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“Ministries with an Amazonian Face”: An Eclipse of the Catholic Priesthood and the Hierarchical Character of the Church (3)

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In the previous articles of this series, we showed how, during the post-conciliar crisis, the essential difference between the clergy and the laity was gradually blurred in the name of the ecclesiology of the People of God and of the recognition of new “lay ministries” in the official texts of the Church. From the European “prophetic groups” of post-May 1968 to the institution of bakambi (“community guides”) in the archdiocese of Kinshasa by Cardinal Malula, numerous pastoral and doctrinal abuses have seen the day and were not restrained by the documents of the Holy See attempting to correct them.

Today we will study the case of the Basic Ecclesial Communities (CEB) of Latin America and, in particular, the indigenous turn assumed by “indigenous ministries” in the diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas (Mexico). As already pointed out, CEBs proliferated after the CELAM meeting in Medellin in 1968. They quickly assumed the role of a revolutionary force at the service of Liberation Theology, both within the Church and in the political sphere.


 If for the European “prophetic groups” the bedside book was The Church, by Hans Küng, the writings of the then Franciscan friar Leonardo Boff served as daily food for the CEBs. What did this standard-bearer of Liberation Theology (a current condemned by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) say about “lay ministries” and the ministerial priesthood? Essentially, the same as his European emulators, only with a more markedly Marxist imprint, as can be seen in his work, Eclesiogénesis: Las comunidades de base reinventan la Iglesia[1] (“Ecclesiogenesis: Grassroots Communities Reinvent the Church”)

A faithful adherent of the philosophy of praxis, Leonardo Boff begins by emphasizing that, “the emergence of grassroots communities and the praxis that predominates in them possess an undeniable questioning value of the current form of being-Church.” This is nothing short of a “reinvention of the Church,” the new Church which “begins to be born from the ground, from the heart of the People of God.” For the ex-Franciscan, the Church does not have a definitive structure defined by Christ, but each person gives it the contours that he likes.

The praxis of the CEB goes so far as to supersede a Church thought out “according to the Christ-Church axis, within a legal vision” according to which “Christ transmits all power to the Twelve and these to their successors,” dividing the community “between rulers and governed, celebrants and assistants, producers and consumers of sacraments.”[2] On the contrary, the CEBs highlight the fundamental reality: “the active presence of the Risen One and of his Spirit in the bosom of the entire human community.” This leads to “conceiving the Church more from the base than from the summit; it is to accept the co-responsibility of all in the building of the Church, and not only of some belonging to the clerical institution.”[3] Represented graphically, one obtains the following image[4] of the traditional ecclesiology (on the left) and the ecclesiology of the CEB (on the right):

(NT: they will provide the images, which have not come)

To make things very clear, Boff stresses that in the second representation, “the reality of the People of God emerges as the first instance, and the organization as the second, which derives from the first and is at its service. The power of Christ (exousia) is not only in some members but in the totality of the People of God.” This power of Christ “is diversified according to specific functions but excludes no one,” because “the dominant datum is a fundamental equality of all” and only in a second moment “differences and hierarchies arise.”[5] There arises, for example, “a specific charism with the function of being the principle of unity among all the charisms,” but “it is a charism that is not outside but within the community, not on the community but for the good of the community.” Represented graphically, the following schema results, highlighting the fact that “all services arise within the community and for the community”:[6]

Moreover, the Brazilian liberation theologian affirms that these two models of Church (traditional and CEB) reproduce the characteristics of the society in which they are inserted. In conformity with the strictest Marxist orthodoxy, Boff assures that such social characteristics are a mere product of their infrastructures. Just as in the traditional society the dominant classes appropriated the means of material production, in the traditional Church there was, in parallel, “a process of expropriation of the means of religious production by the clergy against the Christian people.” While the early Christian people participated in the decisions and in the election of their ministers, “later on they began to be only consulted, and finally, in terms of power, they were totally marginalized and expropriated from their capacity.”[7]

However, the CEB ecclesiology recovers “the original meaning of Christianity” – a true “ecclesiogenesis” (title of his book) which takes place through “the elaboration of an independent Christian vision, alternative and opposed to the hegemonic class,”[8]  which postulates “a religious division different from ecclesiastical work” based on “a greater participation of all in the production and profit from religious goods.”[9] Thus, within the CEB, “the circulation of the roles of coordination and animation predominates, power being a function of the community and not of a person; what is rejected is not power itself but its monopoly, which implies expropriation for the benefit of an elite.”[10]  The result is that “the whole community is ministerial, not just some members.”[11]

