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The new evangelization in Latin American perspective.

The "romanizing" of post-Vatican II innovations in Latin America means a weakening of effective involvement of lay activists and the poor.

In recent decades, conservative movements within different religious traditions, notably Islam and evangelical Protestantism, have received a great deal of popular and scholarly attention. It is tempting to understand recent trends in the Roman Catholic Church in parallel terms, as the ascendance of a backward-looking sector within the broader institution. However, this interpretation misreads, or at least oversimplifies, changes within Catholicism today, which are more ambiguous than a simple fundamentalist renewal.

Many of the changes are centered in Latin America, the site of the Catholic Church's most dramatic innovations during the 1960s and '70s. Since church-based projects nurtured important social movements during a period of political repression in much of Latin America, shifts in the church can be expected to force changes in these movements and affect their constituent groups. Making sense of Latin American politics still requires knowledge of trends and power structures within the Catholic Church, as do efforts to understand religious diversity in the region. Although Protestantism is growing in Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church retains a great deal of power, and what happens within it affects other religious groups in Latin America (and vice versa). Beyond Latin America, progressive Catholicism, and especially liberation theology and the base Christian communities associated with it, inspired theologians, activists, and congregations in the U.S. and Europe to reconsider, and sometimes to transform, their own approach to social involvement, theology, and liturgy. Present changes in the Latin American Catholic Church thus reverberate far beyond religious and regional boundaries. At a time of crisis for modern humanism, such changes in Catholicism can shed light on the fate of religious and social reform movements.

The Latin American church's recent transformations, known collectively as the "new evangelization," are both incomplete and paradoxical. They entail a partial break with some progressive currents unleashed by the Second Vatican Council and a conservative redeployment of others, which gives post-Vatican II pastoral methods an alternative reading that supports the institutional church's drive to affirm its unity, authority, and universality. In other words, the conservative trends within Catholicism stem from concerns by the hierarchy and especially Pope John Paul II about both ecclesial structure and broader social and political currents. They represent an effort to make pastoral method more effective - and to bolster the institutional church - in the context of increasing religious fragmentation, the growth of evangelical Protestantism, and political and economic changes.

Post-Vatican II Pastoral Innovations

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was a turning point for the Catholic Church, marking an aggiornamento (updating), which finally transformed centuries of suspicion and rejection of the secular, modernizing world into dialogue with it. The church became a "pilgrim," eager to listen to and learn from the world and, especially, to respond to the aspirations and needs of the laity. These concerns led the church to update its social doctrine, with a new stress on Catholicism's commitment to justice, and to adopt a series of pastoral innovations designed to extend the church's social reach and increase the role of the laity.

These innovations reached perhaps their highest level of maturity and visibility in Latin America. The best-known initiative was the theology of liberation, a school of thought which both reflected and influenced grassroots pastoral and educational strategies. Many of these efforts had a powerful effect not only within the church but in society at large, fostering the participation of marginalized sectors in social as well as religious activism. Reform efforts actually began in the early to mid-1960s, even before the Vatican II sessions ended. Pastoral workers in different parts of Latin America, and especially Brazil, had begun innovations designed to increase lay leadership and make religious faith more relevant to ordinary people's life experiences. Although these early experiments have received relatively little attention, they helped define and create spaces for the more sweeping changes that occurred in the 1970s.

The 1950s witnessed the emergence of the first grassroots Christian communities (comunidades eclesiais de base, or CEBs), the small, lay-oriented reflection groups which formed the heart of postconciliar pastoral innovations in Latin America. Other groups, with a variety of names but generally similar structures, began to emerge throughout Latin America in the mid-1960s, when a number of other pastoral innovations also emerged. Regional pastoral education centers, such as the Latin American Pastoral Institute (Instituto Pastoral Latinoamericano, or IPLA) in Quito, Ecuador, provided priests and nuns with information and materials about, as well as enthusiasm for, innovative pastoral projects. Growing communication among pastoral workers in the region, facilitated by the Latin American Conference of Religious (Conferencia Latinoamericana de Religiosos, or CLAR) and other regional networks, also encouraged the spread of new pastoral principles and methods.

