A Tale of Two Churches: Battling for the Soul of Latin American Catholicism

Article excerpt

The hillside shantytown of La Carapita lies on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela. Its houses, which often hold up to ten people, are constructed mostly of thin cardboard and tin. Their religious leader is a spunky, 31-year-old nun known as Lourdes Fuentes. In her flip-flops and jeans she conducts a mass that calls upon the members of her congregation to interpret the Bible for themselves and asks them to share publicly their personal opinions regarding Jesus and the Scriptures.

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The priest who is formally assigned to this town, Juan Solorzano, rarely visits the congregation of La Carapita. He finds the town to be too dangerous and prefers to remain safely in his upper-middle class neighborhood in Caracas. When he does visit, however, he offers an austere service with no participation, which stands in stark contrast to the services of Lourdes Fuentes. Whereas Fuentes believes in a God who encourages the poor to empower themselves, Solorzano instructs the villagers to embrace their poverty and hunger so as to bring them closer to God. Solorzano also warns against the use of condoms, which he says are ineffective, and abortion, which he labels a sin.

He and other members of the Church hierarchy have scolded Fuentes on many occasions for her progressive, participatory services, as well as her encouragement of condom use and abortion, both of which disregard many of the long-held teachings of the Catholic Church. However, Fuentes remains unfazed by the reprimands of her superiors and promises to continue her work in the village for as long as possible. "We do not want to see 12-year-old girls having babies or 19-year-old boys dying of AIDS. But in many churches the nuns are too afraid to do the same" she says.

A War of Ideologies

Small-scale grassroots progressives such as Fuentes are by no means anomalies in Catholic Latin America. Over the last half century, this region, which has become the most dynamic part of the world for Roman Catholicism, housing 447.1 million of its adherents, has witnessed the rise of a progressive movement aimed specifically at serving the needs of the masses. But priests and bishops with traditional Catholic profiles similar to Solorzano's are no less common. In fact, the conflict between the two religious leaders in La Carapita is simply one example of the thousands of battles being waged throughout Latin America in an ideological war between conservative Catholic elites and local grass-roots progressives.

Similar conflicts have manifested themselves in almost every Latin American country. Progressive priests and nuns, in an effort to tailor Catholicism to the social and economic needs of the common people, tend to preach a form of Catholicism that is much more forgiving on issues such as poverty, contraception, abortion, and AIDS. In contrast, the goals of the more traditional senior members of the Church hierarchy, and of the Vatican itself, have generally been to enforce adherence to the long-established precepts of the Catholic Church. For decades there has been a constant flow of reprimands and criticisms from the Vatican, accusing local priests of violating Church doctrine and basic Catholic tenets.

While some progressive leaders continue undaunted, preaching a Catholicism similar to that of Lourdes Fuentes, other priests and nuns are beginning to feel increasingly disillusioned with the official positions of their superiors. Some progressive leaders have been sanctioned or officially reprimanded, and others have been expelled from the Church entirely. In addition, with the April 2005 election of Pope Benedict XVI, an ideological conservative with traditional views on a number of social issues, many are losing heart in what is increasingly becoming an uphill battle against the Church authorities. As a result, the ratio of priests to Catholics in Latin America, according to the Associated Press, is now one of the lowest in the world, with one priest to every 6,364 Catholics. …