Gary MacEoin on the challenge which faces the bishops, over Latin America and the poor
LATIN Americans will not speak with one accord at the Synod of Bishops. Rather, one will hear the two opinions that represent two visions of the Latin American Church and society.
One is the newly-found voice of the previously silenced majority of the poor and oppressed. It is the voice of bishops who, like Oscar Romero of El Salvador, have opted to accompany their people.
The other is of bishops who see themselves as called to make the decisions for those incapable of making their own prudential judgments.
This is not a distinction between progressives and reactionaries. One can still find reactionary churchmen in Latin America, defenders of
oligarchies resistant to all
change. But they are an insignificant minority.
Today, the conflict is between two philosophies, modernisation and radical change. This is a conflict agitating the entire world, but it is particularly acute in Latin America and can be expected to dominate the concerns of Latin Americans at the Synod.
Collegiality, ecumenism and the option for the poor, three themes singled out by various bishops' conferences as tests of the level of implementation of Vatican If, are all affected by this philosophical conflict.
The relationship is most obvious as regards the option for the poor. Can the demands of the poor, based on their interpretation of the Scriptures, for a human living level, be fulfilled within the present political and economic system? Or is the system irreformable, demanding revolutionary change?
Posed in these terms, the question challenges the entire Church. Cardinal Evaristo Arns of Sao Paulo, Brazil, has recently discussed the implications for the Church itself of the ' passage in the Vatican II Constitution on the Church that speaks of the Church that is poor and is for the poor. This new vision, he said, calls for new structures, a new role for the local church, collegiality Of bishops, and a new theology of the priesthood.
In addition, he added, this means that the future of the Church is no longer in the first world, a reality that calls for "a deep spiritual conversion" of 'Catholics in the first world. The conflicts that have raged for more than a year over the theology of liberation show, among other things, that this deep spiritual conversion has not yet been experienced by some in high places in the Roman Curia.
They are definitely not ready for the new church structures that have been developing in Latin America since the Council, and in particular the Christian-base communities in which Brazil pioneered and which today are dynamic elements of the Church in most of Latin America.
Obviously, this conflict has
theological aspects. But it would be a mistake to see it as exclusively, or even primarily, theological. A two-week meeting in an extraordinary synod is not going to settle any theological issues. It must inevitably bei dominated by politics, and in particular by the politics of power.
The Roman Curia is not ready to let the monopoly of decisionmaking slip from its hands. as it must if the new forms of church structure now being developed in Latin America prevail.
The Synod is likely to give us a better sense of where Pope John Paul stands in this dispute. In spite of a veneer of contemporary sophistication, he is an old-fashioned, preconciliar theologian. It would be easy, but mistaken, to conclude that this locks him into the curial camp.
As a careful study of the encyclical on work, Laborem exereens, makes clear, he is far closer to Karl Marx than to Adam Smith. Not only does he reject absolutely the Reagan formula for world development, but he is much more radical in his criticism of it than are the United States bishops.
It now seems clear that Pope John Paul did not anticipate the kind of debate I have just suggested when he decided to call this Synod, but rather thought to resolve some squabbles over internal church matters.
But just as Vatican II, in addition to important internal reforms, opened up entirely unanticipated vistas, we should not be surprised if the Synod proved to be quite different from what its planners intended.
At Vatican II, the dominant voices were those of bishops and theologians from wealthy capitalistic countries. The most progressive among them shared the "liberal" philosophy that the economic and political forms developed in the rich countries could be exported and adapted to deal with the obvious problems of the Third World. In
20 years much has changed. The leaders of the First World, civil and religious alike, ire far less confident of their ability to solve their own problems, not to speak of the problems of the poor countries.
The Church in the poor countries has become aware, not only that it is the most dynamic part of the Church in numbers and potential influence, but that it must take its own initiatives in establishing new structures, a new Church order that will help to establish a new World order.
Some Latin American bishops, as I indicated earlier, are still willing to allow European ideas to dominate. But the closing of ranks by the bishops of Brazil and of Peru against the efforts of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discredit the theology of liberation has to be seen as a sign of the times.
A two-week meeting of bishops is not going to produce immediate spectacular results. But it will certainly be used by the Latin Americans and others to clarify further the linkages rbetween Church reform and the reform of civil society.
They cannot fail to identity the insane arms race, highlighted just now by the manoeuvrings of the two giant powers at Geneva, as a major cause of the hunger and growing oppression of the two-thirds of mankind in the Third World.