The Pope and Medellin: Casting out the 'People's Church.' (Pope John Paul II)

By Lernoux, Penny | The Nation, August 27, 1988 | Go to article overview
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The Pope and Medellin: Casting out the 'People's Church.' (Pope John Paul II)

Lernoux, Penny, The Nation

Twenty years ago, in August in the Colombian city of Medellin, Latin Americas Catholic bishops signed a remarkable document that would become a religious magna carta for political and social change. The "Medellin Conclusions" led to a radical shift in religious attitudes among the Catholic masses, millions of whom joined church-sponsored organizations seeking economic and political justice. The post-Medellin Latin American church also had a profound influence on Catholic churches in other Third World regions as the philosophical tenets of liberation theology spread. Ironically, while celebrations are in progress throughout the Catholic world in honor of the twentieth anniversary of "a historic monument," as Pope Paul VI called the Medellin Conclusions, Pope John Paul 11 is engaged in its destruction. If his efforts succeed, little will remain of Latin America's socially committed and theologically innovative church.

From the viewpoint of the Latin American poor the timing of the shift in Vatican policy could not be worse. Two decades of pastoral work and the martyrdom of thousands of Catholic activists have produced a network of some 300,000 Christian communities that are the seeds of a more democratic society. Composed primarily of poor people, these groups (known officially as ecciesial base communities) have for the first time in the region's history given voice to the voiceless on a local and national level. But they are fragile buds, still dependent on the institutional church for guidance and support, and the institution is rapidly losing its prophetic character because of the Pope's appointment of conservative bishops.

While the papal crackdown has affected churches around the world, Latin America has been singled out for attention because it is the most populous Catholic region (more than half the world's 907 million Catholics live in the Third World). Latin America is also the birthplace of liberation theology and the site of the first successful ChristianMarxist revolution, in Nicaragua. In addition, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, among the Catholic world's largest, leads the universal church's progressive wing, often clashing with Rome over the rights of local churches.

Like other socially committed church leaders, many of Brazil's bishops are adherents of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, a watershed in the early 1960s that ended centuries of "holy isolation" by exhorting the church to participate in humanity's struggle for peace and justice. Vatican II triggered reforms throughout the universal church, among the most important being a greater respect for cultural diversity and pluralism and a modernization of rituals, such as the change ftom Latin to the vernacular in the Mass. The latter created new interest in the Bible and a more Christ-centered church, in contrast to the traditional caste system dominated by European clerics in Rome.

The council described this new church as the "People of God," a phrase that has become part of the Catholic vocabulary. The expression conveyed the biblical image of the Hebrew people in exodus, and for the church of Vatican 11 it symbolized a community on the move in search of a deeper understanding of faith. When translated into Portuguese and Spanish, however, "People of God" took on an even deeper meaning, for it became Pueblo de Dios - and pueblo has always been understood as the masses, the poor.

It was this reality of poverty that made the Medellin meeting different from earlier bishops' conferences to discuss directives from Rome. Instead of parroting what they had been told, the bishops took a hard look at political and economic conditions in Latin America, going beyond Vatican II by interpreting conciliar changes in light of the poverty and injustice in their underworld. Heretofore allies of the upper classes and the military, the bishops shocked the region's elites by denouncing the "institutionalized violence" of the rich against the poor and by committing the church to help the poor organize themselves to achieve greater political, social and economic equality.

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