National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  May 14, 2004

-- Photos by Paul Jeffrey

Voters participate in the 1994 general elections in El Salvador. Electoral democracy has not solved the region's problems.
Latin America: Search for a future

Part 1: Introduction: Power or credibility?


Only 28 percent of people polled in 17 Latin American countries said they were "satisfied with democracy." All of the statistics of the region reflect increasing inequality. The connections between economic well-being and democracy are well established. In the relationship between the two lies Latin America's future.

Democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in Latin America.

When Jean-Bertrand Aristide left Haiti at the end of February, he became the hemisphere’s fifth elected leader in four years to leave office before his time. Other leaders have been forced from office in Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Democracy isn’t faring well in the region. When Latinobarómetro pollsters last year asked thousands of people in 17 Latin American countries if they were “satisfied with democracy,” only 28 percent said yes, down from 32 percent the year before.

An ominous warning signal came in April with the release of a survey by the United Nations Development Program of almost 19,000 people in 18 countries. The study found that 56 percent of those polled would support an authoritarian government, 56 percent put economic development ahead of democracy, and 58 percent agreed that leaders should “go beyond the law” if necessary.

May 14Part 1Introduction: Power or credibility?
June 4Part 2Economics: Little relief in sight for poverty, debt and unemployment
July 16Part 3Development: Lasting change by helping the poor without paternalism
 Part 4Immigration: Opportunity and challenge for Latin America's poor
 Part 5Reconciliation from the grass roots up
 Part 6Indigenous people: Fighting for rights after centuries of discrimination
 Part 7Women In Latin America: The gender gap kills
 Part 8Children: Poverty cuts children’s chances for a future; interview with the Bishop of the Gangs
 Part 9Church: Despite crisis, Latin America's grass-roots communities remain strong model for effective church
 Part 10Solidarity: Church groups find countless ways to put faith into action
Overall, according to Dante Caputo, who directed the study, one-third of the region’s people favor democracy, one-third do not and one-third are ambivalent. He referred to the latter as “mutant democrats,” people who call themselves democrats, but who tolerate certain corrupt practices and would accept an authoritarian government.

“There used to be institutional breakdowns [in the region],” Caputo said at a press conference before the study was released. “Now there’s a risk that democracy will die a slow death.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After the ruthless dictatorships of the ’70s and ’80s, the introduction of electoral democracy throughout the region was heralded as the foundation for a new age of prosperity and peace. Yet the widespread failure to honor peace agreements or confront corruption, along with the refusal by the region’s elites to quit manufacturing more misery for the 43.4 percent of the region’s population that lives on less than $2 a day, have all contributed not to peace, but to inequality -- the principal root of conflict.

Maya K'iche' women in a Catholic ceremony in Cantel, Guatemala

The U.S. government, which had backed most of the generals who were eased into retirement with the advent of formal democracy, became an ardent supporter of economic development in the region. Yet the “Washington Consensus” -- a prescription by market fundamentalists for deregulation, privatization, lower taxes, smaller governments, and the unrestricted movement of capital and imports -- failed to lift the sinking boat of the poor. Indeed, more of the poor than ever before sought to migrate north, something not countenanced in a system of globalization that allows for the free movement of capital but not people. While human trafficking grows as a result, the money the migrants send home has become the principal source of hard currency for many countries whose traditional exports were pillaged by steadily deteriorating terms of trade.

As the symptoms of discontent spread, Washington acted like a medieval healer applying even more leeches, demanding fast-track authority to negotiate free trade agreements. The Bush administration recycled a series of Cold War hardliners who applied 1980s rhetoric and stereotyping against anyone who questioned whether the world should be run by Washington. Yet such political marketing hasn’t sold well in the region, and leftist candidates are not only appearing more regularly, they’re winning elections (though not changing things much when they get into office, given who writes the rules in the world today). A recent Zogby International survey showed Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a longtime darling of the left, getting a 69 percent approval rating in the region. In the same poll, U.S. President George W. Bush got only 12 percent. Although few in the U.S. capital will admit it, in part because few inside the Beltway are paying any attention to Latin America these days, the Washington Consensus is in deep trouble.

