In December 1977 the first document, called the Preparatory Document, drawn up by the General Secretary of CELAM, Bishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo and his Secretariat in Bogota, Colombia, became available and caused disappointment throughout Latin America.
Far from joyfully celebrating the tenth anniversary of the previous conference, Medellin, and deepening the insights of that historic meeting, it was a dismal document filled with expressions of fear and lacking any sense of the vitality of the grass-roots Latin American Church.
It seemed to have taken little, if any, account of the persecution and martyrdom which the Church has suffered since Medellin and lacked the prophetic spirit which has come to characterise the actions of many of its distinguished prelates.
The document avoided any analysis of the social conflicts endemic in the continent today. It saw the transition from a rural agricultural society to an urban industrialised one as the most important factor in interpreting the current situation in Latin America.
Many problems such as un employment and inflation, were described, but few were analysed. The great challenge facing the Church, it suggested, was to maintain Christian values in an Increasingly secular society — to accompany the industrialisation process with the construction of a new Christianity.
This view of Latin America was so evidently a distortion of reality — peasants and industrial workers alike are grosslyexplioted, the heavy hand of military repression falls on both rural catechists and urban pastoral workers, the basic Christian communities are thriving in cities like Sao Paulo, Lima or Santiago just as in rural Chile, Paraguay or Nicaragua— that the Preparatory Document provoked an outcry and even some Episcopal Conferences rejected it.
The comments and criticisms from the different national Bishop's meeting were sent to Bogota where, in July 1978, a second document, called the Working Document, was drawn up as the basis for the Conference discussions.
Pope John Paul I confirmed that Puebla should take place in October 1978 as was originally planned. Personal and numbered copies of this Working Document were sent out exclusively to the participants about three weeks before the Conference was to open. This would not have allowed any serious discussion of the new document.
However, John Paul l's untimely death forced a postponement of Puebla to 1979 and the Working Document was photocopied, duplicated, circulated and widely discussed.
The actual document (116 pages) is considerly shorter than its predecessor (214 pages) but with 60 pages of appendices and two extra volumes of ancilliary documentation, each participant has a lot of text to master. The document has three parts — the Pastoral Situation, Doctrinal Reflection and Evangelising Action.
It is a great improvement on the Preparatory Document with a style that is generally more biblical and more in harmony with the conclusions of Vatican II. Nevertheless it is a hybrid document and reads like a patch
work quilt hurriedly sewn together.
Chunks from the previous document are interspersed with Medellin-style gems. The emphasis on the rural/urban transition has been removed and the sections which had been interpreted as justification for military coup d'etats and the ideology of the National Security State, have also been removed.
Yet the emphasis on culture as the principal target for the Church's evangelising mission remains. The analysis of society is still weak with many of the most important themes — national security, multinational corporations, the theology of liberation, faith and politics, popular religiosity — consigned to the appendices.
The section on the Virgin Mary is exquisite and other doctrinal sections take their lead from the papal document, Evagelii Nuntiandi. There is, however, no place in the document for ecumenism. It speaks negatively of "protestant sects" and makes no mention of the positive and fruitful result of common action by Catholics and Protestants in various Latin American countries.
Many of the participants have no doubt arrived at Puebla with modifications, amendments and alternative texts and the next two weeks will indicate whether Medellin is to be reaffirmed or gently downgraded. There appear to be 356 participants of whom only 177 were elected by the continent's Episcopal Conferences. The other 50% have been nominated and appointed in different ways and their effect on the proceedings has been the subject of much controversy. There is probably a very simple explanation, but it is not yet clear to me what the nice distinctions are between 'pontifical representatives', 'nominated by the Holy Father', 'approved by the Holy Father', 'approved by the Holy See' and 'indicated by the Holy See'.
A great deal of the work at Puebla will take place in twenty working committees. At the end of the Conference two documents are scheduled to emerge — the Conclusions (probably as a single book) and a Message to the Peoples of Latin America. They are the only documents that really matter.