Friday, September 28, 2012

What kind of Church has salvation?

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The core of Jesus' preaching wasn't the Church but the Kingdom of God -- a utopia of total revolution/reconciliation of all creation. This is so true that the Gospels, except Matthew, never talk about Church but always talk about Kingdom. With the rejection of the person and message of Jesus, the Kingdom didn't come and instead the Church arose as a community of those who bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus and keep his legacy by trying to live it out in history.

Since its inception, a bifurcation was established: the bulk of the faithful adopted Christianity as a spiritual path, in dialogue with the surrounding culture. And another group, much smaller, agreed to adopt, under control of the Emperor, the moral leadership of the Roman Empire that was in sharp decline. It copied the imperial political-legal structures to organize the faith community. That group, the hierarchy, was structured around the "sacred power" (sacra potestas) model. It was a high risk path, because if there was one thing Christ always rejected, it was power. For him, power in its three expressions as shown in the temptations in the desert -- the prophetic, religious and political, when it isn't service but domination, belongs to the demonic sphere. However this was the path followed by the hierarchical institutional Church in the form of an absolute monarchy that rejected sharing power with the laity, the vast majority of the faithful. It comes down to us today in the context of a very serious crisis of confidence.

It happens that when power predominates, it drives love away. Indeed, the organizational style of the hierarchical church is bureaucratic, formal and sometimes inflexible. In it, there's a charge for everything, nothing is forgotten or ever forgiven. There's virtually no room for mercy and for a true understanding of the divorced and homosexuals. The imposition of celibacy for priests, deep-rooted anti-feminism, distrust of everything that has to do with sexuality and pleasure, the cult of personality of the pope, and its claim to be the only true church and the "sole guardian established by God of eternal, universal and immutable natural law" such that, in the words of Benedict XVI, it "assumes a leadership role on all mankind." In 2000, then Cardinal Ratzinger still repeated in the document Dominus Iesus the medieval doctrine that "outside the Church there is no salvation" and that those outside "are at serious risk of being lost." This kind of Church certainly doesn't have salvation. It's slowly losing sustainability worldwide.

What Church would be worthy of salvation? The one that humbly returns to the figure of the historical Jesus, a simple prophetic laborer, the Son Incarnate, imbued with a divine mission to proclaim that God is there with His grace and mercy for all; a Church that recognizes other denominations as different expressions of the sacred heritage of Jesus; one that is open to dialogue with all religions and spiritual paths, seeing there the action of the Spirit that always comes before the missionary; one that is willing to learn from all the accumulated wisdom of mankind; one which renounces all power and making a spectacle of faith so that it isn't merely a facade lacking vitality; one which presents itself as "advocate and defender" of the oppressed of any kind, willing to suffer persecution and martyrdom in the likeness of its founder; one in which the Pope had the courage to give up the pretense of legal power over all and would be a unifying reference point for the Christian Plan with the pastoral mission of empowering all in faith, hope and love.

This church is in the realm of our possibilities. We just have to be imbued with the spirit of the Nazarene. Then it would really be the Church of human beings, of Jesus, of God, proof that Jesus' dream of the Kingdom is real. It would be a place where the Kingdom of the liberated to which we are all invited, would be brought about.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Nobody has exclusive rights to Jesus

by José Antonio Pagola (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Buenas Noticias: Blog de Jose Antonio Pagola
September 24, 2012

Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48

The scene is surprising. The disciples approach Jesus with a problem. This time the spokesman for the group isn't Peter but John, one of the two brothers who were looking for the top spots. Now he's claiming that the group of disciples has exclusive rights to Jesus and a monopoly on his liberating action.

They're worried. An exorcist, who's not a member of the group, is casting out demons in Jesus' name. The disciples aren't happy that people are being healed and can begin to live a better life. They're just thinking about the prestige of their own group. So they've tried to nip his performance in the bud. This is their only reason: "He's not one of us."

The disciples assume that to act in the name of Jesus and with his healing strength, it's necessary to be a member of his group. No one can appeal to Jesus and work for a better world without being part of the Church. Is this really so? What does Jesus think?

His first words are emphatic: "Do not prevent him." The Name of Jesus and his humanizing force are greater than the small group of disciples. It's good that the salvation Jesus brings extends beyond the established Church and helps people to live a better life. No one should see it as unfair competition.