Perhaps the most important impetus for the emergence of new pastoral perspectives in Latin America was the 1968 meeting of the regional Catholic bishops' conference (Conferencia Episcopal Latinoamericana, or CELAM) in Medellin, Colombia. The purpose of this meeting was to apply Vatican II's principles to the "reality" of Latin America. The single most important guiding principle which emerged from Medellin was a focus on pastoral and social concern for the poor (which became known as "the preferential option for the poor" after CELAM's 1979 meeting in Puebla, Mexico). For a church which had traditionally sided with the dominant classes, making the poor the locus and target of theological reflection and pastoral action would yield radical consequences.

After Medellin, incipient grassroots pastoral strategies such as CEBs and other similar lay-oriented groups received greater institutional recognition and some material support. What joined these different projects was a methodological principle, the see-judge-act method, which sought to link practical concerns ("la realidad actual") with religious values. Although this method underwent significant elaboration as postconciliar reforms took hold in Latin America, it remained the basic pastoral-pedagogical building block in the church's rapprochement with the secular world.

The see-judge-act method was introduced in the late 1940s by the Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn, one of the central figures in the development of Catholic Action,(1) to understand the life conditions of the various segments of the emerging working class. The method is a dynamic process of reflection and praxis, in which a group of believers identifies a specific social fact and works to uncover the economic, social, political, and ideological conditions that lie behind it. In a second step, participants analyze the "facts" and evaluate them to ascertain whether they violate ideals of justice and solidarity. If so, they consider the actions they might take to make the situation more compatible with the Christian vision of the world. On the basis of this reflection, believers can undertake an informed emancipatory praxis. Praxis, in turn, leads to new problems and questions that can be taken up in a new "see" moment, initiating another cycle of reflection and action.

The bishops gathered in Medellin used the see-judge-act method to gain a better understanding of current conditions in Latin America. The method, combined with the use of social scientific analysis, helped them to learn about the precarious life conditions of large segments of the region's population, understand the structural roots of social injustices, and take practical pastoral steps to correct them. The privileging of history and of everyday life in the see-judge-act method opened the way for further elaboration at the theological and pastoral levels. Theologically, the method became what Argentine theologian Juan Luis Segundo calls the "hermeneutic circle," the core epistemological principle of liberation theology. The hermeneutic circle "is the continuing change in our interpretation of the Bible which is dictated by the continuing changes in our present-day reality, both individual and societal," such that "each new reality obliges us to interpret the word of God afresh, to change reality accordingly, and then to go back and reinterpret the word of God again, and so on."(2)

At the pastoral level, Catholic Action's see-judge-act method, particularly in its later Brazilian variant revisao de vida (reflection on a fact of life), influenced pastoral-pedagogical approaches in CEBs and biblical circles. Rather than choosing any social fact and analyzing it, in the revisao de vida and in what CEBs in Spanish-speaking countries call reflexion, laypeople (usually neighbors) come together in small discussion groups. Concentrating on a particular problem in the neighborhood or household (or, less often, in the workplace), the activists seek to grasp underlying causes in order to be able to act effectively. The small group setting and the focus on members' own experiences are constitutive elements of the community's effort to link everyday life and faith.

