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Veit Strassner {*}

The Nerves Lie Bare

Tensions in the Catholic Church of Peru


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2007, P. 256-261
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Peru is still busy with looking back on and reappraising the dark years of terrorism and combating terrorism. At the same time the tensions in the Catholic Church increase. The influence of conservative movements is growing, which turn against the practice of embedding evangelization and pastoral social actions into the Indian culture. That provides for matter of conflict particularly in the Andean south of Peru.


Peru experiences difficult times: Poverty, marginalization of large parts of the population, violence and uncertainty in the large cities of the coastal region, drug problem and the Coca cultivation. Even though the country is politically to a large extent stable, many Peruvians nevertheless seem not convinced of politics. With the final ballot to the presidency in May last year the left-national populist Ollanta Humala met his opponent ex-president Alan García, during whose first term of office (1985-1990) substantial violations of human rights had been committed and the inflation had reached peak values of up to 7000 per cent; likewise he was accused of misuse of power and personal enriching.

Even so the brilliant speaker García could win the election. "Más vale ladrón conocido que ladrón por conocer" - so reads the comment on the result of the election of many Peruvians resigned to their fate. A thief you already know is better than one you must still get to know. But Peru already experienced worse times - and to accept these experiences and to integrate into the national self-concept is at present a great challenge for society, politics and church.

In May 1980 Peru was about to put a seventeen-year-old military dictatorship behind itself, when with the first democratic elections the Partido Communista del Perú - Sendero Luminoso took up the fight by publicly burning the ballot-boxes in a small Andean village in the Departamento Ayacucho and so the darkest years of the nation began.



The Maoist guerrilla group "Shining Path" - briefly called "Sendero" - with fanaticism and contempt for humanity cruelly took action against the civilian population. It was its aim to smash all existing political structures so that the population joined the armed fight. The Sendero differed from other Latin American guerrillas by its brutality; most easily it can be compared with the terror regime of Pol Pot and the Red Khmer in Cambodia.


The Work auf the Truth- and Reconciliation Commission

After scarcely one decade Sendero controlled a quarter of the national territory and was about to cut off the capital Lima from supply. Wide parts of the country were placed under state of emergency, the military was entrusted with the fight against subversion and the Campesinos were armed, in order to so involve them in the fight against Sendero. As from 1984 the situation became even more complicated, when with the Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru a further guerrilla group became active. After the arrest of the leaders of the Shining Path (1992) it was still to take eight years until this political violence could be ended. The Peruvian society awoke from a nightmare, without having an exact idea of what had happened in the past two decades.

That's why in June 2001 the democratic interim president Valentín Paniaguas established with the Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación (CVR), a truth- and reconciliation commission, in order to analyze the time of Violencia, to document the violations of human rights and to contribute to their elucidation. Salomón Lerner, professor of philosophy and rector of the Universidad Católica held the presidency; besides among the twelve committee members were a bishop, a priest as well as two further professors of the Catholic University - a sign of confidence in the moral authority of the church. A further bishop as observer took part in the work of the commission.

After about twenty six months work the CVR presented a final report of eleven volumes, which confirmed the death respectively disappearance of 69.280 people during the years of Violencia; Sendero was responsible for 54 per cent of the victims, about a third was killed by the military or the secret services. Three quarters of the victims belonged to the indigenous, frequently marginalized highlands population.

The report of the CVR deals on almost 50 pages in a very objective and differentiated way with the role of the Catholic Church during Violencia. The report clearly summarizes the results: "Where the church had renewed herself in the sense of the Second Vatican Council and the bishop meetings of Medellín and Puebla, there was more resistance against the propaganda of the subversive groups, since the church there had developed a pastoral care of social affairs that united her with the population and responded to their concerns with an anti-violence discourse upon change, and the call for justice."

One of those regions was Sur Andino, the southern area of the Andes, where the work of the church, as CVR states, was "not only one of the most important factors that Shining Path was unable to spread, but also that there were no massacres or systematic violations of human rights by subversive groups or the police." But the propaganda of the terrorists fell on fruitful soil in those regions where the church had not joined the opening of the Council; so for instance in the Deparamento Ayacucho, where 45 per cent of the victims lost their lives. From 1979 to 1991 the Diocese Ayacucho was led by Archbishop Federico Richer, who was very close to the local elite and the military. He always refrained from openly criticizing the violations of human rights.


