Ask any ordinary Brazilian Catholic why the pope is visiting Brazil, and the corny old tune will be the same: "Benedict XVI is coming to canonize friar Galvão, the first genuinely Brazilian saint". Try to ask a layman, and his answer will add an enigmatic acronym to those who do not follow the Church’s history: "He is coming for the opening of the 5th CELAM’s Conference".
Ask now any Liberation Theology representative, and Ratzinger’s jovial visit turns into a clear message in which friar Galvão is a mere popular supporting actor in a plan to contain the Catholic exodus; and the bishops conference becomes the main stage to attack those who live under the prism of "preferential option for the poor" – an option by the way germinated in Medellin (Colombia), in 1968, during the encounter’s 2nd edition and irrigated in the following meeting in Puebla (Mexico), in 1979.
Benedict XVI did not choose Brazil by chance for his first trip as a pope to the American continent. His stay, although short, can define the Church’s course in Latin America for the next ten years. This because traditionally the inaugural talk of the General Conference of the Latin-American and Caribbean Episcopate (CELAM), which will be delivered by Ratzinger the same day he leaves the country, May 13, serves to delimit the discussions ground, which this time will be conducted by 280 bishops who will remain gathered in the city of Aparecida do Norte up to May 31.
And it’s precisely here that Ratzinger’s concerns play a role. He will be treading Brazilian territory for the third time. The first one was in 1985, soon after the proceedings against Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and the second, in 1990, to teach a course to Brazilian bishops in Rio de Janeiro.
Almost half of the planet’s Catholics live in Latin America. They are 480 million faithfuls who little by little are abandoning the Catholic Church. Ratzinger is hopeful that his talk has direct influence on the lines of pastoral action adopted by the bishops at the end of the meeting.
As a curiosity in this battle between the Catholic Church and the neopentecostal churches we need only say that the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, belonging to bishop Edir Macedo, has just announced that his pastors will be handing out condoms to all their faithfuls, as a follow-up to what they are already doing in South Africa.
This line of reasoning supports in part the opinion of Father João Pedro Baresi, a Combonian priest aligned to the Liberation Theology. Says he, "Ratzinger’s visit is part of a plan in which the biggest concern is the exodus of the Catholic believers." Not only that.
For Baresi, the pope is also going to use the trip to try "to put a brake on Liberation Theology," since Ratzinger blames the Liberation Theology for the increasing loss of believers since its affirmation as theology in the decade of 1960.
"What the just-installed São Paulo archbishop, Odilo Scherer, said a few days ago, that the time of that theology has passed may just be an appetizer of things to come." That’s what Baresi believes.
And in this context, the inaugural talk of the CELAM Conference is extremely important for the pope to convey his message. "Friar Galvão’s canonization complements the plan: it is the Catholic popular religiosity being used to try to hold the people in exodus."
Still commenting on bishop Odilo, Baresi adds:"He should substantiate his statement. And another thing, what matters is not the Liberation Theology, but the liberation itself, as Gustavo Gutierrez always says. If anyone has something better that contributes to the commitment of liberation in the light of faith, he should propose it".
But Scherer’s statement is not the only clue left by the current pope on his way to Latin America. The Vatican’s recent warning to the Jesuit aligned to the Liberation Theology, Jon Sobrino, who lives in El Salvador, sounds like a new condemnation by Ratzinger of this Gospel’s interpretation key.
Liberation Theology Lives
Brazilian Benedictine monk Marcelo Barros subscribes to the idea that Liberation Theology would only be obsolete if the conditions and motives that originated it didn’t exist any longer. "Now, we all know that on the contrary, unjust poverty and social inequality increased a lot, as well as it can be said that the resurgence of indigenous and peasant popular movements is more organized. All over the planet the number of those who are getting organized in order to make a different world possible is also increasing.
"As many of these people are protestants, Christian or from other religions, not only the Liberation Theology remains valid, but it also stopped being just a Latin-American phenomenon to become global."
Barros, who belongs to the Theological Commission of the Ecumenical Association of the Third World Theologians, says that he has seen a bridge-building movement between Liberation Theology and the Cultural and Religious Pluralism Theology.
"That means that there is today an inter-religious Liberation Theology, which is not only Christian. With a wide literature that didn’t exist before and that includes Black Theology, Indigenous Theology, Feminist Theology, Eco-Theology, which have become new branches of Liberation Theology."
The Dominican Friar Betto was also contacted for this story. His adviser told us, however, that he was in Cuba and that he wouldn’t be able to answer since he has a hard time using the Internet because of the United States blockade of the island.
This article appeared originally in the magazine Brasil de Fato – www.brasildefato.com.br.