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Pan Amazon Synod: the Fulfillment of an Old Plan

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Pope Francis with Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez
Pope Francis with Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez

“With this Synod, a 30 to 40 year-long journey of the Latin American Church reaches maturity.”

With these words, Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Barreto, Vice-President of Repam (Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network) reveals a fundamental aspect of the coming Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome in October: It is an longstanding plan of the most daring currents of Liberation Theology finally arriving at fruition thanks to Pope Francis.

What are we talking about?

José Carlos MariáteguiSo-called “indigenist” currents appeared in Latin America at the beginning of the twentieth century, promoted by communists. This is the case, for example, of the indigenism promoted by José Carlos Mariátegui, founder of the Peruvian Communist Party. These currents believed that the Indians were true “proletarians”, that is, a class to be launched as an “historical subject” to wage class struggle against the bourgeoisie. “The movement spread rapidly, stimulated first by the Mexican Revolution (1910), and then by the Russian Revolution (1917),” comments prof. Eugenio Chang-Rodríguez, of the City University of New York.

The Comintern monitored events closely and instigated the development of this indigenism as a tool of Soviet expansionism. Eventually, the Institute of Latin American Studies of the Soviet Academy of Sciences took on this task. This type of indigenism dealt mainly with Indians from the Andes, almost completely neglecting Amazonian ones.

From the 1960s, also the so-called Liberation Theology began to deal with Andean Indians from a strictly Marxist perspective, that is, as an “oppressed class” in need of “liberation” through class struggle in order to establish socialism. Gustavo Gutiérrez, the father of liberation theology, writes, “The search for [Latin America’s] own socialist paths is making its way. In this matter, the solitary figure of José Carlos Mariátegui always indicates a route.” Not surprisingly, Gutiérrez’s dedicates his main work to José María Arguedas, Peruvian anthropologist and ethnologist, and standard-bearer of the indigenous current.

Little by little, however, liberation theologians began to turn their sights to the Amazon, attempting not so much to involve the local natives in the old-style class struggle but to go beyond Marxism by embracing certain post-modern currents that already bordered on pantheism. It was now a question of proposing tribal life as an ideal beyond socialism. Indigenous Liberation Theology and Ecological Liberation Theology begin to take shape. These theologies went hand in hand with so-called structuralist currents such as the one proposed by Claude Lévi-Strauss, and with ecological currents, especially those linked to the Socialist International.

This development was accentuated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and therefore with the gradual abandonment of Marxism as a method of analysis. This collapse did not catch liberation theologians unprepared. Already in 1980, they had organized a world conference in New York to explore new horizons. In fact, one ‘horizon’ then proposed was indigenism. Condemned by the Vatican, orphan of its historical praxis, liberation theology reorganized around this new axis. “We often have the impression that liberation theology is dead. Nothing could be more false!” – explained Chilean liberation theologian Pablo Richard Guzmán in a lecture in Madrid in 1991. “Today it is possible to reconstruct liberation theology and the basic ecclesial communities starting from a new historical conjuncture. … This is what we are doing with the Indians … with indigenous theology,” he added.

Mons Leonidas Proaño with indians

A pioneer in this enterprise was Most Rev. Leonidas Proaño (1910-1988), bishop of Riobamba, Ecuador. Here is how he explains their goal: “The only way left for the peoples of Latin America to change the so-called established order is an authentic revolution … global, radical, fast … that has the Indians as its protagonists.” In 1977, he organized a Latin American congress of theologians and liberation activists, which the Government interrupted because it considered subversive. In fact, among the documents seized was none other than a “Plan for the Latin American Revolution.” It is no coincidence that Ecuador is today the main forge of these doctrines and the headquarters to several indigenist organizations such as Repam and Conaie.

Another pioneer was Most Rev. Samuel Ruiz (1924-2011), bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. According to this prelate, it was not up to him to evangelize the Indians, but the other way around. How the Indians Have Converted Me is the title of his latest book. In 1974, he organized the first Indigenist Congress, titled “Let Us Join Our Forces for Liberation.” It is no coincidence that the Zapatista revolution broke out in Chiapas in 1994, involving many pastoral agents linked to that diocese.

Indigenist Theology was launched internationally during a conference in Madrid in 1991.

In 1992, the fifth centenary of the discovery of America, as Catholics were preparing to celebrate the Iberian epic that brought the faith of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the New World, the Left organized a huge campaign to challenge the evangelization of America.

The “Catholic Left” simply could not fail to join. A proof of this was the 11th John XXIII Congress of Theology, held in 1991 at the Calasanz College in Madrid. Titled “Fifth Centenary: Memory and Liberation,” the congress was a long and insolent series of diatribes against the missionary and civilizing work of Spain. Speakers and participants took to the microphone to denounce the “Spanish invasion”. Not without a certain masochism, there were multiple requests for forgiveness for the “dispossession” of aboriginal cultures. “I prefer the tribes to an invading empire,” said a speaker.

The event also served as a platform to launch the “Indigenist Theology”. Despite repeated mentions that the speakers “had not seen one another for months,” each of them put together the features of the aforementioned theology with the precision of a scientific work.

Ecological Liberation Theology, or Ecotheology, was also forming in parallel and in close connection with these developments. It proposes none other than the Earth as a “theological subject” in need of “liberation” from man’s “oppression” (excuse the plethora of quotation marks, but in this matter they are a must…).

“To the cry of the poor we must add the cry of the Earth,” announced Leonardo Boff. “Ecology is the new paradigm that comes from the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth and brings cosmocentrism, that is, the centrality of ecology, which replaces anthropocentrism, at the core of theological reflection,” stated Emerson Sbardelotti Tavares in his report at the International Congress of Theology held in Brazil in 2012.

So these currents, hitherto confined to Latin America and to extreme fringes of liberation theology, are now bursting into the heart of the Church with an extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pan Amazon region. Cardinal Barretto is right when he says, “With this Synod, a long journey of 30-40 years reaches maturity.” The problem is to know whether this is a path of construction or destruction.

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