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Michael Sievernich {*}

Fauxpas in Aparecida?

Benedict XVI and the Indians of America


From: Herder Korrespondez, 7/2007, P. 357 - 362
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    In his declaration of principle before the bishops of Latin America gathered in the Brazilian Aparecida Benedict XVI said among other things that the preaching of Jesus and his gospel caused at no time an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures. After this sentence had triggered a storm of indignation the Vatican swiftly corrected it.


Benedict's XVI first overseas pastoral journey, which led to Brazil, the country with the highest number of Catholics (about 150 million), according to the judgement of many eye-witnesses and observers went off cordially and "zielführend" (effectively), though not all expectations were fulfilled (see HK, June 2007, 27ff.). Only one discordant note perceived world-wide overshadowed the papal visit. As in the Pope's speech in the Regensburg University on 12 September 2006 (see HK, November 2006, 55ff.), also this time a short passage caused offence and led to an international media echo.

This time it was a statement about Latin America's mission history that led to media produced indignation of indigenous interest groups and political forces, but also to harsh or restrained criticism of scientific and church circles. That the Pope reacted in detail to the criticism and after his return tried to tone it down publicly shows that Rome recognized the seriousness of the conflict.


Latin America's Special Weight in the World Church

The external cause for the journey to Latin America was the opening of the Fifth General Assembly of the Latin American Bishops' Council (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano), which took place in May in the Brazilian shrine Aparecida (see this issue, XXX ff.).



Benedict XVI so placed himself into the ranks of his predecessors, for Paul VI had opened the Second General Assembly of Medellín (1968) and John Paul II the assemblies of Puebla (1979) and Santo Domingo (1992). The papal presence underlines Latin America's weight for the Catholic world church, and the importance Rome attaches to it for the present and future.

With his speech of principle before the bishops assembled in Aparecida on 13 May, which followed the conference topic and particularly referred to the missionary dimension of Christianity as well as named priority tasks of the church, the Pope already at the beginning talked about of the aborigines' meeting with the Christian faith. From it the rich Christian culture of the continent originated, which at present was at stake. To accept the faith, so the Pope, meant for the countries of the continent to come to know and to accept Christ, "Christ, the unknown God, whom their ancestors without knowing it searched in their rich religious traditions. Christ was the saviour after whom they secretly longed."

Thus the Pope took up the speech of the "unknown God" delivered by St Paul on the Athenian Areopagus (Acts 17.23), and the council definition of the relationship with non-Christians according to which God was not far from those who " in shadows and (with the help of) images are looking for the unknown God" (Lumen gentium 16). Benedict XVI so systematically follows that position that is religion-theologically called inclusivism, according to which Christianity is the completion and fulfilment of what the other religions - as it were outstretched arms to God - are basically striving for.

That the Holy Spirit worked also in other cultures, the Pope expresses with the familiar patristic metaphor of the seed corns of the word (logoi spermatikoi), when he talks about the "innumerable germs and seeds" the Word Incarnate sank into the cultures, let them come up and so prepared them for the ways of the gospel. Comparable statements are found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (Ad gentes 11). If therefore in other cultures and religions elements of truth and grace worked by the Holy Spirit are to be found, then it is obvious "that all good seed in man's heart and spirit or in the rites and cultures of the peoples not only does not perish, but was healed, raised and completed" (Lumen gentium 17).

Then the systematic considerations are about the openness of the cultures for each other and the possibility of intercultural meeting, which aimed at new syntheses and universality. Here Benedict XVI briefly takes up what factually is treated under the keyword "inculturation".

But that this keyword is not mentioned here will hardly be accidental, since Joseph Ratzinger prefers the term "inter-culturality", which he had suggested in a principle paper on the relationship culture and religion during the Salzburg University Weeks in the year 1992. For inculturation presupposed "that an, as it were, culturally naked faith was transferred into a religiously indifferent culture". But this conception was artificial and unreal, for there is neither a culture-free faith nor a religion-free culture, but always only religion-determined cultures met each other that could find new shapes in inter-cultural openness (Glaube - Wahrheit - Toleranz, Freiburg 2003, 53).


