February 18, 2008
The role of faith and freedom...
By: ROBERT A. SIRICO
December 31, 2007
Catholic Church bishops, priests and other Church leaders in Latin America were once a reliable ally of the left, owing to the influence of "liberation theology," which tries to link the Gospel to the socialist cause. Today the Church is coming to recognize the link between socialism and the loss of freedom, and a shift in thinking is taking place.
In a region that is more than 90% Catholic, this change might have enormous implications. A Church that emphasizes liberty could play a role in Latin America similar to that which it played in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, as a counterweight in defense of freedom during a time of rising despotism.
For proof of the change I refer to, consider a recent statement from the Catholic Bishops of Venezuela: It blasted the political agenda of President Hugo Chávez for its assault on liberty under the guise of helping the poor. It is morally unacceptable, the statement said, and will drive the country backward in terms of respect for human rights.
The Bishops' statement from Caracas was not the first challenge the Church issued to Mr. Chávez. The late Cardinal Rosalio Castillo once laid out the Church's view of Bolivarian socialism. The government, he explained, though elected democratically was morphing into dictatorship. He worried about the results of this process. "All powers are in the hands of one person who exercises them in an arbitrary and despotic way, not for the purposes of bringing about the greater common good of the nation, but rather for a twisted and archaic political project: that of implanting in Venezuela a disastrous regime like the one Fidel Castro has imposed on Cuba..."
In Mexico, the Church has also found itself at odds with the hard-line left. Last month a group of 150 people associated with the socialist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) rushed into the cathedral in the capital on a Sunday morning as Mass was beginning. The mob overturned pews, denounced priests and chanted anti-Church slogans. The PRD claimed that it was not directly responsible. But there was no mistaking the message: Anybody not lining up in favor of collectivist militancy is against it.
These are but two examples of the growing tension between the Catholic Church and the extreme left in Latin America. In Argentina and Cuba, the Church is also stepping into the role of opposition.
It is important to note that Church leaders who are challenging the likes of Mr. Chávez are not recommending Church involvement in politics. Their understanding, in line with the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI, is that the relationship between the Church and the state in Latin America is complex and there should be a clean separation. But they also know the importance of preserving freedom and pluralism.
The cases of political entanglement that we have read about most often have involved collaboration with what are called "right-wing dictatorships." But in what sense they differ from the total state control of "left-wing dictatorships" is unclear. Liberation theology may appeal to socially conscious clergy, yet it also politicizes the Church's role by blessing another form of wholesale control.
Liberation theology arose some three decades ago. The Bible teaches concern for the poor, liberation theologists said, and then went a step further: Jesus was a symbol and advocate of class warfare to expropriate from the rich on behalf of the poor.
Today liberation theology remains fashionable, and, because of intellectual confusion in Latin America, many still believe that the socialism of Mr. Chávez, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, and even Fidel Castro, offers hope to the poor. When Mr. Chávez announces that he will "democratize" property in order to smash the rich, he can count on cheers from many religious admirers.
Sincere Church leaders, who are rightly convinced of their special mission to assist the poor, are sometimes drawn to a false hope that higher taxes, land redistribution, nationalization of industry and ever more big government programs offer a way out. This is tragic because it threatens to entangle the Church in politics, staking its reputation and the message of the Gospel on a political agenda.
At least 100 years of evidence stands contrary to the claim that a more powerful state (and that is all liberation theology really offers) is the proper means to material advance. Nothing is to be gained for anyone but the state by smashing the rich. What society needs is not expropriation but ever widening opportunities for all classes to improve their living standards.
There is only one way toward liberation, and that is a genuine liberalization of economic and political life, one that separates the state, not only from the Church, but also from the culture and the commercial life of the nation.
In my travels in the region, I detect an honest reassessment taking place. Leaders and future leaders seem to be recognizing that if the middle class is to grow, there needs to be more vibrant understanding of how the market, where people make their livelihood, actually functions. There is also a need for a deeper understanding of the moral hazards and opportunities that the political economy presents.
The Church, despite terrible blows to its credibility in recent years, is in as good a position as any institution to provide leadership and assume a teaching role in this. Pope Benedict's own writings provide a solid basis. He warns of the dangers of power and its morally corrupting effects, as well as the materially corrosive effects of socialist policies.
The Church can provide independent leadership in society. Above all else, there should be an independence from politics. Let us expand that model of independence to all sectors of society. Latin America would thereby become less vulnerable to despots, develop a thriving middle class, and secure a future of liberty and prosperity. In the role of the opposition, the Catholic Church can find its true voice as a defender of human rights and freedom.
Father Sirico is president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Copyright 2008 - The Wall Street Journal