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Bernhard Bleyer {*}

Option for the Poor

The Road of the Latin American Church since Medellin


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2008, P. 479-484
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Forty years ago in the Colombian Medellin bishops from throughout Latin America met for their Second General Assembly. At that time they formulated, inspired by the Second Vatican Council, the "Option for the Poor" as a fundamental commitment. Since then that option has held out and was reaffirmed in 2007 by the Fifth General Assembly in Aparecida.


Only a few weeks before the celebrations on occasion of his 80th birthday in March 2008 a contribution of Gustavo Gutiérrez appeared, entitled "The Fifth Conference in Aparecida and the Option for the Poor" (La Conferencia V. Aparecida y en la opción por los pobres, in: Sociedad Argentina de Teología [Editor], El desafío de hablar de Dios en la América Latina del siglo XXI. Buenos Aires, 2008, 13-31). In it Gutiérrez attempts an analysis of the Final Document of the Fifth General Assembly of the episcopacy of Latin America and the Caribbean (13 until May 31, 2007), and that under a specific perspective. He wants to bring out the rank of the so-called "Opción por los pobres" in the decision-making of the Assembly. That "option" of which he says that it contains 90 percent of what liberation theology means (see: My greatest concern is the liberation of my people. Interview with Gustavo Gutierrez, in: Orientierung 70 [2006] 107/108, 108).

For the Peruvian, who since 2001 belongs to the Dominican Order, it is here not only about a consideration of the events of the recent General Assembly of CELAM at the Brazilian St Mary's shrine Aparecida but about an examination of theological continuity of the contents of the final document.



The central concept and content of Latin American theology of liberation, the option for the poor serves him as criterion.

His approach makes clear that more is at stake than drawing up statistics of a term. For Gutiérrez it is, even after forty years of his theological thinking, about the approach of theology as a whole. That's why whoever wants to read the arguments in the wider context must also review four decades and look back.


The Initiative for Convening a Second General Assembly of CELAM

Just 40 years ago, on 24 August 1968 Paul VI in the Catedral Primada de Colombia of Bogotá opened the Second General Assembly of the Latin American episcopacy. It was the first visit of a pope to Latin America, but not the first one by Paul VI. As archbishop of Milan he had visited the continent already in the year 1960. The journey must have impressed him so much that he even at the beginning of his social encyclical on the development of peoples Populorum progressio (1967) still writes about it.

He there for the first time had directly come into contact with "the frightening problems" of inhumane poverty (see PP, 4). Moreover, in a private audience the Pope, so the former archbishop of Panama, Marcos McGrath reports, had told that during the work on the encyclical he had remembered the reports on their experiences of the Latin American bishops with whom he'd talked during the Council (See Marcos McGrath, Vaticano II Iglesia de los pobres y de la liberación teología, in Medellín 21 [1995] 371-407, 383).

The tenth anniversary of CELAM was the official cause for a meeting between the pope and the bishops from 20 Latin American nations. Most of the bishops present knew that the pope's relationship to the Speaker of the Latin American Episcopacy, Bishop of Talca (Chile) Manuel Larrain Errazuriz, was based on mutual sympathy. It was him who in the run-up to the audience had presented the Pope the idea of a second General Assembly and besides pointed out that it could be planned in connection with the forthcoming 39th World Eucharistic Congress in Bogotá.

About a month before the start of the fourth and final session of the Second Vatican Council Larrain therefore wrote to Antonio Samoré, then secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs: It was about a further General Assembly of CELAM with the topic: The application of the Council's decisions to Latin America. If possible, it should take place in two and a half years.

Two weeks before the end of the Council, on 23 November 1965 there was an official meeting between Paul VI and the Latin American bishops. The Pope recommended that the listeners - according to the model of Gaudium et Spes (looking, judging, acting) - took up the work on an analysis of the Latin American reality and, proceeding from it, tackled the planning of a pastoral which involved a significant "acción social" for the respective regions.

That is Bishop Larrain's proposals had been listened to: Pope Paul VI had called the Second General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopacy for 1968 to Medellín.


