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A vision for the Americas: familiar themes, new details

NCR Staff

In terms of the big picture, John Paul II’s vision statement for the Americas, officially unveiled during a Jan. 23 Mass in Mexico City, offered few surprises. Some new and interesting images emerged, however, in the details.

According to the statement, capitalism shorn of conscience, a “culture of death,” and elements of disunity inside the church loom as major challenges to the “new evangelization” the pontiff seeks.

John Paul again emphasized his view of North, Central and South America as one continent, calling on Catholics to surmount differences to spread the gospel across borders.

In perhaps his most striking new touch, the pope distanced himself from earlier demands for immediate Third World debt relief. He cited criticisms from the synod that such demands were simplistic and unfairly placed blame for the debt crisis entirely on First World lending agencies and their “neoliberal” policies.

On inculturation, or how to adapt Christianity to different cultures, John Paul suggested that the faithful themselves should shape church policy. He also endorsed small Christian communities as a pastoral strategy for sprawling urban parishes.

Presenting this 30,000 word “Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation” in Mexico City was the official purpose of John Paul’s January visit. The document is the pope’s synthesis -- some might suggest his selective editing -- of themes that arose in 1997’s Synod for America, a gathering of the continent’s bishops in Rome.

The pope welcomed the growth of Eastern-rite Catholicism in the Americas. He urged Eastern Catholics to maintain their traditions but did not say whether this invitation might extend to the controversial practice of ordaining married men. The Ruthenians, an Eastern-rite church from the Ukraine with 167,000 members in North America, recently voted to begin ordaining married men again. Rome asked for a delay in implementing the decision so it could be studied.

Returning to familiar concerns, the pope criticized abortion and euthanasia as symptoms of a culture that does not adequately protect the marginalized. He also called for greater respect for immigrants, including recognition of the “natural right” to move within one’s country and across national borders. He applauded the vast Catholic school system in the Americas -- “as long as there is a will to impart a truly Catholic education.”

In a comment sure to raise eyebrows both in traditional Latin American circles where the ethos of machismo remains strong and among Catholics dubious of the pope’s unyielding stance on women’s ordination, John Paul denounced all forms of “male domination.” He lamented the disproportionate impact of poverty on women in the Americas and called for the empowerment of women.

Though some Latin American Protestants may wince at his use of the term “sects” to describe evangelical movements currently drawing Catholic converts, the pope called ecumenical dialogue “especially urgent.” He acknowledged that America’s Christian identity is “not synonymous with its Catholic identity.” He complained that some evangelical movements were using techniques to convert Catholics that involve coercion.

The document offered scant evidence of any of the dissenting notes on church policy sounded at the Synod for America. The only allusion to proposals for ordaining married men as priests in the Latin rite, for example, came in the pope’s instruction that American seminarians must be “fit to embrace celibacy.”

There was likewise no overt reference to suggestions for a decentralized approach to church governance voiced at the synod, especially by several Canadian bishops. Instead, the document stressed the authority of the bishops and the pope.

In most ways, economic concerns -- capitalism, globalization, work and debt -- dominated. The pope identified rollbacks in public services, environmental degradation and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor as negative results of globalization.

One of the questions being raised as the pope set out on this trip was the extent to which old wounds surrounding liberation theology might be reopened -- especially given the tensions surrounding Bishop Samuel Ruiz García and Catholics in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico, where many have voiced sympathy for the ongoing Zapatista uprising.

During an in-flight news conference en route to Mexico, John Paul warned indigenous peoples against adopting a “Marxist vision,” in tones reminiscent of the Vatican campaign against liberation theology in the 1980s. Some commentators interpreted the pope’s remarks as an indirect rebuke to Ruiz.

In his document, however, the pope picked up some of the language of liberation theology, affirming repeatedly the “preferential option for the poor” -- though he added that this option must not be “exclusive” and called for greater efforts to evangelize the upper strata of society as well. The pope argued that individual acts of charity must be matched by “uncovering the roots of evil and proposing initiatives to make social, political and economic structures more just and fraternal.”

The pontiff endorsed suggestions from the synod for the church to produce a “catechism of social justice teaching” in order to make the church’s moral critique of social systems better known.

Yet on Third World debt relief, John Paul struck a different note. He acknowledged that corruption and mismanagement in Third World nations often play a major role in the debt problem. He said the church “does not mean to place on one side all the blame for a phenomenon which is extremely complex in its origin and in the solutions which it demands.” He called for further study rather than swift cancellation of debt.

Conservatives are likely to be heartened by this more nuanced stance. Fr. John Richard Neuhaus, who expressed doubts about calls for debt relief from the Latin American bishops in his recent book about the synod, Appointment in Rome, told the Associated Press that he thought John Paul struck a “good balance” between capitalism’s faults and its strong points.

On inculturation, the pope suggested that the church should take its cue from popular piety. “America, which historically has been, and still is, a melting pot of peoples, has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac ... an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization,” the pope said.

John Paul asked that Dec. 12 be celebrated across the continent as the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The pope called for special sensitivity to the cultural legacies of the continent’s indigenous peoples and its African-Americans (aside from the U.S. African-American population, there are an estimated 40 million persons of African descent in Brazil).

The pope also sketched a new model of urban parish, one in which the parish becomes a “community of communities and movements.” Picking up on comments at the synod, the pope supported the idea of small groups of people within the parish that can provide “true human relationships.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999