Jesus breaks all sectarian temptation in his followers. He hasn't formed his group to control his messianic salvation. He isn't a rabbi of a closed school but a prophet of salvation that is open to all. His Church must support his Name wherever it's invoked to do good.

Jesus doesn't want any talk among his followers of us and them, insiders and outsiders, who can act in his name and who can't. His way of seeing things is different: "Whoever is not against us is for us."

In modern society there are many men and women who work for a more just and humane world without belonging to the Church. Some aren't even believers, but they're making way for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. They are one of us. We should rejoice instead of looking at them resentfully. We should support rather than discredit them.

It's wrong to live in the Church seeing hostility and evil everywhere, naively believing that we are the only ones who bear the Spirit of Jesus. He wouldn't approve of us. He would invite us to collaborate joyfully with all who live a gospel lifestyle and care for the poor and needy.

The failure of Brazilian Catholic neoconservatism

by José Lisboa Moreira de Oliveira (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Adital (Spanish / Portuguese)

The latest census data shows a drop in the number of Catholics in Brazil. According to estimates, the percentage has dropped from 83.34% to 67.84% in the last 20 years. The issue was discussed at the last general meeting of the CNBB, in April this year, in Aparecida (SP). Some bishops were appalled by the news. Others tried to minimize the data, thinking it reflected "intrigues of the opposition." Others, more realistic perhaps, weren't frightened by the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics) data.

The truth is that it wasn't necessary to receive this official data to realize this phenomenon. Any serious Catholic, observing the situation, knows very well that the Church is losing more and more faithful. Taking a look at the masses, groups, movements, the organized ministries is enough to clearly grasp the situation. It's true that some churches are still full on Sundays and some singing priests bring together thousands of people in their religious spectacles. Some are deluded about this and firmly believe that the Catholic Church remains a hegemonic force. However, this public is insignificant compared to the percentage of Catholics, so we can say without fear of contradiction that the number of practicing ones is much lower than in the data provided by IBGE. If we make more refined calculations, it can be said that practicing Catholics don't exceed ten percent. If we then think about youthful participants, then this number should drop to less than one percent.

But the most interesting thing about this experience is that the decrease in Catholics in Brazil coincides with the beginning of the dismantling of the Church of liberation and the implementation of a neoconservative Catholic regime. Catholics are decreasing in Brazil as the base Christian communities are being systematically replaced by the neo-Pentecostal Catholic movements. The number of Catholics started to fall from the time the more conservative bishops, who were instructed to systematically destroy every vestige of the Church of liberation, were appointed. That has been the case, for example, in Recife, since the replacement of Dom Helder Cámara.

The decline in Catholics coincides with the arrival of Catholic television networks and their conservative apologetics programs in Brazil. Catholics are declining while the number of singing priests, priest-actors in major media and mediagenic seminarians is increasing, all connected 24 hours a day via the internet to "evangelize" through very modern and fast means. Catholics are declining as exotic communities with their medieval costumes and strange and Manichean customs are appearing and multiplying in the Church. The decline of Catholics hasn't stopped, despite all the efforts to crush liberation theology, punish Brazilian theologians, dress priests in clerical garb, romanize the liturgies, and pull outdated, archaic, and obsolete things out of the old Catholic trunk.

Something went wrong. In the late 1970s, when, during the pontificate of John Paul II, neoconservatism began to appear, it was said that the Church of liberation had to be discredited and excluded because it jeopardized the future of the Catholic Church on the Latin American continent. They put an end to anything that might smell of liberation, but even with the implementation of neo-Christianity, Catholicism faded. The neoconservative project failed, and with its arrival, the shrinking of Brazilian Catholicism accelerated. It seems that the shot backfired.

I think it's time for the Church in Brazil do some serious reflection. Its leaders should be honest with themselves, admitting that they failed, having spurred, with their methods, the decrease in Brazilian Catholics. They, who were so afraid of liberation theology, who demonized it and fought against it, are now bitterly realizing the results of their interventions. They, and not the Church of liberation, provoked the crisis in Brazilian Catholicism.

I'm not worried about the growth of the evangelicals. Although I'm convinced that many small evangelical churches have no structure or level of seriousness, I believe God has his ways. He can even take His Kingdom from a church that claims to be its owner to give it to another. And if He sees fit to give it to one that follows the evangelical path, no one can stop it.