The Church Does not Behave Uniformly

From 1991 on Juan Luis Cipriani today's archbishop of Lima, was in charge of the diocese. He is well-known for his open ambivalence in questions of human rights and his proximity to the political and military ruling powers. While his fellow bishops time and again accused violations of human rights, Cipriani, who belongs to Opus Dei, denied the existence of such crimes in Peru. Whereas the Bishops' Conference spoke against the death penalty, Cipriani welcomed and even demanded it. As the CVR-report confirms, a board was fixed to the bishop's house in Ayacucho that said "Complaints in human right questions will not be accepted".

Cipriani found the work of the human rights groups particularly annoying, and insinuated that they had political, i.e. Marxist and Maoist motives. This rhetoric is not new: In the seventies and eighties it was used by all Latin American military dictators from Guatemala to Tierra del Fuego. Admittedly Cipriani and other bishops who followed his line represented the minority, but they had considerable influence within the Peruvian church, which in the course of the years was even strengthened by the appointment of further conservative bishops.



Today, after the end of Violencia and after the publication of the report of the Truth Commission, the behaviour of the two currents recurs within the Catholic Church: In contrast to the ambivalent attitude of the government the Bishops' Conference with its commissions and organs is much committed to the national unity and the debate about the recent past. Since that time numerous church institutions on parish- and regional level hold seminars for disseminators and conferences about questions of reconciliation. The conference of the members of religious orders inscribed more than 20.000 pebbles with the names of victims of violence. They were set in the memorial "The Crying Eye", created on private initiative.

The Universidad Católica founded the "Centre for Democracy and Human Rights", in order to so promote the intellectual debate about these topics. It also established a master course of studies in forensic anthropology and so reacted to the fact that Peru has not enough specialists to correctly exhume and identify the corpses from the time of violence buried in more than 6000 mass graves, and so to give at last certainty to the relatives. Many bishops, priests and members of religious orders try within their spheres of responsibility to make public the concern and the results of the CVR, to make the society more sensitive to the reasons violence is based on, and so to contribute to the creation of greater awareness. The victims are not to become victims a second time by forgetting their suffering.


The Restoration is on the Advance

But also the other side of the Peruvian church time and again announces its viewpoint - often with the demand to let the past rest. A debate about what happened was detrimental to reconciliation, since it only again opened up old wounds. Since the publication of the report of the Truth Commission Juan Luis Cipriani, in 1999 appointed Archbishop of Lima and since 2001 the first cardinal from the ranks of Opus Dei in Peru hardly omits an opportunity to polemize against the Commission. In his sermon on the occasion of the national holiday 2006, three years after the representation of CVR-report, he again questioned its result in the presence of social and political dignitaries as well as of the press and from the pulpit spoke of a smear campaign of the commission against the church and against the armed forces and the security forces.

Other bishops strove to make clear in the media that this view of Cipriani did not reflect the position of the Peruvian church in all. Even the prudent and loyal to the church Salomon Lerner could no longer accept the Cardinal's permanent hostilities and in a press interview pointedly stated that it is not enough to protect human life in the moment of conception; by it he alluded to the eagerness developed by the cardinal in questions of contraception and abortion


The CVR is only one point, at which the tensions become clear, and Cardinal Cipriani is surely the most exposed and most disputed representative of the conservative currents within the Peruvian church, but he does not stand alone: From at present 49 members of the Peruvian Bishops' Conference eleven belong to Opus Dei and two to Sodalitium Christianae Vitae.

The Sodalitium had been founded in 1971 by the Peruvian lay theologian Luis Fernando Figari as reaction to the developing Theology of Liberation; it was approved in 1997 by John Paul II as Community of Apostolic Life for laymen and priests. It is often seen as Peruvian parallel to Opus Dei and is above all well received by Catholics of the middle and upper class. Sodalitium, meanwhile represented in nine countries, is particularly strong in Peru. It runs the church press agency ACI Prensa, by which it tries to influence the public opinion; it so contributes to further polarization. So for example ACI Prensa seldom omits to speak of "Teología Marxista de la Liberación" when there is some talk about the liberation theology.

