Monday, October 31, 2011

'Liberation theology can help interpret the current global malaise': An interview with Sergio Torres

by IHU - Unisinos (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Instituto Humanitas Unisinos (em português)
Adital (en español)
10/28/2011

Both liberation theology, in itself, and the upcoming Continental Theology Congress in 2012, can do much to "make it possible to address in a different way these new challenges" that "were not considered in the [Second Vatican] Council, but we have the tools that make it possible to confront them." For Chilean theologian Sergio Torres, the qualitative leap promoted by liberation theology was opening up the contextual perspective in theology. "The context," he says, "lets us delve into some aspects of the one Message and makes it more credible to people of different cultures." And also adding another "theological place": the presence of God in "faith working through love," especially among the poor.

Torres is a co-founder and emeritus member of the coordinating committee of Amerindia, a network of Catholics on the American continent that, along with other organizations such as the Humanitas Institute at Unisinos (IHU) is organizing and promoting the Continental Theology Congress, October 8-11, 2012, at Unisinos, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the convening of Vatican II and the 40th anniversary of the publication of Teología de la Liberación. Perspectivas (A Theology of Liberation) by Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Because of this circumstance, in this interview granted by e-mail to IHU On-line, Torres talks about the main moments in the history of Amerindia and states that celebrating these important dates on Latin American soil is also reliving the moments of "great enthusiasm" experienced by the Church on the continent, which "not only read and applied the Council, but also reinterpreted it from our social, economic and cultural situation."

Sergio Torres has a degree in theology from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. He was professor of dogmatic theology at the Instituto Alfonsiano in Santiago. He is co-editor of several books of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (Asett/ EATWOT) and co-founder and emeritus member of the Coordinating Committee of Amerindia. He was vicar general of the Diocese of Talca and is currently an assistant vicar in a parish in Santiago.


IHU On-Line: The Continental Theology Congress of 2012 originates from a proposal by Amerindia, along with other theological organizations on the continent. Recalling its history, how did Amerindia begin?

Sergio Torres: Amerindia was born in 1978, during preparation for the Bishops' Conference at Puebla. At that time, there was a conflict within the liberating tradition that had started at the Medellin Conference (1968). After Medellin, most of the Latin American church joyfully accepted and tried to implement the guidelines and documents from that conference. Across the continent, a new stage began in the history of the Church, which conducted a thorough self-criticism of its pastoral work and began a new style in the mission to society. It distanced itself from the dominant classes and acquired Church citizenship among the poor. However, there was a small minority who did not participate in this general interpretation and made a social and theological critique of some of the main orientations of Medellín, for example, the option for the poor.

That minority got more power and visibility when the Colombian Bishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo was elected secretary general of CELAM [the Latin American Bishops Conference] in 1972 in the city of Sucre (Bolivia). One of the tasks that that bishop set himself was to dismantle some of the institutions created after Medellín and change the members of the Theological Commission of CELAM. When it came time to prepare for the Conference at Puebla, CELAM interpreted the task and mission of the Church from a different perspective. In some preparatory documents, it was said that the biggest challenge for the mission of the Church in Latin America wasn't the evangelization of the poor, but the evangelization of culture.

That perspective, which itself was timely, implicitly intended to change the interpretation of Medellín. As was found later, during the Puebla Conference, the two perspectives were present and fought to prevail, imposing themselves in the reaffirmation of Medellin as the fundamental option of Puebla, from the perspective of "communion and participation." When it came time to name the theological experts who would accompany the bishops at the Puebla conference, the Secretariat of CELAM ruled out almost all the theologians identified with Medellin and liberation theology. This discrimination caused great discomfort and opposition among the bishops already designated to participate in the Conference, as many of them had asked to have the advice of those experts who had played a very important role at Medellin.

Amerindia was born at that time, but not under that name. It was organized as a response to the concerns and the request by the bishops for support and advice at Puebla. The liberation theologians themselves found a way to set up a working group to travel to Puebla and find a space, near Palafox Seminary, where the conference was taking place. Every day, bishops, religious and other people went up there to work with the group of "extramural" theologians. Subsequent history showed that this legitimately required advice was positive and fruitful in results that were included in the final document.

IHU On-Line: In your view, what were the highlights of Amerindia?