With regard to the celebration of the Eucharist, and moving forward forty years to Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff asks, “Evidently, every organized community will have its consecrated ministers. But what will a community do which is deprived for a long time of the Eucharistic mystery, the sacrament of unity and salvation, without any fault of its own?” His response is the same as that of today’s organizers of the pan-Amazon Synod: “The grassroots communities show us how the lay person can do everything a priest does pastorally. He only cannot consecrate and forgive sins. ‘People ask: why can’t we celebrate the Eucharist?’ (C. Mesters). We know of the existence of groups in which the head of the community, by its ‘ad hoc’ delegation, presides over the Lord’s Supper united to the universal Church.”[12]  He goes on to cite a testimony from the United States, published in the Concilium magazine, which inevitably ends up pleading for women priests in the name of the principle that “the position of women in the Church must accompany the evolution of women in civil society.”[13]

Leonardo Boff restructured and developed these ideas in another book to which he gave the title Iglesia, Carisma y Poder (Church, Charism and Power), published in 1981 by the Vozes publishing house of the Franciscans of Petrópolis, Brazil. This publication gave rise to an exchange with the Archdiocesan Commission for the Doctrine of the Faith of Rio de Janeiro, and later, with the Roman Congregation of the same name. In one of its letters, Cardinal Ratzinger accused the Brazilian theologian of proposing “A new model of a church where power is conceived without theological privileges, as a pure service organized according to the needs of the people, the community,” in circumstances that “the traditional doctrine of the Church in this respect, clearly confirmed also in the Second Vatican Council, supposes among other things two fundamental truths: 1) the constitution of the Church by divine institution is hierarchical; 2) there exists in the Church a hierarchical ministry essentially and exclusively connected with the sacrament of Orders.” He also reminded Boff that, “already in times past this Congregation had an opportunity to discuss with you the need for priestly ordination for a valid celebration of Holy Mass.”[14]

After an unsuccessful meeting between Cardinal Ratzinger and the author (who traveled to Rome accompanied by Cardinals Aloisio Lorscheider, president of the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference, and Paulo Evaristo Arns, archbishop of São Paulo, both belonging to the Franciscan order), the book, Church, Charism and Power was the object of an official notification by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in March 1985 because of “the influence the book had on the faithful.” After making a synopsis, with brief quotations from the book, of the different theological errors found (many of which are true heresies), the Congregation affirms that  “the options of L. Boff analyzed here are such as to endanger the sound doctrine of faith.”[15]  The sanction imposed on him was silence, followed, years later, by deprivation of his right to teach theology in Catholic institutions.

After the condemnation of Liberation Theology slightly before the notification on the book of L. Boff, and even more after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of communism, liberation theologians had to recycle themselves and went out in search of new ‘exploited classes,’ giving rise to a post-modern diversity of theologies: feminist, black, Indian, LGBT, etc.

From that florilegia, Indian Theology was undoubtedly the current that most developed the doctrine and praxis of “lay ministries.” This branch of Liberation Theology only transferred to indigenous communities the prophetic role of an oppressed minority defending its ancestral culture against colonialism, and especially in its ecological-religious dimension (cult of Mother Earth) and organizational structure: a community self-managing model based on ancestral “leaders,” caciques or shamans. Recognition of these ancestral leaders gave rise to the concept of “indigenous ministries.”

Explaining this concept, the Mexican Indian priest Eleazar López, self-proclaimed “midwife” of Indian Theology, points out that a true inculturation “implies assuming the category that was elaborated in the New Testament” (that is, the traditional sacred ministry) but reworking it in order to “give it a content and characteristics of indigenous ministeriality.”[16]   This implies “recognizing and valuing the ministries that ancestrally have existed among us” and “letting the services and ministries, even ordained ones, be enriched by the forms proper to the indigenous world.”[17]

The primary work in this area is the Diocesan Directory for the Permanent Indigenous Diaconate, promulgated by Bishop Samuel Ruiz for the diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, in December 1998, as the fortieth anniversary of his episcopal consecration approached. His intention went beyond the Chiapas region, since he longed for it to serve as a model for other similar directories in the Latin American continent.

The Directory of Bishop Ruiz promotes a diaconate with a new profile, the Indigenous Diaconate. According to his project, each community should acquire an Indigenous Deacon who would assume in its religious life the same role as Cardinal Malula’s bakambi “community leaders” in Kinshasa (except that, in order to avoid the Vatican’s thunder and lightning, he is not a layman but a deacon and therefore a person clothed in the sacrament of Holy Orders).

