Before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, wrote the final draft of the Aparecida document. CNS photo/Marcos Brindicci, Reuters

Latin theology coming to Canadian bishops

  • September 13, 2014

Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega is about to welcome Canada’s bishops to the rough and tumble of Latin American theology. 

When Canada’s bishops gather Sept. 15-19 in this nation’s oldest parish to celebrate 350 years of North American prayer, struggle and faith, they will meet the other half of what Pope Francis calls the continent of hope. Ortega will attend the bishops plenary in Quebec City to lead Canada’s bishops through a consideration of the Aparecida document. 

The 2007 Aparecida document concluded a 40-year history of contention, struggle, misunderstanding, drama and growth in the universal Church — all of which Canadians have largely observed from afar. Liberation theology, base communities, political battles, revolutions, divisions among bishops and within religious orders, political murders of bishops and priests, Vatican censure and the passions of two generations of Catholics are all concluded here. In prayer and dialogue at the huge shrine to Our Lady of Aparecida outside Sao Paulo, Brazil, Latin America’s bishops wrapped it all up.

In the end, liberation theology, the preferential option for the poor, social justice — the whole contentious shebang — won. 

The Aparecida document has often been held out as a blueprint for the current papacy, if only because the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis in 2013, composed the final draft. Much of what Aparecida had to say about the new evangelization found its way into Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium

But there are better reasons than the name of the principal writer to think of Aparecida as a road map for the Church in our time. Half the world’s Catholics live in Latin America. With Pope Benedict XVI present and encouraging them, the Council of Latin American Bishops was speaking for more Catholics than any other grouping of bishops could. Aparecida was both the end and the beginning of something big in the Church. 

Before he was Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio described how Pope Benedict XVI encouraged an open, fearless dialogue among bishops — which prefigured Pope Francis’ consultative style. He also described how the conference was rooted in prayer with the ordinary Catholics who came to their shrine in Aparecida. 

“We recited litanies and celebrated Mass together with pilgrims and faithful. There were two, then five thousand on Saturday or Sunday,” he said. “Celebrating the Eucharist with the people is different to us bishops than celebrating it separately among us. This made us really feel our people’s sense of belonging, of the Church’s members walking together as the people of God, of us bishops as servants.” 

The result was a document that links a theology of liberation to the new evangelization, weds the preferential option for the poor with Church unity and respects the desires of the poor for faith that delivers concrete results in their lives. 

The concession Aparecida grants to St. Pope John Paul II’s anxiety over Marxism wheedling its way into theology, is that this document affirms a strict separation between the roles of clergy and of lay people. Aparecida does not envision another revolutionary government of Nicaragua with five priests serving in its cabinet — a situation that caused John Paul II to withdraw his hand in 1983 when Jesuit father and Nicaraguan Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardinal knelt to kiss his ring on the tarmac of Managua’s airport. The Pope then wagged his finger and scolded the priest. 

Aparecida speaks of forming and educating politicians and business people. For the Latin American bishops the new evangelization has nothing to do with winning sterile, academic arguments against atheist professors and writers. It’s about forming Christians up to the “essential task of evangelization, which includes the preferential option for the poor, integral human promotion and authentic Christian liberation.” 

It matters that Dominican Fr. Gustavo Guiterrez — author of Liberation Theology, the 1972 book that changed how many Catholics think about theology — is now welcomed at the Vatican and praised by prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Gerhard Muller, said Redemptorist Fr. Paul Hansen. 

When Aparecida declares that “The Church’s rich social magisterium tells us that we cannot conceive of an offer of life in Christ without dynamism toward integral liberation, humanization, reconciliation and involvement in society,” it is imposing on the faithful a duty to critique political and economic life in Latin America. 

“Bergoglio had gone through his own revolution in terms of liberation. He was known as ‘the bishop of the slums,’” Hansen wrote in an email. “He started naming corrupt economic structures. He noted that unbridled capitalism creates a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven.” 

It’s been a while since Canadian bishops talked about social sins that cry out to heaven, said Jesuit Fr. Jack Costello. 

“The poverty of the poor sits there as though it is just a thing, a fact, like the Rockies, without us thinking through why the poor are poor and how they are kept poor,” Costello said in an email. 

In the 1980s Canadian bishops challenged political and economic orthodoxy. But today’s Canadian bishops, like most Canadians, don’t ask those questions, said Costello. 

“We don’t feel we can do anything about corporate institutions, as well as the banks sitting on their huge profits and not investing that money — the money of Canadians — in Canadian economic initiatives,” said Costello. 

But Aparecida is not a document of conquest that pushes a liberal agenda and exiles conservatives. 

“The document is an enormously rich one with many lines of thought to follow up,” Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy president Keith Cassidy told The Catholic Register. “If I had to focus on something in it I would say what’s very exciting on review of it is the focus on the new evangelization. That is something that we at the academy are very interested in and very much desire to advance.” 

As a product of decades of dialogue in the Church, Cassidy doesn’t believe the Aparecida document is just a regional thing, only applicable in Latin America. 

“The urgency of the new evangelization, that is obviously something we’re called to in both North America and South America. Clearly there are different histories and economic backgrounds in the two continents, but we really do have that same call and that same urgency,” he said. 

Perhaps this is a challenge to Canadian bishops, but how much more a challenge to the rest of us. 

“Canadians avoid dissent and conflict,” notes Costello. “We also stay ignorant about understanding the causes of structural barriers to people having a fair chance at a life of dignity — economically, educationally and socially. We trust our leaders with a sort of made-in- Canada intellectual laziness. We don’t generally work at connecting the dots between people hurting and social structures causing the hurting.” 

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