In linking faith and life through the see-judge-act method, CEBs added new elements to Catholic Action's approach. CEBs place the Bible at the center of the process of reflection on everyday life. Members draw images and narratives from the Bible to make sense of their conditions. By using biblical themes to judge their present conditions and to envision an alternative, utopian reality, they construct a grassroots theology that serves to inspire their efforts to change society and help usher in the reign of God. To be able to draw from the Bible, however, CEB activists must know how to read it by themselves, to avoid the risk of pastoral agents imposing their readings from above. This is why Paulo Freire's dialogical pedagogy played an important role in CEBs and biblical circles. Learning how to read the Bible in the light of one's own experience requires not just literacy programs, but a process of conscientizacion (consciousness-raising), whereby participants learn to "name" their own reality through dialogue with their peers. In conscientizacion, participants no longer view themselves as passive victims of processes they cannot grasp. They develop a critical view of the whole and of the possibilities of change, and thus become potential agents of social transformation.(3)

The see-judge-act method and conscientizacion oriented many pastoral activities in Latin America from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. These activities were linked, in many areas, to social movements and campaigns against human rights abuses, as well as to the development of liberation theology, which made the "popular church" well-known far beyond Latin America. By 1979, however, when CELAM met again, this time in Puebla, Mexico, an increasingly influential conservative faction (led by Bishop Lopez Trujillo of Colombia) sought to roll back some of the Medellin principles. The divisions which surfaced during the Puebla meeting and the preparation of its documents revealed growing ambivalence within the Latin American church, or at least among its official representatives, regarding the direction of pastoral work. Although ultimately the Puebla documents affirmed most of Medellin's principles, the meeting initiated the process of reflection and reconsideration that led to the elaboration of the nueva evangelizacion in the late 1980s and 1990s.

La Nueva Evangelizacion

The first reference to a new evangelization came on March 9, 1983, when Pope John Paul II, speaking to Latin American bishops gathered in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, called for "a new evangelization: new in its ardor, its methods, and expressions."(4) The pontiff's summons came as part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Europe's encounter with the Americas and a preparation for the church's third millennium. However, John Paul's more immediate concern was the continuing erosion of Catholic hegemony and the rapid expansion of other religions, particularly Protestant "sects," in Latin America. Out of this concern, the pope called on the bishops to redouble their efforts to proselytize among those outside the church and to renew the faith of nominal Catholics. Ironically, a similar desire to attract laypeople to church activities had been part of the reason for the spread of CEBs in the 1960s; in the 1980s, however, changing political and economic circumstances and, especially, a new pope gave a different cast to evangelizing projects.

The nueva evangelizacion was more fully elaborated at CELAM's meeting in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in October 1992, inaugurated by John Paul II. Following the pope's 1983 call, the bishops took the new evangelization as a major theme (along with Christian culture and development). It did not mean, they stressed, a rejection of the first evangelization of Latin America during the colonial period, but signaled an effort to build on and complement previous efforts. The new approach represented a "call to conversion" for all Catholics, especially "baptized men and women whose Christianity is devoid of vitality." The bishops called on all parts of the church, including the laity, to be active agents of the new evangelization, each "according to its own nature?

The call for a new evangelization came at a time of significant ideological and institutional realignment within the church. Seeking to reaffirm the church's unity, universality, and hierarchical authority against the radically historicizing consequences of the Second Vatican Council, the Vatican has undertaken a "restoration." According to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and chief architect of the Vatican's conservative realignment, this approach entails a "search for a new equilibrium after all the exaggerations of an indiscriminate opening to the world."(6)

Ratzinger's comment suggests that, as noted earlier, the restoration offensive differs in key ways from postconciliar evangelizing projects. Vatican II's efforts to reach out to the laity focused on increased lay participation in the decision-making process, greater autonomy for local churches and regional episcopal bodies, and the promotion of a plurality of opinions and practices within the church. In contrast, the restoration blueprint enjoins the laity to cooperate obediently with the hierarchy and to follow the Holy See in matters of faith and doctrine. It tends to emphasize "spiritual" and centralized lay movements, such as the charismatic renewal, rather than democratizing projects such as base communities.

