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The Pan-Amazon Synod, or Eleazar López’s Revenge on Joseph Ratzinger

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The coming Synod will take place in Rome and will deal with the Amazon, the vast lowland area of South America. Paradoxically, however, the great winner of the event will be a Zapotec Indian born in high mountainous areas of North America, more precisely in Oaxaca, Mexico. He is Father Eleazar Opez Hernandez,[1]  a priest of the diocese of Tehuantepec dedicated to indigenous pastoral since 1970 and “considered the ‘midwife of Indian theology’ in Latin America.”[2]

Back in the 1990s, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, asked a discreet professor at the University of Salamanca, the Jesuit Luis Ladaria Ferrer, today cardinal-prefect of the said Congregation, to make a study and give an opinion on the writings of Eleazar Opez.[3]

In May 1996, the CDF organized in Guadalajara (Mexico) the Second Meeting of Presidents of Doctrinal Commissions of the Episcopal Conferences of Latin America. In that closed-door meeting, for a week, Cardinal Ratzinger himself gave a lecture on “The current Situation of Faith and Theology.” In it, he described the crisis of liberation theology resulting from the “the fall of the European governmental systems based on Marxism [which] turned out to be a kind of twilight of the gods for that theology of redeeming political praxis.” He went on to note that, “relativism has thus become the central problem of faith at the present time” and denounced particularly “the so-called pluralist theology of religions,”[4] giving examples with European and Asian theologians and with the American New Age. Yet he carefully avoided mentioning the form that the pluralistic theology of religions was assuming in Latin America, that is, Indian Theology, which was in fact the main reason for convening the meeting, as well as its central focus.

However, in the meeting’s closing press conference, the panzer cardinal vigorously attacked Indian theology: “Ratzinger cited as doctrinal deviations,” says a report, “those movements that seek an Indian theology and use these peoples to propose particular points of view, especially to make a regression and cast Christianity aside. They want to resuscitate the rites, beliefs and religions of the natives as they were before the Conquest, as if the Gospel had been oppressive.” He added, “There has been talk here of a new way of manipulating indigenous peoples and their cultures. Anthropologists, pseudo-theologians and other people very supportive of indigenism have come here who want to turn the natives into museum pieces or folklore objects in order to attract tourism.”[5]

There is no doubt that among the “pseudo-theologians”, Cardinal Ratzinger had in mind Fr. Eleazar Opez, who had already obtained his stripes as one of the most outstanding speakers at the Latin American Meetings on Indian Theology. The first meeting took place in Mexico in 1990, and in it, he presented a paper titled “Indian Theology Today.”[6] In that season, he was the main intellectual animator of the National Center for Assistance to Indigenous Missions, CENAMI, an autonomous body that acted in collaboration (not free from tensions) with the Mexican episcopate, and the great promoter of that theology.

Three years later, at the press conference on the plane taking him to Mexico, Pope John Paul II himself expressed the same concern as his guardian of the faith. When asked about his hopes for Chiapas and the indigenous people (the region was still involved in the “Zapatista” conflict and was shaken on the religious level by controversies on the “native church” favored by Most Rev. Samuel Ruiz, Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas), the pontiff answered sharply: “Today there is a great deal of thought about replacing liberation theology with indigenous theology, which would be another version of Marxism. The real solution lies in solidarity.”[7]

Showing more condescendence with Indian Theology than with its matrix, Liberation Theology, at the end of 1999, Cardinal Ratzinger believed it necessary to ask Bishop Felipe Arizmendi, recently elected Secretary General of CELAM, “to promote theological dialogues between bishops and promoters of Indian Theology in order to assess the contributions of this Theology and discern those points that require clarification.”[8]  In July 2004, he wrote a letter to Cardinal Francisco Javier Errázuriz, then president of CELAM, reminding him that “according to the previously agreed plan, other meetings should be called, this time of a regional nature, to continue the journey of delving deeper into the different doctrinal contents of Indian Theology until a complete and definitive clarification of its problematic aspects already identified is reached.”[9]  In fact, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith appointed as its delegate for that dialogue the Colombian Archbishop Octavio Ruiz Arenas, later Vice President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (CAL).

In July 2005, Bishop Felipe Padilla Cardona, then bishop of Tehuantepec, the diocese in which Fr. Eleazar Opez is incardinated, summoned him to say that he had received a letter from CDF expressing concern for his theology and, in particular, for a recent lecture at a meeting of the Association of Catholic Missiologists.[10] Upon returning from an ad limina visit of the Mexican bishops to Rome, in October of that year the bishop informed him that the CDF had decided to transfer the clarification of his case to the Mexican Episcopal Conference, reserving the right to intervene only if it were not resolved at the local level. In fact, a commission of four bishops was formed to dialogue with the Zapotec theologian, but his bishop imposed on him as a conservative measure to leave the Support Center for Indigenous Missions and return to the diocese to carry out parish work. The “sanction” was short-lived and soon after the priest was able to return to the Mexican capital to continue his indigenist activities at CENAMI.

