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A “Church with an Amazonian Face” and the Danger of an “Ethnic Heresy” (Part 1)

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One of the most delicate balances kept in the Catholic Church is the proper relationship between its parts and the whole, between diocesan communities and the universal Church, between the bishops and the Pope, between the Latin rite and the Eastern rites. This is evident  in the Schism of the East, the Anglican rupture, the Gallican controversy, and now by the secret agreement between the Vatican and the Communist government of Beijing, which openly promotes the “Sinicization” of the Church in China and strives to force all Catholic clergy and faithful to join the so-called “Patriotic” church. That balance is now at stake and threatens precisely what we confess in the Creed: that the Church is simultaneously One and Catholic (universal).

Because of its Iberian origin, the Latin American Church was always a bulwark of catholicity and fidelity to Rome. That lasted until Liberation Theology, concocted in European universities, landed on its shores. The coming Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the pan-Amazon region can represent a new and enormous step towards an “ethnic heresy” of indigenous matrix that threatens the unity and universality of the Catholic Church.

Indeed, on the pretext of “dreaming a Church with an Amazonian face”, the Preparatory Document of the Synod promotes an “Amazonization” of such proportions that it would, from a psychological, ritual, and ministerial point of view, drive local communities away from the rest of Catholicism even farther than the Anglicans or Orthodox find themselves. This, is in spite of the fact that, contrary to Anglicans and the Orthodox those communities continue to recognize, at least theoretically, the primacy and universal jurisdiction of the Pope (without real consequences, as happens following the concordat with the new Chinese church).

In China, a forced “Sinicization” of the local Church is under way, with the blessing of the Holy See,[1] to place it at the service of the Communist Party’s totalitarian agenda, as the document titled “China’s Policies and Practices on Protecting Freedom of Religious Belief” blatantly affirms.[2] On the other hand, in the Amazon you have a voluntary “Amazonization” on the pretext of “inculturation” and “ecological conversion” according to the indigenous model, for “embracing the mystically-interconnected and interdependent nature of all creation.”[3]

The contours of this process are set forth in Chapter III of the Preparatory Document of the Synod, titled “Action. New Paths for a Church with an Amazonian Face.” It starts from the premise that “‘Being Church means being God’s people,’ incarnate ‘in the peoples of the earth’ and in their cultures,” so that “the universality or catholicity of the Church…is enriched by ‘the beauty of this multifaceted face’, which is manifested differently in the particular Churches and their cultures.” “The Church is called to deepen her identity in accordance with the realities of each territory and to grow in her spirituality by listening to the wisdom of her peoples. Thus, “In the process of thinking a Church with an Amazonian face, we dream with our feet grounded in our origins, and with our eyes open we consider the future shape of this Church, starting from its peoples’ experience of cultural diversity.”[4]

Directly addressing the “ministry with an Amazonian face,” the document reaffirms that “the Catholic Church has matured the awareness that its universality is incarnated in local history and cultures. In this way, the Church of Christ – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church – is manifested and made present.”[5]

This last quote refers to a section of the conciliar decree Christus Dominus on the pastoral ministry of bishops, which says nothing about culture but affirms that, “A diocese is a portion of the people of God which is entrusted to a bishop to be shepherded by him” and that “it constitutes a particular church.”[6]

This paragraph of Christus Dominus is at the core of a dispute that has been ongoing since the Second Vatican Council on how to understand the universal character of the Church from a diocesan community and specifically on the best way to designate the latter: “particular church” or “local church”.[7]

Karl Rahner was the first to address the issue and use the expression “local Church”, but Henri de Lubac made the first significant attempt to clarify the conciliar terminology, defending instead the use of the expression “particular Church”.[8] He was followed by others, especially by the International Theological Commission[9]  and by the editors of the Code of Canon Law.[10]

Rahner’s followers claim that Lubac’s choice was arbitrary and resulted from a concern to avoid a possible detour to a purely sociological understanding of the Church, which is said to clearly appear in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger. One of them claims that those writings show, on the one hand, “this fear of a Church that closes itself up on its (ethnic, national or social) particularity until finding its pole of identity in it,”[11] and on the other hand, a conceptual framework “in which considerations about the base communities (a community could pretend to constitute a church by itself and no longer receive its ecclesial character from the convocation of God) are mixed with others on the danger that churches may close themselves up within national borders.”[12]