More than a third of the region’s youth are unemployed, the maternal death rate is 20 times that of the industrialized world, and diseases associated with poverty killed 190,000 children in Latin America last year. Whatever statistic you cite, they all reflect increasing inequality. In land ownership, in access to credit, in income distribution, it’s the region of the world with the most pronounced inequality. The gap is wide and getting wider.

Some in high places have begun to read the signs of the times. Multilateral lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have admitted they erred in depending too much on free trade to produce prosperity for the region’s majority. The Chicago Boys -- the market fundamentalists from the University of Chicago who designed economic programs for conservatives from Chile’s Augusto Pinochet to Ronald Reagan -- charted a path that ultimately undermined democracy.

The connection between economic well-being and the well-being of democracy cannot be overemphasized. According to Latinobarómetro, an annual public opinion survey covering issues including democracy, economics and politics in 17 Latin American countries, only 23 percent of Latin Americans say their income is sufficient to meet their needs. Such a low number spells trouble for politicians who don’t offer real alternatives. Several studies have shown that people’s perceptions of their families’ economic situation correspond directly to their support for their government in particular and democracy in general. Not surprisingly, voters are increasingly staying home from the polls, with their absence effectively voting for “none of the above.”

Or they’re moving the locus of decision-making to the streets. In Ecuador, President Jamil Mahuad’s days were numbered after ordinary citizens saw their savings vaporize in a bank collapse in 1999. As a result, midlevel military officers and the country’s powerful indigenous organizations forced Mahuad out in early 2000. Street protests also forced Argentine President Fernando de la Rua out of office in 2001 and brought down Bolivia’s Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada last October.

Indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico

In some countries, voters have sought change in populist rhetoric. This worked for Alejandro Toledo in Peru, Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Chávez is a smart aleck former army colonel whose populist message appealed to poor Venezuelans disenchanted with the entrenched political parties and corrupt officials in the oil-rich nation. Chávez hasn’t shied away from including the country’s Catholic hierarchy in his list of villains.

Some voters have reacted to instability by choosing authoritarianism. The 1990 election of Alberto Fujimori, a political “outsider,” was an appeal by Peruvians for a strong hand at the helm as the country weathered the storms of economic chaos. Fujimori wasted little time in dissolving Congress and concentrating power in the executive branch, thus adding the term Fujimorazo (meaning a “self-coup”) to the region’s political lexicon.

Disenchantment with political parties around the region has given “independents” like Fujimori a measurable boost. Yet with no party structure behind them, they are often ineffective. Seeking solid footing in Peru’s murky political waters, Fujimori aligned himself with Vladimiro Montesinos, a former army captain who had been cashiered for treason. After Fujimori won an unconstitutional third term in fraud-plagued elections in 2000, his government collapsed in a corruption scandal highlighted by video of Montesinos buying off Congress members and businessmen with wads of cash. Fujimori sneaked off to Japan, relishing the ill-gotten gains that earned him the Number 7 spot on Transparency International’s list of all-time political crooks, part of the group’s 2004 Global Corruption Report.

Number 9 in the corruption hall of fame is Arnoldo Alemán, Nicaragua’s former chief thief. Despite Alemán’s conviction in December and his imprisonment in March, not one centavo of his loot has been recovered. The daily La Prensa claimed that $2 billion went missing from government coffers during the last 30 months of Alemán’s government.

Virtually every government in the hemisphere has been dogged by nepotism, influence peddling or outright thievery. Corruption devours about 10 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, according to Bernardo Kliksberg, director of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development. It’s a natural outgrowth, he argues, of a system that has increased inequality and thus doubled poverty over where it would be if Washington had not imposed its cocktail of militarism and neoliberalism on the region from the ’70s until now.

Weapons abounded in Central America during the '80s, many of them provided by U.S. taxpayers. In the '90s, many of these weapons ended up in the hands of criminals.

