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Aug 28 Medellin & Liberation Theology

Today we go back to year 1968 and travel to Medellin in Colombia, were the Second Latin American bishops' conference opened as a follow-up to the Second Vatican Council. The challenge was to adapted the insights of Vatican 2 in a creative way to the Latin American context. It took as the theme for its 16 documents “The Church in the Present Transformation of Latin America in the Light of the Council", with a focus on the poor and oppressed in society.


The challenge at the end of Vatican 2 had been to implement the council within the particular social context of each local church – and in South America this was of huge inequality with a tiny elite owning the vast majority of the land. The conclusions of the Bishops were very influenced by Paulo Freire, widely regarded as the most influential teacher of the region, a Brazilian educator and philosopher. who was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. He is best known for his influential work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. According to Freire, unequal social relations create a "culture of silence" that instilled a negative passivity and suppressed self-image onto the oppressed, and learners must, then, develop a critical consciousness in order to recognize that this culture of silence is created to oppress. He considered social, race and class dynamics to be interlaced into the conventional education system, through which this culture of silence eliminates the "paths of thought that lead to a language of critique. The bishops rejected for Latin America the model of development imposed by international organizations along with the national governments and economically powerful groups. The poor were to become active agents in the political and economic spheres. Bishop Dom Hélder Câmara called for a "structural revolution" which would allow for integral development and the full flourishing of every human person. Pope Paul VI had spoken of "just insurrection" and the possible use of violent rebellion in certain situations.

In a key document on Justice and Peace it was claimed that What is understood as "development" contains as well a strong element of quasi-corporatist thought. There was a suspicion of the integrationist model which they felt downplayed tensions "All of the sectors of society, but in this case, principally the social-economic sphere, should, because of justice and brotherhood, transcend antagonisms in order to become agents of national and continental development" However the Bishops favoured a much more radical model which was influenced by Marxists analysis In contrast to this, the liberationist model denounces the political-economic model now in place as "institutionalized violence", which must be "conquer[ed] by means of a dynamic action of awakening (concientización) and organization of the popular sectors" The more conservative bishops at Medellin continued to see themselves as the protectors of the masses, while the poor masses were being encouraged to become literate and take control of their own destiny. Such literacy and mass action was fostered by the publication in Brazil of Paulo Friere's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and given support in the Council's document on education

This would challenge the churches traditional role as administering sacraments and focusing on personal holiness …. It recognized that “the social situation demands an efficacious presence of the Church that goes beyond the promotion of personal holiness by preaching and the sacraments.”[The bishops agreed that the church should take "a preferential option for the poor" and gave their approval to Christian "base communities" in which the poor might learn to read by reading the Bible. The goal of the bishops was to liberate the people from the "institutionalized violence" of poverty.

The Conference opened the way for the development of liberation theology, and endorsed the formation of base communities under lay leaders approved by the pastor. As base communities greatly multiplied, critics would complain of Marxist ideology and propensity toward violent confrontation. In 1978 Pope John Paul II, a staunch opponent of Communism in his native Poland, diminished the influence of liberation theology by appointing in Latin America only conservative bishops. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was in charge of enforcing doctrine which largely opposed the theological interpretations and actions of the liberationists. In 1983 the Pope visited Nicaragua and expressed his belief that there is a fundamental difference between Catholic and Sandinista ideology, something which they vehemently deny.


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