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Dismay greets Vatican curbs on Mexican institutes

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Widespread anger and dismay characterize the reaction of members of religious orders and congregations in Mexico to the suspension by Rome of the activities of two teaching centers of the Conference of Mexican Religious Institutes, and to the restrictions placed on two similar centers operated by the Society of Jesus.

Those directly affected are reluctant to be quoted. The entire process is cloaked in suspicion and fear of retaliation. But tension is high. One person summed up the situation for NCR this way: "It's the whole problem of this damn autocratic church that doesn't want to have any consultation or collegiality.

"We're going back to the way the curia behaved at the 1992 meeting of the Latin American bishops in Santo Domingo, [Dominican Republic,] when it tried unsuccessfully to ram its views down the throats of the bishops."

Two years ago the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, headed by Cardinal Pio Laghi, undertook an investigation of all institutions run by religious orders in Latin America to prepare candidates for the priesthood.

The Mexican investigating group was headed by Javier Lozano Barragan, then bishop of Zapatecas and now head of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers in Rome. The Mexican investigation extended to institutions of the Conference of Religious that teach religious brothers and sisters and lay people.

Lozano and Apostolic Delegate Girolamo Prigione are responsible for widening the scope of the investigation in Mexico and for the restrictions now imposed, according to José Alvarez Icaza and others who spoke to NCR. Alvarez Icaza is head of the National Center of Social Communication in Mexico City, an activist organization with Catholic roots but no official connection to the church.

He and his wife, Luz Maria, were the only lay people invited to participate in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. At the time, they were the presidents of the Latin American Section of the Christian Family Movement, the group they represented at council proceedings.

"I have a copy of a report by Lozano," Alvarez Icaza told NCR, "that scarifies the Jesuits. The ultimate objective is to allow theological instruction only in 'safe' centers. It's all tied up with the war on liberation theology. The very word makes them nervous." Also involved, Alvarez Icaza believes, is Prigione's continuing opposition, in collaboration with the Mexican government, to Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, who is identified in one of Laghi's letters as one of the disapproved authors being taught in these institutions.

The issue of liberation theology was raised in a letter from Laghi to some Mexican bishops, a letter leaked to the press at the same time as another letter from the cardinal addressed to the superior of the Jesuits in Mexico.

Some of the teaching centers, it said, had "a highly radicalized and socialist-tinged orientation of liberation theology" and also "at times a strong adversarial character and theological progressivism in dogmatic and moral matters." Moreover, the letter added, "they had abandoned the 'magisterial' style of teaching, substituting one that is known as 'active' or 'seminar-style.' " In other words, said Alvarez Icaza, students shouldn't be allowed to ask questions.

The Mexican Jesuits in a news release insist on their "full communion with Rome" and their acceptance of the measures of the Congregation for Catholic Education. They also wish "to make public their commitment to work to correct and improve whatever may be necessary in order to better serve the church and society."

There is, however, "a serious misunderstanding in the arguments on which these measures are based," said the release. "They do not reflect the type of theological teaching that is described in the letter that was sent to the provincial superior in Mexico, Mario López Barrio. On the contrary, both institutions have exerted themselves to transmit theological reflection that is fully Catholic, faithful to the gospel, with the preferential option for the poor, which the church itself has inspired us with and which our bishops have so clearly made their own."

Referring to Rome's decision to limit the Theological Institute to Jesuit students exclusively, the news release notes that the institute began to admit members of other religious congregations more than 35 years ago at the request of the then apostolic delegate, Luigi Raimondo. The news release ends by expressing surprise "that a document that was sent privately to the provincial superior of the Society of Jesus in Mexico has been published in the press."

A response to the congregation from the Conference of Religious is expected shortly after Easter. The tone of the response was described to NCR by Miguel Concha, provincial of the Dominicans in Mexico and a member of the governing board of the conference.

"We are approaching this," he said, "in a spirit of communion, seeking a dialogue in charity."

He regretted that the dialogue had not taken place before the decision was made, while emphasizing that the conference's teaching institutes have not been closed, but only suspended until changes agreeable to the Congregation for Catholic Education have been introduced.

National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 1997