Pope’s Tour Reflects Church’s New Activist Role for the Poor

Times Staff Writer

So intimate is the connection between the throne and the altar that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.

--Edward Gibbon, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

As Pope John Paul II begins his sixth trip to Latin America, the banners of the Roman Catholic church are flying here--unmistakably on the side of the people.

In this predominantly Roman Catholic region of 350 million people, the church is increasingly active in support of political and social reforms, with the blessing of John Paul II despite some misgivings by others in the Vatican hierarchy.

From Brazil to Central America, from Haiti in the Caribbean to Chile in the southern Andes, the evidence shows that the church has switched from its traditional role as an ally of conservative forces toward active solidarity with the people.

When the Pope lands in Colombia on Tuesday, it will be the 19th country he has visited in Latin America and the Caribbean. Before Paul VI went to Colombia in 1968, no Pope had ever visited Latin America.


But since Paul VI, the authorities in Rome have come to see that the future of Roman Catholicism will be strongly influenced by the experience of the church in this region.

Aggressive New Role

The region is changing, in some cases under Marxist revolutionary leadership, as in Cuba and Nicaragua. The newly aggressive role of the church has come in response to these pressures.

To advocates of violence, the changes in the church seem slow, but they are widely considered to be the most important changes that have taken place since the Spanish caravels brought Christianity to the New World nearly 500 years ago.

Father Peter Ruggero, a Maryknoll missionary from New York, summed up the change: “The church is not the steeple. It’s the people.”

Ruggero, who wears blue jeans, talked with a reporter in Pamplona Alta, a squatter settlement with 150,000 people on the sandy hills south of Lima, the capital of Peru. He shares a cement-block house with a family that has 13 children.

40% Unemployment

Ruggero is a priest in the sprawling parish of Infant Jesus, which is supposed to serve about 300,000 people. Unemployment in this area stands at 40%, and much of Ruggero’s work is with young people who are out of work.

He also teaches theology at the Catholic University in Lima, the intellectual center of the Catholic left. He has been in Peru for 17 years, first under a leftist military regime, and now under the populist democratic government of President Alan Garcia.

In all this time, Ruggero said, he has seen poverty grow, along with the frustration of the young.

“The saddest thing here is a graduation party,” he said. “Nobody talks about the future.”

Like many other so-called progressive priests, Ruggero thinks that the conditions of social equality in Latin America require radical solutions.

‘Change Has to Come’

“I think change has to come from the left,” he said, “and our work must be to help Christians be prepared to protect Christian life when the change comes.”

Where right-wing dictatorships have closed off political freedoms, the church is in the forefront of the opposition.

In Haiti, progressive bishops such as Francois Gayot of Cap Haitien and Willy Romolus of Jeremie mobilized the popular uprising that brought down the corrupt Duvalier regime in February. Their main weapon was an independent radio station that the regime could not silence.

In Chile and Paraguay--both ruled by staunch dictators--the church has assumed the dangerous role of defending human rights, and it is putting pressure on the military regimes in both countries to hold free elections.

Priest Jailed

Father Renato Hevia, a Chilean Jesuit, was jailed in December, 1985, for criticizing the human rights violations of the government of President Augusto Pinochet. The authorities had sought to intimidate the opposition voice of Mensaje, a Jesuit monthly magazine of which Hevia is editor.

In the current issue, Hevia continues to press his demand for free elections. In May, he condemned mass arrests in the shantytowns of Santiago, where security forces took 100,000 people from their homes at night for “identification checks.”

“The church is not neutral in the face of misery,” Hevia said in an interview. “When this is joined to violence against human rights, one sees a military regime that is at war with its own people. As a result, the regime is at war with the church.”

He talked with a reporter in his chilly office, and to keep out the cold he wore a jacket with a Boston College emblem.

sh Divided by Inequalities

In most countries of Latin America, where society is divided by deep inequalities of income and opportunity, the church is working for the rights of workers and peasants.

In Brazil, the most populous predominantly Roman Catholic country in the world with more than 135 million people, the church has adopted a militant position on agrarian reform. Gunmen hired by big landowners have killed priests and nuns, but the government of President Jose Sarney has been pushed toward the distribution of land among the peasants by the church’s efforts for land reform.