Sergio Torres: This initiative, talked about 33 years later, seems simple and without conflict. In practice, it wasn't. The secretariat of CELAM and many bishops felt the presence of these theologians at Puebla was an act that had not been authorized by the institutional Church at that time and was almost a subversive action. However, the bishops who had requested that counsel believed that their invitation to those theologians was a normal exercise of their authority and freedom as bishops and successors to the apostles.

That initial organizational effort by a group of theologians to advise bishops in official conferences, is the first historical antecedent, although the group wasn't named Amerindia as such. That name was born on the occasion of a similar effort in connection with the preparation for the Fourth Conference of Latin American Bishops in Santo Domingo in 1992. At that time, the liberation theologians were again excluded and, for the second time, a group of bishops sought theological advice from them for their deliberations, which in fact took place.

After the conference in Santo Domingo, in 1992, the group of theologians had the subjective perception of forming a group bound by friendship and theological affinity that was prepared to perform unusual tasks. Until then, they still were not conscious of forming a group with its own identity. In 1997, there was another opportunity to fulfill a similar function. On the occasion of the preparation for the Jubilee Year 2000, John Paul II called continental synods in Rome to promote a better celebration of the Jubilee on every continent. In 1997, the Synod of America was held in Rome, which included bishops and other representatives from North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. For the third time, a group of theologians, many of them the same as at previous meetings, traveled to Rome this time, sought a place to work and were able to respond to the invitation of bishops seeking advice.

After the Synod in Rome, there was a significant change in the Amerindia group, which until then had consisted exclusively of theologians. The change was to expand the group to include lay people, nuns and priests as part of a larger multidisciplinary collective. Its objective expanded. The group's mission was no longer just being prepared to be a possible advisor; it assumed a broader and more permanent goal.

It proposed to "maintain and update the theological, social and pastoral tradition of Medellin and Puebla as a specific expression of following Jesus in the current reality of the continent, which is marked by the predominance of neoliberal capitalism and restricted democracy."

Later, the group saw the need to be more organized and established a permanent secretariat in Montevideo, Uruguay, and hired staff to move ahead with the work that was steadily growing. In subsequent years, Amerindia took on an extra task, organizing theological conferences and publishing books on Latin American theology, adapted to the new challenges. It also established a much closer contact with the new initiative of the World Social Forum that fights for "another world possible." From this relationship and together with other institutions, an initiative called the World Forum on Theology and Liberation was established.

Finally, the last major initiative was participation in the preparation for and implementation of the Conference at Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. In the preparatory phase, Amerindia participated in a dialogue between liberation theologians and some bishops appointed by CELAM to reflect on the situation of liberation theology in these times. In addition, Amerindia participated in the Bishops' Conference at Aparecida in a different way than in previous conferences. This time, the presidency of CELAM officially announced that there was a group of theologians associated with Amerindia in Aparecida that was available for theological advice and that conference participants were free to consult them.

IHU On-Line: On its web site, Amerindia calls itself a "network of Catholics in an ecumenical spirit, open to dialogue and inter-religious cooperation." How do you view the role of theologians in discussions with other Christian denominations and other faiths that characterize Latin American culture?

Sergio Torres: In the early years of Amerindia's history, there was a rather prolonged discussion about the need to work with the Protestant churches. Many members said that this should be the normal attitude of our institution. Eagerly living out the One Church of Jesus Christ focused on His message of liberation and service to the poor. The debate was closed. Amerindia thought it best to describe itself as a Catholic organization, open to other faiths, thinking that there are many problems and challenges of our own that need to be treated in the family. The same is true for Protestant churches. Each has its own organizations, meetings, journals, to better define its identity and, furthermore, many of these churches show little ecumenical concern. Amerindia isn't a closed group and has always cultivated good relations with the liberating streams in Protestantism. Some Protestant theologians, such as Ruben Alves, Jose Miguez Bonino, Elsa Tamez and Julio de Santa Ana, among others, have made important contributions to liberation theology. We have some common elements in our short history and tradition.

Amerindia did not get into a debate on doctrinal and dogmatic issues with other Protestant traditions. It prefers to experience ecumenism in social life and in the practice of serving the poor and the liberation of the people. And at the same time, it's indebted to the rich wisdom traditions of the indigenous peoples and those of African descent. It has learned from the development of the theologies that have emerged from these traditions. With regard to dialogue with other religions, it stays out of the deep debates that take place between interested groups of theologians and scholars of these religions.

