Local bishops, not the pope, traditionally run church life and sometimes political life from Mexico to Argentina, but the reach of Pope Benedict XVI, who announced his retirement effective Feb. 28, has been unique. For decades, when Ratzinger’s shoe dropped, the tremor reverberated over Latin America, where half of the world’s one billion Catholics live.
After the watershed Second Vatican Council, which stressed ecumenism and invited active lay participation in ecclesial thinking and ritual, Latin America took the fresh insights of the Church to heart perhaps more than any other region. It was as if the piety and first-hand understanding of hardship and sacrifice that filled the lives of the Latin poor had been just waiting to burst out, to inform the wider faith with their understanding of it, thoughtfully to question what they saw as anomalous. Discussions among church members in small “base Christian communities,” and their dialogue with pastors and theologians, made the 1960s and 1970s effervescent with new perceptions and commitments to challenging injustice. Latin American bishops meeting in Medellin and Puebla established “the preferential option for the poor”; called oppressive structures like corrupt capitalism “sinful,” but not unchangeable; and declared the aim of practiced faith was not development, but liberation.
In the 1980s, the man now known as Pope Benedict XVI directed the Church’s doctrine watchdog office once called the Inquisition. He put the brakes on the fast-growing movement that became known as liberation theology, calling it a “fundamental threat.” The church’s body was moving ahead of its red-cloaked clergy, and that was intolerable. Ratzinger forbade certain world-famous Latin theologians to publish or preach by invoking what is called “silencing,” a tool wielded from above meant to prevent ”confusion” among church members, but arguably used by Ratzinger to quell challenges to structures on which the Latin Church had fed for five hundred years: small, landed, wealthy oligarchies; the militaries at their service; strict ecclesial hierarchies deaf to input from the ordinary laity.
When long-brewing civil strife erupted in Guatemala and El Salvador, the military denounced Church members who abided by liberation theology, characterizing it as a political movement aligned with armed leftist insurgents, killing dozens of unarmed priests and hundreds of civilian catechists. Ratzinger remained virtually silent. Church figures calling for peace were targeted. Here in San Salvador, its government supported by the United States during a 12-year civil war, a right wing death squad killed Bishop Oscar Romero as he said Mass in 1980. Members of the Salvadoran National Guard kidnapped, raped and killed four U.S. churchwomen working among the urban poor in the capital. In 1989, members of a U.S.-trained elite unit assassinated six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The Vatican was notable for pulling its punches with Washington during the time. What might have happened, Guatemalans and El Salvadorans ask to this day, if Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II had regarded the Latin American call for liberation from autocratic rulers with the same force with which the European churchmen supported the Polish Solidarity revolution?
Latin neoliberal administrations that emerged from the tumultuous 1980s and 1990s are a disappointment to many, failing to fill the promise of delivering better lives -- even ending poverty -- with development and new businesses. Amnesty International reports that the number of murdered El Salvadoran women and girls, mostly poor, often found mutilated, doubled in three years to 477 in 2011. The most recent (2011) United Nations Development Program Report on El Salvador reiterates throughout the need for social policy to become one of the mainstays of development, that “the welfare of persons is not only about income.” Much of the country, it says, continues finding a way of life in the middle of persistent poverty and inequality.
Rev. Jose Maria Tojeira, former rector of the University of Central America where the Jesuits were killed, told El Faro, El Salvador’s digital newspaper, that whoever is elected pope must be "very committed" to peace and support solidarity with the poorest during the "crisis of meaning" that prevails in the world. Much hunger and social justice persist, he said, "and I believe these are the challenges for the Catholic Church in a world very centered in technology, and in 'how to live' more than 'what to live for.’” Tojeira lamented that the pope would leave without completing the beatification process begun in 1996 for Archbishop Romero, a step to sainthood.
Amid speculation about who will be the next pope, are suggestions that the time may have come for a Latin American prelate, or someone from the global south. Half of the cardinals who will vote are from Europe, but only a quarter of Catholics live there. Whoever is elected, dramatic church changes do not appear imminent.
“Given that the previous and current pope have stuffed the College of Cardinals with like-minded conservatives, the future will probably look like the recent past,” said Thomas Sheehan, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Sheehan worked in El Salvador war zones as a freelance reporter in the 1980s.
What has not changed from the days when Ratzinger recognized the transformative potential of liberation theology and challenged it, is the understanding that Latin America is the future of the Church. Before the pope’s surprise resignation announcement, he was scheduled to attend the opening of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, July 1. The largest Catholic country in the world, Brazil has become an economic powerhouse, and is home to some of the most outstanding liberation theology thinkers. The Vatican says it is not canceling a papal appearance. Brazil is likely to be the first foreign destination of the new pope.
Mary Jo McConahay has reported from Central America for numerous publications. She is the author of Maya Roads, One Woman's Journey Among the People of the Rainforest.
A version of this article was published by New America Media on February 12, 2013, and reprinted with permission of the publisher.