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The Catholic Church leads the way

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I must compliment the clergy of the Catholic Church for the statement that they read in their churches last Sunday. What is important to me is the direction to which it is pointing. For, in a sense, it has committed itself to speaking out on social injustices and generally on matters affecting the society. It is also sending a message to its members about the significance of their commitment to the Gospel. The statement struck me because I had recently been focussing on the direction in which Pope Francis was taking the Church.{{more}}

Pope Francis appears to be preparing the way for the Church to embrace Liberation Theology as part of its guiding philosophy. My understanding is that it is a call for the Church to be guided by a preferential duty to the poor; to develop solidarity with the poor; and to protest and struggle against poverty and social injustice. The person who is credited with being its founder is the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. This was really a response to conditions that affected significant numbers of people living in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Conservative elements within the Church and State strongly opposed this direction, creating enormous problems for the Church, some even equating it with a move to Marxism. To favour the poor, it seemed was to become a Marxist! Proponents of Liberation Theology suffered. The classic case was that of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was shot while saying mass in 1980. Gustavo was virtually blacklisted. Catholic priest Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, in struggling against matters of poverty and injustice, became Foreign Minister in the Sandinista Government of Daniel Ortega. All of them were guided by a commitment to work with the poor and to speak out and struggle against poverty and injustice.

Pope Francis has started efforts to rehabilitate these three priests. In the case of Archbishop Romero who is dead, the obstacles that were put against his elevation to the status of sainthood are now being cleared. Miguel d’Escoto had been banned from saying mass and this is now removed or being removed. Sometime last year the Pope invited Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican. All of this is not surprising, because his work in the slums of Argentina had transformed his mission. Of course, the conservative elements within the Papacy and Catholic Church are totally angered by this direction.

He is positioning the Church to be a church working in the interest of the poor and fighting against social injustice. What is also significant about him is that he is not only talking, but walking the talk. Since my period of work with CADEC, a body of the Caribbean Conference of Churches, I had followed the work of Liberation Theology and the tensions within church and societies that were overwhelmingly Catholic. I have for long been identifying the Church as a major player in the Caribbean. Some years ago I would have included the non-governmental sector, but this sector has literally sold its soul. Perhaps the same could be said about the Church, but there were always elements within the Church that veered from the traditional conservative approach. I commented positively on the piece written by the Anglican Bishop following the death of Edwaldo Lynch, but pointed to the fact that he did not seem to envisage a role for the Church. It was as though it was some objective force, or perhaps spirit, living outside.

The statement of the Catholic Church gives me hope. The statement made to the congregation by the clergy of the Church arose, they say, from their reflections on the word of God that created concerns for them about matters affecting the State and Church. Truly you cannot isolate the Church from society! I am interpreting State more broadly to include society. Matters that affect the society, affect the Church. They had become aware of their silence on those matters. While it is easy for the Church to make comments couched in abstract terms, this statement identifies two cases of social concern – relating to the three teachers, who for sometime have been fighting to be restored to their jobs and the Bigger Biggs case. Although Bigger Biggs and individuals in the society have been keeping his case alive, I always felt that some bigger force needed to intervene. It beats me that there are people who refuse to see the injustice meted out to Bigger Biggs. If, in fact, he did violate certain sacred environmental ‘tenets’, one would assume that any sane government would have issued a warning to him and given him time to clean up his act. After all, here was a Vincentian making an investment in his country. Quite often when we speak about investors we think of foreigners and open the red carpet for them, but with our own people it is a horse of a different colour.

The clergy’s statement highlighted some important areas that disturbed them – the growing disrespect for the human person, disregard for the environment, increasing lawlessness, crime and violence. They have also identified the hopelessness and fear prevailing in the society. This is a statement geared to State and people because we are all guilty of shortcomings and of silence on matters that affect the State. The question is asked, “Are we contributing to a society where peace and justice is no longer our daily experience?” After their statement highlighting their concerns and their expression of what they consider their mission, the Church, at least the Catholic Church, can no longer be silent. Can the same be said for other churches? They are guided by the same gospel, I believe!

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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