Yet Kliksberg is optimistic, cheered by the emergence of a growing political consensus -- symbolized however imperfectly by several new political leaders -- against inequality and poverty. He praises Brazil’s “Zero Hunger” program as an example of attacking inequality in a way that involves all of society, not just the state, in guaranteeing basic human rights -- including the right to eat.

Long kept under wraps by centralized political traditions inherited from Spain and Portugal, by the boss-crony model of partisan organization, and by foreign-supported terror against dissidents when necessary to protect inequality, social capital may be the most underutilized of Latin America’s natural resources. Yet today citizen groups are organizing across the landscape, demanding change in the way governments do everything from running elections to distributing food supplements for school children. “Citizen oversight” has become a common buzz-word, and the region’s ill-defined “civil society” is now considered -- willingly or unwillingly -- a major player by both governments and international organizations. “Strengthening civil society” is today an obligatory component of any development project.

Civil society takes many forms. Landless peasants have organized in Brazil and Bolivia, and Brazil also has a “roofless” movement of people with inadequate or no housing. Consumer rights organizations have sprung up in a variety of countries, with Chile at the epicenter. Despite persistent discrimination, the indigenous movement has scored gains not only in Ecuador, but also in Chile and Venezuela. In Colombian villages, church activists and ordinary people have tried to carve out a space for ordinary life between warring factions. In Central America, hurricane victims have demanded to know what happened to reconstruction aid, the families of emigrants have formed networks of self-support and political advocacy, and young people -- lacking constructive alternatives -- have formed youth gangs despite violent repression by anonymous sponsors of social cleansing. Amorphous and dynamic, Latin America’s civil society is calling a halt to politics as usual.

A fearful church

So where’s the Roman Catholic church in the midst of this turmoil?

A Catholic Mass in Honduras

It’s difficult to generalize about a region -- and a church -- that’s so large and complex. And it’s clear that there’s both an abundance of villains and a heartening presence of heroes within Latin America’s Catholic family.

The villains include those who continue to abuse the power of the church -- still accorded extraordinary privilege in many countries -- for personal gain. Witness Archbishop Héctor Aguer of La Plata, Argentina, who -- in addition to continuing to defend the church’s complicity with military torturers in decades past -- last year personally guaranteed bail for Francisco Trusso, an Argentinean banker and Vatican financial consultant who proved that the best way to rob a bank is by owning one.

And then there are the heroes, like the Franciscan chaplains to the Landless Movement in Brazil or the religious women behind the mikes at Radio Pio XII in Bolivia’s mining country, a combative station knocked off the air for two months after its transmitter was blown up by government forces last October. And we shouldn’t forget the most heroic, the countless martyrs in Central America.

Yet while it’s impossible to describe one Catholic church in Latin America, it may be easier to examine the Vatican’s approach to the region. According to several church leaders, activists, and observers interviewed by NCR, like the “Washington Consensus,” the “Rome Consensus” isn’t making much of a contribution to democracy in the region, either inside or outside the church.

“Normally I prefer the word ‘involution’ to describe the Vatican’s attitude toward Latin America, but when a fit of prophetic wrath suddenly descends on me, I use the term Counterreformation,” Pablo Richard, a Chilean priest and sociologist, told NCR.

“At the root of this Counterreformation is fear. There’s a lot of fear in the church, fear of the reform that began with Vatican II, that continued with [the Latin American bishops meetings in] Medellín and Puebla, and that was expressed in the theology of liberation. There’s fear of these reforms, there’s fear of modernity, of fragmentation, of a preferential option for the poor that leads to a rupture with the most powerful sectors of society,” said Richard, who directs the Ecumenical Investigation Center in San José, Costa Rica.

According to Miguel Cavada Díez, a theologian at the Oscar Romero Pastoral Center at the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador, many church leaders are paralyzed by a fear of losing privilege, of losing market share to evangelicals, of becoming one religion among many. “The church is so afraid of losing power that it seeks to renew the connection it once had to privilege vis-à-vis its relation with the state. That’s what the pope spends a lot of his time traveling around doing. That’s why he wants the constitution of the European Union to include a clause about Christianity, some kind of seal of approval from the state in order to stand up to the competition,” Cavada told NCR.