Growing influence in Peru has also the Neocatechumenal Way, founded in Spain in 1964, which is often criticized because of its little open structures and its exclusivity. The Neocatechumenate maintains in port Callao a seminary to educate the future priests of the movement, but beyond that it has also responsibility for diocesan seminaries and is so able to mould the future generations of priests. In Peru it turns out quite clearly that the traditional religious orders as Jesuits, Franciscans and Dominicans, which in the time after the Council provided a considerable part of the bishops, lose influence - in favour of recent and predominantly conservative currents within Catholicism.


Dramatic Intensification in the South Andes

The inner-church tensions caused by this constellation come more and more to light: So for example a brotherhood founded in the 16th century has a lawsuit with Cipriani - brotherhoods are in Latin America something like a "historical layman Catholicism" and in that respect comparable to the German church societies and associations.



The archbishop had appointed a Opus Dei priest chaplain for the brotherhood. This rejected the appointment, since it feared that Cipriani wanted to thus gain stronger control of the brotherhood. After that the diocesan administration forbade the liturgical actions in the basilica belonging to the brotherhood. This turned to Rome and up to final clarification goes on celebrating services in the basilica.

There are lawsuits also between the Catholic University and the Cardinal, who is intensely annoyed by its high degree of autonomy. The archbishop of Lima legally is Grand Chancellor of the university, but due to historical special developments he has only few rights of codetermination (with) in the appointment of the university headship. In connection with the Theological Week of the Instituto Superior de Estudios Teológicos Juan XXIII that is maintained by religious Orders, there are every year tensions, since the Cardinal reserves himself the final decision which theologians are allowed to hold lectures there. In the past year Cipriani forbade the Dominican Gustavo Gutiérrez to lecture there.

The situation dramatically intensified in recent time in the Peruvian South Andes. It is not only about a region that during the Violencia rendered outstanding services particularly to the protection of human rights and integral pastoral care. In a region that is shaped by extreme poverty and pastoral neglect the church since the middle of the 20th century has been making great efforts to preach the gospel in a way that is appropriate to the situation and the cultural conditions.

At the end of the fifties prelatures were established in the South Andes, which were entrusted to religious communities like the Maryknoll missionaries, the Picpus Fathers or the US-American Carmelites. The pastors tried to let themselves in for the Quechua and Aymara cultures. Luciano Metzinger, the first bishop of Ayaviri, wondered: "How can you be pastor of people whose lives, culture and history you do not know?" That is why the bishops of the south in 1969 founded the Instituto de Pastoral Andina, which with great respect for the Andean cultures tried to obtain a deeper understanding of that to the missionaries so foreign world.

Out of similar considerations in 1974 in the prelature July the Institute for Aymara studies was established. Under many efforts in Sur Andino at last the plan was successful to embed the gospel in the Indian culture, to build church structures close to the basis, to reach an active cooperation of the laymen and to make faith take root both in its spiritual and social dimension. The pastoral association of Sur Andino, which today covers the diocese Puno as well as the prelatures July, Ayaviri and Sicuani, was and is to a large extent regarded as example of an open and socially as well as culturally sensitive church; a fact that already in former times was cause for inner-church differences.



In 2006 the development took a dramatic turn: Within the prelatures July and Ayaviri bishops of Opus Dei and Sodalitium were appointed. Both are convinced that the church in this region in the past decades had taken too much care of social interests and over it had neglected the evangelization. Critically disposed to Inculturation they call the indigene population of the South Andes with its own, traditional ways of piety "pagans", "idolaters" and "sinners" - hence in need of a new, true evangelization.


New Bishops take drastic measures

Concrete measures to "reverse the decline of faith and moral", were not long in coming: a new rector of the common seminary of Sur Andino was appointed, female lecturers dismissed and nuns who likewise studied at the seminary were excluded. Because of the tensions in the seminary four professors laid down their training activity and justified this step in an open letter with the "excluding and attacking way" with which differences are handled. This change of course becomes also clear in the Instituto of the Pastoral Andina, which instead of on the present ethnological, religion-scientific and theological studies is now to concentrate more on formal and sacramental catechesis.