These differences are evident even when the new evangelization echoes postconciliar themes. One of these, the church's preferential option for the poor, has been vigorously reiterated by John Paul I! in his many trips to Latin America. During a 1991 trip to Brazil, for example, the pope spoke to inhabitants of a shantytown in Vitoria, Espirito Santo, in the following terms: "You favela residents are very close to the pope's heart because you are very close to Christ's heart. The poor are God's favorites, and Christ showed them a preferential love which the church desires to imitate."(7) In this, the pope's teachings appear to reaffirm Medellin's guiding principles. Nevertheless, a closer inspection of his understanding of the preferential option for the poor reveals sharp differences from the approaches of progressive Latin American Catholicism. These differences are evident in the two Vatican documents dealing with liberation theology: Libertatis Nuntius (1984) and the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (1986).

Libertatis Nuntius took a very critical view of liberation theology, due no doubt to Ratzinger's confrontational approach toward progressive Latin American Catholicism. The Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, however, struck a more conciliatory tone, attempting to synthesize liberationist themes with the call for a new evangelization. Despite this difference, both documents share an interpretation of the option for the poor in nonexclusive, largely apolitical terms. According to the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,

The special option for the poor, far from being a sign of particularism or sectarianism, manifests the universality of the Church's being and mission. This option excludes no one. This is the reason why the Church cannot express this option by means of reductive sociological and ideological categories which would make this preference a partisan choice and a source of conflict.(8)

This reinterpretation of the option for the poor represents a reaction to the perceived threat of secularization and ideologization of the faith in liberation theology's use of social scientific tools, particularly of class analysis. The Catholic hierarchy views the use of class analysis as a potentially divisive practice that erodes the church's universal appeal. Thus, instead of conceiving the option for the poor as the necessary outcome of the "irruption" of a new emancipatory collective subject, as it is seen in liberation theology, the Vatican justifies this option in abstract terms, as the need to defend and promote the dignity of the human being.(9) This dignity is destroyed by injustices that result from human sin and weakness. Contrary to Medellin's recognition of the existence of "structural sin," however, the new evangelization perceives sin in primarily personal terms.(10) According to John Paul II, "All situations of social injustice are first of all 'the result of the accumulation and the concentration of many personal sins.'"(11) This conception of sin shifts the burden of church action away from intervention to change social institutions toward a focus on moral transformation. Thus, the pope affirms that

the church knows and preaches that any social transformation must of necessity take place through the conversion of hearts. That is the church's first and main mission. There must be an emphatic arousal of the moral conscience of all human beings . . . so as to make them sensitive to the demands of justice and prompt them to really meet those demands.(12)

In this context, socio-political consciousness-raising through the see-judge-act method gives way to a spiritual awakening and an appeal to traditional Catholic charity more in line with movements such as the Charismatic renewal.

For post-Medellin progressive Catholics, the option for the poor meant positioning the church within specific struggles for economic justice and political participation. In contrast, the pope's reaffirmation of the "transcendent dignity of the human person" stresses the need to respect freedom of religion, a concern that emerges in part from John Paul II's experience in Eastern Europe. By reformulating the option for the poor in abstract, mainly moralistic and religious terms, the church can preserve its unity and universality without getting involved in the fractious world of class politics. It can claim to be faithful to Vatican II's call for openness toward the world, especially the laity, while trying to immunize itself from power dynamics in the social world.

This concern for unity and the desire to avoid potentially polarizing divisions is evident in a San Salvador parish we studied. The parish has been sharply divided between two Catholic groups: a CEB, which emerged in the early 1970s, and a cofradia (brotherhood), a lay group which espouses a traditional form of folk Catholicism. Over a long and complicated history, the cofradia members and leaders had alienated both laypeople and pastoral workers (including three archbishops) through their refusal to cooperate with progressive pastoral agents. More ominously, some members had close links with military authorities and denounced CEB members as "subversive." As a result, other residents held them responsible for scores of death-squad killings in the neighborhood in the 1970s and '80s.

