The Reception of Vatican II in Latin America

Article excerpt

IN THE EARLY 1960s, the Latin American church, due to demographic, social, economic, and political changes, was ripe for change and renewal. But the Second Vatican Council provided the catalyst for the development of a truly autochthonous church. While the council did not directly address the concerns of the Latin American continent, it did chart a new course for its church. The Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops, which gathered at Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, formally began the process of reception, whereby the Latin American church began to appropriate the resolutions arrived at by Vatican II a few years earlier. (1)

This article does not focus on liturgy, religious life, or other topics directly addressed by the council, but rather on how the council helped shape the identity and mission of the Latin American church. It is possible to summarize the council's contribution to the Latin American church by using three theological principles that have come to characterize it: (1) attention to the signs of the times as the point of departure for pastoral directives and theological reflection; (2) the adoption of the preferential option for the poor as the stance that ought to inform all aspects of the church; and (3) an ecclesiological vision rooted in the idea of communion and expressed in the formation of Christian base communities. These three elements have been consistently engaged across the general conferences of Latin American bishops since Vatican II. Thus, following a discussion of the council from the Latin American perspective, this article focuses on the development of these principles at the episcopal gatherings held at Medellin (1968), Puebla (1979), Santo Domingo (1992), and Aparecida (2007).

This focus on the general conferences of bishops as key agents and indicators of reception is justified by three considerations: (1) the participating bishops represented all the national episcopal conferences in Latin America and the Caribbean; (2) the general conferences explicitly placed themselves in the trajectory of Vatican II; and (3) the general conferences, which usually take place every ten years, set the pastoral directives for the whole continent in light of the challenges experienced by the church. I engage each general conference as an event constituted by many elements in order to illustrate the different forces that converged in the formulation of its final documents. (2)


Although Vatican II was, as Karl Rahner famously argued, a gathering of the "world church," including 600 bishops from Latin America, it is important to keep in mind that the council was an event driven primarily by the concerns of the European church. (3) European bishops led the theological and pastoral discussions during the assemblies, and "very little if anything referring directly to Latin America found its way into the final document of the Council." (4)

This subordination of the needs of the Latin American church to the concerns of the European church has historical roots. The Latin American church of the mid-20th century was in many ways still a European transplant, its identity shaped by its historic and institutional ties to the Spanish and Portuguese colonial powers. These connections contributed to the church's later tendency to oppose independence movements during the 19th century, even as it was strengthening its ties to groups representing the traditional alliance of "conservative parties, landowners, and the old aristocracy." (5) Indeed, until the mid-20th century the church honored this alliance and tacitly endorsed the socioeconomic structures that relegated the majority of the population to substandard living conditions. (6)

After World War II, however, the continent experienced a demographic explosion that accelerated internal migration among the rural poor, who sought better living conditions in urban areas. …