But also among the faithful open resistances becomes apparent: Thus in January 2007 parishioners occupied the village church of Macusani and demanded the departure of the minister and the sisters of Lumen Dei, a conservative grouping originating from Cuzco, which the new bishop of Ayaviri had got into the parish. As the press reports, the sisters of Lumen Dei asked the faithful before Communion whether they had gone to confession and whether they were married in the church. In case the faithful could not give a positive answer to those questions, they were by the sisters sent back to the pews.

The parishioners opposed this treatment and the disregard of their culture and customs by occupying the church. Likewise at different places of the prelatures leaflets and notices emerged against the measures of the new bishops. José María Ortega, the Opus Dei bishop concerned, said in an interview these incidents did not worry him. He expressed the suspicion that members of religious Orders or priests were behind those initiatives. There is no longer any trace to be recognized of the "trusting and fraternal relationship" to the religious, about which he talked in his inaugural sermon.

An outcry went through the Peruvian church when in January 2007 the weekly newspaper Caretas reported that Bishop Ortega had excluded a seminarist from the seminary because of a physical defect - he has a hunchback. When in March Father Valencia, the new rector of the seminary, in the magazine Somos wanted to clear up that the bishop's statements had been incompletely reported and that the actual reasons of the exclusion lay in the forum internum, nobody in the public would believe that any more.

The nerves lie bare. This became also apparent by the rather inopportune statement of the French 'Fidei Donum'-priest Francisco Fritsch, who had been active in Sur Andino for 33 years, on the occasion of the instalment of the new Bishop of Ayaviri: In the name of several priests he said that the Quechua people after 500 years of evangelization now actually had deserved a Quechua bishop. The new director of the prelature, whose name Kay Martin Schmalhausen by no means sounds Quechua, used this statement as opportunity to expel from the prelature the long-serving priest, who had acquired great merits by his engaged pastoral work - a decision that further polarized the Peruvian church.

It seems that two entirely different ideas of evangelization clash. The Catholic International Press Agency (Switzerland) quotes Sister Lucrecia Aliaga, the chairman of the Conference of Peruvian religious, with the words "I see a new wave of restoration in the Peruvian church, where the culture is no longer important, but only the doctrine counts."

The conflicts for years smouldering within the Peruvian church come more and more to light: Even if the faithful - following the Latin American wisdom that the law is to be respected, but not observed - care little about the instructions of the bishops, there is time and again open resistance, as for example in the event of the church occupation in Macusani. In Internet forums Catholics exchange views about the state of the Peruvian church. Also in the public discussion the boundaries to public polemic and open conflict have already several times been crossed.


Open Polemic in the Church

Thus for instance Hugo Cárceres, Provincial of the Christian School Brothers wrote in an article published by the magazine Reflexión y Liberación about the necessity of dialogue in the church. In it he referred to the prohibition of speech imposed in the Peruvian church, but now and then he did that in a polemical way, speaking of Cardinal Cipriani as "a shepherd with few merits and bad public reputation", and alluding to the doctorate conferred by the University of Navarra, the Spanish training-ground for new cadres of Opus Dei, which enjoyed little reputation in the academic world.



Such little objective and polemic expressions show that the conflicts seem to have reached a point at which the step to "inner-church martyrdom" is no longer far off. It is open how long the Peruvian church can still bear these tensions. The latent conflicts within the Bishops' Conference are no secret in Peru. A fraternal living and working together - so it is said - has already been out of the question for a long time.

"What at present in the Peruvian church happens", so a religious Sister, "is serious and gives cause to concern. But what is even worse is that obviously church control mechanisms fail, when people like Cipriani, Schmalhausen or Ortega become bishops. The current conflicts raise questions about the procedure and the criteria according to which candidates for the bishopric are chosen." The nun asked me - like almost all interlocutors of the author in Peru -, not to mention her by name, since otherwise she had to be afraid of problems and sanctions. The church in Peru experiences truly difficult times.


    {*} Veit Strassner (born in 1975) is sociologist and theologian. He attained a doctorate in political science about coming to terms with the past and human right politics in Latin America. As scientific co-worker at the chair of Middle and Newer Church History of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz he above all deals with world-church questions and church contemporary history.


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