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Sáenz blames the media for Salvador's problems

NCR Staff
San Salvadore, El Salvador

Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle said "a lack of honorable information" is the main source of ongoing misunderstandings about actions he has taken since he assumed leadership of the San Salvador see two years ago.

If the media published his clarifications with the same vigor it published "misinformation," Sáenz said, many problems would be avoided.

With this desire for clarity in mind, NCR interviewed Sáenz in March at his residence in San Salvador, broaching subjects from his acceptance of the title of brigadier general of the Salvadoran armed forces to his concerns about growing "morality by consensus" in the Catholic church.

Sáenz seemed to try hard at humor. When asked to respond to critics' charges that he is reversing long held "traditions" of his predecessors, for example, by transferring Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez from the archdiocesan residence to a nearby parish, Sáenz responded calmly. "I don't know if tradition means that I should use the same toothpaste as Msgr. Rivera," he chuckled, referring to his predecessor, the late Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas. "I thought it was appropriate that the auxiliary bishop have his own house and that I have mine. He agreed. This is my clarification. There is no reason why I should have to use the same toothpaste Rivera used."

To more explosive topics -- being named a brigadier general, for instance -- Sáenz responded with similar ease.

"Institutions do not commit errors, persons do. And the Salvadoran armed forces have been purified as a result of the peace accords," he said. "They have changed completely. The police have been separated from the military."

He continued with a lengthy explanation of the administrative boundaries between his post as archbishop and his role as brigadier general within the military ordinariate. The latter, he said, has "nothing to do with the archbishopric. ... I am in two distinct dioceses." The presentation of this issue by the press, Sáenz said, has been "unwholesome" and has "confused many simple people." Other reactions have been "interesting ... many people have considered this treatment a lack of respect for me, and many parishes have prayed for me and made sacrifices," he said.

Sáenz said he is receiving the monetary benefits that come with the title. "I am not going to make spectacular gestures of self-blame for something that is just and honest. Nor do I want to force solutions [of how the pay should be spent] on that person who will follow me [as leader of the military ordinariate]," he said. "This is totally up to me, and I will not make public any of my plans because I do not want to commit my successor."

To other complaints -- to removal of archdiocesan personnel, changes in management of the radio station, a recast of the seminary formation team, difficulties with the theology programs at the Jesuit Central American University -- Sáenz calmly gave administrative explanations.

"You are really misinformed," he said after responding to an array of individual queries. The head of the radio station quit; the head of Caritas was having trouble paying staff salaries and the organization was duplicating tasks of another division; the decision to change the seminary team was made by the conference of bishops; and the university's problems had to do with a technical lack of affiliation to a school of theology, which had recently been resolved.

Explaining the removal of Jesuit Fr. Rodolfo Cardenal from a parish he served for 14 years took a little longer. Cardenal, Sáenz claimed, could only dedicate three hours a week to the parish; the growing community needed a priest with more free time. "The role the priest fills cannot be substituted by laypersons. A full-time priest is needed alongside many laypeople working full-time. It isn't the laity or the priest, it's the laity with the priest, each one in their roles," he insisted.

Contrary to impressions that he had realigned the church with El Salvador's economic and political elites, Sáenz said, he has constantly criticized the government's neoliberal economic plans. "But I do it not with political objectives, but from doctrine, which is what I am supposed to do," he said. "I have always said the neoliberal system is a twin to socialism, they come from the same philosophical trunk. The only solution is one that is contrary to both systems, a system based in the church's social doctrine, in the human person, the family, in work."

Pastoral urgencies of the archdiocese, Sáenz said, include health and education, especially in rural areas, and jobs. "All Salvadorans should have dignified and dignifying work with good pay. In this way, all social problems would be solved," he said. Family issues are also key. U.S. influence in this area, Sáenz said, in the area of decriminalization of abortion legislation, has not been positive. "We need better education because there is a tendency to introduce a consensus morality that is degrading rather than teaching people to confine themselves to a morality of the commandments of the law of God that are obviously dignifying," he said.

Sáenz said for many years in El Salvador, especially during the war, "the ecclesiastic hierarchy was seen as the voice of the voiceless." In recent years, he said, "those who did not have a voice have had one ... they are going out and expressing their opinions." What is missing now is more commitment from the laity to "take up their role of constructing society." For this to happen, the church must "evangelize the structures ... not just people, but the activities of organizations, like commerce." Entrepreneurs and politicians alike must act like Christians in their respective activities, "seeking the common good and not the good of the party or selfish gain," Sáenz said.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 1997