Pope John Paul II issued a warning Thursday to Brazilian bishops who support radical versions of the controversial theology of liberation. He said they should not substitute themselves for "politicians, economists, sociologists, intellectuals and union leaders" as they try to win social justice for the oppressed.
In place of the political and social activism that has characterized the movement in Brazil and other Latin American countries, the pontiff offered his own version of liberation theology "founded on solid doctrinal elements" and untouched by political ideologies such as Marxism.
"Purified of elements that could adulterate it, with grave consequences for the faith, this theology of liberation is not only orthodox but necessary," John Paul said.
New Document Due
He said that a new document spelling out an acceptable form of liberation theology will be issued soon by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department that deals with doctrine. In 1984, that department issued a document denouncing some aspects of liberation theology, including its use of Marxist social and economic analysis.
The Pope summoned leaders of the Brazilian Conference of Bishops to a special three-day meeting after they called at the Vatican earlier in the week for the routine visit that they make every five years.
It was the first special summons of a country's bishops since John Paul called the hierarchy of the Netherlands to Rome in 1980 to tone down their liberalism, but Vatican officials went out of their way to characterize the meeting with the Brazilians as a routine consultation.
In his welcoming speech to them Thursday, John Paul said that it was not an "emergency meeting." But he added that there are "important and worrying topics" to be discussed, including the "burning question" of liberation theology.
Brazil's Catholic hierarchy has been divided on a number of issues, including the radical approach many of its bishops and priests have taken to the church's role of achieving social, political and economic justice. The Pope has consistently disapproved of the activist approach that many of them have adopted.
One of the developers of the new theology, the Franciscan theologian Leonardo Boff, was ordered by the Vatican last year to maintain a year's "penitential silence." Boff had the support of a number of liberal Brazilian bishops, including Cardinal Paulo Arns, archbishop of Sao Paulo, and Cardinal Aloisio Lorscheider, archbishop of Fortaleza.
John Paul did not get down to specifics in his speech to the Brazilians, but he made it clear that he still disapproves of any activist role for churchmen in political and social movements. Acknowledging the problems of poverty, hunger and illiteracy, and the broad gap between the rich few and the poor masses, the Pope left no doubt that they are the concern of the church.
But he emphasized that the task of the church is specifically a religious one and that the church cannot "identify itself with nor substitute for the role of the politicians, economists, intellectuals and union leaders."
The church wants to see social reforms carried out without violence, a tactic that some liberation theologians have advocated as a last resort. The Pope exhorted the bishops to oppose "violence, which besides being against the Gospel, ends up nearly always by generating the same injustices that it combats, and even greater and more cruel injustices."