A journal of academic theology

March 1999 editorial

Editorials in quarterly journals typically are written two or three months in advance. This morning, as I sit at my computer to greet readers of the first issue from our 60th year of publication, today’s date is January 22, 1999. Pope John Paul II at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Mexico City, has just promulgated the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America. The text, immediately available on the Vatican website, reflects 14 months of fine-tuning by an international advisory committee and finalizes the 1997 Synod of America, “Encounter with the Living Jesus Christ: The Way to Conversion, Communion and Solidarity in America.”

Following a procedure decided upon in 1974, these concluding statements of bishops’ synods are no longer released hastily but are formulated under the pope’s supervision during subsequent months, drawing upon “propositions” recommended by synod members. This procedure is not without potential risks since drafters can eliminate recommendations not to their liking, thereby weakening specific concerns. However, this latest post-synodal exhortation closely reproduces the synod’s wishes. Of 86 propositions voted on by the synod, the document cites verbatim 70. Most of the footnotes are references to synod propositions rather than to previous papal documents as has been customary in earlier exhortations.

This present text credits the pioneering work of the Latin American episcopal conferences (CELAM) and even cites a pastoral letter of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith” (perhaps the first citation of a US bishops’ document in a papal text). The crisp and outspoken document comes in the wake of the 500th anniversary celebrations of America’s first evangelization and calls for a new evangelization.

The exhortation urges a wide spectrum of just economic practices affecting North and South America. While not directly criticizing “capitalism,” it does condemn the evils of neo-liberalism. It appeals to governments, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank urging them to reduce or cancel for poor nations the crippling debts they incurred through loans. The document addresses problems related to urbanization, immigration, even non-legal immigrants, as well as violations of human rights by the powerful. It excoriates the curse of drug trafficking, even while recognizing that some poor farmers have become financially dependent on growing drug related crops.

Also broached firmly but delicately are problems associated with “sects” (as opposed missionary activities of mainline Christian sister churches), a special concern of Latin American bishops. Yet Catholics are admonished not to imitate the harmful tactics used by the sects. The text asks why it is that Catholics leave their church for the sects, and urges pastoral policies that will offer the faithful more personalized religious care attuned to popular religiosity. Indigenous forms of piety are praised as legitimate inculturation of the gospel. The exhortation does not hesitate to address the widespread phenomenon of corruption linked to governments and military agents. It calls upon the Church to help eradicate this evil from civil society through greater involvement of competent Christian laity who will foster the practice of values such as truth, honesty, industriousness, and the promotion of the common good.

The document briefly credits the role of women, especially women religious, for their contributions to evangelization and calls for greater participation by them in church life, including decision-making processes on a variety of issues. It notes that women in many parts of America still meet forms of discrimination and correctly asserts that the face of the poor in America is also the face of many women. Repeating what the synod observed about the “feminine side of poverty,” it also deplores sexual abuse and male domination as actions contrary to God’s plan, especially the systematic sterilization of marginalized women.

Some brief mention of the hemisphere’s “dark chapters” (no. 58) and the shame of slavery and ongoing discrimination against indigenous peoples and African-Americans is present. But unfortunately, the document–as was true of the Synod of America itself–presents a rather naïve, rosy depiction of the first encounters between the hemisphere’s native peoples and the European (Catholic) colonists. There is no acknowledgement or apology for the massive violence, land encroachments, chicanery, forced relocations, broken treatises affecting the aboriginal populations, in which the Church was for the most part a silent partner. The Church’s practice of importing colonist priests instead of allowing and promoting ordinations from the native populations is not mentioned. For the native people, the visitation of the European people was, as is well known, not pure paradise but the start of boundless suffering.

There is a pointed call for simplicity in the life-style of bishops and priests (no. 28) and indeed of all Christians (no. 29); they are urged to live not in isolated opulence but to reflect their preferential option for the poor. Still, the social and political leanings of some persons chosen as bishops in parts of the Americas makes it difficult for them to be champions of the powerless. Even the sizeable costs of papal trips and the regal welcomes for the pope, intended as a mark of respect for the church’s leader and dictated by security considerations, create unintended countersigns.

The document will surely encourage the Catholic bishops of the Americas to collaborate more closely and to explore as a united hemisphere new solutions to old problems through listening, sharing, and planning. The final test of the exhortation will be its ability to promote conversion and change.

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