Sunday, June 26, 2011

The church of the poor and the conservative offensive: lessons and dilemmas of our strategy

After the 24-day fast by the retired bishop of San Miguel de Sucumbíos, Ecuador, Mons. Gonzalo López Marañón (photo), calling for peace and reconciliation in his old diocese, the Iglesia San Miguel de Sucumbíos Web site published the following analysis from the
Comisión de Vivencia, Fe y Política (June 2011). One of our regular viewers sent it to me and suggested it would be worth translating and publishing. I agree. -- RG

Latin America has been seen recently as the only continent that went from resistance to constructing alternatives to neoliberalism. However, the economic policy of "progressive" governments reveals that while the implemented policies move away from neoliberalism in its orthodox version, at the same time they are far from being an alternative to global capitalism. In Ecuador, the government has its sights on an extractive economy with large-scale mining. The great challenge of the popular and left wing movements is to become decisive factors that push for a radical and profound change that lays the foundations for a post-capitalist society. Such a challenge is more complex and difficult when these movements have to face not only the actions of the right wing but the repression and persecution of these "progressive" governments themselves.

At the church level, we are witnessing one of the peaks of the conservative offensive led by the Vatican. The rapid ascent to the altar of John Paul II, the main manager of church counter reform, symbolizes this offensive. The Vatican is putting the most conservative ecclesial movements like Opus Dei and Heralds of the Gospel (Tradition, Family and Property) in formerly progressive dioceses with the express purpose of liquidating all that remains of liberation theology. Despite the somewhat progressive resolutions of the 5th Latin American Bishops Conference held in Aparecida in May 2007, the resistance strategies of popular church groups have been extremely weak.

The conflict in the Church in Sucumbíos shows the fragility and potential of liberating processes in the face of the conservative offensive. The importance of the expulsion of the Heralds of the Gospel can not be minimized. It is a great achievement for the resistance of the Church of the Poor. It was not easy to do and we should all congratulate and commend the brothers and sisters of ISAMIS. But deep down there is still a strategy problem. By the late 1960s and early 1970s the Latin American church wanted to make the Catholic Church a "community of communities." That attempt has failed. As Jose Comblin put it well when he joined us for the First Encounter of the Church of the Poor ("Primer Encuentro de Iglesia de los Pobres") in 2006, "it was naive to think that the whole church would be transformed into a community of poor communities. That was to ignore history."

We must urgently revise this strategy. A look at the people's church processes we have experienced will allow us to identify the main strategic dilemmas we face and will help us rectify them with a view to creating the basic conditions to resist the Vatican offensive from a better position. We will present for discussion our understanding of what those central dilemmas and challenges for a renewed strategy are.

Working in silence vs the prophetic option

So far, large segments of the Church of the Poor have been subordinate to the institutional church, seeking to "not make waves", avoiding open clashes, public and media confrontations. The cost of this strategy has been giving up open and public prophetic witness. This strategy certainly helps to build local grassroots structures, buys time, and avoids the intervention of conservative hierarchies as foundational work is developing that requires leadership and an active role from the clergy. But eventually you give up public prophetic action and sacrifice the opportunity to help create a social image of a church distant from hegemonic power, close to populiar interests and the process of social struggle. A Church that, as happened during the time of Bishop Leonidas Proaño, can activate a structured network of political support, a major social mobilization, and can win public opinion in broad sectors in times of conflict.

Local vs. national work

So far most of the Church of the Poor has focused on parish work, local organization, and, at best, a strategy confined to the diocesan level. We lack a space to coordinate nationally, with its own structures. The work of the People's Church is mainly local and parochial. Few have been willing to move forward on real national processes, communication networks, structures that can activate solidarity between local groups. The few continental links that have been developed are often just formal, without effective and functional national structures. So the result has been an organizationally weak process that is dispersed and politically vulnerable, with no accepted and recognized public leadership.

