Church needs to look again at Latin America


Rite and Reason: Pope Benedict could do worse than try to correct a century of strategic miscalculation in Latin America, where Rome is concerned, Hugh O'Shaughnessy suggests

The election of Pope Benedict XVI on April 19th last came within weeks of the 25th anniversary of the assassination by a right-wing terrorist of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador as he was saying Mass.

The murder happened on March 25th, 1980, the day after Romero had issued a passionate appeal from the pulpit to the soldiers of El Salvador, "I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!"

A few weeks earlier the archbishop had fruitlessly beseeched president Jimmy Carter to halt the supply of US weapons to the Salvadorean military regime.

This year then surely offers the Catholic Church the perfect occasion to undertake a much needed revision of its attitudes towards Latin America. For all too long these have been coloured by misapprehensions on the part of the Holy See about the real problems of the region and, latterly, by cold war postures.

Despite his constant travelling - and very understandably given his personal experience - the last pope appeared all too ready to apply to other parts of the world the intellectual mould in which he was formed in his native Poland.

The Soviet Union's militant atheism, for a time allied with militant Nazi racism, could not have failed to shape the thoughts of Karol Wojtila - as a young man, a seminarian, a priest, a bishop and particularly as Bishop of Rome. It was not surprising that he hewed more to the stern line of Pius XII than to the more open attitudes of John XXIII.

It was also unsurprising too that he was on his guard against the appearance of any Marxist-Leninist challenge in regions outside Europe. Had not Mao Zedong spread such a challenge to China with fearful consequences for Christianity there?

Yet the principal problem of Latin America, the region where the gap between rich and poor was, and remains, the widest in the world, was not creeping communism.

Rather was it a social structure where small minorities, who often noisily proclaimed their loyalty to "Western Christian civilisation", were happy to keep large majorities - which without fail included the indigenous peoples - in political and economic subjection.

Meanwhile, as in Archbishop Romero's El Salvador, the minorities were usually supported by successive US governments and business leaders. Washington saw in popular challenges to their local allies threats to the hegemony that its politicians had sought to exercise over Latin America since the 19th century.

Latin American reformers, nationalists and revolutionaries who sought to change a status quo which were intolerable to them were consequently lumped together by the US as "unacceptable". The US felt its nationalism had "a manifest destiny" to dominate any nationalist feeling of the Latins.

When an international communist movement arose in the 20th century Latin American, reformers, nationalists and revolutionaries could be presented by the US as nothing less than cats-paws of Moscow, despite having seldom started out as such.

Meanwhile, the resources of the United States assumed enormous importance during the cold war. US troops were seen as guarding Europe against Stalin; the Vatican welcomed US financial contributions; US clergy were handily placed to fill the gaps in the ranks of the clergy of Latin America and sometimes of its episcopate. No wonder therefore that those whom Washington distrusted were distrusted by Rome.

Liberation theologians were silenced by John Paul II. The martyrdom of a Salvadorean archbishop created little stir in the Eternal City and calls for his beatification were coldly ignored: the same indifference was expressed when Bishop Enrique Angelelli was murdered by the regime in Argentina in 1976, or catechists were slaughtered by "pro-Western" dictatorships from Guatemala to Brazil.

Rome seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when Cardinal Raul Silva, Archbishop of Santiago and an opponent of General Pinochet,retired. (It later appealed to the British government for the freedom of the general whom Silva had contemplated excommunicating.)

Rome was happy to break into pieces the Sao Paulo archdiocese of Cardinal Arns, a critic of the Brazilian generals.

Consequently, Catholic morale in Latin America is not good. The Holy See could do worse than try to correct a century or more of strategic miscalculation.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy, author of Pinochet: the Politics of Torture, has been writing on Latin America and the Caribbean for more than 40 years.