Key story behind B16′s Brazil visit

catholics in brazilThere seem to be two dominant story lines coming out of the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil that began Wednesday. One is that the Pope is facing the lingering spectre of his longtime nemesis — Marxist-inspired social liberation within the Catholic Church — and the other is the Protestant challenge from Pentecostals.

The “rival theology” story, focused on “socialist-influenced ‘liberation’ Catholicism,” has a rich history and is what most people think of when approaching a Latin America religion story. But from what I’ve gathered, this theme is growing tired and is losing its news value. That is not to say that reporters shouldn’t pay attention to that angle, but several media reports have overplayed its significance.

For starters, here’s The New York Times on Monday:

In the early 1980s, when Pope John Paul II wanted to clamp down on what he considered a dangerous, Marxist-inspired movement in the Roman Catholic Church, liberation theology, he turned to a trusted aide: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Now Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI, and when he arrives here on Wednesday for his first pastoral visit to Latin America he may be surprised at what he finds. Liberation theology, which he once called “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church,” persists as an active, even defiant force in Latin America, home to nearly half the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.

Over the past 25 years, even as the Vatican moved to silence the clerical theorists of liberation theology and the church fortified its conservative hierarchy, the social and economic ills the movement highlighted have worsened. In recent years, the politics of the region have also drifted leftward, giving the movement’s demand that the church embrace “a preferential option for the poor” new impetus and credibility.

The key words in that lede are “once called” and “persists.” Exactly how is liberation theology persisting, and how forcefully does Benedict speak out against liberation theology these days?

A Los Angeles Times headline from Wednesday really overstates the case: “Benedict to confront a vast theological divide in Brazil.” Yes, there are differences, but that’s overstating the case just a bit.

For a more balanced perspective, check out the subtitle to this Economist article (sub required) on the visit that sums up nicely the real story behind Benedict’s visit: the growth of Pentecostal churches and its influence on Catholic worship services:

In his first Latin American visit, Pope Benedict XVI will find a less divided church facing stronger rivals

This idea is expounded on later in the piece. The Economist should be commended for treating religion like any other “real world” subject rather than relegating it to a category of non-real-world subjects like The Wall Street Journal has done repeatedly of late (here and here):

The bishops’ conference may be less disputatious than its predecessors. Democracy and the end of the cold war have drawn some of the sting from the arguments between conservatives and progressives. Dom Raymundo says the bishops will reaffirm the church’s preference for the poor, but he insists that social change begins with the transformation of the individual believer. In the coming fights against abortion and the use of embryonic stem cells, the Latin church is probably more united than its North American counterpart. According to a recent poll, just 16% of Brazilians want to change a law that makes abortion illegal unless the mother has been raped or her life is endangered.

That does not put to rest nagging questions about the shape of a church with too few priests to sustain its traditional structure. Benedict will arrive in Brazil fresh from having censured Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian in El Salvador, for over-emphasising Christ’s humanity. The original draft of the conference guidelines was modified after pressure from the many in Latin America who take a less hierarchical view of the church and want a greater role for the laity. “For us the pope is father and pastor” rather than an “authority figure”, says Carlos Francisco Signorelli, who heads the National Council of Brazilian Laity. In Aparecida, Benedict may reveal how he sees himself.

Now I’m not saying this all to say that these individual stories are a huge problem or anything. Balanced with stories that focus on the huge issue of the growth of Pentecostalism, they’re fine. The LAT did just that in a very long piece on Tuesday:

The pop-idol priest strides to the altar like the star that he is, a rock band pounding away to his right, cameras flashing to his left and the multitudes pulsating in this cavernous ex-factory that serves as a church.

“Hold the hand of Jesus!” Father Marcelo Rossi, a dynamic giant in a red cassock and billowing white sleeves, proclaims into the cordless mike, urging the faithful to hold hands. “God is tops! God is tops!”

Rossi is the kind of priest who just might be able to save the Roman Catholic Church here. Brazil has more believers than any other country, but the church has been steadily losing members to evangelical denominations.

Rossi is also just the kind of priest that Pope Benedict XVI, who arrives here Wednesday, is likely to frown upon.

Covering a story as huge and as fast-moving as a pope’s first major world tour is all about balance. There are more than enough stories that could be told, but the big one is the very threat to the existence of Catholicism in Brazil. According to the Pew Forum, Protestantism in the form of Pentecostals is growing at an amazing pace. That’s going to be the key story worth focusing on.

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  • Dale

    What bothers me about the New York Times piece is it’s extremely fuzzy about Benedict XVI and John Paul II’s problems with liberation theology. There are brief references to “Marxist dialectic”, and JPII’s discomfort with the image of Jesus as political revolutionary, but that’s the extent of it.

    I’d imagine the average reader of the NYT wouldn’t have a clue (other than recalling that Marx was an atheist) why the Marxist dialectical views of history and philosophy are problematic when wed to Roman Catholic faith. The writer doesn’t clarify that issue at all. Instead, the reader is left with the vague impression that JPII and Benedict XVI opposed political programs that aid the poor, which just isn’t true, even if frustrated liberation theologians want to spin the conflict that way.

