Monday, September 7, 2009

Getting the Church out of the catacombs: an interview with Fr. Eduardo de la Serna

In light of the Pope's remarks today to a group of Brazilian bishops about why he thinks the faithful are abandoning the Church and the "self-secularization of Christian communities" after Vatican II, I thought I would translate and post this interview with Fr. Eduardo de la Serna, the spokesperson for the Argentinean group Curas en la Opción Preferencial por los Pobres, a group of priests who have made the preferential option for the poor central to their life and work and who meet regularly to discuss the practical pastoral implications of that choice. To put it mildly, Fr. de la Serna has a slightly different perspective on the problem.

by Wendy Selene Pérez

Buenos Aires, Argentina

In a conversation with, Father Eduardo de la Serna warns of the risk of having a Catholic Church so attached to the power of government and in the case of Argentina, so "popolatrous" (idolatrous of the Pope). "The church hierarchy does not know how to detach itself freely from governments with much presence. That to me is very serious."

A priest from Quilmes, De la Serna is one of the most critical voices within Catholicism in Latin America and leads a group of priests who call themselves “tercermundistas” ("Third World" supporters), because their option is for the poorest.

"The church, in general, cares more about gay marriage than hunger, a problem that has to do with life and death. I think the world does need God, that the church is dedicated to talking about God: but if the church speaks about divorce more than about religion, we have a problem. I did not become a priest to regulate anyone's marriage life or tell anyone who to share a bed with or not, I became a priest to try to get people to know and love Jesus," he says. Why is the Catholic Church losing faithful?

De la Serna: In general, the Church is losing a lot of people because that is what the Vatican wants. The Vatican and the Vatican curia are afraid of, or panicked by, modern society, and so they choose to live in the catacombs until the storm passes. And therefore there are fewer people in the catacombs: it is full of dead people. Others of us realize that we prefer to live outdoors, and that it is a good thing: it is very cold, the rain catches you, all you want, but I think that gives us an attitude of respect and dialogue. I, for one, do not let anyone disrespect me for having faith, but I would not let myself disrespect anyone who does not. I think in that sense there is a typical question, sometimes outside the church, people who look at you as if to say: "Look, what a shame, poor guy, such a nice fellow like you being Catholic. And others also from within the church will look at you the same way." And among other things, people leave for that reason...

De la Serna: Losing the monopoly is healthy. At this point it is good that the church is playing on the road, and we played venues and now we have to give answers to people, that's the big challenge. To answer the questions being raised, or pretend that they say 'amen' to everything we have to say because we are the priest, the pope, the bishops or whoever. There is no consistency with what is being preached. We should be like in the movie "The Mission", be happy. If people see you happy, they ask: What is required for me to be like that? If I do not try to help people find what they want, and if people are looking for God and don't find God in the church, it's not their fault, it's my fault as a priest. The issue is growing in freedom, growing in power, in training, in prayer, but not in accusing and pointing a finger at other religious groups.

Is there self-criticism?

No, no. The Catholic Church realizes it is losing faithful and blames the sects or the faithful, but never itself. There are many who say that people need more training so as not to go with the sects, let's be clear about this. I think so, that the church is losing many of the faithful, but how much of all that has to do with the changing times in which we live? How much of that has to do with the fact that people are not finding answers to fundamental questions either in the Church or anywhere else?

What is the greatest challenge for the Church?

It is to be alive, to show and explain that we have good news that is good for people today. First, by example, because this is not spread through words. If I tell you: I have good news, but I tell you with a face that looks like I'm eating a lemon, nobody will believe me. "Oh, good!" they will say. You can see it in the face. Like a 15-year old girl who is in love.

We are not in love with the message we are sending out; those are the words of Benedict XVI.

Do not be afraid of bioethics, fear is human, fear paralyzes. Freedom can make you make mistakes, yes. The church, in general, cares more about gay marriage than hunger, a problem that has to do with life and death. I think the world does need God, that the church is dedicated to talking about God: but if the church speaks about divorce more than about religion, we have a problem. I did not become a priest to regulate anyone's marriage life or tell anyone who to share a bed with or not, I became a priest to try to get people to know and love Jesus.

And what about the binomial Church-Power?

In general, the church has not learned to become detached from power. Or when those in power want to break away from the church, as when they want to enact things that are not among the things that the bishops want to enact, they see it as persecution. And I do not think it's so. The church hierarchy does not know how to detach itself freely from governments with much presence. That to me is very serious.

