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Nikolaus Klein SJ

A Doctor of the Church in Latin America


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 8/2011, P. 505 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


In the past two decades, the end of the liberation theology has always been proclaimed. This opinion has mostly been justified by the allusion that the end of the socialist countries of Eastern Europe meant also the disposal of every Marxist-Leninist theory. Concurrently, the theoretical basis to which the liberation theologians referred had also become questionable. Notwithstanding the fact that they in the repeatedly continued debate had commented in a differentiated way on Marxism and its theoretical significance for a liberating theology, with their accusation its critics ignore that from the beginning a self-critical potential was inherent in the liberation theology. This made it possible for these theologians to respond to the changing political and social situations both in practice and reflection.

One person who as a theological teacher and animator of grassroots movements embodied this ability in a unique way was Jose Comblin, who died unexpectedly in the age of 88 on 27 March 2011 in Salvador da Bahia. He was born on March 22, 1923 in Brussels and, after studying theology at Louvain and first experiences in the pastoral care in a parish, came in 1958 (still with his French first name Joseph) to Brazil.

Like many others of his contemporaries he followed thus the call of Pope Pius XII and John XXIII to make a contribution to reducing the shortage of priests in Latin America. In retrospect, Comblin described his decision as the first independent decision of his life. It had been induced by the hope to be able to accomplish a creative pastoral activity in the periphery of the European countries, and by the challenge of the decolonization situation. After a four-year stay in Brazil, he worked at the invitation of the late Archbishop Marcos McGrath from 1962 to 1965 in Chile. During those years he was among other things theological advisor to the Chilean Episcopal Conference, which has played an influential role through some of its members at the Second Vatican Council.

The extensive theological work on a theology of peace and the problems of the "Catholic Action" written by Comblin in those years reflects already his change of location. For this he coined the phrase "theology of action" (teologia de la accidn) in order to express that the theological reflection on some action is a "second step"; its goal is the liberation of man in a broad sense. The famous essay "The Christian Vocation of Brazil" published in 1961 pointed in the same direction.



In this study Comblin justified the right to an autochthonous pastoral care, which in a formulation of Dom Helder Camara does not seek its way "for the poor" but "with the poor." Furthermore, this brief text drew attention to the critical potential of the diverse forms of popular religiosity.

In 1965 Comblin went back to Brazil to help establish a regional seminary for the north-eastern Brazil. At the same time he worked in Quito (Ecuador) at the "Pastoral Institute" (IPLA) of the "Latin American Episcopal Conference". The study which was written by him for the preparation of the by CELAM organized "Second General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopate" in Medellín (1968) led to a domestic political debate in Brazil in which his expulsion was demanded, and to a controversy, involving the entire Latin American continent, over the political options of the governing bodies of CELAM. In this text he examined the circumstances which impeded reforms in society and church and analyzed models of practicable changes. In the run-up to Medellin, his ideas were denounced as a call for violent revolution by those who were opposed to the liberation theology-oriented group of bishops.

After a journey abroad in 1972 the entry to Brazil was refused to Comblin. He went into exile to Chile until in 1980 he was expelled also from there and was able to return to Brazil. The existence of the military dictatorships in the southern countries of Latin America (Cono Sur) caused him to enhance his method and to connect local grassroots work with a reflection on the continental development. The in this context written studies on the "ideology of national security" have been translated into many languages and influenced worldwide the Latin American studies.

Comblin was able to show that it was not just an accidental concurrence of the military dictatorships in the individual countries but behind it was a close cooperation on the basis of an anti-communist national security doctrine, where military elitism, authoritarian understanding of the state and suspension of civil and human rights formed an inhuman constellation. The aim of his study was to clarify how the church, under the conditions of military dictatorship, could create and accompany a liberating practice.

Comblin's analysis of the ideology of national security is still regarded as a fundamental work. He created thus a model of theological reflection that claims to be a distinct culture of remembrance in the interdisciplinary exchange. Its history is essential for theology. Comblin's last works about the new theological challenges are the best example for it. He once spoke of the "Church Fathers of Latin America", in order to describe those bishops who - shaped by Medellin and Puebla (1979) - had changed the Latin American church. In an analogous way, one could call Jose Comblin a Doctor of the Church of the Latin American church.


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