Mix of Historical and Speculative Matters

In the Brazilian speech the Pope stresses now in a christological argument that only truth was one and its proof was love; that was why Christ, the Logos Incarnate and the Complete Love, were foreign to no human being and to no culture, but on the contrary "the answer desired in the hearts of the cultures".

This train of thoughts, which is coherent and conclusive in itself and uses passages from the Bible, the Church Fathers and the Second Vatican Council, is now abruptly interrupted by a historical factual statement: "Actually the preaching of Jesus and his gospel caused at no time an alienation (alienação) of the pre-Columbian cultures and was also no imposing (imposição) of a foreign culture."

This sentence triggered the storm of indignation; for it is undisputed that "alienation" and "imposing" really happened during Latin America's Christianization in the course of the Conquista. Otherwise the early protest of members of Orders and bishops, who already at the beginning of the 16th century took pastoral, argumentative and legislative actions against force and suppression of the indigenous population, had had no basis and been unnecessary. Apart from the historical point at issue there arises the hermeneutic problem of interference between a speculative and a historical discourse. If the incriminated sentence had not been formulated as historical statement but as postulate or optative, it certainly had not excited indignation.

What is more, the Pope inserted into his speech a critical point against the revitalization of old-American religions; that might not have pleased those who use it politically. "The utopia to give life again to the pre-Columbian religions



by separating them from Christ and the universal church, was no progress but a step backward. "But fortunately the wisdom of the aborigines (povos originários) inspired them to form a synthesis between their cultures and the Christian faith from which the popular religiousness (religiosidade popular) emerged, which manifested itself in the love of the suffering Christ, of the Eucharist, of the God of the poor, and in the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Aparecida.


Criticism at the Revitalization of old-American Religions

Critical and partly polemical voices from Indian organizations and politics above all attacked that the old-American peoples had longed for Christ and that during the process of Christianization no alienation and imposing had taken place. Possibly it fostered the Indian protest that Benedict XVI, differently from his predecessor, did not receive official delegations of the Indian organizations and criticized the revival of old-American religions, whereas the final document of Santo Domingo called to practise the dialogue with the other religions of the subcontinent "particularly with the indigenous and Afro-American religions, which were for a long time ignored or pushed to the margin" (No. 137).

So Jecinaldo Barbosa Cabral, the co-ordinator of the in 1989 created association of numerous indigenous organizations of Amazon (Coordenação the Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira, COIAB), accused the head of the Catholic Church, it was arrogant and irreverent to regard the indigenous inheritance as secondary. History showed that the evangelization was a colonizing strategy, which decimated some indigenous peoples.

Also representatives of the Colombian natives violently criticized the Catholic Church's dealings with the indigenous population of Latin America. The representative of the organization (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia, ONIC), Luis Evelis Andrade Casama said it was a covering up of history not to recognize that the Christianization led to a dominance over the natives. The indigenous peoples were believers but they could not accept that the church did not recognize its responsibility for the destruction of their identity and culture.

In Bolivia Mauricio Arias, director of a national indigenous organization (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyo, CONAMAQ) affirmed that the Catholic religion was imposed by force and superimposed the traditional religion. That was agreed to in Mexico also by Roberto Olivares, member of a NGO for the defence of indigenous values in Oaxaca; there was no doubt about it that Christianity was not only imposed but imposed by force,



and that under the banner of evangelization a genocide took place. Abel Barrera, the director of a Mexican centre for human rights, accused the Pope of an ethno-centric, yes, even racist and little respectful view on the cultures of the indigenous peoples.

Also polemical words from politics joined in such sometimes surely overdone critical voices from the indigenous world of Latin America. So Hugo Chávez, the president of the Bolivarian Republic Venezuela, who refers to Simón Bolivar, Marxism and Jesus Christ, put the question: "How is it that the Pope says that the evangelization was not imposed? Why had our natives then to flee into the jungle and into the mountains?" How can one say they had evangelized without imposing (imposición), when they came with their harquebus? In Latin America a genocide (holocausto) had taken place that was larger than that of the Second World War, and nobody could deny this truth. Therefore he asked with all respect as Catholic and head of state, but with the humility of a Venezuelan farmer the head of the Catholic Church to make a formal apology.