Autonomous structures vs. belonging to the institutional church

The demand to create autonomous structures, independent of the institutional church, has often been viewed with suspicion. It has been considered a threat to church unity or a lack of identity with the Church. However, the truth is that the only processes that have survived after the conservative offensive have been structures built autonomously from the institutional church. Their autonomy is economic, political and ideological, and their dynamics don't answer to the institutional needs and interests. Virtually all structures built on the basis of dependence of the Church -- if they have survived == have done so by renouncing the commitment to liberation.

This is evident in Ecuador. Two distinct bishops, both progressive, with two different styles and with similar results. Bishop Leonidas Proaño, with strong public prophetic action, who had national and global reach. His public action cost him quite a few open confrontations with his fellow bishops and persecution from political and economic powers. On the other hand, Bishop Gonzalo López Marañon, through quiet pastoral action, without making waves, with no more public denunciations than were strictly necessary and almost exclusively developed within the diocesan environment, with an almost unknown ministry, or one known only within the progressive arenas of the church. The results of both experiments are clear. In Chimborazo, what could escape institutional changes were the indigenous and people's organizations that created their own structures independent of the institution, such as the Indigenous Movement of Chimborazo. The so- called "living churches" (indigenous communities which included gospel reading in their social dynamics) survived with difficulty due in many cases to dependency on the priests who served as animators and provided legitimacy and trust to the organization. Basic Ecclesial Communities virtually disappeared, although some survived in completely marginal conditions, resisted, and were waiting for a priest to come to their aid. But the dynamics of the church in Riobamba suffered a radical setback: more sacraments, less popular organization; more church, less new society.

Something similar is happening in Sucumbíos. With the brutal and ruthless arrival of the Heralds of the Gospel, the most structured resistance was organized from the Women's Federation of Lago Agrio, the main trench for confronting the conservative offensive is the popular and civil society organizations, supported and sustained without doubt, by the basic ecclesial communities. Although in this case we have yet to see the final outcome and how the CEBs will turn out, it's clear that whatever happens, the church organizations will exist as long as there are priests, nuns and religious organizations who relate to their pastoral principles. After the important victory of the resistance by expelling the Heralds of the Gospel, is it reasonable to assume that the Vatican will appoint a progressive bishop who relates to liberation theology? Of course, the answer is no. Although it's possible that some miracle might occur, it's more likely that the final successor will come from the moderate or conservative sectors who will make the changes more slowly but equally implacably. This is what has happened everywhere, from Riobamba to Los Rios, from Guaranda to Cuenca. The result will surely be the same: structures built under the protection of the Church don't stand up to hierarchical change. The case of Radio Sucumbíos is the best example of a repeated strategic error: leaving liberating structures in the hands of the Church when their property could have been transferred into the hands of the laity, of a community with its own legal status or some social organization. No social struggle is guaranteed, but it's clear that there are better chances of resisting changes introduced by the conservative hierarchy when there is lay autonomy.

The strategic dilemmas mentioned above are real and nobody has the magic formula to make them disappear. The silent, parochial and internal strategies of the church may have exhibited significant achievements. But they have hit their limits under the conservative pressure from the Church. It's time to review these strategic issues so that in each area of the liberating church and grassroots organizations we're better able to resist and build alternatives. Do we need national structures? How should they be? Do we need a public voice? Who or whom should throw themselves into winning public opinion? Do we need autonomous structures in face of the Church? Which ones and how do we sustain them? Above all, to change our strategies we must put the essential back in place: the "Kingdom-centric" nature of the church of the poor. The point is to build the Kingdom, "the rest will be added." So we must relativize the institutional church, its structure, its practices, its distorted message that betrays the gospel. We must resolutely combat the hegemonic dynamics of the church. And all this should be considered in light of the historical struggles of the victims of the system, not from the interests of the church but from the urgent need to combat the capitalist system in crisis that generates all kinds of inequality. The Church of the poor should be one more tool, along with many others, in this historical process of building the Kingdom of God.

1 comment:

  1. FYI
    El Madrid que el Papa no vera: