Celam III (the third Latin American Conference of Bishops) will pass down in history as a continuation and deepening of CELAM II (Medellín, 1968) but with a clear-cut effort to steer the church away from the so-called theology of liberation and to bring it in line with the Evangelii Nuntiandi of Paul VI.

Initially convened over two years ago by Pope Paul VI and last year by John Paul I, CELAM III took place in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, January 27 to February 12 (see Mar. 23 issue, p. 46). A full evaluation of the results of this conference on “The Present and Future Evangelization in Latin America” must wait for the study of the final document.

CELAM II dealt with “The Latin American Reality in the Light of Vatican II.” The sixteen Medellín documents viewed the church as “the church of the poor” and committed her to the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed and to the development of communidades de base (basic communities). In the words of an observer, the greatest accomplishment of CELAM II was “a holistic liberation springing out of man’s heart but including all the structures which, as emerging from the human heart, are evil.”

In a real sense, at Medellín a new day dawned for the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. One aspect of it was the willingness of many in the clergy to suffer for the sake of justice; so much so that it has been estimated that during the last decade approximately 840 bishops, priests, and nuns have been brutally treated, jailed, tortured, exiled, or assassinated in Latin America. On the other hand, the liberation theologians (among them Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the chief drafters of the Medellín documents) appealed to CELAM II for endorsement of their leftist approach to socioeconomic problems.

The years following CELAM II saw a growing chasm between “conservative” and “progressive” forces within the Roman Catholic Church. As the dates of the third conference approached, the debate between those who wished to divest the gospel of all its social implications and those who wanted to identify it with an ideology of social change reached its hottest point. The big question was whether Puebla would turn out to be a blunt denial or a deepened affirmation of Medellín.

The 356 participants (21 cardinals, 66 archbishops, and 131 bishops among them) arrived in Puebla after two years of intense and careful preparation for the conference, including their study of a “working draft” of more than a thousand mimeographed pages divided into three parts: (1) a historical perspective and a survey of the Latin American situation; (2) a doctrinal reflection on this situation; and (3) guidelines for pastoral action for the church in Latin America. Of no less importance than all that preparation for the direction of the discussions that followed was the stance taken by Pope John Paul II in the “encyclical” with which he inaugurated the conference. In his homily at Basilica de Guadalupe on the previous day he had already pointed out that some current interpretations of the Medellín documents were “contradictory, not always correct, and not always beneficial to the church.” In his opening speech at Seminario Palafoxiano near Puebla (where the conference was held) he condemned the “rereadings of the gospel” in which Jesus Christ was stripped of his deity, and stated that the church must remain “at the margin of competitive systems, so that her only option may be man.” The church, said the Pope, “has no need to appeal to ideological systems in order to love, to defend, and to cooperate with the liberation of man.” At the same time, he claimed that “national and international peace can only prosper within a social and economic system based on justice” and affirmed that according to the social teaching of the church “all property implies a social mortgage.” His condemnation of modern attempts to reduce the Christian faith to a socioeconomic ideology and the mission of the church to political activism was balanced by an affirmation of the gospel as the basis for social involvement and concern for the poor.

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Presided over by Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio (the Pope’s representative). Cardinal Aloisio Lorsheider (archbishop of Fortaleza, Brazil, and president of CELAM), and Cardinal Enrique Corripio Ahumada (primate archbishop of Mexico), the bishops debated the issues on the agenda, organized in twenty-one commissions which later met together. The final document issued at the end of the conference is divided into five chapters dealing with the following topics: (1) “Pastoral Vision of the Latin American Reality”; (2) “Doctrinal Reflection”; (3) “Evangelization in and by the Church in Latin America”; (4) “Today’s Evangelizing and Missionary Church in Latin America’s Future”; and (5) “Pastoral Options on the Basis of Puebla.”

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Of particular importance in the Latin American context is the document’s condemnation of all kinds of violence. On the one hand, following the Pope in his inaugural speech, it rejects the image of Jesus as a political revolutionary and of the church as a political party, and states that crime “can never be justified as a means of liberation.” “Violence,” it adds, “inevitably generates new forms of oppression and slavery which are much worse than those from which it claims to liberate; above all, it is an attack against life, which depends on the Creator alone.” On the other hand, the document denounces the abuse of power present in many Latin American countries today, and accuses harsh military governments of suppressing political rights and fostering injustice, sheltered behind the excuse of “promoting Western civilization.” In an uncompromising statement on poverty, it describes the luxury of the rich minority as “an insult to the misery of the great masses” and as “contrary to the Creator’s plan and to the honor due to him.” It also calls for major political and economic changes.

The Puebla document is critical of both unfettered capitalism and Marxism. In their place (echoing the Evangelii Nuntiandi) it proposes a “civilization of love” inspired by Christ’s word, life, and action and based on justice, truth, and freedom. If it encourages Latin Americans to recognize the power of the gospel for personal and social transformation, it may turn out to be the most significant document ever issued by the Roman Catholic Church in this part of the world.

C. René Padilla is the director of Ediciones Certeza, the publishing house of the International Fellowship of Evangelical students in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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