However, the theologian Lopez was not the main problem the Holy See faced in Mexico, but rather the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, which put into practice many of the concepts of Indian Theology from the time it was governed by the controversial Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a policy that continued under his successor, the aforementioned Bishop Felipe Arizmendi.

The Vatican was particularly anxious about the plan to create an “indigenous church” by ordaining hundreds of indigenous people as permanent deacons and giving them the hope that in the future they could eventually be ordained priests.[11] The influence of Indian Theology in this pastoral was clear in an interview of late Bishop Ruiz, then bishop emeritus, with liberation theologian Juan Tamayo: “You will have read Eleazar Opez and other people involved in the field of indigenous theology. Eleazar’s reflection is doubly valid because he is an indigenous priest who lives within the indigenous pastoral,” said the prelate.[12]

In October 2005, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, wrote to Bishop Arizmendi an official letter reiterating the prohibition to ordain permanent deacons in San Cristobal de las Casas “until the underlying ideological problem is solved.” He affirmed that, “the ideology that promotes the implementation of the project of an Autochthonous Church continues to be latent in the Diocese.” He stressed particularly that “nourishing in the faithful expectations contrary to the Magisterium and Tradition, as in the case of a permanent diaconate oriented towards a married priesthood places the Holy See in the situation of having to reject different requests and pressures that make it appear intolerant.”[13]

The specific “case” of Father Eleazar Opez reemerged after Cardinal Ratzinger assumed the pontifical throne as Benedict XVI. In May 2007, on the sidelines of the CELAM Conference in Aparecida, his substitute in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, gave the Mexican theologian a private interview in which he said, as a preamble, that “I already [knew] you because of documents they had brought me about [you].” And he emphatically added: “You want the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to make decisions in favor of Indigenous Pastoral and Indian Theology, but the Congregation cannot make those decisions until it has the certainty that such decisions do not affect the integrity of the faith. Let you, who claim to have these certainties, present them to the Congregation so that we can act accordingly.”[14]

In that same general assembly of CELAM in Aparecida, the term “Indian Theology” appeared in the first draft of its final declaration, on the initiative of the president of the Panamanian Episcopal Conference. In the second draft, however, as it became known later, the expression was withdrawn “by the intervention of higher authorities.” A motion signed by 17 presidents of episcopal conferences (well above the 7 required by the regulation) was presented to call for its reintroduction.

 Cardinal Levada intervened in the plenary giving reasons not to do so, and finally the reinsertion was rejected by a narrow margin of 59-63. According to Father Lopez, Cardinal Levada had assured him that his opposition was “not because the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was against Indian theology, but because we had to wait for the discernment process begun by the bishops from their national conferences and from CELAM to culminate with an official statement of recognition by the Congregation” that “would likely take place in September 2007, when a specific meeting to decide on this matter would be held.” The said interdicasterial meeting actually took place in Rome, but “the official use of the term Indian Theology in the Church was not approved there.”[15]

Five years later, Father Opez was still a thorn in the side of the CDF. In March 2012, the theologian was called by Most Rev. Carlos Aguiar Retes, then simultaneously president of the Mexican Episcopate and CELAM, who gave him excerpts from an official letter from CDF signed by Most Rev. Ladaria, then secretary of the Congregation. It said, “Fr. Eleazar Lopez Hernandez, one of the best known exponents of Indian Theology, expounded to me his conviction that it would be better to start talking about Indigenous Wisdom rather than Indian Theology. This would certainly be a great step forward that would take the entire discussion to a much clearer and more accurate plane and language. …. It would be very useful if Fr. Eleazar Opez Hernandez writes an article explaining the need for this change and the reasons for it.”[16]

Obeying that request, two months later the “midwife” of Indian Theology published an article titled, “Indian Theology and its Place in the Church” in which, far from accepting the change of denomination, he reaffirmed his previous statements that they deserve the title of Indian Theology even though “the so-called Indian theologies are not based on great philosophical theses, have no systematizations, successful books or notable speakers” nor “a claim to universality or to prove anything to anyone facing the requirements of reason.” Fr. Lopez emphasized that indigenous theologies “do not employ discursive or philosophical language, but a mythical-symbolic one” because they are “simply the indigenous word about God, about the world, about ourselves.” He concluded: “All Church theology should be like that because God cannot be objectified like the other objects of knowledge and science.”[17]

