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Justice issues gone from synod agenda

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Justice, once so central to the church’s role in Latin America, has been all but erased from the documents that will guide discussion at the Synod for America.

The elimination of justice as a primary element in the church’s role apparently occurred gradually from the time in 1992 when Pope John Paul II first advanced the idea of a synod. And its disappearance seems to have led to a jettisoning of other elements that, in previous documents and statements on the church in Latin America, were essential themes.

Some 250 bishops, the majority chosen by their fellow bishops of all the countries and territories of the American continent, will gather in Rome from Nov. 16 through Dec. 12. For this first Synod of Bishops for America, the 24 episcopal conferences involved have elected voting delegates according to the number of bishops in each conference. Cardinals heading dioceses and other designated office holders are also voting delegates, as are heads of curial departments and 21 nominees of the pope.

Preparations for a synod are in the hands of the General Secretariat of the Synod, a curial body.

At the 1992 meeting of CELAM, the Latin American bishops conference, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, the pope proposed “a still wider exercise of episcopal collegiality.” The bishops of the entire continent, he said, might “find ways to solve the dramatic situations of vast sectors of the population who aspire to a legitimate overall progress and to more just and decent living conditions.”

Two years later, in his encyclical for the upcoming millennium, the pope offered a significantly different emphasis when he confirmed that the bishops both of Latin America and of North America had agreed to the idea of a synod.

The primary focus was now “the new evangelization,” but the synod would also deal with “the themes of justice and international economic relations, taking into account the enormous difference between North and South.”

The introduction to the working paper for the synod substantially repeats this modified program: to foster a new evangelization; to increase solidarity; to shed light on problems of justice and international economic relations among the nations of America.

Inexplicably, however, the next paragraph of the document eliminates the third objective.

It still insists that there are three elements, but now they are conversion and communion (both aspects of evangelization) and solidarity. This is a key to all that follows.

Justice has been operationally eliminated.

The church’s role is reduced to charity, a worthy role indeed, but far from the totality of the mission to which we were all summoned by Vatican II in its “Constitution on the Church in Today’s World.”

Four-fifths of the working paper deals with “the new evangelization,” which is defined as guiding “the consciences and hearts of all men and women of good will toward an encounter with Christ, helping them to experience the full depths of the mystery of redemption, achieved once and for all in the Son of God.”

The issues are discussed very positively. The Christology has a good biblical basis. It is highly individualistic, however, concentrating on St. Luke’s Gospel and Acts while ignoring other traditions in Paul, Matthew, John, Peter and the Apocalypse.

Jesus not only showed us a way but called us to a historical project, the building up of the community of God. Evangelization as defined here is a very important part of the church’s task but obviously far from the totality of the mission of Jesus as he himself formulated it, repeating the words of Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18).

The basic and irremediable defect of this document is that the Signs of the Times, which Vatican II raised to the status of a theological theme through which God speaks to us and challenges us, are absent. The look-see-act approach, used to such good effect by Pope John XXIII and his council, is abandoned.

Instead, the message to be announced is defined in advance in neo-scholastic style without asking who are the people to whom it is addressed or what is the reality in which they are immersed. The method is abstract and deductive; the focus, doctrinal and institutional. The result is an unbelievable rejection of the contribution of the economic, political and social sciences for an understanding of the phenomena and challenges of reality that Christians in the Americas face in their task of evangelization.

Inevitably, such analyses as have been gleaned from the answers to the questions the Vatican asked of every bishop of the Americas are anecdotal and superficial. Lacking is a scientific and global presentation of the concrete and structural problems that affect justice and solidarity in North-South relations.

There is no analysis of the danger to the world that is posed by the free-market system now being imposed globally by the United States, with its tendency to exclude the majority of humans from the benefits of society, and also to destroy nature. Nor is there analysis of the savage capitalism of the Third World and its neoliberal ideology that is totally contrary to Christianity.

Something as basic for the indigenous peoples and peasants as land ownership is ignored. We learn almost nothing about such new approaches to evangelization as the pastoral of the land, the pastoral of marginalized women, of street children, of the landless, of the homeless, of migrants and nomads, or of the crucial role of popular reading of the Bible.

The importance of evangelizing not only individuals but culture is treated at length, but it is an evaluation from outside and above. The underlying assumption seems to be that the culture of Rome is the norm, so that the task is to bring other cultures into the same framework, with cosmetic and decorative recognition of differences.

This mentality makes it impossible to begin to discuss what true inculturation of Catholicism in cultures other than Western would involve. It sees indigenous cultures as a “legacy” of the past, has no awareness that in much of the continent they are a major and growing reality. The way in which the document reports what it calls a tendency “to overvalue certain elements of the indigenous religions of America” reveals its bias.

In consequence, the major structural changes for the entire church involved in inculturation are not even mentioned.

The document also seriously misunderstands the differing ecumenical situations in North America and in the rest of the continent.

In the North, it says, there is a more positive situation in ecumenism and in interreligious dialogue. That is true at the level of formal structured dialogue at the institutional level.

What it ignores is the totally different and more vital situation in the South where the dividing lines are not between Catholics and Protestants but deep within both groups.

Why has the working document chosen to eliminate from what it describes as “the proposed agenda for synod discussion” all reference to what in 1992 was defined as the purpose of the synod, namely, to deal with the intolerable social conditions in the continent?

Perhaps a clue to Vatican thinking can be found in a statement by Auxiliary Bishop Karl Josef Romer of Rio de Janeiro when Pope John Paul was visiting Brazil in October. Lamenting the growth of what the working document calls “sects” in Brazil, Romer said that the leakage would have been even greater if the church had not shifted its political emphasis. Radical liberation theology had starved people spiritually, he asserted, while advancing a Marxist agenda.

What Rome seems to be saying is that the preferential option for the poor, embraced by the church at the Second Vatican Council and developed to its full theological significance by liberation theology, explains why people are leaving the church.

The way to reverse the outflow would then be to return to support of the rich and powerful in the hope of persuading them to be nice to the poor.

Put in those terms, the project seems utterly callous. Yet that is the logic of the working document. The spirit of Vatican II is lacking. Equally lacking is the prophetic voice of the 1968 Medellín conference of Latin American bishops, which denounced international monopolies and the international imperialism of money, the reality of intolerable institutionalized violence, the injustice that cries to heaven.

Nor is it easy to imagine that the omission of any description of Latin American reality is other than a deliberate decision not to mention anything that might reflect favorably on liberation theology or the church born of the people in suffering.

A deserved tribute is paid to Rose of Lima, Martin De Porres, Peter Claver and others who gave witness to the faith in the Americas. But where is Oscar Romero, who insisted that “our Christian faith requires that we submerge ourselves in this world,” who knew that one committed to the poor risks the fate of the poor, which is “to disappear, to be tortured, to be captive, to be found dead”?

Where are the four martyred U.S. religious women slandered by Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick as “not just nuns but political activists”? Where are the 42 catechists slaughtered in Arcatao, El Salvador? Where are the thousands of Guatemalan indigenous massacred because they were Christians?

Ignoring these tragic signs of the times represents an inexplicable refusal to recognize the conflict that is the most obvious phenomenon of the American continent today.

National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 1997