Pastoral workers did little to reconcile the cofradia members and more progressive parishioners. In fact, pastoral agents generally supported CEB members actively involved in social movements opposed to government repression. This support, in turn, deepened division within the parish. Since the early 1980s, however, a new priest has stressed the need for unity in the parish as the central mission of all Catholics. Some parishioners enthusiastically embraced the call to fellowship, while others, especially long-time CEB members, viewed the drive to join their antagonists in the cofradia with great suspicion. They resented the effort to incorporate the group which, one lay pastoral leader complained, "was so detested by the people."

To carry out his goal to unify the parish, the new priest has concentrated on the promotion of "noncontroversial" activities such as sports programs for the youth. In response to a rise in juvenile delinquency in the neighborhood in the postwar period, the priest sees sports as a strategy to attract truant youths and teach them about values and morality. This San Salvador parish exemplifies the evolution of the option for the poor under the new evangelization: in the face of continuing social dislocation and injustice, the church proposes not structural change, but personal moral conversion for the promotion of local, largely apolitical social projects.

In practical terms, the emphasis on ecclesial universality and unity translates into a recentralization of authority in the hands of the clergy. (This clergy, of course, remains entirely male. Reaffirming the authority of church officials, John Paul II has rejected calls to increase women's leadership in the church.) While Vatican II spurred efforts to enhance the power of the laity through pastoral strategies such as CEBs, the new evangelization strives to preserve the missionary zeal of grassroots initiatives- but only under the close supervision of the clergy. Our San Salvador case study underlines the paradoxical role of laypeople in the nueva evangelizacion. On the one hand, laypeople run various parish commissions, and the priest does not even attend meetings. For the important leadership positions, however, the priest selected laymen without previous pastoral experience in the parish and with no alliances or loyalties except to himself. They appear to follow the guidelines he sets down much more closely than in the past. The priest's style is informal and highly personable, but also tinged with a strong paternalism that was not so evident in the work of previous pastoral agents.

This paradoxical approach to lay participation explains the Vatican's qualified affirmation of base communities. Whereas for liberation theology CEBs represented a participatory, alternative ecclesial model that would challenge the hierarchical and rigid structure of the church,(13) the Vatican sees them primarily as a pastoral strategy to maintain a presence among the poor in the context of fierce intra-religious competition.(14) For the Vatican, CEBs represent a way to reproduce the church's unity and universality at the grassroots. According to the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,

The new basic ecclesial communities and other groups of Christians which have arisen to be witnesses to this evangelical love are the source of great hope for the Church. If they really live in unity with the local Church and the universal Church, they will be a real expression of communion and a means for constructing a still deeper communion. Their fidelity to their mission will depend on how careful they are to educate their members in the fullness of the Christian faith through listening to the Word of God, fidelity to the teaching of the Magisterium, to the hierarchical order of the Church and to sacramental life. If this condition is fulfilled, their experience, rooted in a commitment to the complete liberation of man [sic], becomes a treasure for the whole Church.(15)

The drive to recentralize authority in the clergy goes hand in hand with a new emphasis on liturgy, the sacraments, and morality. Speaking to the Brazilian bishops in 1991, John Paul II reminded them of "the utter importance of teaching clearly on the sacredness of the eucharistic mystery and of liturgical worship - whose center lies in that mystery." A year later, in his opening address to the fourth CELAM conference in Santo Domingo, the pope stated that CEBs "must be stamped with a clear ecclesial identity and find in the eucharist, presided over by a priest, the center of their life and communion among their members, in close union with their pastors and full harmony with the church's magisterium."(16)