  • Dan

    I second Dale’s point. The LA Times coverage also leaves the false impression that choosing liberation theology means helping the poor and rejecting liberation theology means the opposite.

    Pope Benedict is one of the world’s leading experts on liberation theology. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he studied liberation theology thoroughly and his talent as a theologian is well known. Given this, I would think that anyone reading about the Pope’s trip as it relates to liberation theology would want to know what the Pope’s substantive views on liberation theology are. It strikes me as really shoddy journalism for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times not to at least summarize those views when the subject of the article is the Pope and liberation theology.

    I have no personal knowledge concerning the state of liberation theology in Latin America. But it’s hard to believe it is getting much of anywhere given that it is tied to Marxism, which seems dead in the water.

  • Kyralessa

    Hey, I just love the phrasing “…he may be surprised at what he finds.” Look at us, we’re the New York Times, we keep up with what’s going on in the world. Not like the Pope; nope, he just sits there in the Vatican and has *no idea* what’s happening anywhere else.

  • Russ R

    Liberation theology persists mostly in the wishful thinking of leftists in the west. One Argentinian theologian has quipped, “Liberation theology opted for the poor, and the poor opted for Pentecostalism.”

  • Discernment

    According to the Pew Forum, Protestantism in the form of Pentecostals is growing at an amazing pace. That’s going to be the key story worth focusing on.

    I was surprised when my father told me that BBC World mentioned the influence of Pentecostalism in its report on the Pope’s arrival. The denomination (or group thereof, depending on who you ask) has been around for just about 100 years and has been the fastest growing section of Christianity for almost that long. Taken together, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches account for as much as 500 million Christians by the most liberal estimates — that’s half of the world’s Christian population in 100 years! (For these really large figures I think there are some major problems with double counting, especially when one wants to compare them to established denominations. As the articles point out, there are “Charismatic Catholics” and such hybrids.) Even by the conservative estimates, Pentecostal and Charismatic non-denominational churches account for over 100 million Christians, making it the third largest Christian sect. When you look at the proportion of Eastern Orthodox who are so listed because of infant baptism and the emphasis on personal faith and action in Pentecostalism such that over-counting on the scale of infant-baptism doesn’t occur, one could possibly make an argument for Pentecostalism being second to Catholicism.

    As a Pentecostalish Christian, the most striking thing about all the coverage is how little mention the Holy Spirit gets. I mean, it’s probably to be expected from nonChristian news sources like these, but it still strikes me, especially given how much it contrasts to the Pentecostal/Charismatic emphasis on Him (or, at the very least, calling His name a lot). At the very least, more reports could mention *our* side. We say we are different from other Christians because our emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s power and work today, particularly through his gifts.

    On a side-note, it’s good to see that you mentioned coverage from a non-American source. :)

  • Robbie

    As a preface, I’m likely not informed enough at all to comment on this, and as it’s past 4 a.m. as I write, I’m also likely too sleepy to be very clear. But here are three thoughts:

    1.) I’d also love to see a more in-depth piece, both on what the liberation theologians believe and what the pope believes. But in defense of the NY and LA Times, I’d have to say that from the little I know, liberation theology is quite broad and somewhat undefined. I’ve tried to get a clear picture of lib. thol. in several ways: talking with friends who are in Lutheran seminary and Catholic social work and who have both supported the concept; reading some of James Cone’s American lib. theology; and researching a project on influences behind leftist Lat. Am. politics for a newspaper a while back. And all those arguments for the concept have described it a bit differently. So when talking about “liberation theology,” there’s something of a risk of over-generalizing it. What would really be needed is a logner, in-depth piece about liberation theology in all its forms.

    2.) I’m not quite sure liberation theology is yet “old news.” The aforementioned Catholic social-worker friend was a reporter with me a while back, and was more or less moderate/a bit conservative. Since being in Latin America and seeing the poverty there, she has become a firm liberation theologian. The story might not be that the bishops or elites are anymore, but that the parishioners and the elites are divided. The fac that leftleaning politicians have been gaining steam, with an ideology that seems to embrace aspects of liberation theology, could give this more credence. And this could lead to the third point, which is:

    3.) Are the stories about lib. theo. and the rise of Pentecostalism necessarily separate? I know less about Pentecostalism or charismatic practices than I do about lib. theo. (which isn’t much to begin with!), but it seems there could be a tie somewhere: Some parishioners have given up on the hierarchy of the Catholic church, hence the decline in Catholic numbers. Some charismatic churches might be seen as closer to the congregations, and the focus on the Holy Spirit could seem more personal and provide confidence for political activism. Not sure it’s true, but it could be an interesting story…

    Finally, a disclaimer in case this thread follows the trend of becoming more about the theology than about media: Personally, I’m *not* a fan of liberation theology (or, at least, lib. theo. as I understand it). I’m very much in the “sola fide, sola gratia” mold, being a good Lutheran, so a focus on worldly activism seems risky, to say the least. But that said, I still think lib. theo. can make some very good stories.