What I wish to highlight in this brief reflection is the failure of a model of Church that has been implemented in our country in recent years. The opportunity to give life to a way of being Church that would be much closer to the Gospel and the reality of the Brazilian people was missed. This can't be ignored without betraying the truth. The leaders need to admit this, if they want to reverse the current situation in any way at all. If they insist on keeping the current church system, our fate will be worse than that of old Europe: an infantile Church, womanish and senile, dusty, with no youth, no prospects, no life.

There was no shortage of "signs of the times", but many of the leaders of the Catholic Church chose "not to interpret the present time" (Luke 12:56). It would have been enough, for example, to take seriously what Paul VI said in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi. Throughout this document, drawn from proposals of the 1974 Synod of Bishops on evangelization in the modern world, the Pope, as if prophetically, provided for a series of ways to evangelize that were very appropriate and necessary for the Church of that time. But apparently, the neoconservative project that came right after, didn't pay the slightest attention to what the Pope had said.

Paul VI, setting the importance of testimony as the base, stressed the urgency of indispensable personal contact, "person to person" (n.46). And personal contact doesn't occur through a mass ministry, using impersonal means of communication, but through the proliferation of networks of small communities, in which, the Pope advised, people could satisfy their desire and quest for more human relationships.

Then the Pope affirmed the value of the base ecclesial communities which, especially in the big cities, could contribute effectively to overcoming massification and anonymity (No. 58). But what did most of the Catholic leaders do? They preferred ministry to the masses, the large flocks and big shows in which, as has been demonstrated by the sociology of religion, anonymity and indifference prevail. People jump, shout, and dance, but without worrying about "others". They only think about their problems and the immediate satisfaction of their needs and desires. Mass ministry doesn't humanize relationships. It congregates, brings together, agglomerates, but neither creates unity nor nourishes solidarity.

Most of the leaders preferred to suppress the base ecclesial communities or relegate them to a secondary plane, such that it can be stated that their current existence is the fruit of the great miracle of the resistance of some people. Meanwhile, the evangelicals followed the opposite path, opening small churches on every corner where people met not only to pray and sing, but also to strengthen the ties of friendship and mutual support. Human warmth came to be, in a certain sense, an "agape link", keeping people in the community united.

There was also the dismantling of other elements indicated by Paul VI as essential for the new evangelization. Let's consider, for example, the decline that occurred in the field of ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, dialogue with non-believers and non-practitioners. But one also thinks about the internal regression that made thinking people who were more aware leave the Catholic Church for good. It seems to me, then, that the time has come for the hierarchy in Brazil to face the numerous serious questions being raised by so many people. And -- as Paul VI would have wished -- to "give loyal, humble and courageous answer, acting accordingly" (n. 5).

José Lisboa Moreira de Oliveira is a philosopher with a doctorate in theology. He is a former advisor to the Vocations and Ministries sector of the Brazilian Catholic Bishops' Conference (CNBB). A former president of the Instituto de Pastoral Vocacional, he is now director and professor at the Centro de Reflexão sobre Ética e Antropologia da Religião (CREAR) of the Universidade Católica de Brasília.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"My machete is the word": Maria Lopez Vigil receives France's Legion of Honor

Theologian and writer Maria Lopez Vigil, author with her brother, José Ignacio, of the popular "Un Tal Jesus" radio program, has been inducted into the French Legion of Honor. On presenting the award to Ms. Lopez Vigil at his residence in Managua, France's ambassador to Nicaragua Antoine Joly, said that "the person France is honoring today is above all, the woman, the theologian -- and not just any theologian, the journalist committed to just causes, the writer."

Here is a translation of Maria Lopez Vigil's acceptance speech at the ceremony:

Thank you, Ambassador Antoine Joly, for your words that moved me so much as I was anticipating them and touch me so much again now. Thank you to the French government which you represent. And may my gratitude also go to your predecessor, Thierry Frayssé, who I believe is complicit in this award that France is bestowing on me today.

If you remember, when you told me that they would be giving me this honor, it made me laugh and it frightened me. Later, thinking about it over and over again, I went on laughing and feeling scared and in the end I was able to make sense of it because life is mischievous and offers us coincidences that surprise us -- something has tied me to France ever since I was little.

When I was a girl, and for years, my heroine was a French girl. The Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc, stirred my imagination. I wanted to be brave like her, like her I wanted to participate in a quest, like her I wished for an important destiny, a great one, even to give my life for it.

