Liberal Theologians Sway Latin America

Article excerpt

When President Nicanor Duarte of Paraguay arrived at the Vatican Oct. 29 for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI, he planned to present the pontiff with a multicolored poncho as a symbol of Latin America--home to almost half the world's 1.1 billion Catholics and a region dubbed by Pope John Paul II as "the continent of hope."

In the end, however, Benedict had to settle for an IOU: Duarte's bags got lost somewhere between France and Italy, including his gifts for the pope.


That small snafu offers a metaphor for what has been a recent season of discontent for Benedict XVI with regard to Latin America. Despite the best efforts of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal czar, to suppress liberation theology in the 1980s and '90s, this synthesis of Catholic social doctrine and progressive political action is showing surprising signs of life.

Consider recent events:

* Venezuela's bishops dispatched a special delegation to Rome to meet Benedict to explain their opposition to a constitutional referendum set for Dec. 2 that would grant leftist President Hugo Chavez sweeping economic powers and allow him to rule almost indefinitely, and to discuss the activity of some Chavez-friendly priests. Inspired by liberation theology, these priests have accused their bishops of reactionary opposition to reform.

* Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, a Catholic Socialist and graduate of the storied Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, popped up at a Sant'Egidio-sponsored conference in Naples, Italy, in October to call for a "new Catholicism" in the 21st century, which, he said, would challenge globalized capitalism and offer a rebuke to what Correa described as "anti-immigrant U.S. Christians."

* When Benedict XVI and Duarte met Oct. 29, they faced the prospect that Paraguay's next government could be formed by Fernando Lugo, a Catholic bishop who has tendered his resignation but who is officially still on the books. Known as Paraguay's "red bishop" for his commitment to liberation theology, Lugo has been ordered by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, not to run for public office in national elections set for April, an order Lugo has defied. Polls currently show him in the lead, and at least one of his brother bishops is on board: Bishop Marie Melanio Medina Salinas of the San Juan Bautista de las Misiones diocese has said that he would vote for Lugo "100 times" if that were possible.

* Last July, Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales said the Catholic bishops had "historically damaged the country" by functioning as "an instrument of the oligarchs."

Church/state tensions in Latin America are often construed as part of the anticolonial and anticapitalist mindset of the left, and that's certainly an important ingredient. Given the Catholic history and culture of the continent, however, intraecclesiastical skirmishes inevitably also play a role. In effect, what's happened over the last decade is that some of those Catholics most committed to liberation theology have gravitated out of the church and into secular politics. In a number of Latin American countries, the electoral success of leftist populists has given the liberationists a new lease on life.

Bishop and president

Lugo, a former Verbite priest and the emeritus bishop of San Fernando in Paraguay, offers the most explicit case in point. Activism runs in his veins; his father was arrested no fewer than 20 times under the regime of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and three of his four brothers were expelled from the country for more than 20 years. In 1996, Lugo hosted a continent-wide gathering of base communities, the small faith groups dedicated to spiritual formation and political action associated with liberation theology. In 2004, Lugo supported peasants in his rural diocese who organized to protest unequal land distribution and the inroads of massive commercial agriculture, an experience that helped propel him toward explicit political activism. …