One is to assume that Chávez might also have reacted to Benedict's XVI criticism stated in his opening speech in Aparecida; since he saw cause for concern "in view of forms of government that were authoritarian or subjected to ideologies actually regarded as outdated". The Pope also clearly opposed Marxism and its ideological promises that had proved to be wrong. "Where the Marxist system came to power it has left not only a sad inheritance of economic and ecological destruction." This reference aims clearly at the new authoritarian regimes of Latin America, among them that in Venezuela the mixed ideology of which contains socialist, indigenous and patriotic ideas and refines them in a populist way (see HK, June 2006, 29ff.)


The Vatican Itself Caused a Correction and so Made the Discussion More Objective

Occasionally also critical voices from the sciences were to be heard. Hans Jürgen Prien, the Protestant historian and specialist for Latin America criticized in an interview the Pope's speech as "unbelievable deliberately biased account of history" that was superficial and whitewashing. But he judges in an undifferentiated and historically untenable way the entire missionary work in Latin America unfavourably as forcible conquest, enforced mission and ethnocide. This most one-sided account following the hermeneutics of suspicion the same newspaper (Kölner Stadtanzeiger) a little later in its edition of 22nd May corrected with a precise contribution of the internationally recognized Fribourg historian Mariano Delgado. Delgado referred then to the hermeneutics of the papal statements; the Pope had - in the sense of St Augustine's philosophy of history ("felix culpa") - particularly emphasized the light, but St Peter's successor was also to learn to give his view "about historically explosive questions in such a way that he can also be understood well in the medial age". Besides he stresses rightly, without denying negative sides, that the mission history of Latin America wrote also "splendid chapters of church history".

In the first place the Vatican itself caused a correction and so made the discussion more objective. Back in Rome, on 23rd May during the general audience Benedict XVI passed his apostolic journey to Brazil in review. On that occasion he dealt also with the criticism expressed and corrected his statements by adding supplementing aspects.

"Certainly, the memory of a glorious past", he said before a large auditory on St Peter's Place, "cannot ignore the shadows that accompany the work of evangelization of the Latin American Continent: it is not possible, in fact, to forget the suffering and the injustice inflicted by colonizers on the indigenous populations, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled upon. But the obligation to recall such unjustifiable crimes - crimes, however, already condemned at the time by missionaries like Bartolomé de Las Casas and by theologians like Francisco de Vitoria of the University of Salamanca - must not prevent noting with gratitude the wonderful works accomplished by divine grace among those populations in the course of these centuries." In the future that passage must be read as indispensable completion of the Brazilian speech.

By mentioning the sufferings, injustices and crimes inflicted on the Indians, Benedict XVI recognized also the "shadows" of history that is never only glorious past, and he adapted himself to that church school of thought that prevails since the discussions about the "Quinto Centenario" (14-19), in which was argued whether one had to talk about America's "discovery" or "covering" by Christopher Columbus.

In the arguments at that time about the historical and theological appreciation of this event, on the occasion of which also the Fifth General Assembly of the Latin American episcopacy took place (Santo Domingo 1992), on the part of the church the metaphor "light and shadow", which already appeared in the document of Medellín, became usual. As also Paul VI stressed that the church was involved in stories of guilt and remained therefore a sign "that was at the same time dark and bright" (Evangelium nuntiandi Nr. 15).

In the document of Puebla the bishops did not leave it at the juxtaposition of light and shadow, but recognized despite all negative examples "that the evangelization, which makes Latin America the "Continent of Hope" was much stronger than the shadows that regrettably accompanied it in the historical context" (No. 10), a statement that can refer to St Paul's dialectic of sin and grace (Rom 5.20).


n Aparecida's final document the bishops stress that the gospel came to America in a "dramatic and unequal meeting of peoples and cultures", and that light and shadow belong up to this day to the experience of the church.