I belong to a generation that opened its eyes to the meaning of social justice and political commitment to the Cuban revolution. I belong to a generation that a short while later opened its mind to the revolution that was liberation theology for Latin America. And I belong to the generation that a bit later enthusiastically opened its heart to the insurrection in which many of you participated to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. All this made me decide to come to Nicaragua 32 years ago.

Joan heard voices. The voices I heard were those of the Nicaraguan revolution. Here I would learn to be brave like my heroine, I would participate in a quest, and I would become involved in the destiny of a whole people. I didn't know anybody in Nicaragua and that attracted me more -- it was an adventure. I would start from zero. After the zero came one, two, three, four...And here I stayed. I am an adopted daughter of this motherland. And although I wasn't born here, it's here I wish to die.

The voices that call me now, although different, have the same urgency. The civic revolution that is pending today in Nicaragua includes other challenges, but we must keep fighting to make it possible. This effort is worth it, and when we achieve that Nicaragua we have imagined, dreamed of, one that is better, more just, happier, more for and with everyone, we will feel that no blood spilled, no pain and no efforts were in vain. It's a battle we must fight, as we do all of them, with enthusiasm, organization and cunning, without war. I'm delighted that this meeting is taking place today, September 21st, International Peace Day, the day when fall begins in one part of the world and spring in the other -- colors in the leaves, colors in the flowers.

My machete is the word. For ten years I spun words in the popular weekly El Tayacán. And for thirty years I have molded them in Envío magazine. Here in Nicaragua I found the opportunity to write several books for Nicaraguan boys and girls that I know have made them think, dream, feel afraid, get excited, laugh. Here in Nicaragua I have been able to hear the words others have used to talk about their lives to then put them into writing. From Nicaragua, I have found the time and space to talk to many women about their human rights and how their bodies and their choices are sacred. I have also talked to many young and not so young people about a certain Jesus, another possible God, and Saint Romero of America. Many of these words were born by playing with them, thinking about them with my brother José Ignacio, who is here with me today. Am I a theologian? I don't think theology is a matter of titles; it's just "giving reason for our hope" in words.

My machete is the word. I have always felt I am a word craftswoman. I don't know how to do anything else. I have never done anything else. I only have my "paper children", the books I have written -- sheets of paper first, then screens that I have filled with words. I've spent my life playing with words, reading, writing. And editing what others have written. I have spent my life talking. Talking to others and also talking to myself. Therefore, as the poet [Antonio Machado] used to say, "I hope to talk to God someday."

So I am receiving this award for my words, those I have written, those I have spoken. I am receiving it at a very difficult time for Nicaragua. Among those in power, corruption of words is rife -- words tainted by lies and used to mislead, words that have become empty opportunistic rhetoric and alienating arguments, especially when they take the name of God in vain. And among the powerless, fear of speaking critical words is growing because of the reprisals of authoritarianism against those who call for liberty, demand equality, and proclaim fraternity, those ideals that come to us from the land and people of Joan of Domrémy.

Today I would like to remember the many people in Nicaragua who have given their lives and run risks and who are still running them daily for speaking words of truth. I feel this honor isn't just for me; I believe it belongs to a "knightage" of many -- reporters, writers, communicators, broadcasters, artisans of the word.

Because I'm receiving it here and now in Nicaragua, at this difficult time, in this season of waiting, this award is a commitment for me. I promise to keep on speaking and writings words that teach us to doubt, to think, to question, to be suspicious, and also to laugh. I commit myself to go on building words with the most heretical and provocative meanings possible. My heroine was a heretic, for which she was burned at the stake.

I am immensely surprised to be receiving this award. And that's how I feel, as if it were a story: Once upon a time there was a girl who lived on an island and dreamed of becoming like a girl in far away France who, seated on a horse -- and therefore a knight -- confronted her enemies with a sword...In the school that is Life and with the Teacher that Time is, the girl grew and learned what life teaches: to distinguish friends from enemies, to choose which voices she should listen to, to understand that the most heroic quests are daily efforts...And now, almost at the end of her training, when she least expected it, the compatriots of her heroine have made her, as they did Joan, a Knight...a Knight of the Legion of Honor. They didn't give her a sword but a medal that she receives this night, imagining that it could serve as a shield for her. And they all lived happily ever after. I'm telling you this as I dreamed it and as the story has ended, it's time to make a toast. Let's celebrate!

Photo: France's ambassador to Nicaragua, Antoine Joly, pins the Legion of Honor medal on Maria Lopez Vigil.