“Yet the real task for the church in Latin America is not seeking power, but rather building credibility. And credibility is gained by losing power. Murdered San Salvador Archbishop [Oscar] Romero was most credible precisely when his power was at its lowest. Objectively speaking, he had no power. He was even persecuted by the church. The other bishops made his life difficult. The only help he had was the clergy closest to him and the people. When he had the least power he had the most credibility, and the cathedral was at its fullest. He didn’t care, however, whether it was full or empty. He had to say what he had to say,” Cavada said.

Yet Romero quickly became yesterday’s news at the Vatican, and after a few years his archdiocese was put in the hands of a Spaniard with close ties to Opus Dei, a conservative organization whose members understood Salvadoran reality from a different perspective than Romero, who was killed by the military in 1980. It was an overt attempt by Rome to rekindle favor with the economic elite who despised Romero and who had started abandoning the church for the Neopentecostal megachurches that preach personal piety but leave untouched questions about the morality of wealth and the use of power.

‘Christianity is the cross’

According to Alvaro Ramazzini, the bishop of San Marcos, Guatemala, the church should stay on message and not alter the Gospel to placate the wealthy, who in places with progressive Catholic leadership are often being pulled off into Neopentecostal churches where the theology of prosperity is a preached every Sunday.

“Many of the rich in Guatemala, and some of the middle class, are leaving the Catholic church because they don’t like to hear that Christianity is the cross, it’s suffering, it’s renunciation, it’s sharing what you have with others. At the same time, another Christian offer conveniently appears that tells you that you have to be a good husband, be faithful to your woman, quit drinking, educate your children well, and if you do all that then you are free to do what you want in your business,” Ramazzini told NCR.

Ramazzini, who has endured years of death threats for his support for landless peasants and rural workers, says that while the church should try to understand why these other groups are growing, it must not water down the Gospel just to keep the wealthy from leaving. “At the end of the day, I’m convinced that the authentic Christian option is really that of just a few,” Ramazzini said.

Cavada claims the fast-track treatment of Mother Teresa’s beatification is an example of a signal from the top that it’s time to cozy up to the powerful.

Central American migrants wait for a northbound cargo train in Tapachula, Mexico

“I’m not questioning the goodness of Teresa of Calcutta, but she’s been used by the church to proclaim that mission means charity and getting along with the powerful. Monseñor Romero, on the other hand, is a symbol of denouncing power, injustice and poverty, of telling the rich that they are the cause of poverty and that they aren’t going to solve it with their alms. Yet look at how Teresa and Romero have been treated differently. This is a church that understands its mission as diplomacy with the powerful and charity towards the poor. Any prophetic dimension is simply lost,” Cavada said.

Pandering to the powerful doesn’t seem to work well in every case, however. Take Nicaragua, where some Catholic leaders have closely identified with U.S. interests and the local conservative elite, in the last decade forming a close partnership with former President Alemán. One of Alemán’s last acts before giving up the presidency in 2001 was to issue a postage stamp with the image of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the archbishop of Managua. “The stamp honored the church’s passivity, its unprecedented tolerance and lack of prophetic vision when confronted by a corrupt government that had stolen from the poor and the peasants. The government gave a prize to the church for being silent, for failing to demand justice,” charged Sixto Ulloa, a Baptist pastor and politician.

Not surprisingly, public confidence in the church has plummeted along with the fortunes of Alemán, who was sentenced in December to 20 years in prison for stealing at least $100 million in public funds. A Latinobarómetro survey in October, funded by the Inter- American Development Bank and the Swedish government and conducted by CID-Gallup, showed that Nicaraguans trust the Catholic church less than their counterparts in any other country in Central America. Only 60 percent of Nicaraguans polled said they had confidence in the Catholic church, compared to 79 percent of Guatemalans, where the Catholic leadership is the most progressive in the region.

