More is said than done
CARDINAL Joseph Ratzinger has issued a major document on liberation theology. It is long: the 100 numberfteld paragraphs occupy 59 pages in English translation, and it is positive. In order to understand it, though, you need to know the background.
Liberation theologies are born of either Marxism, Vatican Council II, or both. That is a gross over-simplification, but it may help readers to appreciate why the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's first document on liberation theology in 1984 was a strongly worded caution about certain aspects (particularly the Marxist aspects), while the new document of 1986 provides guidelines for (and is even a celebration of) authentic liberation theology.
There is not one liberation theology, there are many. Though originating in Lath America they may now be found in Africa and Asia and amongst or on behalf of minority groups in the northern hemisphere, though not amongst Christians behind the Iron Curtain. Cardinal Ratzinger's office issued no Polish translation of its first document, but the Polish government did, with some important phrases being very carefully deleted. This time, the Vatican itself has issued a Polish translation of the new document.
In the late 1950s, early 1960s, there was an awakening of conscience in Latin America with regard to the plight of the poor. Power and wealth were in the hands of very small minorities, whilst the vast majority lived in poverty, squalor and disesie, exploited as cheap labour, oppressed' and denied even basic human and civil rights. When the Colombian priest, Camilo Torres, returned home after his studies in Belgium, he put aside his clerical collar, took up a gun and joined the guerrillas, only to be killed in his first taste of battle.
Another Latin American priest completed his studies in Belgium at the same time as Torres, but returning to his native Peru he rejected Torres' solution and took up instead, a pen. His name was Gustavo Gutierrez, and what he wrote became the first and most famous of the liberation theologies. It employs some Marxist techniques of social analysis in order to change the conditions of society.
At much the same time', another great awakening was taking place: in common with all the bishops of the Church, the bishops from Latin America were taking part in the Vatican Council II in Rome. It woke them from their slumbers. Then, further inspired by Paul VI's encyclical Populorum progressio, the bishops of Latin America met in 1968 in the Colombian city oft Medellin to work out together how to apply the Council to Latin America. It was at Medellin that their famous "preferential option for the poor" was articulated.
The image that makes most sense of all these initiatives is that of the exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and into the land flowing with milk and honey. This was a salvation, a liberation in every dimension — spiritual yes, but historical in the political, social and economic order too.
The poor are not to be fobbed off with promises of heaven later, but must be served with food and shelter, learning and liberty, now: in fact, they must take these developments upon themselves.
Well, why all the fuss? Aren't these projects obviously Christian? Why have some bishops, expressed such misgivings?
It seems that some of these Christian initiatives have been hijacked by Marxism, their spiritual dimension smothered, and their objectives made exclusively political. Others refuse to be drawn into theological dialogue, saying that unless you are committed to the poor and live amongst them you have no right to speak about their problems.
Besides, they say, "praxis" — the actual living out of the Gospel in a particular set of local, circumstances — takes precedence over discourse. People from other circumstances are therefore disqualified from talking.
The emphasis on an indigenous development of a theology of the Church by the people themselves has led some "popular churches" to oppose. themselves to local bishops.
In warning against "deviations, or risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living", Cardinal Ratzinger's first document on' liberation theology also announced that a second document would be issued on the positive aspects of liberation. Every episcopal conference was consulted about the project and was asked what the content of the new document should emphasise.
The document then went through seven drafts before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was satisfied with it. It was written in French, then translated, and finally approved by John Paul II. A summary had earlier been sent to every bishop, very privately and confidentially.
During Holy Week and Easter Week the bishops received the full text, which was embargoed until April 5 (though the embargo was broken two days earlier in Brazil).
Anyone familiar with the social teaching of the Church will not be surprised by anything in the new document. Unfortunately, her social teaching has been called her best kept secret, it is so little known. In each of his visits abroad, John Paul II devotes a major speech or homily to the subject of the Church's necessary commitment to the poor and oppressed. In this new document that same teaching is presented in a framework recognisable to liberation theologians.
When all is said and done, more is said than done. Unfortunately, our task is to read the document and put it into praxis. A short cut may be found in the message of a Palestinian Jew of 2000 years ago whose words and deeds reach beyond the confines of his land and time, to the very ends of the world. I refer in particular to his answer to the question, "But who is my neighbour?"