Before he was killed May 10 in the cattle town of Imperatriz, a center of rural violence in the Brazilian Northeast, Father Josimo Moraes had been threatened with death by local landowners.

Shot to Death

“I know I am going to die, but it is in a good cause,” the 32-year-old priest said in a letter to his mother weeks before he was shot to death.

Moraes was active in the church’s pastoral commission for land in Imperatriz, in the state of Maranhao, and this brought him into conflict with landowners opposed to agrarian reform. The national headquarters of the pastoral commission, in Goiania, capital of the state of Goiaz, lists more than 50 Roman Catholic bishops, priests, nuns and rural organizers who have been threatened with death.

John Paul II is rated as a conservative on doctrinal issues. But his measured response to the upsurge of “progressive” movements in the Latin American church has put the Vatican in the camp of democracy and social justice here.

‘Preferential Option’

This historic change has met with some resistance in the Vatican hierarchy. There are conservatives in every Latin American country, including Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, archbishop of Medellin and the leading Colombian prelate.

There are divisions within the clergy at the local level over how far church activism should go on political and social issues. In Argentina, the conservatives for years silenced the church in connection with the “disappearance” of at least 7,000 people under former military governments; members of three juntas since have been convicted of human rights violations in connection with the disappearances and murders of these people.

But in most countries, most of the clergy and the religious orders have embraced the “preferential option in favor of the poor” adopted by the Third Conference of Latin American Bishops, at Puebla, Mexico, in 1979.

This concept sees the church interacting with the region’s painful social realities, with the church taking the side of the poor. The ideological framework comes from the controversial “theology of liberation.”

Pope Arbitrates Issues

This “Third World” reading of Scripture and origins of early Christianity, before the church became materially powerful, has been developed by Latin American churchmen such as Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Jesuit, and Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian Franciscan monk.

John Paul II has had to arbitrate on these issues. He has set limits on legitimate church action that include the rejection of violence, the maintenance of unity in the church, and no subordination of the church’s pastoral line to political parties or non-Christian ideologies such as Marxism.

But John Paul II has not suppressed the progressive line, despite his concern over fissures in the church, as in Nicaragua, where the church hierarchy has been challenged by Roman Catholic supporters of the Sandinista regime.

Some Advisers Alarmed

The danger that the Latin American church might be penetrated by Marxist revolutionaries, in the role of “progressives,” alarms some Vatican advisers, among them Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Ratzinger was behind the Vatican order last year that imposed a year of “penitential silence” on the outspoken Boff, who edits an influential magazine, the Brazilian Ecclesiastical Review, from the monastery where he lives in Petropolis, above Rio.

But the Brazilian bishops rallied behind the bearded Franciscan, and he was rehabilitated after accepting the Vatican’s authority.

In April, after a meeting with the Brazilian hierarchy in Rome, John Paul II issued a message to the Brazilian church recognizing that the Latin American theology of liberation was “not only opportune but useful and necessary” so long as it stays within the “permanent teachings of the church.”

Enough of an Endorsement

This was enough endorsement for all progressive Latin American Roman Catholics to feel authorized to pursue the practices of liberation theology. These include promotion of the so-called base communities, made up of lay persons in urban slums and among peasants and students and women’s groups. In Brazil and Chile, as well as in Haiti and other countries where the base communities, or “reflection groups,” have developed, the result has been political and social activism.

In some cases, the base communities have contributed to organized efforts by peasants to take over lands. In others, urban slum dwellers have created pressure groups to force the authorities to build schools or collect garbage.

In Brazil, there are direct links between activists in liberation theology, including Boff, and movements such as Sem Terra (without land), made up of landless peasants who have been organized in all the rural conflict zones.

President Sarney will go to Rome on July 8 for a meeting with John Paul II. The main subject he is expected to bring up is the pressure from the Brazilian church for an effective agrarian reform program, which could lead to a major political conflict.

John Paul II has scheduled another visit to Latin America next April, to Chile. And the clergy there expect him to confront Pinochet over his conflict with the Chilean church, as John Paul did in Haiti when he visited there in 1983.