The consequences of this emphasis on the sacraments are clear in our second case study of a CEB located in a neighborhood at the periphery of Rio de Janeiro. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the base community had taken an experimental approach to liturgy, which was prepared weekly by a group of lay activists who rotated responsibilities informally. In addition, because the CEB understood liturgy as a way to raise consciousness among its members, the central part of the mass was the reflection on weekly Scriptures in the light of everyday life in the neighborhood. In the mid-1980s this approach changed as the new pastoral agent sought to normalize CEB ritual practices as part of a diocesan initiative. The new priest stressed the need to follow proper liturgical etiquette when preparing the weekly hymns, approaching the altar, and reading biblical texts during mass. Believing that no one in the base community was qualified to oversee liturgical tasks, the priest established a formal liturgy group consisting of people who would have to take a training course at the diocesan level. This move challenged the existing rotation of responsibilities. Seeing their authority and consciousness-raising method under challenge by the new priest, many of the CEB leaders declined to attend the diocesan training course. The priest saw this as a willful attempt to sabotage his pastoral work and sought to isolate those who opposed his efforts. Moreover, he put in charge of the community only those CEB members that did not object to his project. As a result of these internal divisions, the CEB all but disintegrated.

This Brazilian case shows how the stress on liturgy among CEBs can recentralize power in the hands of the priest, a power that had been contested by the emergence of a relatively autonomous lay leadership through a process of consciousness-raising. While the priest has always held power, the new emphasis on liturgy and the sacraments reaffirms his monopoly of religious goods.(17) Furthermore, although implementation of the nueva evangelizacion grants some authority to the laity, it goes only to those laypeople, mostly male, who will carry out the priest's directives. In this regard the Brazilian case resembles the approach of the priest in our San Salvador parish who also carefully monitors the work of lay leaders.

The turn toward the symbolic and ritual elements of Catholic practice is justified by an appeal for an "integral" liberation. Against liberation theology's perceived excessive emphasis on the economic aspects of injustice, the Vatican proposes a more holistic, "authentic" liberation. According to Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul II's encyclical commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Paul VI's Populorum Progressio (1967),

Development which is merely economic is incapable of setting man [sic] free; on the contrary, it will end by enslaving him further. Development that does not include the cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions of man and society, to the extent that it does not recognize the existence of such dimensions and does not endeavor to direct its goals and priorities toward the same, is even less conducive to authentic liberation.(18)

The emphases on symbols and ritual, and on personal sin as the source of unjust structures, translate into a more inward-looking pastoral mode. This is not, however, a call for Catholics to withdraw from the world. The faithful are expected to continue secular activities, but only in ways that do not threaten the church's authority, unity, and universality. Catholics must try to improve the world, but within the limits of the church's ideology and organizational structure. For example, the bishops gathered in Santo Domingo wrote that "when they lack a clear ecclesiological foundation and are not sincerely seeking communion, [base] communities cease being ecclesial and may fall victim to ideological or political manipulation."(19) The church has encouraged, specifically, a move away from party politics, which often challenges believers' allegiance to the church.(20)

An instance of this retrenchment is the reformulation of pastoral work in base communities. Rather than fostering participation in extra-ecclesial social movements that address larger social questions, CEBs and other pastoral programs now tend to concentrate on personal and family problems. This follows an emphasis stressed by John Paul II at Santo Domingo. During the meeting the pope quoted from Familiaris Consortio to insist that:

There is no genuine human development, true liberation or preferential option for the poor unless it is based on the very foundations of the dignity of the person and of the surroundings in which the person must develop. . . . Hence among the topics and options that require the entire attention of the church, I cannot fail to recall those of the family and of life. . . . Indeed, the "future of humankind is forged in the family; hence every person of good will must by all means strive to save and promote family values and requirements."(21)

In many cases, the shift to personal and family issues dovetails with a growing awareness of the difficulty of transforming material conditions. As economic and political problems increasingly seem too vast and complex for ordinary people to influence, the church is not alone in limiting its vision to more manageable concerns, closer to home. Further, transitions to civilian rule have helped relax the sense of political urgency created by the military regimes which dominated most of the region in the 1980s.