Such discontent doesn’t automatically translate into points for the other team, however. Evangelicals are a smaller percentage of the population in Nicaragua than in Guatemala. In the absence of creative and responsive pastoral models from any market contender, a lot of people simply opt for “none of the above.” Latin America is far from secularized Europe, but it’s headed there. “The church is in a major crisis in Latin America. The youth, the university students, the intellectuals, the most reflective sectors of society are moving away from the church,” said Richard.

Evangelicals a blessing

Although the predictions of explosive evangelical growth of recent decades have not materialized, scratch most Latin American Catholics of whatever ideological tendency and you’ll soon find deep resentment about what many still refer to as “the sects” -- the evangelical churches that in recent decades have provided competition to Catholics, who had Latin America to themselves for 400 years. Despite the end of the Cold War, it’s still fashionable to cling to conspiracy theories that hold that the CIA is behind the “sects.” David Stoll, professor of anthropology at Middlebury College and author of the 1990 book, Is Latin America Turning Protestant? told NCR that the accusations of CIA funding “continue to be very popular because it’s a scapegoat argument that diverts responsibility from Catholic structures.”

When the CIA urban legend wears thin, some Catholics attack evangelical leaders for growing rich off the tithes of the poor. The archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, provoked cries of foul from some non-Catholics when in 2002 he described many evangelical churches as “just one more industry.”

A middle-class woman, now homeless, living on streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“It’s enough to open a church, even in a garage,” Rodríguez said. “But there are two essential elements: be anti-Catholic, and demand tithes. That makes this a very attractive line of work. You don’t need a degree in theology or any preparation. It’s enough to pick up a Bible and say whatever you want, as long as you collect the tithes.”

His accusations may be true in many cases, but more than one offended evangelical pointed out that the cardinal lives in a very comfortable house and his photos appear regularly in the society pages of Honduran newspapers, sipping cocktails at diplomatic receptions or baptizing a scion of the local elite.

According to Anthony Gill, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington, many Catholic leaders in Latin America have failed to grasp that evangelical competition is a healthy factor for their positioning in the religious marketplace.

“The rise of evangelical Protestantism in Latin America is not a crisis, but actually a blessing for both the Catholic church and society at large. Protestant competition provides Catholic leaders with a signal as to failed efforts to reach important segments of Latin American society and further creates the proper incentives needed for what the Latin American Bishops’ Conference has called ‘a new evangelization,’ ” Gill told an October conference on Latin American Catholicism held at the University of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Center for International Studies.

Monopolization of the religious sphere has been characterized by the same poor customer service as economic monopolies, and Gill claims that evangelicals have acted as “an alarm clock” for Latin American Catholics. In other words, it was time to quit blaming the CIA and start cleaning up their own house. This realization was part of the impetus for the reinvigorating of Catholic parishes by Christian base communities in the last three decades. Rather than simply fomenting political subversion, as some members of the Roman curia may have feared, the communities have given the Catholic church a new lease on life in many poor communities.

Fetching water, a task of women and children throughout the region, on the edge of Guazapa Volcano, El Salvador

Yet the base communities are in crisis in many parts of the region. According to Cilto Rosembach, pastor of the Good Shepherd Parish in a poor neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil, the base communities “don’t have the same health and vitality as before,” when they became the darlings of a post-Vatican II church. Yet Rome isn’t the only place to search out the cause of the communities’ crisis. “There’s not just one villain to blame,” said Rosembach, who also edits Cantareira, a monthly newspaper for base communities and other grass-roots groups. He explained that the communities suffered from an exodus of trained leaders to political movements, as well as from a church hierarchy “that no longer wants to share the word of God with the grass roots, but rather focuses its attention on the rich.”

Even in the best of times for the base communities, a significant number of church leaders scorned them as ideological intrusion into sacred space and rejected them as tools to fight off the evangelical competition. With encouragement from the Vatican, which sidelined social activism in favor of its “new evangelization” in the 1992 Santo Domingo meeting of the regional bishops’ conference, they preferred instead to reorganize their dioceses and parishes by taking advantage of other lay groups that favored personal piety over political involvement. Such groups as the neocatechumenal movement (known as El Camino -- The Way -- by its adherents) and the charismatic Renovación Católica were welcomed with open arms.

