John Allen, the Vatican reporter for the National Catholic Reporter, has an interesting summary of the results of the Latin American and Caribbean bishops' meeting in Aparecida, Brazil that just ended.
One of the major concerns had to do with the state of evangelization and catechesis among the largest Catholic population in the world.
"Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Brazil, the Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy in Rome, put the reality bluntly: "The majority of Catholics on this continent no longer participate, or never have participated, in the life of our ecclesial communities," he said. "We baptized them, but for many reasons, we never really evangelized them sufficiently."
The fruits of that inattention are obvious. During the 20th century, more Catholics converted to Protestantism in Latin America, especially Pentecostal and Evangelical movements, than in Europe during the 16th century Protestant Reformation. There's also a growing phenomenon of abandonment of religious faith altogether, especially among the poor along the peripheries of Latin America's sprawling mega-cities. In Brazil, to take one example, the percentage of people reporting no religious affiliation went from 0.7 percent in 1980 to 7.3 percent in 2000, more than a ten-fold increase in just 20 years.
In the past, the tendency of some Latin American bishops has been to blame these losses on outside forces -- on deceitful proselytism from the "sects," on financial and logistical support from Protestants in the United States, even on supposed policies of the United States government aimed at undermining the Catholic identity of Latin America as an impediment to the spread of free-market capitalism. In that light, the breakthrough in Aparecida may be the bishops' acknowledgement that the fault lays not in their stars, but in themselves."
The bishops called for a continent-wide re-evangelization that would include door-to-door visits. Because the ratio of priests to lay people is on average 1-7,000, many laity will have to be involved. Of course, the mission of evangelization, the Church's purpose, is always the responsibility of the laity with the guidance and collaboration of the clergy, so this really isn't news.
The difficulty, as always, is the bishops have the right idea, but in the course of their conversations, they are short on exactly how to implement this great mission. It's not even clear if it will be left up to individual bishops or bishops' conferences, or even CELAM, to come up with a specific plan.
"Aside from committing themselves to promoting a "mature laity, co-responsible in the mission of announcing and making visible the Reign of God," the bishops did not offer any clear sense of what this lay empowerment might look like."
The bishops will take up this conundrum again in July, when they meet in Havana, Cuba. It would be wonderful if in the meanwhile the bishops go home to their dioceses and get some of their local clergy, religious and most active and faithful laity together to discuss possible implementation strategies. Surely the laity and local clergy are aware of what techniques the sects use to evangelize nominal or lapsed Catholics. They can also look first in the Scriptures and in the great evangelizing movements within Catholic history to find out how God has worked through His Church in the past. They'd be wise to enlist the help of those involved in the charismatic renewal, and some of the new lay movements. But clearly, the success of the "Great Continental Mission" will require well-formed Catholic laity, and that may take some time.
The bishops also took up a dialogue with liberation theologians, who were among the theological experts present at the meeting.
John Allen writes, "The bishops explicitly affirmed liberation theology's famous option for the poor, but tweaked it to become a "preferential and evangelical option," making clear this is no merely political or social commitment. At a concluding press conference, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras took pains to stress that this option "is not ideologized." Similarly, the bishops said that their final document was structured according to the "see-judge-act" method, but gave it a Trinitarian frame (seeing "with the eyes of faith," judging "according to the Gospel of Jesus," and acting under "the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.") The explicit confirmation of the "see-judge-act" method was considered especially telling, since it had been dropped in the 1992 edition of CELAM in Santo Domingo."
Allen comments, "With regard to liberation theology, the texts from Aparecida often read like compromise documents, with something to please both friends and foes."
I disagree with him here. Rather, it sounds to me like liberation theology is growing closer to its scriptural roots, and closer to the Church's vision of life and mission. It's great that the need for evangelization is linked to the preferential option for the poor. The poor need the basic necessities of life, as is their right. They also need, as do we all, to hear the Gospel. That, too, is our right. Jesus said there's no profit in gaining the world, but losing your soul.
The see-judge-act method was something I became familiar with in South Africa, when I worked there during the summer of 1991. There, it was specifically linked to the Trinity as the bishops just did in Aparecida. I don't think it's anything new, and I hope it wouldn't be considered a compromise. It's the way Christians should all see, judge and act.
And not just in Latin America.