Poverty Becomes the Focus of Attention

The Assembly of Medellín is unthinkable without the events and documents of the Second Vatican Council. Segundo Galilea reported as a witness of those events, "In general, Latin America was not prepared for the Second Vatican Council, neither with regard to the width of the problems mentioned there nor regarding its pastoral and doctrinal reforms. The largest part of the Latin American Catholicism and the clergy had not sufficiently adopted the development of Christian thought in the last decades. (...) But it is also true that many Catholic groups and elites wanted changes in the church (...) and worked for them. They were worried about the growing distance between the 'traditional' pastoral and the needs of the people (...). The transition from an agrarian to an increasingly urban society and the growing critical awareness in the social and political area created more and more a new situation" (Segundo Galilea, Latin America in the Conferences of Medellín and Puebla. For examples of a selective and creative reception of the Council see: Hermann J. Pottmeyer [editor] Die Rezeption des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils [The Reception of the Second Vatican Council], Dusseldorf 1986, 85-103, 85).

Also the expectations of many bishops and participants in the Second General Assembly might have been extremely different.



That is exemplarily shown by a piece of information of Cardinal and former archbishop of Aparecida, Leo Arlindo Aloisio Lorscheider, then young bishop of Santo Angelo, "When I travelled to Medellín, I admittedly had the documents of Medellin in my luggage but I did not entirely know what I should do there." Into all these radical social and church changes one chose the leading theme of the Second General Assembly. It was to underline the connection to the Council. One chose the formulation, "La Iglesia en las actuales transformaciones de América Latina a la luz del Concilio" - "The church in the current transformation of Latin America in the light of the Council."

When the pope finally arrived on Thursday, 22 August 1968 at the airport El Dorado in Bogotá, not a few of the meeting participants expected from him aid to orientation with the implementation of the leading theme. That many bishops regarded the Pope's speeches, delivered by him in the two days between the arrival in Bogotá and the opening of the meeting, as indications of direction proves their frequent citation in the sixteen final documents.

Although between arrival and opening of the Assembly the Pope delivered at least eleven speeches and sermons on Colombian soil, in the final documents only four of them are mentioned: The sermon on the occasion of the consecration of 200 priests and deacons (August 22, 1968) is quoted four times, the sermon during the Mass with the Colombian "campesinos" (August 23, 1968) three times, the sermon in the Mass at the "Day of Development" (August 23, 1968) seven, and the speech at the opening of the Second General Assembly of the Latin American Bishops (August 24, 1968) eleven times. All in all one refers twenty-five times to the then most recent statements by the Pope.

But the decisive impetus to the Assembly as a whole probably did not come from those speeches. José Oscar Beozzo has meticulously examined all sixteen final texts for their references and reached the conclusion that with 42 citations the contribution of Gaudium et Spes was given priority, whereas one 36 times referred to Lumen Gentium.

"The Second Vatican Council is generally the most important point of reference for Medellín and is cited 233 times, but in a decidedly selective way: three of its documents are not a single time cited in the footnotes (UR, OE and DH), whereas two are mentioned only once (DV and NA). Noteworthy is the disregard of documents of the status of Dignitatis humanae on religious freedom or Unitatis redintegratio on ecumenism" (José Oscar Beozzo, The Vaticanum II and the cultural change in Latin America, in Peter Hünermann [Editor] The Vaticanum II - Christian faith in the horizon of global modernization. Introductory questions, Paderborn, 1998, 175). Apart from the two major Constitutions of the Council the latest social encyclical of the Pope becomes the main reference text of the bishops. 23 direct and indirect references to Populorum progressio can be found in the decisions of the CELAM bishops.


Message to the Peoples of Latin America

Also an examination from the end of the meeting offers an insight into the process of the "Conferencia general". It became customary that about the end of each General Assembly one added to the decisions a "Mensaje a los pueblos de América Latina". From the bishops' self-testimony in that final "Message to the Peoples of Latin America" you still today get a comprehensible impression of the bishops' orientation standards which they gave themselves during the past conference.

