Few realize it, but May 2007 could be a decisive moment for Catholic Latin America. In the midst of a region paralyzed by endless political and economic crises, Latin America's Catholic bishops will meet in Brazil for the Fifth General Conference of Latin American and Caribbean Bishops (CELAM) to consider the profound challenges confronting the area. The importance attached to this event by the whole Catholic world is evident from the fact that Pope Benedict XVI will be attending.
Some of the difficulties to be addressed at this CELAM meeting were identified in the event's main preparatory document, drafted by key Latin American bishops and published in September 2005. These include the inadequate religious formation received by many Catholic Latin Americans, syncretistic tendencies among some Catholics, and some Latin Americans' failure to act consistently with what they say they believe as Catholics.
The same document also pinpoints particular problems confronting Latin American societies. It refers to corruption as a disease disfiguring virtually every sphere of Latin American life, especially politics and the judiciary. The directness with which the bishops speak about corruption's evil causes and catastrophic effects is almost without precedent in Latin America.
Then there is the bishops' condemnation of “a growing tendency to applaud the rise of messianic leaders ... of a populist nature.” “They promise paradise,” the bishops add, and engage in the politics of grand gestures, often at the cost of undermining basic human rights.
Though no names are mentioned, there seems little question the bishops have in mind figures such as Presidents Chavez of Venezuela and Morales of Bolivia. Such populists have subtly, and sometimes not-so-subtly, attacked the Church's presence in Latin America.
Given Latin America's high poverty levels, no one should be surprised that the bishops devote considerable attention to this subject. They repeatedly refer to growing economic inequalities and declining living standards throughout the continent.
The text indicates that some bishops view globalization as partly responsible for such problems. This is somewhat odd, given that it is precisely the failure of much of Latin America to integrate into the global market that has contributed significantly to the region's persistently high poverty.
This becomes clearer when we consider China and India's progress over the past 10 years. Through their continuing assimilation into the global economy, millions of Chinese and Indians are escaping poverty. Of course, poverty still plagues these nations. But no one questions that real poverty is being steadily reduced in Asia through China and India's embrace of free trade and economic liberalization. The same, incidentally, is true of El Salvador and Chile.
Some Latin American bishops' reluctance to acknowledge these facts may reflect the persistence of what some call “soft-liberationist” thought in their ranks.
As a serious intellectual force, liberation theology is now widely dismissed as largely irrelevant throughout Latin America, a relic of the 1970s. Yet its residual effects can be found in some Catholic Latin Americans' ongoing tendency to blame the rest of the world for the region's economic problems, instead of acknowledging that Latin America's economic difficulties primarily stem from mercantilist economic structures and basic failures to uphold property rights and the rule of law.
If the bishops meeting in Brazil in May 2007 want to see poverty diminished throughout their region, they might consider highlighting the role played by “right-wing oligarchs” and “left-wing oligarchs” in obstructing Latin America's integration into the global economy.
The right-oligarchs include those Latin American businesses that pressure governments into providing them with tariffs and special tax benefits that protect them from competition. The left-oligarchs include populist politicians and trade union leaders whose position depends on large numbers of people remaining in a state of economic discontent.
Free trade and economic liberty threaten both groups' power. It exposes the right-oligarchs to the disciplines of competition, and it undermines populists and radical unionists by relieving the poverty of large segments of the population.
Compared to Western European Catholicism – characterized by mass apostasy, often mediocre bishops, and declining vocations – Latin American Catholicism is in good shape. It enjoys deep reservoirs of authentic faith, a continuing rise in diocesan vocations, and strong and prudent leadership from many bishops. The May 2007 Brazil CELAM meeting represents a unique chance for Catholic Latin America to further strengthen itself by breaking free of the dead weight of fallacious economic thinking and the dregs of a suspect, moribund theology.
For the sake of Latin America's poor, let's hope they take it.