  • Martha

    *clutches forehead and groans*

    Oh, boy.

    “censured Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian in El Salvador, for over-emphasising Christ’s humanity”

    Yes, because there’s nothing the Roman Catholic Church dislikes more than a reminder that Jesus Christ was human as well as divine. We frown upon that kind of thing, which is why the Pope likes nothing better than a good, brisk round of censuring first thing in the morning.

    Naughty, naughty theologian! Over-emphasising the humanity is bad, bad, bad! Smacky wrist!

    Unfortunately, never having acquired the habit of reading the “Wall Street Journal”, I do not know if they ever happened to hear of a little thing called Marxism-Leninism. Used to be quite popular a while back, I believe. Sort of a fad, like hula hoops (which are coming back once again, trend-spotters!)

  • Martha

    As an aside, there very well might be good reasons for the Pope to “frown upon” a “pop-idol priest” who “strides to the altar like the star that he is, a rock band pounding away to his right, cameras flashing to his left and the multitudes pulsating”.

    Come with me back to the heady days of the 90s, when the Church of England – in Sheffield at least – got all hip, happenin’ and groovy.

    The Nine O’Clock Service was pulling in the youth by the new time, the vast majority of them the unchurched. Halleluia, brother! Just the ticket!

    Except that it finally collapsed under its own hype, amidst a welter of accusations and counter-accusations that it had developed into a cult, specifically a cult of personality around the leader (see here for more details:'Clock_Service).

    So, you know, charismatic young preacher making stuffy old traditional religion appealing to youf by teh sexxay does, surprisingly, have some pitfalls along the way…

  • Dan

    Robbie and others who might be interested in what Cardinal Ratzinger had to say about Liberation Theology, the place to find out is here:

  • Jerry is rated as a “B” class article on Wikipedia which means it’s considered to be “reasonably” good. I’d be interested if someone here had any feedback on that wikipedia article.

  • Robbie

    Dan and Jerry, thanks for the links! If it weren’t my “weekend” and vrey nice outside, I’d them them completely now. As it is, I look forward to reading them tonight.

    From glancing at the Wikipedia article, I’d have to (begrudgingly, as I’m still wary of Wikipedia…) say that it looks pretty good. It seems to capture the different takes on the concept. From the first graf: “According to Jon Sobrino, S.J., the poor are a privileged channel of God’s grace. According to Phillip Berryman, liberation theology is ‘an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor’s suffering…’” Just in that one difference could be seen a line between what some might consider heresy (some have better grance than others?) and what some might see as very mainstream social-justice ministry (looking to the poor and oppressed). A pretty broad matter…

    The other thing that’s interesting, that could support my idea that maybe there’s a link between lib. theo. and the rise of charismatic churches, is the little point on Christian Base Communities. From what I remember researching them a bit for a newspaper piece, they could almost come to resemble ground-level churches/study groups — what one might be more likely to see in a less hierarchical structure…

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The NY Times may think it has the latest info–but on the internet I found a number of stories that report 3 things happening in Latin America: First, Catholic Church membership as a percentage of Brazil’s population has stopped falling. Second, In many countries where Pentecostals have made inroads, there is a gradual return to the Catholic Church happening (religous “fast food” can only satisfy you for so long). And third, these changes are taking place in areas where more priests and ordained deacons have become available–and the seminaries in Latin America finally have many future priests in training.
    So the NY Times may think it is up-to-date, but it is still a snail compared to what is available on the internet.

  • tioedong

    Actually, liberation theology is the reason that people leave the church in the third world.

    When people leave their villages where the culture is Catholic/pagan, they go to the city. There, the priests often stress liberation theology rather than a Creator who loves you and cares for you, and many local groups preach athiestic communism. But that essentially leaves people seeking God the choice between being a Marxist with or without God, or join the pagan cults that give one a sense of being one with a higher power.

    Protestantism fills that gap. It also is attractive to those with some education who aren’t finding a “thinking man’s” Catholicism in the wishywashy sermons.

    Living in the third world, I no longer get mad at these sects “stealing” Catholics, since it is better the people stay Christian than become marxist or pagan.

  • Robbie

    All the comments are interesting, and would seem like a lot of good possible stories that I’d love to see covered, more than the somewhat basic Times (NY and LA) reports…

  • Dennis Colby

    It would be great if, during the pope’s visit, one news outlet or another published an in-depth history of liberation theology. It’s certainly not as important it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but there are a variety of factors that help explain the decline in importance. My guess is that foremost among these is the deliberate government repression of the Catholic Church found in many Latin American countries during this period, repression that included everything up to the assassination of clergy and laity. Elite Salvadoran troops used to wear T-shirts that said “Be Patriotic. Kill a Priest.” My guess is that in many parts of Latin America for many years, it was simply much safer to be an apolitical member of a Pentecostal church than a Catholic.

  • Dan

    The above is a link to a John Allen article on the subject of the Pope and liberation theology. The article does exactly what the LA Times, the New York Times and the New Yorker refuse or are unable to do: summarize fairly what the Pope has written.