In fact, according to the then Cardinal Ratzinger, “What is constitutive of the local Church … is less the place, the geographical element, than communion with the bishop –  therefore, the theological element.” He adds, “In the [Second Vatican] Council, the local Church was defined … in reference to the bishop, not according to the place taken as a geographical unit.”[13]

Conversely, the Dominican Henri-Marie Legrand sustains that “a particular Church … should not be understood first as a function of the episcopal ministry, but that it is fundamentally the response to a Gospel heard in a human space,”[14]  and that “to automatically equate episcopal church and local church is to remain a victim of the old ‘hierarchology’”.[15]

In March 1985, facing the spread of this error, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, of which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Prefect, felt compelled to publish a notification about the book, Church: Charism and Power, authored by Leonardo Boff. In this notification, the Congregation recognizes that “The universal Church develops and lives in the particular Churches, and these form a Church while remaining expressions and realizations of the universal Church in a determined time and place” but insists that “true theological reasoning ought never to be content only to interpret and animate the reality of a particular Church.”[16]

In reality, Leonardo Boff’s theological reflection did not take a particular church as its starting point but rather the phenomenon of the so-called Basic Ecclesial Communities (CEB), promoted by the Latin American Episcopate since its General Assembly in Medellin (1968).[17] For the ex-Franciscan friar, “the emergence of grassroots communities and the praxis that predominates in them is undeniably valuable to question the current form of being-Church” and therefore, “the term that best expresses this experience is the one often employed in this context: reinventing the Church. The Church begins to be born from the bases, from the heart of the People of God.”[18]

In addition to returning the sacred power and the “symbolic material” (that is, the sacraments) to the community, this new Church of the CEB would establish a new concept of unity and universality of the Church. According to the Brazilian liberation theologian, in the traditional Church unity is presented “in a monolithic way as uniformity of the same doctrine, of the same discourse, of the same liturgy, of the same ecclesiastical ordination (canon law), of the same morals and, if possible, of the same language (Latin).”[19] Catholicity “is not defined by its concrete elements (incarnation in different cultures and local churches), but by its abstract elements (the same hierarchy, the same sacraments, the same theology).”[20]

On the other hand, in the New Church of the Base Communities, unity is fundamentally structured from the liberating mission: “Certainly, this basic Church has the same faith, receives and administers the same sacraments and is in communion with the great, hierarchically structured Church, but that inner unity is created and nourished referring to the exteriority that is the mission.”[21]

Understood from the standpoint of this liberating mission, says Boff, “Unity facilitates the understanding of universality: The grassroots communities have a clear social class identity (poor, exploited), but at the same time express a universal vocation: justice for all, rights for all and participation for all. … The causes postulated by the communities are universal and become universal insofar as they [communities] assume the universality of those causes; that is why they are not communities closed in their own class interests; anyone, from any class, who opt for justice and integrate themselves in their struggles, will find a place in their bosom.”[22]

On the theological level, such universal causes of liberation of the oppressed are but a historical incarnation of the divine and universal plan of salvation, which gives rise to the particular Churches: “The universality of the Church resides in the universality of God’s salvific offering. The universal salvific mystery manifests itself in space and time and, on revealing itself, assumes the particularities of times and places. Thus, the particular Church arises. This is the universal Church as manifested, concretized, historified: ‘it is the universal Church that has taken place’.”[23]

But Boff’s ‘universal Church’ is a pneumatic reality in the Protestant way (a “community of true believers” created by the Word of God) because it “exists in the form of the mystery that is God’s mode of existence: beyond all limits and determinations” and not as “part of a whole supposedly existing by itself and physically, the universal Church.”[24]  She becomes visible only “in the parameters of a time and a place, an environment and a culture.”[25] In other words, each ecclesial community “is the whole Church because in each particular Church the mystery of salvation is found in its entirety; but it is not the whole Church because no particular Church exhausts by itself all the richness of the mystery of salvation.”[26]

However, beware: “no particular Church (diocesan, Roman or any other, famous for its apostolic tradition, liturgy or saints and teachers) can close in on itself or impose itself on others by making its particularities accepted.”[27] For “the universal is not unification and homogenization;” on the contrary, “the universal is openness in all directions, and especially towards the salvific mystery that manifests itself in each particular Church.”[28]

