Martin Maier SJ
Fifth General Assembly of CELAM
From 13 to 31 May 2007 in Aparecida, the Brazilian place of pilgrimage to Our Lady, the fifth general assembly of the Latin American Bishops' Council (CELAM) is going to take place. It stands under the somewhat long-winded theme "Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ - that our Peoples have Life in Him. 'I am the way, the truth and the life.' (Jn 14, 6)". More than 270 delegates, among them 170 cardinals and bishops from 22 Latin American Bishops' Conferences are expected at this church meeting. The plenary assembly is opened by Pope Benedict XVI, who had explicitly wished that it takes place in Brazil. As in the earlier general assemblies in Aparecida important orientations might be made for the church on the subcontinent, where more than half of the Catholics world-wide live. The expectations are accordingly large.
Aparecida enters its name in the larger context of the four preceding general assemblies. The most important result of Rio de Janeiro in 1955 was the establishment of CELAM, with which the basis for a greater independence of the Latin American Church was created. Of historical importance was the meeting in Medellín in 1968, which in a creative way implemented the Second Vatican Council into the situation of Latin America. The bishops connected the inhuman situation of poverty of the majority of people on the subcontinent with God's will of liberation. From the Christian faith and on the basis of the Bible they from it drew the conclusion of the Option for the Poor. The bishops' meeting and the Theology of Liberation, which had at that time developed, mutually inspired each other. Also the base communities, which above all in large numbers had developed in Brazil, were decisive for this church awakening.
The change of position connected with the option for the poor led to tensions and conflicts with the dominant oligarchies, which until then knew the church on their side. The USA too regarded the resolutions of Medellín as a threat to their interests in Latin America. The consequence was that since that time hundred thousands were murdered because of their commitment for justice based on the Christian faith.
Also within the church tensions arose between opponents and advocates of Medellín. This split shaped the subsequent conferences in Puebla (1979) and Santo Domingo (1992). When making preparations for Puebla there was a group of bishops around the then Secretary-General of the Latin American Bishops' Council and today's cardinal of the Roman Curia Alfonso Lopéz Trujillo which wanted to reach a condemnation of the theology of liberation, a centralistic control of the basis communities
and a toning down of the option for the poor. The liberation theologians were officially excluded from cooperation in Puebla, but they could nevertheless assert their influence on the editorship of the final document. In the end Puebla confirmed the basic decisions of Medellín.
The tension between Roman centralism and local church autonomy determined the preparation and the entire course of events during the meeting of Santo Domingo in the year 1992. Also the final document of this conference contained a clear confirmation of the option for the poor and underlined the continuity with Medellín and Puebla. But instead of the proven method according to the three steps "see - judge - act" a deductive method was used, which proceeded from an abstract theological basic scheme, into which the Latin American problems were then inserted.
Today the Catholic Church is under pressure of the so-called evangelical sects in Latin America. These are aggressively missionary, neo-Protestant movements of charismatic and pentecostal coinage, which are often financed from the USA. The former archbishop of São Paulo and today's cardinal of the Roman Curia Claudio Hummes OFM recently pointed out that in Brazil one per cent of the Catholics annually defect to those sects. Had the Catholics in the largest Catholic country of the earth in 1991 still supplied 83 per cent of the population, so their portion had meanwhile sunk to 67 per cent. Thus in Aparecida a continent-wide mission plan is to be organized - but under which theological and pastoral signs?
The first preparatory document for the meeting was sharply criticized from different sides. For in it the many martyrs of the past decades, the base communities and the central position of the Kingdom of God and of the theology of liberation are not to be found at all. For the Bolivian Bishop Nicolás Castellanos Franco that means a break with the prophetic tradition of the former plenary assemblies.
An extremely bad signal in the run-up to Aparecida went out from the notification on the Christology of Jon Sobrino SJ published by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on 15 March 2007. Apart from the theological dubiousness of the reproaches raised against Sobrino also all those in Latin America felt affected who - in their often deadly commitment for the poor - are inspired by Sobrino's writings. As a matter of fact the theology of liberation had been declared dead for a long time. But as long as in Latin America 209 million people live in poverty and 81 million in misery, and as long as the 500 richest people have at their disposal a higher income than half of the total population, so long there will and must also be a theology of liberation. The chance of the meeting of Aparecida was to dispel the impression that those who in Latin America are theologically and by pastoral work committed to the poor are put under Vatican guardianship.