Since its birth in the 1960s, the school of thought within the Roman Catholic Church known as “liberation theology” has gained widespread support in Latin America from priests engaged in political and social activism. But that support seemed threatened earlier this fall when the Vatican issued a document that took exception to what it called the movement’s Marxist elements, ordered four priests to resign from Nicaragua’s leftist government and “invited” to Rome a prominent Brazilian theologian to discuss his published works on the subject. Then, Catholics who interpreted the actions as official suppression of the position were surprised when Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, chosen superior general of the Jesuit order last year, said in an interview in New York late last month that he supports liberation theology. Said Kolvenbach: “The promotion of justice is a mission given to every Jesuit, pastor, educator or social worker.”
Kolvenbach, 55, criticized what he called the negative aspects of the Vatican document and said that when dealing with social and economic problems it is sometimes “absolutely necessary to use the terminology of Marxism.” Added Kolvenbach: “You cannot say that you should never use a term like the ‘struggle of class.’ It is something that exists.” Although he stopped short of endorsing Christian use of such Marxist concepts as class warfare, Kolvenbach praised the politically active Jesuits of South and Central America, saying, “They opened our eyes to the need for liberation.”
Since the Vatican issued its critical statement on Sept. 3, church spokesmen have denied that the church’s intention was to suppress liberation theology. They have also dismissed notions that the church timed the appearance of the document intentionally to coincide with the discipline of the priests—who have refused to resign from Nicaragua’s Sandinista government—or the call to Rome of Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff. The spokesmen have promised that the church’s actual position on the controversial movement will be made clear when it issues a second document, which is expected before Christmas. Kolvenbach, for one, said that he expects the new statement to deal more positively with the subject.
Other observers agree that the Vatican’s initial negative reaction does not portend a church policy that is opposed to liberation theology. Recent state-
ments by Pope John Paul II, who ordered the original Vatican report, have encouraged that view. In Edmonton on Sept. 17 he angrily denounced political and economic oppression in poor countries. And last month, during a visit to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, he again appealed for social justice while carefully excluding Marxism as a means of achieving it.
Some commentators maintain that the slow evolution of a church policy on social activism is due to its origin in Latin America. Said Rev. Ernest Schibli, assistant for social justice to the Bishop, in Montreal: “Almost all previous theologies have been European-based, so the Vatican is now faced with a different approach and is trying to come to grips with it.” And the overwhelmingly Catholic populations of Latin American countries create a powerful incentive to accommodate the new thought. Said Kolvenbach: “The Holy Father really believes that the church of the two Americas, North and South, is the church of the future.”
Whatever the outcome of the debate, it is clear to observers in Latin America that the young theology is coming of age and will not disappear on orders from abroad. Said Schibli: “Having recently talked to certain people in Latin America, I can assure you that liberation theology is alive and WELL.”-PAUL BERTON
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