Five months later, participating in an International Congress of Theology in São Leopoldo (Brazil), Eleazar Lopez added that, in his opinion, while the expression “indigenous wisdom” is valuable “because it contains the knowledge that our peoples have been gathering in millenary processes of savoring life and God in all his manifestations,” its use “has pejorative connotations of primitive knowledge without scientific basis.” Therefore, if we accept the CDF proposal “we are asked, to assume in the Church, no joking, the condition of inferiority that colonial society imposed on us.” Thus, “to stop talking about Indian theology or the theology of indigenous peoples solely by a mandate of authority would mean renouncing our approach to establish a just relationship between the Church and our peoples, who want to be in it with the foundations of their ancestral cultures.”[18]

Less than a year later, Benedict XVI resigned from the Chair of Peter and was succeeded by Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Just nine months after his election, Pope Francis received in audience Archbishop Felipe Arizmendi, accompanied by his auxiliary bishop. As a result of that interview, in May 2014, Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, sent a letter to San Cristobal de las Casas in which the Holy See again authorized the ordination of permanent deacons in the diocese.

But the greatest accolade came on February 13, 2016, when Pope Francis traveled especially to Chiapas to visit the tomb of the controversial Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who had died two years earlier. Here is how Elio Masferrer Kan, a researcher at the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), assessed his pastoral activities to a BBC reporter: “In Chiapas there is an organization that is evidently the result of Indian theology, the Zapatista National Liberation Army.”[19]

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the municipal sports center. It was attended by many indigenous deacons and readings during Mass were in native languages.. In his sermon, surrounded by figures of animals, the pontiff cited Popol Vuh (the book of mythical legends of the Quiche Maya). Largely quoting from his encyclical Laudato Si, he said that we cannot remain deaf “in the face of one of the greatest environmental crises in history.” He added, “In this you have much to teach us, to teach humanity. Your peoples, as the bishops of Latin America have recognized, know how to relate harmoniously with nature, which they respect as ‘a source of food, a common home and an altar of human sharing’ (Aparecida, 492).”

Commenting on these events two weeks later, the Zapotec theologian declared that the indigenous people of Mexico “are the only ones who truly believe in the transcendence of the events that frame this papal visit” since “as did their ancestors who perceived in the arriving teul or foreigner that their God Quetzalcoatl was returning, they saw in the Pope a teopízcatl, that is, a divine presence that came to the aid of their needs to restore the harmony of good living and living together.”[20]

However, Fr. Eleazar Opez Hernandez’s real revenge on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was consummated with the convocation of the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, of which the preparatory document explicitly cites Indian Theology, stating that “in the process of thinking a Church with an Amazonian face” new paths will open that “will impact ministries, liturgy, and theology (Indian theology).”

The footnote refers to the final document of the VI Symposium of Indian Theology, organized by CELAM in Asunción, Paraguay, in September 2017, which states:

“The theology of each people has its roots and is nourished in its territory and historical context; for this reason, indigenous theologies are also contextual theologies.

“Since there are hundreds of indigenous peoples, each with its own theology, worldview and cosmo-experience, the process of inculturation of the Gospel must respect times, spaces, processes, which requires listening without preconceived ideas, bearing in mind that the Gospel is a proposal and not an imposition. …

“We reaffirm that the method of Indian theologies is strongly symbolic, narrative, cosmic, and celebrative.”

And, as if it were a direct reply to Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1996 lecture in Guadalajara on the pluralistic theology of religions, the final document of the VI Symposium on Indian Theology concludes, “It is urgent to move forward a process of intercultural and interreligious dialogue to enrich one another, bearing in mind that our theologies are not complete or definitive. It is time to promote intercultural and interreligious theologies as a process for the elaboration of indigenous theologies.”[21]

[1] Advisor to the Latin American Episcopal Council – CELAM, member of the movement of indigenous priests of Mexico, of the Ecumenical Association of Theologians of the Third World – ASETT, of the Team of Amerindian Theologians, of the International Association of Catholic Missiologists – IACM, of the Latin American Ecumenical Articulation of Indigenous Pastoral – AELAPI.