There it says: Latin America is a continent "full of hopes. Its frightening problems also characterize that reality with signs of injustices (...). The diversity and difficulty of its problems exceeds this message. Latin America seems still to live under the tragic signs of underdevelopment separating our brothers not only from the consumption of material goods but also from their own human fulfilment."

The seriousness with which one wanted to realize the above-mentioned papal order of 23 November 1965 to analyse the Latin American reality can also be gathered from the following sentences: Despite the current efforts, there was still hunger and poverty, mass diseases and child mortality, illiteracy and marginality, huge wage differences and tensions between the classes, beginnings of violence and low participation of the people in matters of public interest. As Christians the assembled bishops believe that this historical stage of Latin America was deeply connected with the history of salvation. As bishops they wanted to face the life of the Latin American peoples, which were looking for appropriate solutions for their complex problems.

When presenting the decisions Avelar Brandão Vilela, the then President of CELAM and Eduardo Francisco Pironio, the then Secretary-General of the CELAM pointed out that the comprehensive, integral promotion of people must be achieved under the conditions of the current social reality. It could only take place in concrete social areas: justice and peace, family and demography, education and youth.

The division of the documents with the help of such individual areas, which again were brought together in the three large blocs "Human Development",



"Preaching and Growth in Faith" and "The Visible Church and its Structures" had been refined during the meetings of the Assembly and in the end led to the sixteen thematic final documents. Deliberately they decided in favour of documents which were related to themes and which - despite of individual accents - were to show a general endeavour: the bishops' effort to an increased extent to understand the Latin American church as the "Church of the Poor".

But he who in the Medellín texts looks for an explicit, conceptually tangible commitment of the bishops to the "Church of the Poor" will be disappointed. Not even the term "Church of the Poor" can be found. The church's conversion as a "church of the poor" is taking place rather on the methodical level. The first step of all documents is the question about the circumstances of reality. Each document strictly keeps to the three-step of looking-judging-acting. In the sense of a programmatic heading of all 16 individual analyses the first document on "justice" begins with the sentence, "There are many studies about the situation of the Latin American people. In all of them the misery is described which presses large groups of people into the outlying areas of community life. That misery as a mass phenomenon is a scandalous injustice" (document "Justice", 1).


Against the Mechanisms of Repression

The document on the "Poverty of the Church" belongs without doubt to the - not only from the perspective of that time - unusual texts. Its fundamental steps of argumentation and the shortness of its total volume most aptly express the above-mentioned basic concern of the Church's general conversion as "Church of the Poor". Similarly impressive as in the document on justice the bishops also begin the fourteenth document on the "Pobreza de la Iglesia" (Poverty of the Church).

At the beginning they put a commitment, "The Latin American episcopacy must not remain indifferent in view of the enormous social injustices in Latin America." The bishops thus not only demonstrate their commitment to solidarity with and advocacy for the poor, but also the direct impact of the pope's current messages, to which they refer in the argumentation. Following the introductory sentence they state, "A silent cry of millions of people rings out who beg their shepherds for a liberation that from no side is granted to them. 'You are now silently listening to us, but We hear the cry that rises from your sufferings" (Medellín, "Poverty of the Church", No. 2).

The Assembly here quotes Paul VI, who one day before he opened the second General Assembly gave a sermon in the diocese Facatativá, near Bogotá. There he spoke to thousands of poor farmers in the open field near San Jos de Mosquera and assured them that the pope knew their living conditions. They were the conditions of misery, which often were below the subsistence level. From that reality he heard the cry rising from their sufferings. Eleven years later Puebla will take up that passage under the heading "Ante el clamor por la justicia" ("In View of the Cry for Justice", Puebla, No. 87-109) and comment, "Well this cry might then have been silent. Now it is clearly audible, its strength grows, it is violently and sometimes even threatening." (Puebla, No. 89).