True to the mistaken concept of inculturation of Indian Theology, the Directory assumes that “the ministry of the Permanent Indigenous Diaconate is part of the fabric or network of ministries that the Spirit of the Lord has aroused in communities throughout their history.”[18]  Therefore, that happened even before evangelization, a fact it immediately goes on to confirm: In order to respect that fabric, “the ordained ministry of the Indigenous Diaconate must be configured … within the structure of the other ecclesial ministries and services of the indigenous tradition.”[19]

One of the characteristics of this indigenous tradition is that the candidates must be “chosen by God through the community” and presented to the bishop for ordination, for in this way “when the indigenous community proposes one of its members for the ministry, it feels co-responsible and collaborates with him.”[20]

Another peculiarity of Bishop Ruiz’s diaconate is that “in the traditional indigenous hierarchy, being married is an indispensable condition for the posts, as a single person is still not considered fully mature.” After Vatican II restored the permanent and married diaconate, this condition is not contrary to the canon law of the Latin Church. But the Directory goes further by saying that “the participation and support of the wife of the Candidate for the Diaconate is important for the realization of the ministry.”[21] Just in case that was still unclear, it goes on to insist: “The wife of the Candidate to the Diaconate will have a true and effective participation in both the formation and realization of the ministry.”[22] It is, in fact, a “diaconal ministry as a couple[23] : “When the community asks them for a service, the Indigenous Deacon and his wife accept and render it together.” Otherwise, “the harmonious union of the couple would be lost.”[24]

Now if the service (diakonia, in Greek) is given together, it is assumed that “the Indigenous Deacon and his wife, by agreeing to give their service to the community, receive a special charism from the Holy Spirit.”[25] If it were in the plural (“special charisms”), it could be assumed that the indigenous deacon receives the charism of the diaconate and his wife gets an unspecified charism to help her husband. Instead, the two receive together “a special charism,” which leads one to think that the wife also becomes a deacon.

Setting out to build the Indigenous Church, Bishop Samuel Ruiz and his coadjutor, Bishop Raúl Vera López, began to ordain deacons by the dozens in large collective celebrations and managed to ordain just over 400 permanent deacons (and only eight priests in forty years).

The most spectacular ordination ceremony took place on January 18, 2000, in the village of Huixtán, of the Tzotzil ethnic group, during which no fewer than 104 new Indigenous Deacons were ordained, with a novel peculiarity: during the ceremony, the candidates approached the altar flanked by their wives and the bishop pronounced the sacramental formula placing his hands on the heads of both.

The following July 18, a meeting was held in the Vatican, convened by the Secretariat of State and presided over by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, with the participation of Cardinals Ratzinger (Doctrine of the Faith) and Grocholewski (Catholic Education) and six other prelates-secretaries of these and other congregations (including Clergy and Bishops), and the Commission for Latin America. The meeting was convened to watch a video of the ceremony and answer some doubts. On July 20, 2000, Cardinal Medina sent its conclusions to Bishop Felipe Arizmendi, successor of Bishop Samuel Ruiz in the government of the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

Cardinal Medina’s letter states that “there is no basis for questioning the validity of the ordinations of permanent indigenous deacons” despite liturgical irregularities, one of which was that “in the rite of diaconal ordination, the Bishop imposes both hands, rather than only one, on the head of each ordinate” (the other hand was placed on the head of his wife). He points out above all “that the imposition of hands on the heads of the deacons’ wives was an abuse that created confusion and ambiguity as if they had been ‘ordained.’” So “it would be necessary to make a public statement that the wives of the permanent deacons have not received any sacramental ordination nor are they, therefore, ‘deaconesses,’” and also “in the sense that the permanent indigenous deacons already ordained do not constitute a stage with a view to their subsequent ordination as married priests.” Finally, Cardinal Jorge Medina recommends that Bishop Arizmendi suspend the ordinations of indigenous deacons “for a non-brief time.”

In response, the bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas organized a protest march of 10,000 indigenous people and several meetings of deacons in which “the decision was taken, from the base, to not take any step back.” In December 2001, the new bishop ordained seven new indigenous deacons in a remote village, “convinced that there was no prohibition to ordain new deacons and that more permanent deacons were needed in some parishes,” and he offered to do more ordinations “on non-distant dates.” Cardinal Medina wrote him again on February 1, 2002, this time banning him from holding new ordinations and pointing out that this would amount to “continuing to maintain a model alien to the tradition and life of the Church.”

Instead of the bishop, the deacons responded on February 26 with a letter to John Paul II requesting that the ordinations continue, as there were around seven hundred candidates for the diaconate: “Do not undercut the strength of this native Church,” they said, adding, in a tone of blackmail: “If the Vatican no longer supports us … after a while, children can die without sacraments because there are no more deacons.”[26]

