e-mail us
Liturgy czar a Pinochet ally, foe of liberation theology

NCR Staff

The Vatican official responsible for several controversial recent decisions on liturgy is a conservative Chilean who first came to prominence through his opposition to liberation theology and his support of former president Augusto Pinochet.

Jorge Medina Estévez, 73, has led the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments since 1996.

In October 1999, Medina demanded sweeping changes in the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, the body created by English-speaking bishops at Vatican II to translate liturgical texts into English (NCR, Dec. 24, 1999). Medina instructed the bishops who govern the commission to grant his office a veto over staff and advisers, and asked that the commission not publish texts without the congregation’s approval.

To date the commission’s governing board, made up of bishops from 11 nations, has not responded to those demands. Medina asked that they do so by Easter, but commission officials say they do not expect action that quickly.

The letter capped years of complaint about the commission, especially its policy of using “inclusive language,” or gender-neutral terms where consistent with the meaning of a text. Sources in Rome say Medina, who has a limited command of English, regards that policy as unacceptably influenced by feminist thought.

To people who have watched Medina’s career, his hard line is not surprising. “He’s definitely a conservative,” said American Jesuit Fr. Walter Burghardt, who served with Medina on the International Theological Commission.

“I would not call him one of our great theologians,” Burghardt said. “He certainly does not have to apologize to anyone, but I would not place him above competent.” Burghardt said he recalled Medina as genial and possessing a good sense of humor.

The choice of Medina to head the congregation on worship puzzled some observers, since he has no special background in liturgy. He holds a doctorate in theology from Santiago’s Catholic University and is known primarily for his expertise in canon law.

Born in Santiago, Chile, Medina was a peritus, or theological expert, at Vatican II, where he worked on Gaudium et Spes (“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”) alongside such well-known theologians as Yves Congar, Jean Daniélou, Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac. Medina’s contributions to the council and various post-conciliar commissions led to an honorary doctorate from the University of Notre Dame in 1966.

According to Msgr. Fred McManus, an American peritus who helped draft Vatican II’s document on liturgy, Medina did not take part in any of the council’s liturgical work.

In 1985, Medina was made auxiliary bishop of Chile’s Rancagua diocese, and named head of the diocese two years later. The then-papal nuncio to Chile, Angelo Sodano, was reported to have engineered the appointment. Today Sodano is a cardinal and John Paul II’s secretary of state.

Medina was part of the reaction in Latin America against liberation theology, a movement that sought to align the church with demands for social justice. Medina joined conservative prelates who met in Santiago in 1985 under the leadership of Colombian Archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo to produce a document known as the “Andes Statement.” It denounced liberation theology as a Marxist perversion of the faith, claiming that it advocated a conflict between the “popular church” and the “hierarchical church.”

Sodano and Medina were perceived in Chile as friends of Pinochet’s government. In 1988, Sodano was awarded the “Grand Cross of the Order of Merit” by Pinochet.

The two cardinals came to Pinochet’s aid when the former president was detained in England in late 1998, facing the possibility of extradition to Spain and trial on human rights charges. Medina told a Santiago newspaper in December 1998 that the church was trying to win Pinochet’s release.

“There have been discussions at every level on this affair, and we’re hoping that they will have a positive outcome,” Medina told La Cuarta de Santiago. “I’ve prayed and prayed for Senator Pinochet as I pray for all people who have suffered,” Medina said. The cardinal called Pinochet’s Oct. 16, 1998, arrest a “humiliation” to Chilean sovereignty that the church “deplored.”

Medina had earlier intervened for Pinochet in late 1997, when the Chilean government was considering revoking the former president’s status as senator-for-life. Medina said the constitution granting him that status should be respected; the Chilean foreign minister said he didn’t think a member of the church hierarchy should issue political opinions.

Medina has been a rising star throughout John Paul’s papacy. In 1987, the pope named Medina to the editorial committee for the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published in 1992.

In 1992, John Paul II designated Medina secretary general for the Santo Domingo session of Latin American bishops’ conferences, in effect dislodging the group’s elected leader. Under Medina the meeting’s preparatory documents were jettisoned; by the end of the session, the bishops had formally denounced any identification of the Kingdom of God with socio-political arrangements, “as some modern theologies have claimed.” They also asserted that the kingdom can be glimpsed only in a “mysterious connection” of Christians with Jesus, not in any visible social order.

In 1993, Medina was tapped to head Chile’s Valparaiso diocese. In Chile, Medina was known as a staunch social conservative. He led a campaign against pornography in October 1995 and also tried to ban the rock group Iron Maiden from performing on the grounds of alleged Satanic overtones. In 1996, Medina threatened “total war” against a move to legalize divorce in Chile.

Medina entered the College of Cardinals in 1998.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000