In practice, this means that different local communities can function autonomously in any direction without Rome being able to intervene. This is all the more so as the former Franciscan friar and mentor of base communities, states: “Faith in the active presence of the Risen One and of his Spirit in the bosom of the entire human community” must lead “to conceive the Church more from the base than from the summit” and “to accept the co-responsibility of all in building the Church, and not only of some who belong to the clerical institution.”[29]

An eloquent example of the sectarianism into which Brazilian CEBs have fallen as a result of imbibing the theories we have just summarized is the “Profession of Faith in the CEB” written by Most Rev. José Belvino do Nascimento, Bishop Emeritus of Divinópolis. It was inserted into a manual for celebrations in private residences published in 2012 and given to the Biblical Circles of four dioceses of the Ecclesiastical Province of Espírito Santo. Below are a few of the 23 statements of this unusual alternative “creed” that does not proclaim faith in the Catholic Church but in the Basic Ecclesial Communities:

“Children: I believe in the CEB, where the word of God is heard, shared and confronted with day to day life, in this divine symbiosis of faith and life.

Teenagers / Youth: I believe in the CEBs, celebrating the Eucharist and the worship of God, and celebrating the sharing of gifts and services just out of love.

Adults: I believe in the CEB, these small groups of people and families, where relationships of deep communion and fraternity lead to an intimate coexistence by faith in Jesus Christ.

ALL: I BELIEVE LORD, BUT INCREASE MY FAITH!

Children: I believe in the CEB as a germ of human production and ecclesial, political and social development, as a fruit of faith, as a gesture of hope, as a testimony of love.

Teenagers / Youth: I believe in the CEB as a hotbed of future political and social leaders who make their faith the root of their hope, strength and love, the secret for promoting the common good.

Adults: I believe in the CEB by a principle of faith: the Gospel that can lead us to overcome the instruments and structures of death.

“ALL: I BELIEVE LORD, BUT INCREASE MY FAITH!

Fathers / Mothers: Brothers and sisters, it is thinking about the happiness of so many, thinking about the good of the Church and the glory of God that I make, from the heart, this Profession of Faith: I believe in the Base Ecclesial Communities!

ALL: AMEN![30]

This catechetical manual – which could serve as a model for Chinese rulers to ‘reeducate’ Catholics of the underground Church with a new “little red book” titled “I Believe in the Patriotic Church!” – is rather recent. However, the sectarian deviation of the Basic Ecclesial Communities was already evident in 1980, when John Paul II made his first visit to Brazil. Upon returning to Rome, he addressed a message to the leaders of the Brazilian CEBs, warning them:

“Among the dimensions of the Basic Ecclesial Communities, I deem it advisable to call attention to the one that most profoundly defines them, and without which their identity would vanish: ecclesiality. I emphasize this ecclesiality … because the danger of attenuating that dimension or even letting it disappear for the benefit of others is neither unreal nor remote, but always current. The risk of meddling with politics is particularly insistent. … It is enough to remember that this ecclesiality is concretized in a sincere and real connection of the Community to its legitimate pastors, in a faithful adherence to the objectives of the Church, in a total openness to other communities and to the great Community of the Universal Church, an opening that will avoid any temptation of sectarianism.”[31]

The subsequent condemnation of the deviations of Liberation Theology in 1984 and the collapse of the Soviet empire five years later greatly reduced the influence of the Base Communities in the internal life of the Latin American Church. In addition, many of its most active leaders and members became involved in the political-social agitation activities of the so-called “popular movements”.

Following in the footsteps of the global left, Liberation Theology abandoned the conceptual framework of orthodox Marxism, which attributed to proletarians of the entire world, as a single and universal social class, the role of antithesis to the capitalist system., Instead, they favored the conceptual framework of Postmodernism, which attributes that rebellious role to various “discriminated minorities”: feminists, homosexuals, blacks, immigrants, indigenous, etc.[32] Thus, in the Latin American ecclesial world, the liberationist “ecclesiogenesis” of Leonardo Boff’s colleagues was recycled: It adopted indigenous dress, Indian theology, and used the Chiapas Mountains in southern Mexico as testing ground.

This, and the Vatican’s energetic reaction, is what we will see in the next article.

