Church, Liberation, and Chiapas

Article excerpt

IN the Mexican state of Chiapas, currently the scene of an Indian and peasant revolt, conservative opponents are reportedly blaming the local Catholic clergy for causing the uprising. This is not the first time, nor is it likely to be the last, that priests find themselves in the center of social unrest.

Christians from developed nations who have observed societies marked by enormous disparities between rich and poor have some understanding of the dilemmas facing church representatives in such conditions. The repetition by the clergy of the words of the prophets and Christ Jesus that express special concern for the poor leads to the question from parishioners: How do these apply to us? ("The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He hath sent me to proclaim release to the captives,... to set at liberty those who are oppressed...." Luke 4:18, Revised Standard Version) In the face of the contrast with wealthy and powerful oligarchies, words of simple faith may not suffice as an answer.

One answer that is undoubtedly known to the priests in Chiapas lies in "liberation theology," the doctrine set forth in "The Theology of Liberation," a book by a Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, in 1973. His writing can help one understand the problems and reactions of both the Vatican and many in the parish clergy. The Vatican faces governments that feel threatened by the involvement of priests and bishops in radical political and social action. The priests face the impatient poor.

Mr. Gutierrez's work draws on the Old and New Testaments and the concept of the creation of a "new man" in the French Revolution. He notes the liberation of the former colonial peoples in the 1950s and 1960s and the shift of the Catholic church to more liberal doctrines in Vatican II (1962-65). Finally, he draws heavily on the results of a Second Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968.

Gutierrez makes clear that he addresses primarily the conditions of the Latin American Indian; he is, himself, half Indian. …