Church Proves Flexible in Third World Affairs

Peter Hebblethwaite is Vatican affairs writer for the National Catholic Reporter and author of "Pope John XXIII: Shepherd of the Modern World" (Doubleday).

Cardinal Jaime Sin, archbishop of Manila, is the latest Catholic hero. With a single broadcast on Radio Veritas, he brought the Filipino people out on the streets to interpose themselves between the defiant military and President Ferdinand E. Marcos' tanks.

"It was wonderful," Sin said in London, "old ladies held up their crucifixes, beautiful girls kissed the soldiers--they were electrified." Since it all turned out well in the end, not too many detailed questions have been asked.

But it is clear that Sin went his own way. The Vatican nuncio, or papal representative, a close friend of the Marcos family, proclaimed to the end that the church should be "neutral" in the election, when Sin was anything but neutral. But Sin was charitable about the nuncio: "He is a diplomat, if he takes sides, he will be persona non grata. "

It is also clear that the Vatican played for time--the Pope was said to be "praying for the people of the Philippines" throughout the crisis--and was eventually forced to back up judgment of the local bishops.

But did what happened in the Philippines have lessons for anywhere else in the Third World? The Philippines is the only Christian country in Asia; but having undergone three centuries of Spanish rule, it feels more like a chunk of Latin America that has drifted into the Pacific.

Cardinal Sin has sometimes claimed to be an exponent of the liberation theology practiced in Latin America, and sometimes not. "The first stage is denunciation," he explained, "and the second is reconciliation."

"Denunciation" means the defense of human rights against government abuses; so, under the Marcos regime, it meant the policy of "critical collaboration," a provisional approval that was not perpetually renewable. "Reconciliation" is the post-revolutionary policy: Instead of lining up Marcos' men against a wall and shooting them, those who have not fled are to be gently won over.

In Rome, Sin claims that the fruits of "liberation theology" could already be seen or were about to be seen in Chile, Poland, Guatemala and Nicaragua. In all these cases, the church was defending "the integral development of man" against totalitarian abuses. At this point, the mind begins to reel. Can such different situations be reduced to one common formula? Sin evidently believes it can be done. And with his keen political sense, he is echoing the Vatican's new vocabulary.

For there are now two versions of "liberation theology." The first was condemned in a document published Sept. 3, 1984, as inspired by Marxism. No one was named.

If the exponents of liberation theology replied that they were not in fact Marxists, they were answered in advance by the document that said that Marxism is a package deal: Concede an inch, and you have to buy a yard. One submits that there might be just something in the class war theory, and before you can say Karl Marx, you will have swallowed dialectical materialism.

The document also said that Marxism was "the shame of our time" and that it had enslaved millions. Almost at the same time, Ronald Reagan was speaking of "this evil empire." So, in September, 1984, "liberation theologians" were seen as unconscious allies of this evil, mere dupes.

One place where this document was effective was Nicaragua. It consolidated the policy declared during the Pope's visit to Managua in March, 1983: There is nothing good about the Sandinistas, and therefore the official church may take over the leadership of the opposition.

This policy isolated four priests who were government ministers: They were suspended from their priestly functions. They had to be dealt with harshly, for their presence in government suggested that this revolution was different, and that it had a Christian component. So they were charged with dividing the church, and disciplined accordingly.

But by 1986, that situation is now sufficiently under control for a new form of Vatican-stamped liberation theology to be produced. Purged of all Marxist elements and of any incitement to violence, this version of liberation theology, Pope John Paul II told the Brazilian bishops March 13, "is not only orthodox, but necessary." Coming shortly is the document that will present a "positive theology of liberation."

What will it consist of? "It is strong on liberation, but short on theology," said one Brazilian bishop who saw it. Essentially, it will provide grounds for opposing dictators of left and right but so as to change them by peaceful means, without violence or any appeal to class war.

Dictators are to be exhorted that they must reform soon--or else they will go the way of Marcos and ex-President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti. They will be deposed. It is worth noting that in both these countries, the Catholic radio station was the only independent source of news, and therefore played an important role.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile ought to be quaking in his military boots, for he can no longer pose as the defender of Christian civilization, and anti-communism is not anymore an automatically winning ticket; unpopular forms of anti-communism actually encourage its growth. One is less sure that President Chun Doo Hwan of South Korea will be worried, because the Catholic presence there is only about 15% of the population.

However, where "communism" is actually in power, this revamped liberation theology enables one to oppose it with a clear Christian conscience. Analogies are drawn between Eastern Europe and Nicaragua. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua, is hailed as "the Cardinal Mindszenty of Latin America" by the ex-Somocista fat cats of Miami.

This new version of liberation theology enables Obando y Bravo to call for a "dialogue" with the contras. It involves the idea that contras are somehow democratic and patriotic "freedom fighters" who have widespread support within Nicaragua. But this is simply not true.

The newly sanitized version of liberation theology is not incoherent. Within its own definition, it makes perfect sense. It leaves, however, one sore thumb sticking out: Cuba.

Whatever may have been happening in Nicaragua, in Cuba, there has been detente and dialogue between the church and President Fidel Castro in recent months. It is particularly hard to explain why Castro should be regarded as a sinister Soviet influence in Managua, while at home he is a rather harmless and benign old revolutionary with whom the church can "do business."

Part of the explanation is that the Cuban revolution has evidently come to stay. By contrast, the Sandinistas look fragile and doomed. Castro is neither. The church deals with what is there.

Bishop Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, secretary general of the Latin American bishops, was in Cuba for the summit meeting of the Cuban church held in February.

He is well known as an enemy of liberation theology (old style). He reported to the Pope immediately after the Havana meeting. Asked how Cuba differed from Nicaragua, he replied that "In Cuba the church has been granite-like in its unity."

In other words, it had conceded nothing theoretically to the communist regime; and this discretion now permitted it to re-emerge, modestly, to add a little color to the rather drab life lived by Cubans.

So, Cuban Catholicism is too flat. Jose Carneado, who runs the new Cuban Office for Religious Affairs, attended a glittering reception for Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, the papal envoy at the Cuban bishops' meeting. Nothing had been seen like it for years.

Cuban Catholicism is the focal popular version that does not ask too many questions. It is therefore not likely to upset anyone.

In short, Vatican policy toward the Third World is not uniform. It is essentially a flexible response to comparable but very different situations, based on a common set of attitudes.

And at the moment these attitudes happen to coincide with the interests of U.S. policy.

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