Because of the limited presence among us of Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, Amerindia is attentive to these discussions, but not directly involved in them. At the same time, it values the specialized arenas of inter-religious dialogue, such as the studies by the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Naturally, we're concerned about the need for a radical reformulation of the Message of Jesus Christ, handed down so far through Greek and Western culture. This task is an urgent priority.

IHU On-line: Amerindia's identity is also marked by reassertion of the "option for new communitarian and participatory Church models and theology of liberation, as a contribution to the universal Church." In your opinion, what are the main features of these new models of church?


Sergio Torres: The history of the Church in Latin America after Vatican II is marked by periods of profound renewal and vitality and by moments of difficulty, withdrawal and frustration. In Latin America, at the time of the Second Vatican Council, there was a worthy group of committed bishops scattered throughout the continent. Some names will be remembered forever, for example, Dom Helder Camara of Brazil and Don Manuel Larrain of Chile. The recently deceased theologian José Comblin proposed calling these bishops the "fathers of the Latin American Church." These bishops, with the help of theologians and grassroots pastoral agents, contributed to an understanding of the Council from the Latin American perspective at the Conference at Medellín in 1968.

Since then and for nearly 20 years, the Church of the subcontinent experienced tremendous growth and vitality among the people, forming a new identity. Following Jesus Christ and with deep loyalty to the Church's tradition, it assumed a new role among the poor, leaving aside its former role of legitimating the ruling classes of society. At the same time there was a profound renewal of liturgy, catechesis, theology, church organization and evangelization as a whole, taking direction from Medellin, Evangelii Nutiandi and, later, the Conference at Puebla.

Unfortunately, starting in the 1980s, something unexpected happened in this renewed Latin American Church. There was an internal division between some sectors of the hierarchy and some theologians, in relation to the interpretation of Medellín and Puebla, in particular regarding how to understand the option for the poor. Some people believed that the option for the poor could be interpreted as a Marxist expression. This internal discussion led some sectors of the Curia to take sides and, from that time, there was a great distancing and mistrust between these Roman entities and progressive sectors of the continent.

An important moment in this history was the two instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1984 and 1986, condemning certain forms of liberation theology. Although the instructions say that it's about "some forms", the more conservative sectors thought all liberation theology was suspect and ultimately to be condemned. This misunderstanding has continued up to today, and created distance and differences of opinion and attitude that have prevented a common response of the Church to the new challenges of the present times. A serious difficulty was listening almost exclusively to the 1984 instruction and the silencing that prevented them from accepting with as much interest John Paul II's May 1986 letter to the Bishops of Brazil, in which, after the first instruction, he told them clearly that "we and you believe that liberation theology is useful and necessary."


IHU On-line: In 2012, we'll be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Convocation of the Second Vatican Council, an anniversary that inspired the promotion of the Continental Theology Congress. How can this event enlighten the Church in the present context?



Sergio Torres: The Church in Latin America and the Caribbean received the Council with great enthusiasm. It was even prepared to do so. Moreover, not only did it read and apply the Council, but it also interpreted it from our social, economic and cultural situation. The concept of Church as the People of God, was received with great ease, since, at that time the awareness of the people as important players who were taking on a leading role and proposing major changes in the structure of society, was developing. Latin American culture, supportive and fraternal, joyfully and enthusiastically experienced the identity of a communitarian church in which the bishops and the faithful, in the language of the time, felt they were part of a common horizontal plan for a renewed missionary Church.

History also shows that both in Europe and in America, after early enthusiasm for the Council, different interpretations emerged about the true meaning of its documents with the pastoral guidelines and conclusions. In Latin America, there was also a process of involution and restoration. Some sectors thought that the Council, in some respects, had gone too far and needed to regain a more traditional line on several levels.

The 50th anniversary of Vatican II is an opportune time to reread the Council. The great documents, especially Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, have lasting insights that are highly relevant to the current situation. The democratic spirit and the desire for participation demand a communitarian, participative and supportive church. The opening to the world today takes on new aspects and faces great challenges. There are new problems that were not considered by the Council, but we have the tools that allow us to address them. Both liberation theology, in itself, and the upcoming Congress in 2012 can contribute a lot to addressing these challenges in a new way.

IHU On-line: In 2012, we are also celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication Gustavo Gutiérrez's book. Since that inaugural work, what were and are the main contributions of liberation theology in the context of Latin America? What is the meaning of liberation today?