Although in the quoted passages (and in the sixteen documents of Medellin) the term "Option for the Poor" was not formulated, the following text can, according to the matter, be read as a main foundation upon which topic and content of the "Option for the Poor" are based and further developed, "The poverty of so many brothers and sisters cries out for justice, solidarity, testimony, commitment, effort and overcoming, i.e. for the full realization of the salvation mission entrusted to us by Christ. (...) We must sharpen our conscience for the solidary commitment to the poor, to which the love of our neighbour leads us. That solidarity means that we adopt their problems and struggles and know to speak out for them" (Medellin, "Poverty of the Church", 7 and 10).

By the synopsis of the two quotations one sees the transition from the second, judging step of "Motivación doctrinal" to the third, orientated towards practice step "acting" under the heading "Orientaciones pastorales" ("Pastoral Guidelines"). The reality taken note of is assessed by the bishops. Goals for the pastoral practice follow.

The deliberately taking sides with the poor operates in two directions: in favour of the poor and against the mechanisms of repression - so it goes on saying, "That must be put in concrete terms by accusing injustice and oppression, by the Christian fight against the intolerable situation which the poor must often suffer, by the readiness for dialogue with the groups responsible for this situation, in order to make them understand their obligations" (Medellin, "Poverty of the Church", No. 10).

The Assembly took over from Gustavo Gutiérrez a triple definition of the concept of poverty: as (1) unjust evil of the shortage of goods, as (2) spiritual poverty in the openness to the will of God and (3) as self-commitment of the Church to material poverty, which includes the solidarity with the poor and the protest against the situation under which they suffer. The "Pastoral Guidelines" witness the third criterion (Medellin, "Poverty of the Church, No. 8-18). One decides:



The life in poverty and the renunciation of unnecessary material goods was a call to all members of the Church - to bishops, priests, members of religious orders and laity - and the precondition for a credible church which proclaimed amid bitter poverty Christ's message.


The "Vision" of the Church as "Church of the Poor"

The self-determination of the Latin American Church as a "Church of the Poor" in Medellín is primarily no conversion against an ideological background. The documents give no cause for such an argument. The self-determination of the Latin American Church as a "Church of the Poor" is a consequence of the papal order of 23 November 1965, in which Paul VI himself recommended the method of Gaudium et Spes to the bishops for the application of the Council on Latin American soil. Analysing and assessing the reality of the continent and only then taking up the planning of the pastoral practice the bishops in the midst of thousands of people suffering from the enormous scourge of poverty and hunger - could not help defining their local church as what it is: a "Church of the Poor".

In assessing the documents of Medellin that aspect cannot often enough be emphasized: The conversion of the Latin American Church as "Church of the Poor" is a consequence of the method pre-set by Gaudium et Spes. The reorientation in Medellín took place by papal order. From him comes the call for a change of perspective, which John XXIII had already in 1961 carried out with "Mater et Magistra" as "change of the social teachings" and which also under Paul VI generally asserted itself by giving priority to a realistic analysis.

That's why the comment is true that the bishops gathered in Medellin gave preference to those signs of the times which came from the social injustices and dehumanizations, for only so they could make an open and realistic analysis of the social reality of their continent. In their "Message to the People of Latin America" the bishops have backed up that path: "We believe that we are in a new historical phase. It demands that we clearly see the reality, distinctly judge it and act in a solidary way. In the light of faith (...) we have tried to recognize God's plan in the 'signs of the time'. (...) From loyalty to this plan of God and in order to live up to the expectations pinned on the church we want to offer what we have as our very own: an overall view of man and humankind and a holistic view of the Latin American people in development."

Eleven years after Medellín the third General Assembly of Puebla (January 28-February 13 1979) put the real theological significance of the Church's conversion as "Church of the Poor" into a clearer scheme. By working out a separate chapter on "The Preferential Option for the Poor" - as primary decision for the poor - it tries further to systematize the way walked on in Medellín. Like the conversion of the church as "Church of the Poor" in Medellín, also the concept of the 'Option for the Poor' expresses the necessary consequence from the acknowledgement of reality as place of divine revelation set up in Gaudium et Spes.


Go on Building the Theological Foundation

Already in the first chapter of the final document (Puebla, No. 29/30) one records that the Latin American church still exists in the midst of millions of people who lived in poverty and misery. By now turning to that reality the church could call itself also only "Church of the Poor". Only one sentence later Puebla succeeds in basing once again the Church's striving for conversion upon a subject theological foundation and in emphasizing its importance for the actions of the individual Christian and the church, because through Jesus Christ God himself is present in the poor, the poor therefore are the favoured addressees of church life.

Christ speaks in "the faces of the children", the faces of "young people", the faces "of the Indians," the faces of the "rural population", the faces of the "workers", the faces of the "underemployed and unemployed", "the faces of the marginalized groups of society" and "the faces of the old" to the people (Puebla, No. 32 - 39). With it in Puebla a Christological reference text had been created - the proposal came from the bishops Leonidas Proano from Riobamba (Ecuador) and Germán Schmitz, Auxiliary Bishop in Lima (Peru) - which was confirmed and extended at the fourth "Conferencia general" of Santo Domingo (12 to October 28 1992; Santo Domingo, No. 178/179).

Also the recent, the fifth General Assembly of the episcopacy of Latin America and the Caribbean in Aparecida refers to that text. In one of the first decisions that was there to be passed the gathered shepherds had again made "reality the starting point for the work of the Assembly" (Norbert Arntz, The Bishop's Assembly of Aparecida - New Pentecost or Old Tracks? in: Mission headquarters of the Franciscans [Editor]: Bishop Assembly Aparecida 2007. New Pentecost or Old Tracks? Bonn 2007, 7-18, 8). It cannot be denied that this Assembly too had to overcome many obstacles: beginning with the question of the place of the meeting up to scepticism arising during the preparatory work (as the low interest in the preparatory document showed)



and ending with a clear critique afterwards, which was caused by the changes in the text of the decision. A fundamental merit can nevertheless be emphasized in the final text of Aparecida.


Beyond Puebla and also Santo Domingo

In his analysis of the Aparecida document Gutiérrez comes to speak about the connection between the Christological foundation and the real faces of the poor. It was that theological conviction which could explicitly be found since Puebla (and latently since Medellín) in the final documents of the General Assemblies. The assembled bishops of Aparecida had integrated it into the chapter "The Preferential Option for the Poor and Excluded", where it says: "When this option is implicitly contained in the Christological faith, we must in Christ as disciples and missionaries in the suffering faces of our brothers and sisters see the face of Christ, who calls upon us to serve him by serving them" (Aparecida, No. 393).

One even goes beyond Puebla and also Santo Domingo by wanting to confer further concrete features on the faces: "By the globalisation in our peoples new faces of the poor become visible. In continuity with the previous general assemblies we therefore pay particular attention to the new excluded: the migrants and victims of violence, displaced persons and refugees, victims of abduction and traffic in human beings, disappeared people and people who are ill with HIV and other pandemics, drug addicts and older people, girls and boys who become victims of prostitution, pornography and violence or child labour, to abused women who are socially excluded and victims of slave trade for sexual exploitation.

That definition of "Christ's faces" is for the assembled bishops of such high value that they do not leave it at that impressive list alone but describe in detailed passages (Aparecida, No. 407-430) the realities of life of those people, to be precise, as real places of the presence of the God Incarnate. It's the concrete places where the conversion of the church as "Church of the Poor" is realized or not.

With Gustavo Gutiérrez with the help of such an argumentation a tradition can be seen strengthened that can say: "Everything that has to do with Christ has to do with the poor, and everything that has to do with the poor calls for Jesus Christ" (Aparecida, No. 393).


    {*} Bernhard Bleyer (born in 1977) studied theology at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Regensburg and at the Universidad Católica in Cochabamba (Bolivia). He gained his doctorate in moral theology about the topic "Subjektwerdung des Armen" [The Poor Becoming a Subject]. Currently he works as a teacher of religion and as a project consultant on "Ethics in Medicine and Nursing" at the Catholic Academy Regensburg.


Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'