[2] Fr. Nicanor Sarmiento Tupayupanqui OMI, “La Teología india es un hecho histórico en América Latina”, in En busca de la tierra sin mal – Memoria del IV Encuentro-Taller Ecuménico Latinoamericano de Teología India, Ed. Abya Yala, 2004, p. 226.  The nickname originates from a text by Fr. Eleazar Opez himself: “I do not consider myself a father of Indian Theology, because this theology existed before and belongs to our peoples. It has befallen some of us to help open the doors so people we can enter and leave, so that space inside the church is opened. … We have done this service to create conditions for the Indigenous to emerge in society and in the church. This fills us with pride. They can call us midwives, spokespersons or whatever…”(Interview with Jesuits Christophe Six and Fernando Opez on the sidelines of the V Encounter on Indian Theology-

https://theo.kuleuven.be/en/research/centres/centr_lib/artigos/2006-04-entrevista-p-eleazar-lopez-zapoteca-mexico.pdf)

[3] Eleazar Opez, La Teología india y su lugar en la Iglesia, CENAMI, 2012, p. 3 https://cimi.org.br/pub/assteologica/Eleazar_LATEOLOGIAINDIAYSULUGARENLAIGLESIA.pdf)

[4] http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/incontri/rc_con_cfaith_19960507_guadalajara-ratzinger_en.html

[5] “Se manipula a los indígenas y a sus culturas, acusa el cardenal”, La Jornada, 11-05-1996 (https://ecologica.jornada.com.mx/1996/05/11/ratzinge.html).

[6] http://usuaris.tinet.cat/fqi_sp02/docs/indiahoy.doc

[7] http://www.conoze.com/doc.php?doc=1361

[8] Felipe Arizmendi, “Eventos del Celam y de la Cem sobre Teología India”, lecture at the XV National Encounter of Indigenous Priests, 2008, in http://www.amerindiaenlared.org/contenido/10638/eventos-del-celam-y-de-la-cem-sobre-teologia-india/.

[9] Cf. Felipe Arizmendi, “Eventos del Celam y de la Cem sobre Teología India”, cit.

[10] María Pilar Aquino, “Theology and Indigenous Cultures of the Americas: Conditions of Dialogue,” CTSA Proceedings 61 / 2006, p. 40.

CONDITIONS OF DIALOGUE”https://ejournals.bc.edu/ojs/index.php/ctsa/article/viewFile/4794/4272

[11] The 2004 Pastoral Plan noted in its article 58 that one should “listen attentively and discern the solicitude of some communities to have married Indian deacons admitted to priestly ordination with an adequate previous formation, ready to assume the Vatican’s decision.” For its part, the Diocesan Directory for Permanent Diaconate imposed by his predecessor in 1998 stated, “Most Rev. Samuel Ruiz García, as Bishop of our local Church, has approved the search for new ministries in conformity with the reality in which we live; he especially wanted that we reflect on the Sacrament of Order. Candidates were elected in the tseltal and tsotsil area communities who were apt to be ordained deacons after a 3 to 5 years period of formation and testing. The Bishop was concerned about the priesthood of Indians and the establishment of an autochthonous Church” (n° 34). “The communities continue to seek and attain greater organicity and commitment. They continue to draw from the rich well of their ancestral traditions, the fertile sap that gives them the necessary life and originality to build the Autochthonous Church in the catholicity of the church.  They now seek to find, amid threats of death and extinction, how to attain indigenous Priesthood according to their peculiar way of being, with the characteristics proper to their own culture, to reaffirm ecclesial communion and strengthen catholicity.” (n° 55).

[12] Iglesia Viva, n° 214, April-June 2003, http://www.redescristianas.net/entrevista-con-monsenor-samuel-ruiz-obispo-emerito-de-cristobal-de-las-casas-mexicojuan-jose-tamayo/

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

[14] Eleazar Opez, La Teología india y su lugar en la Iglesia, CENAMI, 2012, p. 4.

[15] Eleazar Opez, La Teología india y su lugar en la Iglesia, CENAMI, 2012, p. 16.

[16] Eleazar López, La Teología india y su lugar en la Iglesia, CENAMI, 2012, p. 1. Indeed, on the sidelines of the IV Symposium on Indian Theology organized by CELAM in Lima in April 2011, the Indigenist theologian  had held a friendly conversation over lunch with Msgr. Luis Ladaria.

[17] Ibid, p. 7.

[18] Idem, “Teologías indígenas en las iglesias cristianas – ¿Podemos los indígenas ganar en ellas

el lugar que merecemos?”, La teología de la liberación en prospectiva, t. II, p. 301-302.

[19] https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2016/02/160216_samuel_ruiz_chiapas_mexico_papa_francisco_an

[20] https://observatorioeclesial.org.mx/2016/02/28/persectiva-indigena-de-la-visita-del-papa-francisco-en-mexico/

[21] http://www.celam.org/conclusiones-del-vi-simposio-de-teologia-india-2286.html

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