The popularity of these groups was evidence that they offered something that the institutional church was failing to provide. Opus Dei offered wealthy elites a sense of personal piety. The Renovación movement offered emotional excitement in a church that had gone flat. The adherents of El Camino found a disciplined spiritual life in a world that seemed everyday more chaotic. According to Cardinal Rodríguez, El Camino helps laity feel like they’re part of the church. “It’s very demanding in how it forms its members, demanding about how they practice the faith, and demanding in regard to how they manage material wealth. El Camino looks for those who have drifted away, and it has had good results,” Rodríguez told NCR.

Yet to the dismay of Rodríguez and many in the clergy and episcopacy, some of these lay movements have served as Trojan horses for implanting new resistance to clerical control. Although welcomed initially by church leaders as a way to safely parry the evangelicals, as they take over parishes and challenge the control of the clergy, in some places they have proved more troublesome than the evangelical threat they were supposed to counter. Fear of ecumenism, in short, has left the Catholic church weakened internally. The “rapacious wolves,” as Pope John Paul II dubbed evangelicals, have often proved to be meeker and milder than the “enemy” within.

Who’s in charge in Rome?

Guessing at where the Latin American church is going in coming decades depends on who is assumed to be in charge. While it’s clear that the Vatican has succeeded in governing the Latin American church by remote control -- through a weakened regional bishops’ conference and papal nuncios who promptly report any untoward behavior while advancing the most loyal candidates for episcopal appointments -- at times it’s hard to figure out who decides what behind Vatican walls. Is the pope a nasty emperor dashing all attempts at reform, or is the curia, with its overabundance of conservative Latin Americans, selectively filtering what the Holy Father receives from the region?

A woman at work in a maquila in Guatemala City

It’s probably some of both, most observers in this region agree, recognizing that the pontiff has a visceral hatred of any activity that smacks of the communism he helped dismantle in Eastern Europe. Just examine John Paul’s face in the famous 1983 photo of him wagging his finger at Ernesto Cardenal while the revolutionary priest knelt on the hot tarmac of the Managua airport, trying in vain to kiss the pope’s ring.

Yet isn’t this the same pope who in 1996 insisted on diverting his motorcade in order to visit Romero’s tomb in San Salvador, a demand so surprising to his conservative hosts that it took them a while to find the key to open the catacombs? Isn’t this the same pope who in visiting Brazil for the first time in 1980 refused the honors of the military dictatorship, received Lula and other endangered union leaders, and blessed a church activist in São Paulo who’d been tortured on the eve of the pope’s visit? Isn’t this the same pope who upon visiting Cuba in 1998 lambasted neoliberalism? Isn’t this the same pope who, two decades after condemning the theology of liberation, misses few chances today to criticize foreign debt, savage capitalism, and the abuse of the poor?

Yet then there’s the popemobile, a powerful symbol of enforced papal myopia. It’s the short leash held by the Vatican bureaucracy. Yet every once in a while, reality breaks through.

When the pope came to Honduras in 1983, the faithful lined up hours ahead of time along the boulevard that leads from the Basilica of Suyapa, just outside the capital of Tegucigalpa, where the pope celebrated Mass. As he was preparing to leave, Honduran military officials claimed an assassin was lurking along the planned route, so the pope’s motorcade was diverted. Instead of sailing down the boulevard, where everything had been freshly painted in preparation for John Paul, the collection of jeeps bounced along some dusty roads, past houses of the poor constructed of cardboard and scrap metal. “It was the only moment on his whole trip through Central America when the pope really saw what the region was like,” German Calix, the director of Caritas Honduras, told NCR.

During the pope’s 1985 visit to Peru, an indigenous religious leader in Cusco, once the heart of the Inca empire, thrust a Bible into the pontiff’s hands -- symbolically returning the book that had been used to justify abuses against indigenous people since 1492.

