The Silencer

Joy, consternation, and for some, outright shock is reverberating among Catholics worldwide at the first sight of their new pope in his red robes, Benedict XVI. The most conservative regard the German Joseph Ratzinger as their champion, with his influential rock-hard stands against gay unions, cloning and the ordination of women, and against any dismantling of the firewall between Catholicism and every other religion in the world. Liberals regard him as medieval, a threat to theological exploration of sexual ethics, pluralism and a Church for the third millennium.

Now he is pontiff of all, and both sides are holding their breath.

One key to Benedict's papacy may be found far from the elegant St. Peter's Square and far from after-mass coffees in U.S. church halls, in the villages and rough urban misery belts of Latin America, the globe's most Catholic region, where Ratzinger made one of his hallmark stands as a Vatican force. There in the l980s, he powerfully confronted the fast-moving tide of liberation theology, an intellectual and popular movement that linked Catholic theology and political activism in everyday issues of social justice and human rights. Officially, Ratzinger reversed the tide, forbidding certain Catholic theologians to publish in what was called a "silencing."

Ratzinger issued a 1984 document with something like the force of law called an "Instruction," defining Rome's opposition to liberation theology's "fundamental threat" and weighing in on naming conservative Latin bishops.

Unofficially, liberation theology lives. On a continent of some 500 million where most are poor, where the promise of neo-liberal economic plans of the l990s didn't pan out and three-quarters of the population now lives under democratically elected leftist governments, the attraction of a Catholicism that links God's will with the desire for a better and more dignified life in the here and now -- not just after death -- remains strong. How Benedict XVI faces this reality, for face it he must in a Church that claims to be not just "one" but "universal," will be a marker of his papacy.

In the 1980s the Berlin Wall remained intact, and Ratzinger believed liberation theology was incipient Marxism with a religious veneer. He zeroed in on some intellectual proponents who linked Marx and Jesus. He did not focus on the outcomes of Vatican II -- where Ratzinger himself was considered a liberal reformer -- and the Latin American conferences in Medellin and Puebla, where bishops decided that the Latin Church must stake its future on "an option for the poor." He did not publicly regard the thousands of small communities who were reading the Bible together in a new way, sitting under trees or on dirt floors with no clergy or intellectuals in sight, finding what they called the strength to be actors in their lives.

What would have happened, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans ask to this day, if Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II had regarded the Latin American call for liberation from autocratic rulers with the same force with which the European churchmen supported the Polish Solidarity revolution?

On the eve of his election as pope, Ratzinger addressed the cardinals with an unmistakable condemnation of "relativism," which can include the idea that one religion is as good as another. He addressed it again last year in a book, "Called to Communion." In the 1980s, the idea rankled Ratzinger that liberation theology was not strictly Catholic, but "frequently tries to create a new universality for which the classical church divisions are supposed to have become irrelevant."

Indeed, liberation theology was quickly spreading at the time, and not only geographically, from its magnetic center in thatched roof chapels in Latin America to Africa, the Philippines, and the barrios of North America. It was jumping churches, too. Renowned American Protestant thinkers such as Robert McAfee Brown spoke to it, and defended Catholic theologians "silenced" by Ratzinger. Fr. Luis Gurriaran, a Spanish Sacred Heart priest working in rural Guatemala, once recalled how fundamentalist evangelical Protestant preachers -- the proliferation of which are seen as a headache by bishops today -- embraced local forms of liberation theology after massacres or intense hardships in their communities. "Those who identify with their congregations come to look at the world through their eyes," he said. How the new Pope regards this mutual embrace of people of faith on the ground, no matter what their churches, will be key to the shape of his tenure.

Archbishop Oscar Romero began his administration of the San Salvadoran church as an orthodox, conservative prelate who made no waves. But he stayed in touch with his congregations in a personal way, and listened as over the years they told him of family members taken by death squads. He looked at the books of photos of the disappeared and bodies of civilians who opposed the government found tortured, records that his church workers collected to help parishioners. From his pastoral work and writing out of reflection upon it, from his defense of the poor acting to change their own situation - even politically -- and from his 1980 assassination by a death squad after calling for a stop to the killing in the civil war, Romero came to be considered a symbol of the best of liberation theology.

In Pope Benedict's first words "to the city and the world" from the balcony at St. Peter's, he called himself an "insufficient instrument" and "a simple worker in the vineyard." Will he listen with pastoral ears, as Archbishop Romero did, to the voices of ordinary Catholics, gay, divorced, the alienated, the seeking? Will he listen with new ears to the realities that underpin the theology of liberation in all its senses, what Latin American Catholics call "the cry of the people?"

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