This interview with theologian José Comblin was originally published in the Chilean magazine El Periodista, Nº 200, December 30, 2010. It has been reprinted on Atrio and various other online forums. We have translated it into English.
José Comblin was born in Brussels in 1923. Today, at 87, he has come to Chile to visit us, see our situation and show his thinking. He did as he did in 1972 when, having been expelled from Brazil, the place where he was residing, this Belgian priest, one of the creators of liberation theology, was forced to leave and seek refuge in the land of Popular Unity.
He has been a priest for 60 years, was one of the creators of liberation theology, and came to America because he was frustrated with the European Church, "with a still powerful facade but where the gospel was missing," and he found his opportunity when Pius XII asked for priests "to fight communism in Latin America."
After a stint in Chile, he returned to Brazil. He wrote a book denouncing the U.S. national security doctrine which earned him another expulsion. He returned to Brazil where he has lived since 1980.
Q: You know Chile well and the soul of the Chilean people. Are we well? Do you find us happy and carefree?
A: Happy. Perhaps because I've been with happy people, there doesn't seem to be any worry. They didn't talk a lot about the bicentennial, I don't know if there were lively parties, but the Chileans are the English of Latin America. They are not so exuberant.
Q: In the 60s and the 70s, with the whole rise of liberation theology, could you imagine this world?
A: There was a lot of concentration in the economy. Nobody thought, as such, that the future would be a cult of that concentration. No one could imagine such an evolution.
Q: What's left of liberation theology?
A: The median age is 80, liberation theologians are over 80, and a new generation is not emerging. The repression was strong, terrible, and the dictatorship of the Pope here in Latin America is complete and global. Here, you can criticize God, but not the Pope. The Pope is more divine than God. Everything that comes from Europe is applied radically. Moreover, Pope John Paul II has appointed a number of disciplined, submissive and obedient bishops, so it is difficult to find a bishop in Latin America with some personality. They were chosen precisely because they have no personality. Therefore, submissive.
Liberation theology has not been well regarded and the Pope has been the great enemy and adversary. Neither in seminaries nor in theology schools can you talk about it. Then came a new generation that sees this as the past, that it's already dead, it's over. No longer of interest. For the new generation of bishops and priests, it no longer exists.
Q: How do you view the situation of the base Christian communities? Are they still going strong?
A: It's the same. Where there's an old priest, they continue. The young ones aren't interested and don't understand. They remain where there are still priests who have experienced this, who have created them.
Q: What's going to happen to this Church? Where is the emphasis being placed today and what is the projection, to the extent that you aren't able to change it?
A: In the working class world, in Central America, fifty percent of the people are evangelical. In other countries, thirty percent. The Catholic Church has abandoned the working class, except for the old ones, a few relics from the past like Mariano Puga. You don't find personalities like that in the new generation. They're no longer interested, except for some speeches and pretty words. In practice, no. Today, Catholic universities and schools are for the bourgeoisie. The future of Latin America is to be an evangelical Protestant continent, except for its upper class. So Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ, and all those associations which are ultra-right, are growing in that sector.
Q: What's your opinion of those associations that you mentioned?
A: They have the confidence of the Roman curia and represent the full freedom given to individuals who are like the great Rockefellers, the conquerors, like Escrivá de Balaguer who was a capitalist, the man who will succeed, who will enjoy the world, who will win, be rich, powerful and who is capable of creating totally subservient people, soldiers with a soldier's mentality, these are all psychologically deformed men, as are the future dictators. Maciel of the Legionaries of Christ, who was found to have a parallel life, was a man who had amassed a fortune of 50 billion dollars. His blackmail, his word and his demands, came to the millions.
Today, those who worked with him, his collaborators, all state and affirm that they didn't know anything about the parallel life. How? They work 40 years with him and don't know anything, that he had a family, three children, that he practised pedophilia with children, students in training, from his schools, that he had a world of lovers. They didn't know any of this? One then presumes that they are accomplices and also have a parallel life.
Q: How do they keep the power and secrecy?
A: Where there are a couple of Opus Dei bishops in the diocese, they intimidate all the others. The others stay silent and only one talks, that's a social psychology problem typical of dictatorships.
Q: How about the transition from John Paul II to Benedict XVI? Has the path taken by Benedict drawn your attention or is it more of the same?
A: It's the same.
Q: But didn't you expect that it would be worse?
A: It's that they were elected by the same people. Opus elected John Paul II and the current one, practising blackmail, intimidating the cardinals. The next Pope will be the same because Opus has great power. It's a continuation with few variations. The current pope is more concerned with doctrine and so naturally he doesn't have the warmth, the charisma, of John Paul II, who was an exception, but on the whole was the opposite of Vatican II.
Q: Where is the God who allowed all this?
A: God...you know where He is? He's in the town of La Victoria, He's in La Legua, in jail, but He disappeared from Rome a long time ago. There are some exceptional bishops, good people, friendly, kind, welcoming, but they can't get into any problems, no, that's what the Pope says. Not discussed, or "top secret", so to speak.
Q: Beyond the strong repression of this Vatican dictatorship that you mentioned, what self-criticism would you make, as a creator of liberation theology, as to why you couldn't generate a heritage, progress? What happened there?
A: It's obvious that there was the illusion that Vatican II would come into practice and it didn't. There was great confidence, so a change would be deserved. It was underestimating the dominant strength of the Roman Church. Now it was always very clear that the problem was the Pope, or rather the role of the Pope, an implacable dictatorship, one with many kinds of sweetness and amiability, but ruthless.
As Latin Americans, we haven't criticized the traditional submission to the Pope or pointed out that the problem of the Catholic Church is the Pope, and sometimes Paul VI realized this, but he was afraid of the consequences, and John Paul II realized it too sometimes. How would the Pope know the situation in each country...and the question is who advises him. The self-criticism is having trusted Vatican II.
Q: And what should they have done, break the Church at the time?
A: At this time, in Europe, the criticism focuses on the Pope, but in Latin America... say that in the Chilean Church...who will understand what that means? Some Jesuits would know, some other priests, some old priests, but they're not going to say it, but they can discover and think it, but something is still missing. It's difficult to predict what will happen. I think it will be a shock when they realize that the continent is becoming a Protestant continent.
There is a psychological resistance, a fear of having to see something, so they don't touch it. That's the main challenge and it's because they would have to acknowledge that they have opted for the rich, that they have chosen to stay with the upper class, with the bourgeoisie, and this is obvious but they don't want to see it. In Chile this is more than obvious. Here the development of the Catholic universities, the Opus and Legionnaries' schools has been spectacular.
I think the future of Christianity is in China, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia. It is estimated that there are 130 million Christians in China alone, martyred because they are persecuted in practice. In Brazil, there aren't those numbers; it would be difficult to find 30 million. They're almost all evangelicals.
Q: If you had the opportunity to say something to hundreds of young priests, if you could speak directly to them and open their eyes to this problem, what would you tell them?
A: I would tell them: "Go and live in the villages to know the situation, because if you don't know anything, it's just words. Our ally is reality; the one who doesn't see the real situation, doesn't see what humanity is. He just has words and speeches, but he can't create anything. There isn't a recipe but if you go, because you have a head and a heart, you will discover what has to be done."
Q: And what do you think about the canonization of John Paul II, like he did with Monsignor Escrivá de Balaguer?
A: John Paul II's papacy was catastrophic. All who made a career with him have become cardinals, despite their personal mediocrity. They didn't deserve anything, but he promoted them. Of course they want to canonize him now! Now that they have canonized Escrivá, everyone knows that you can be a saint without having any virtue whatsoever.