The pontiff is arguably easier to control inside the Vatican. According to José Oscar Beozzo, a Catholic historian who heads the Center for Evangelization and Popular Education in São Paulo, when the pope announced he was going to cut up the sprawling archdiocese in São Paulo that for many had become, under the innovative leadership of Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, a model for urban ministry, Arns went to Rome to ask the pope face-to-face why he wanted to destroy all that the archbishop had worked years to construct. Beozzo said the pope told Arns that the splitting up of the archdiocese had been requested in a letter to the Vatican from Arns’ 11 auxiliary bishops. At that point, Arns pulled out a letter from those same 11 auxiliary bishops pleading with Rome to leave the archdiocese alone. “The pope was visibly embarrassed, and finally sent Arns off to talk to the head of a Vatican congregation,” Beozzo told NCR. The archdiocese was divided up three weeks later.

A Maya K'iche' woman during a Mayan ceremony near Salcaja, Guatemala

Whatever the truth about how Pope John Paul II sees Latin America, it would be a mistake to try to define the future of the church in the region solely from the perspective of the Vatican.

Madeleine Cousineau, a professor of sociology at Mount Ida College in Newton Centre, Mass., has studied Christian base communities in Brazil and reports that no amount of repression has done away with them. It’s simply too late.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You cannot tell thousands and thousands of poor people that they have dignity, that they are the leaders of the church, and then afterwards say, ‘Oh, we changed our mind. You have to go back to sitting in the pews and being told what to do.’ These people have had a taste of leadership, and they aren’t going to stop,” Cousineau told NCR.

According to Luiz Alberto Gómez de Souza, a Brazilian sociologist who heads the Center for Religious Statistics and Social Investigation in Rio de Janeiro, the situation in Latin America today is similar to that of the church in Europe in the 1950s, when the “centralizing pontificate of Pius XII and the cult of the papal personality” silenced progressive theologians and halted the French experiment with worker-priests. Despite such repression, progressive Catholics continued, at times clandestinely, with liturgical renovation and new pastoral strategies. And then along came an elderly and charming pope who surprised many when he opened the doors of the church to these new experiments with faith.

De Souza, who serves as an adviser to the Brazilian bishops’ conference, told participants in the Notre Dame conference in October that the most important challenge facing the church in the region today “is the continuance of an ecclesial and pastoral practice which is experimental and renovating, silent, subversive and patient, steadily faring ahead of today’s institutional politics and, perhaps, preparing in the underground surprises for tomorrow.”

Just how those surprises will be nurtured in a hostile institutional environment remains an open question. Many progressives in the church practice “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to their relationship with conservative bishops. One Catholic nun working with base communities in Nicaragua told NCR she refused to be interviewed for this series. “I don’t want problems with the bishops. I just want to continue my work in the community, and so my congregation has asked me not to talk about it publicly,” she said.

Richard said that despite the environment of Counterreformation, he continues to travel extensively, giving classes on the popular reading of the Bible in countries throughout the region. He told NCR that the grass-roots church “is growing tremendously.” Yet he warned that he was taking lessons from the region’s indigenous communities.

“I’ve tried to avoid confrontation, and focus on helping the church grow through a popular reading of the Bible and the practice of solidarity and spirituality. The indigenous have shown that it’s easiest to advance if you don’t make noise. Yet the situation is so bad today that at times prophetic wrath makes me start to shout. I’m so tired of this conservatism oppressing the church. But we’ve got to be careful. If not, suddenly a bolt of lightening could come from the Vatican and split your head in two,” Richard said.

About the writers
Barbara Fraser worked in Peru for 14 years as a Maryknoll lay missioner, including five years as director and editor of Latinamerica Press. She now lives in Peru as a freelance writer, mainly covering social and environmental issues. Besides NCR, her work has appeared in EcoAmericas, The Lancet, Catholic News Service, Sierra magazine, PANOS Features, Latinamerica Press, Gemini News Service and other publications.
Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary journalist who has lived in Central America for two decades. He’s filed stories from more than 35 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and has won several photography and writing awards, including Catholic Relief Services’ Eileen Egan Award in 2002. He lives outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with his wife and two teenage children.

National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 2004

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