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A papal contender's optimistic vision: church must engage society, says Brazilian Cardinal Hummes.

Cardinals seen as papal candidates do not issue campaign brochures or publish insta-books laying out their vision. Every now and then, however, a cardinal uses some public occasion to lay down a marker, not quite a campaign speech, but a statement of conviction about themes central to church life and, consequently, to the next papacy.

One such agenda-setting moment occurred March 16 at a Vatican conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, titled "The Call to Justice: The Legacy of Gaudium et Spes 40 Years Later." (The reference is to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, issued by the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65).

The evening's main speaker was Cardinal Claudio Hummes of Sao Paolo, Brazil, widely considered a leading Latin American contender for the papacy. Hummes is deeply involved in social justice issues and is among those cardinals whose primary, though not exclusive, interest is applying the Gospel to questions of economic justice and the "option for the poor."

In his plenary address, Hummes outlined a vision of the church that corresponds to this position. Rich in optimism, Hummes' vision contrasts with more defensive currents in contemporary Catholicism that accent the protection of Christian identity over against secular modernity.

Quoting extensively from Gaudium et Spes, Hummes noted that it expressed an optimistic reading of the world, and affirmed "the autonomy of earthly affairs." Hummes called that recognition "a great step of the council, and one that synthesized it with modernity."

Hummes praised Gaudium et Spes for embracing the human rights tradition of modernity, including "liberty/autonomy, equality, fraternity, dignity and the inviolable authority of the intimacy of the moral conscience."

Hummes then turned to Gaudium et Spes' call for the church to be "inserted in the world."

"Gaudium et Spes, inspired by all the reflection of the council, emphasizes that the church is at the service of the human person and all human beings ... and does not seek to dominate humanity. In this, it follows the example of Christ, who presented himself as a servant," Hummes said.

That observation led Hummes to reflect on the church's engagement with other social forces.

"In this context, the church supports and favors every effort today to seek the full development of the personality of all human beings, and to promote their fundamental rights, their dignity and liberty," he said.

Yet Hummes emphasized that that passion for social justice does not have to come at the expense of Christian identity. Concern for development, he said, must not neglect efforts "to help people to encounter the full truth about human beings and their vocation in this world," meaning "Jesus Christ, in whom this full truth is met."

Hummes returned repeatedly to the idea of the church as servant.

"A servant church must have as its priority solidarity with the poor," he said. "The faith must express itself in charity and in solidarity, which is the civil form of charity," Hummes said. "Today more than ever the church faces this challenge. In fact, effective solidarity with the poor, both individual persons and entire nations, is indispensable for the construction of peace. Solidarity corrects injustices, reestablishes the fundamental rights of persons and of nations, overcomes poverty and even resists the revolt that injustice provokes, eliminating the violence that is born with revolt and constructing peace."

Hummes then asked a rhetorical question arising from these reflections.

"Does not today's terrorism," Hummes asked, "have as one of its ingredients a revolt against an imposed poverty, experienced as practically irreversible in the short- and medium-term?"

Hummes emphasized that in its social engagement, the church does not seek to impose solutions but to engage in dialogue.

"The church, inserted and active in human society and in history, does not exist in order to exercise political power or to govern the society," he said, but to "organize and promote the common good."

"The church must constantly promote dialogue," Huron, s said. "Perhaps it is among the most important methods today for positive and constructive relations with society."

Hummes said this must be "a dialogue with courage--open, frank, sensible and humble. A dialogue with the contemporary person, with the human race, science, the advances in biotechnology, with philosophy and the cultures, with politics and economics, with everything that has to do with social justice, with human rights, and with solidarity with the poor."

"A dialogue with the religions," Hummes added. "A constant dialogue, systematic, with professionalism, constructive. A dialogue that knows how to listen, to debate, to discern and to assimilate whatever is good and true, just and consistent with human dignity, proposed by the interlocutor. A dialogue that at the same time knows how to proclaim the truth of which the church is the depository, and to which it must remain permanently faithful. However, it must always remain a dialogue, and never an imposition of the church's own convictions and methods. Propose, not impose. To serve, and not to dominate.

"A church of dialogue in the contemporary world ... a church, taking on the mission of Jesus, which is in the world not to judge humanity, but to love it and to save it."

[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is]
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Title Annotation:World
Author:Allen, John L., Jr.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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