Bishop Arizmendi reiterated the request in 2005, but the new prefect for the Divine Worship, Cardinal Francis Arinze, responded by summarizing what was decided in a new meeting with representatives of several dicasteries: “The ideology that promotes the implementation of an Autochthonous Church in the Diocese continues to be latent. In this sense, the Interdicasterial Meeting has made a pronouncement for a suspension of eventual ordinations of permanent deacons until the underlying ideological problem has been resolved…. In addition, the diaconate supposes a personal vocation, not by community designation but by an official call of the Church…. Finally, it should be emphasized that to nourish expectations contrary to the Magisterium and Tradition among the faithful, as in the case of a permanent diaconate oriented towards a married priesthood, places the Holy See in the situation of having to reject the different requests and pressures and, in this way, to appear as intolerant.”[27]

On September 26, 2006, the Cardinal wrote again to Archbishop Arizmendi at the request of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, imposing detailed modifications to the Diocesan Pastoral Plan and to the diocesan Directory for the indigenous Diaconate in passages considered “inadmissible” for “containing serious doctrinal and pastoral ambiguities.”[28]

The rapid march of the “indigenous ministries as a couple” came to a forced stop, but that did not represent a defeat for the process of gradual leveling between the clergy and the laity, which continued to follow the slow march[29] of the “moderate” currents entrenched in episcopal agencies.

For example, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, in the document titled “Mission and Ministries of Lay Christians,” approved at its 1999 annual Assembly, and better known as “Document 62,” after diluting the sacred ministry in a list of ministries composed of four groups – “recognized,” “entrusted,” “instituted,” and finally “ordained” – adds that “the ordained ministry, in an ecclesiology of totality and in a wholly ministerial Church, does not hold the monopoly of Church ministeriality” and that “its specific charism is that of the presidency of the community and therefore of animation, coordination and – with the indispensable active and adult participation of the whole community – of the final discernment of charisms.”[30]  It is difficult to imagine a more reductive formula of the authority of a pastor along with his flock and which best corresponds to Leonardo Boff’s definition of the priesthood as “a specific charism with the function of being the principle of unity among all charisms.”[31]

However, for the progressive current, this dilution of the priesthood in a sea of “ministries” is not enough: it is necessary to demolish the hierarchical structure of the Church founded on the sacrament of Sacred Orders that establishes an essential difference between the clergy and the laity. They plan to achieve this in the next Special Synod on the pan-Amazon region, of which the Instrumentum laboris is the springboard for this self-demolition of the priesthood.

[1] Ed. Sal Terrae, Santander, 1984, 4th Spanish edition (the first original edition, in Portuguese, is from 1977). All the following quotations are from this edition (our translation).

[2] P. 38.

[3] P. 39.

[4] P. 40.

[5] P. 40-41.

[6] P. 44.

[7] P. 57.

[8] Pp. 61-62.

[9] P. 63.

[10] P. 65.

[11] P. 66.

[12] Pp. 97-98.

[13] P. 134.

[14] Cfr. L. Boff, Igreja: carisma e poder, Editora Ática, São Paulo, edition of 1994 that includes the documents related to the controversy with the Vatican, pp. 274-275.

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

[16] Interview with Eleazar López on the occasion of the fifth Encuentro de Teología India, organized by Cristophe Sixt, S.J. and Fernando López, S.J., in Manaus-AM, Brazil, 4/21-26/2006, https://theo.kuleuven.be/en/research/centres/centr_lib/artigos/2006-04-entrevista-p-eleazar-lopez-zapoteca-mexico.pdf

[17] Cf. En busca de la tierra sin mal: Mitos de origen y sueños de futuro de los pueblos indios, Memoria del IV Encuentro-Taller Ecuménico  Ikua Sati, Asunción, Paraguay, May 6-10,2002, https://dspace.ups.edu.ec/bitstream/123456789/11732/1/En%20busca%20de%20la%20tierra%20sin%20mal.pdf

[18] N° 140.

[19] N° 113.

[20] N° 209.

[21] N° 133.

[22] N° 134.

[23] N° 135.

[24] N° 212.

[25] N° 210.

[26] https://www.jornada.com.mx/2002/03/27/044n1con.php?printver=1

[27] https://es.zenit.org/articles/carta-vaticana-sobre-la-ordenacion-de-diaconos-permanentes-en-san-cristobal-de-las-casas-mexico/

[28] http://www.conoze.com/marco.php?doc=6229 y http://paulosuess.blogspot.com/2012/10/roma-constata-teologia-de-la-liberacion.html

[29] In his work, Revolution and Counterrevolution, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira comments: “This revolutionary process takes place at two different speeds. One is fast and generally destined to fail in the short term. The other is much slower and has usually proven successful. …The role of each of these speeds in the march of the Revolution should be studied. It might be said that the more rapid movements are useless, but that is not the case. The explosion of these extremisms raises a standard and creates a fixed target whose very radicalism fascinates the moderates, who slowly advance toward it. Thus, socialism shuns communism, which it silently admires and tends toward” (Chap. VI, 4).

[30] N° 87.

[31] Eclesiogénesis, p. 43.

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