The Example Las Casas

Rightly Benedict XVI refers to the dark sides of the missionary work in America in the early modern times; its burden was that it happened in the wake of the expansion of the Iberian powers. In the context of the royal patronage the entire missionary work was subordinated to the crown. It, not Pope and bishops determined not only the church structures (dioceses, bishop appointments), but was also responsible for selecting and financing the missionaries. Due to these rights that the Popes had conceded to the Iberian monarchs colonizing and missionary work was one project.

The patronage therefore favoured a model of mission that was closely connected with military colonization (conquista): according to the method 'tabula rasa' it regarded the destruction of the indigenous culture as precondition for the church's transplantation and was connected with taking economic advantages (encomienda), because Indians were "entrusted" to conquistadors of outstanding merits to be converted by them to Christianity and at the same time to do forced labour. Not least to such connections the confession of guilt referred, which was made by John Paul II for the "cleansing of the memory" in Lent of the Holy Year 2000 in a liturgical setting and with which he confessed misdemeanours against other cultures and religions, as well as the "logic of violence" to which many Christians had given in.

But in order not to distort the picture of the mission in the early modern times those mission projects must not be concealed that were responsive to autochthon cultures and excluded any force, like the Franciscans' mission in Mexico or the Reductions of the Jesuits among the Guarani (1610-1768) as last bloom of a peaceful inculturation in the colonial age.

Something similar applies also to the mission models used at that time in Asia: in highly developed countries such as Japan and China there was no conquest or colonizing but only commercial contacts. When Christian missionaries went into these countries they could only lean themselves on the word of the gospel, good manners



and knowledge of languages, later also on sciences. Of it - translated again recently - the letters of Saint Francis Xavier (Regensburg 2006) give contemporary testimony; in an intercultural learning process he went the way from "imposing" one's own culture to adapting to the foreign culture.


By Their Way of Life Thousands of Missionaries Gave Testimony to the Gospel

In America already early substantial protest rose from church people who vehemently objected to the combination of sword and cross. A torch of this protest was the Advent sermon given in 1511 in Santo Domingo by Antonio de Montesinos; it did not bring the people concerned to their senses, but triggered an ethical-theological reflection. The names mentioned by Benedict XVI belonged certainly to the protagonists. Bishop Bartolomé de Las Casas, whose "A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies" had such a lasting effect and was recently published in a new translation and with a commentary (Frankfurt 2005). In 1980 Joseph Ratzinger called that bishop in an essay on Reinhold Schneider's "Las Casas before Karl V" "Voice of Conscience" and "Witness for the Sovereignty of Right". As his treatise on slavery proves we owe the matter and the concept of human rights to Las Casas, the defender of the Indians and the black slaves, and not to the French Revolution.

A further protagonist mentioned by the Pope is Francisco de Vitoria. He with his epoch-making treatise "De indis" (1537) laid the foundations for international law as ius inter gentes and defined mission like free movement as right of communication, not without naming as decisive basic condition the equality of all human beings - Indians of course too - as God's creatures (homo homini homo), as well as the proximity according to which everyone is neighbour to the other person (omnis homo proximus).

The Pope could also have referred to the bull "Sublimis Deus" (1537) of his predecessor in office Paul III. It stated that all peoples are according to their nature true human beings who as such are capable of faith and must be robbed neither of their liberty nor of their possessions and who were to be invited to faith by lecture and good example. The Pope could also have referred to his predecessor in office John Paul's II message to the indigenous population of Latin America (1992), which reminded of the sufferings, of the sins committed against them and of the cultural identity that was to be met with acknowledgment and appreciation.

When Benedict XVI talks about the "miracles" worked by God among the Latin American peoples, one has to remind also of the thousands of missionaries whose way of life was and is up to this day testimony to the gospel. That applies also to the "Apostle of Brazil", the blessed José de Anchieta, who not only co-founded the city São Paulo but became - by his activity as missionary, supervisor, poet (also in indigenous languages) and miracle-worker Brazil's Church Father.


    {*} The Jesuit Michael Sievernich (born in 1945) teaches as professor of pastoral theology at the University of Mainz and at the Academy Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt; visiting professor in Argentina and Mexico; numerous publications on pastoral-theological and world-church topics.


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