Benedict's first big challenge

Cardinal Ratzinger led the Catholic Church's efforts to quell Latin America's liberation theology movement in the 1980s. Now that he's pontiff, will he soften his stance?

Published April 20, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

Joy, consternation and, for some, outright shock are reverberating among Catholics worldwide at the first sight of their new pope, Benedict XVI, in his red robes. The most conservative regard the German Joseph Ratzinger as their champion, with his influential rock-hard stands against gay unions, cloning, the ordination of women and any dismantling of the firewall between Catholicism and every other religion in the world. Liberals regard him as medieval, a threat to the theological exploration of sexual ethics, pluralism and a church for the third millennium.

Now that he is pontiff, both sides are holding their breath.

One key to Benedict's papacy may be found far from the elegant St. Peter's Square or the after-Mass coffees in U.S. church halls. Ratzinger made one of his hallmark stands as a Vatican force in the villages and rough urban-misery belts of Latin America, the globe's most Catholic region. There, in the 1980s, he confronted the fast-moving tide of liberation theology, an intellectual and popular movement that linked Catholic theology and political activism in everyday issues of social justice and human rights. Ratzinger officially reversed the tide, forbidding certain Catholic theologians to publish, in what was called a "silencing."

Ratzinger issued a 1984 document with something like the force of law. The "Instruction" defined Rome's opposition to liberation theology's "fundamental threat" and weighed in on naming conservative Latin bishops.

Unofficially, liberation theology lives. On a continent of some 500 million -- where most are poor, where the neoliberal economic plans of the 1990s didn't pan out, and where three-quarters of its people now live under democratically elected leftist governments -- the attraction of a Catholicism that links God's will with the desire for a better and more dignified life in the here and now, not just after death, remains strong. How Benedict XVI faces this reality, for face it he must in a church that claims to be not just "one" but "universal," will be a marker of his papacy.

In the 1980s, the Berlin Wall remained intact and Ratzinger believed liberation theology was incipient Marxism with a religious veneer. He zeroed in on some intellectual proponents who linked Marx and Jesus. He did not focus on the outcomes of Vatican II -- where Ratzinger himself was considered a liberal reformer -- and the Latin American conferences in Medellin and Puebla, where bishops decided that the Latin church must stake its future on "an option for the poor." He did not publicly regard the thousands of small communities who were reading the Bible together in a new way, sitting under trees or on dirt floors with no clergy or intellectuals in sight, finding what they called the strength to be actors in their lives.

What would have happened, Guatemalans and Salvadorans ask to this day, if Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II had supported the Latin American call for liberation from autocratic rulers with the same force with which the European churchmen supported the Polish Solidarity revolution?

On the eve of his election as pope, Ratzinger addressed the cardinals with an unmistakable condemnation of "relativism," which can include the idea that one religion is as good as another. He also raised this idea last year in his book "Called to Communion." In the 1980s, the idea that liberation theology was not strictly Catholic, but "frequently tries to create a new universality for which the classical church divisions are supposed to have become irrelevant," rankled Ratzinger.

Indeed, liberation theology was quickly spreading at the time, and not only geographically from the thatched-roof chapels in Latin America to Africa, the Philippines and the barrios of North America. It was jumping churches, too. Renowned American Protestant thinkers such as Robert McAfee Brown spoke to it and defended Catholic theologians "silenced" by Ratzinger. The Rev. Luis Gurriaran, a Spanish Sacred Heart priest working in rural Guatemala, once recalled how fundamentalist evangelical Protestant preachers -- the proliferation of whom are seen as a headache by bishops today -- embraced local forms of liberation theology after massacres or intense hardships in their communities. "Those who identify with their congregations come to look at the world through their eyes," he said. How the new pope regards this mutual embrace of people of faith on the ground, no matter what their churches, will be key to the shape of his tenure.

Archbishop Oscar Romero began his administration of the San Salvadoran church as an orthodox, conservative prelate who made no waves. But he stayed in touch with his congregations in a personal way and listened as over the years they told him of family members taken by death squads. He looked at the books of photos of the disappeared and of the tortured bodies of civilians who opposed the government, records that his church workers collected to help parishioners. Because of his pastoral work and his written reflections on it, because of his defense of the poor acting to change their own situation -- even politically -- and because of his 1980 assassination by a death squad after calling for a stop to the civil war, Romero came to be considered a symbol of the best of liberation theology.

In Pope Benedict's first words "to the city and the world" from the balcony at St. Peter's, he called himself an "insufficient instrument" and "a simple worker in the vineyard." Will he listen with pastoral ears, as Romero did, to the voices of ordinary Catholics, whether gay, divorced, alienated or seeking? Will he listen with new ears to the realities that underpin the theology of liberation in all its senses, what Latin American Catholics call "the cry of the people"?

© Pacific News Service 2005

By Mary Jo McConahay

Mary Jo McConahay is Central America editor of Pacific News Service.

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Latin America