Sergio Torres: The rise of liberation theology represented an important moment in the history of theology in general. Before it, it was thought that there was only one universal theology, along the lines of St. Paul's expression, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism." Without in any way denying this fundamental principle, liberation theology opened the contextual perspective. We believe in one Lord, but we do so from our contexts and our own different situations and cultures. The context allows one to delve into some aspects of the single message and make it more credible to people of different cultures. Born in Latin America, liberation theology has spread to Africa and Asia and has also generated experiments in contextual theology in North America and Europe.

Liberation theology contributed other elements to traditional theological reflection. Theology reflects on the mystery of God, revealing permanent "theological places" to us such as the Bible, Tradition, Liturgy, the Magisterium, the teaching of theologians and so on. Liberation theology added another "theological place" -- discovering the presence of God in "faith working through love", especially in the poor who, enlightened by their faith and following Jesus, fight for their liberation.

The concept of liberation expanded and became richer. At first, they talked about the liberation of the poor, understood as the workers in the industries and factories of the great cities of the continent. Subsequently, the concept of the poor also deepened. The poor are the excluded ones, the marginalized, those who have no voice, are discriminated against, or, as we say today, "the other". Currently, the concept of liberation expresses the salvation and liberation that Jesus brings, including many terms that refer to the salvation of neglected and oppressed sectors in the current cultural and social situation.

Today, there is not just one liberation theology. There is an open theological pluralism, one that is truer to some of the intuitions and basic principles of the first liberation theology. That theology still has much to give in and of itself. For example, it should continue joining the individual and complementary contributions of academic theologians and grassroots theologians. Moreover, professionals are called on not only to speak 'for' the poor but, from [the perspective of] the poor and with them.

IHU On-line: In a historic moment of greater democracy and development in Latin America, what do you think of a regional Church?


Sergio Torres: The economic, social and political history has been marked by major steps including the development processes of the 1950s and 60s, the dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, and the recovery of democracy in the new context of neoliberal globalization. The hierarchical Church and the grassroots Church have been present in different forms in these historical processes. Currently, one gets the impression that we don't have very definite answers in the face of new challenges. What we learned in the previous stages is not enough to act in the present moment. There are new challenges such as those emanating from global population growth, global climate change and natural resource depletion that threaten the very survival of life on the planet.

Liberation theology and the Church's social action are based on the protagonism of the people and critical social theory that allows one to interpret the causes of poverty and propose viable development and liberation strategies. Both are inadequate today. The mobilization is weak and inorganic, and there is no common social theory to address neoliberalism.

However, there is a positive element. Liberation theology is better prepared than other institutions and ideologies to interpret what is happening now with the global malaise and protests of the "outraged". This malaise is due to the crisis of a paradigm of civilization and requires a new model of society with citizen participation, regulation and control of the financial economy. Moreover, it is necessary to come to new models and approaches to global governance. This would require reform of the internal organization of the United Nations.

The World Social Forum, in its various versions, provided new tools to energize the social movements and create a new style of politics. But these aspirations were not enough to create a force for change and renewal. Meanwhile, we Christians are called to live the Gospel in small communities and to participate in today's social movements and in other initiatives which will gradually be addressing global problems, such as the social networks of the Internet.

IHU On-line: Specifically with respect to the Chilean Church, there was recently the case of Fr. Fernando Karadima, condemned by the Vatican for sexual abuse of minors. What have the outcomes and implications of this case been in Chile?

Sergio Torres: The case of that priest had a profound impact on the whole Chilean Church, because it was related to a broad group of diocesan priests, which included five bishops. Moreover, he personally had strong ties to very influential laypeople in the social and political life of the country, because of his economic power. Such was the credibility of that priest, that the hierarchy delayed in starting investigating the case, which resulted in further harm to the Church. Happily, after initial hesitation, the case was accepted and investigated.

The consequences were very bad for the credibility of the Church, but at the same time, there are positive aspects that need highlighting. The public was tired of an authoritarian attitude to ethical issues related to sexuality. This case showed that in the lives of priests, there are also very damning situations. It was noted that one of the causes of the legitimate scandal that arose, comes from the lack of honesty and concealment of specific cases by the hierarchy itself. It was rightly acknowledged that cases of pedophilia involve not only the problem of sexuality and abuse but, and perhaps primarily, the problem of misuse of authority. People questioned, and rightly so, whether ordination gave priests excessive and limitless authority. It's time to update what Vatican II said, that authority is a service, and that, as Jesus said, what happens with the authorities of this world shouldn't happen in the Church.

No comments:

Post a Comment