[1] See, for example, these statements by Cardeal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Vatican, to the daily Global Times, closely linked to the Chinese Communist Party: “For the future, it will certainly be important to deepen this theme, especially the relationship between ‘inculturation’ and ‘sinicization,’ keeping in mind how the Chinese leadership has been able to reiterate their willingness not to undermine the nature and the doctrine of each religion. These two terms, ‘inculturation” and ‘sinicization,’ refer to each other without confusion and without opposition: in some ways, they can be complementary and can open avenues for dialogue on the religious and cultural level” (http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1149623.shtml

[2] “Actively guiding religions in adapting to the socialist society means … guiding religious groups to support the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system; uphold and follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics; develop religions in the Chinese context; embrace core socialist values; carry forward China’s fine traditions; integrate religious teachings and rules with Chinese culture” (https://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/32832/Document/1626734/1626734.htm).

[3] N° 13, http://www.sinodoamazonico.va/content/sinodoamazonico/en/documents/preparatory-document-for-the-synod-for-the-amazon.html

[4] Ibid, n° 15

[5] Ibid., n° 14.

[6] N° 11, http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19651028_christus-dominus_sp.html

[7] See, for example, Fr. Gilles Routhier, “ ‘Église locale’ ou ‘Église particulière’ : querelle sémantique ou option théologique ?”, in Studia canonica, 25, (1991), pp. 277-334. The following quotations are taken from this study.

[8] Les Églises particulières dans l’Église universelle, Paris, Aubier, 1971, pp. 29-56.

[9] Report “La Única Iglesia de Cristo”, written by P. Eyt with a preface by Cardinal J. Ratzinger.

[10] Part II, Section II : De las Iglesias particulares y de sus agrupaciones, cánones 368-562, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ESL0020/_INDEX.HTM

[11] Gilles Routhier, op. cit. p. 290.

[12] ibid. p. 312-313 nota.

[13] Les Principes de la théologie catholique, p. 325 y p. 344.

[14] “Synodes et conseils de l’après-Concile: quelques enjeux théologiques », in Nouvelle revue théologique, 98 (1976), p. 197.

[15] Id. Inverser Babel, p. 335.

[16]http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19850311_notif-boff_en.html

[17] “The basic Christian community is the first and fundamental ecclesial nucleus that must, at its own level, take responsibility for the richness and expansion of the faith, as well as for worship and its expression. It is therefore the initial cell of the ecclesial structure and the focus of evangelization, and nowadays it is a primordial factor of human promotion and development. Its leaders or directors are a capital element for the existence of Christian communities. They can be priests, deacons, religious or laity” (Documento Final, III. ORIENTACIONES PASTORALES – Renovación de estructuras pastorales Comunidades cristianas de base, nn. 10-11, http://www.diocese-braga.pt/catequese/sim/biblioteca/publicacoes_online/91/medellin.pdf).

[18] Eclesiogénesis: Las Comunidades de Base reinventan la Iglesia, Ed. Sal Terrae, Santander, 4.a edición, 1984, p. 37.

[19] Ibid. p. 59.

[20] ibid. p. 60.

[21] Ibid. p. 69.

[22] Ibid. p. 70.

[23] Ibid. p. 29.

[24] Ibid. p. 30. Even atheists are part of the Catholic Church without knowing it. The visibility of the mystery, that is, of the universal Church, “varies and can have the most diverse densities. It begins in an atheist of good will who seeks good and truth (Lumen Gentium, 16), gains greater visibility in the non-evangelized who live in their religions; is concentrated in the Jews and in all those who live monotheism; has a name in baptized Christians even if they do not live within the Roman Catholic Church; appears with all sacramental and visible wealth in the Roman Apostolic Church and is fulfilled in the Church of glory. This whole reality completes the universal sacrament of salvation.”

[25] Ibid. p. 31.

[26] Ibidem.

[27] Ibid. p. 33.

[28] Ibid. p. 31.

[29] Ibid. p. 39.

[30] Pages 12-16, http://aves.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/000545_20140806123350.pdf

[31][31] https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/pt/messages/pont_messages/1980/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19800711_comunita-base-brasile.html

[32] Ver  Sociedad Española de Defensa de la Tradición Familia y Propiedad, España anestesiada sin percibirlo, amordazada sin quererlo, extraviada sin saberlo: La obra del PSOE , Ed. Fernando III El Santo, Madrid, 1988, pp. 145-190.

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