What do you think of Pope Ratzinger?

It's a personal opinion. For me I'm 10 times more with Ratzinger that John Paul, because I think he is more conservative than John Paul, but that has advantages: he has no charisma, that means you can not say no. If you said no to John Paul, he turned on the charisma and moved ahead like a bulldozer. This one gives the impression that in every respect he is more humble but more conservative. He is a type of person who is used to theological dialogue, and logically, even though he is not going to agree, he is capable of listening and therefore of saying something different ...

Second, I think this guy doesn't have a lot of experience; he is a guy with whom you can raise a disagreement, not only because he is more humble, but because he has no past history, nothing to lean on, previous experience. In that sense, we have a more conservative pope, but a Pope that gives a place to dissent. For example, when the Doctrine of the Faith condemned Leonardo Boff, there were no public voices supporting Boff, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned Jon Sobrino, bishops lined up and endorsed Jon Sobrino, a liberation theologian.

What are the main changes in the Catholic Church?

In the case of Argentina, the church, on the one hand, is too hierarchical. I see the church as God's people who walk here and walk through the streets; I see a different attitude in many of the laity who were prepared by the priests, who are sometimes worse than the priests, there is nothing more clerical than many lay people who have been (de)formed by many priests who turned them into mini-priests and who are terrible.

More papist than the Pope...

Why can't I say that the Pope is wrong? Is the Pope more important than the Bible? We are lost. If I believe that the Pope is more important than the Bible, I am lost. A Chilean laywoman at Aparecida said that the Pope was the fifth Gospel and more canonical than the others.

Even with these qualities, people speak of a return to the past with this Pope ...

Yes, obviously there is a retreat, especially in liturgy, especially when he allows a return to the pre-conciliar liturgy. Of course Jews must be annoyed, but that's not what the people of God will receive every day. When you go to Mass on Good Friday you'll hear the usual. They used to say: "the perfidious Jews." I think Ratzinger is a nostalgic.

In Buenos Aires there is a parish where Mass is celebrated in Latin. It isn't anything that is worrying for the people, but within the Church, yes. Then there is some nostalgic priest celebrating Mass in Latin and that's not what he can do. The conditions, a certain schedule, there are people who request it and who know Latin. But no doubt there is a return to the past.

It's not that there's more freedom, just, thank God, they left it for dead like liberation theology, so we can breathe easily.

Is liberation theology alive?

Yes, since we were given up for dead, we can breathe easily around here. In Argentina, liberation theology has always been looked upon badly, except in its very earliest beginnings. And when liberation theology was born in 1969, 70, 71, there were in fact some Argentinean theologians who supported and promoted it. The issue was, I think it has to do with this: obviously liberation implies oppression. The oppression of the indigenous and black oppression are not emblematic of Argentina, as they are of Guatemala, Bolivia or Ecuador, because the Indians and black people were massacred; I'm not saying that it is a pure, clean and pristine country. Here oppression is more urban than rural, and then the issue is in what we call the barrios. I think, in general, the oppression in Argentina has Peronism as a liberation experience, that it obviously has an experience that other Latin American countries don't have.

Any liberation theology should not ignore the reality of Peronism, though I'm not saying it has to be Peronist or anything like that. So in theology in Argentina, this was not well looked upon.

Argentinean theologians are accused of being conservative, and that conflict erupted at Puebla. On the Argentinean side many priests disappeared and new people emerged.

How is the curia in Argentina?

I believe that a church that is so popolatrous, where if the Pope sneezes the bishops get a cold; a church that does not dare to question, to inquire or even to disagree with the Vatican, does not transform us into adversaries, does not turn us into enemies or change us into a heretical church or anything like that, to be with some things in the Vatican.

Right from Menemismo you could see that clearly in the church in Argentina. When there were bishops in the Argentinean church who wanted to speak out against neoliberalism, menemista bishops appeared who along with some menemista staff member managed to get the Pope's blessing for Menem, and the bishops were not inclined to say anything so as not to appear to be breaking communion, and the truth is that I find it pathetic.

There was an old cardinal in Madrid who used to say that the Spanish bishops had stiff necks from looking to Rome so much. I think the same thing happens in many of the churches in Latin America.

It's true that the Argentinean, Mexican and Colombian churches are the ones that are always fighting over first place as the most conservative church in Latin America, but the Vatican set the lowest common denominator in that sense.

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