In El Salvador, where an eleven-year civil war ended in 1992, many Catholic activists previously preoccupied with the war and human rights violations have turned their attention to local concerns such as juvenile delinquency and family structure. For example, in the San Salvador parish we studied, Catholic pastoral work in the 1970s and '80s focused on social injustices in the neighborhood and beyond. Local conditions were understood in relation to larger national problems, and CEB members and pastoral workers alike believed that Christians had a responsibility to work on alleviating these problems by changing the country's economic and political structures. For the past few years, however, the social concern of "new" pastoral work has centered upon the Youth Pastorate. This project involves both the children of parish members and the "delinquents" who spend much of their days and nights in the neighborhood. The priest appointed several new lay leaders, all men with no prior pastoral experience,(22) to coordinate the effort, which focuses on athletic events. The bulk of the parish's limited resources goes to this sports program, leaving other projects with little material support or pastoral attention. Few parishioners reject the local focus, and the condition of youth is a central concern throughout the parish, but many complain that the almost exclusive emphasis on sports robs the youth pastoral work of both religious meaning and social relevance.

The new focus on local issues does not derive simply from pastoral changes, but also stems from activists' exhaustion and the desire to attend to long-postponed personal concerns.(23) Even activists who remain committed to changes in both church and society may not be able to continue pressing for reforms indefinitely, especially in the absence of structural moral support from church leaders. Whatever the causes, however, local and personal foci for activism are undoubtedly more amenable to ecclesial control than participation in broader social movements, which very often took the faithful beyond the church's purview. Dramatic examples included the thousands of Catholic activists in El Salvador and Nicaragua who became radicalized during the 1970s and participated in revolutionary organizations. Similarly, many Brazilian CEB members joined the Workers' Party.

While the new evangelization preserves the faith-life link of Latin American progressive Catholicism, it generates a new interpretation that defuses the more radical implications of the see-judge-act method and the pedagogy of consciousness-raising. In the new evangelization, Catholicism is linked to life not through the development of a critical attitude that empowers ordinary (especially poor) people, but through sacramental, ritual, and moral mediations, which also enhance the power of the clergy. Believers are encouraged to improve their lives through cultural and spiritual growth rather than social change. A prime example of this is the charismatic renewal movement, whose members ascend through increased ritual attendance and spiritual development. Social issues are of little or no concern, even in the Salvadoran church, with its tradition of activism.

The new evangelization, thus, gives rise to a "culturalist" reading of the key liberationist concept of praxis. Post-Medellin progressive Catholics interpreted praxis through Marxist historicist lenses (often drawing on the work of Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci) as a religiously inspired social empowerment closely connected with the politico-utopian notion of the reign of God. In contrast, John Paul II, while acknowledging the creativity of the human sell sees this praxis as mainly cultural and religious, as the capacity of individuals to transcend existential despair and alienation. Praxis is the means through which humanity can build a Christian culture of love.(24)

The emphasis on culture in the new evangelization translates into a call for "inculturation," defined as the "call to bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures." To fulfill this call, evangelization

will seek to know these cultures and their essential components; it will learn their most significant expressions; it will respect their particular values and riches. In this manner it will be able to offer these cultures the knowledge of the hidden mystery [of Incarnation] and help them bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought.(25)

To proclaim Christ's message in different settings, inculturation demands that the church understand and "penetrate" the internal cultural logic that orients life in them. Thus the bishops at Santo Domingo proclaimed that "it is crucial that we learn to speak in tune with the mentality and culture of our hearers, and in accord with their forms of organization and contemporary means of expression."(26) Here the new evangelization shows continuity with the spirit of openness inaugurated by Vatican I! and expressed in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975).(27) The new evangelization, like Vatican II and liberation theology, includes interest in and respect for popular piety. However, whereas liberation theology tended to see popular piety as the potential source for a counter-hegemonic ideology and for alternative Christian practices, the new evangelization highlights the elements of popular Catholicism that strengthen the position of the clergy. The privileging of liturgy as the key nexus between popular and official Catholicism is a case in point.

After acknowledging the value of popular piety, the International Theological Commission, of which Cardinal Ratzinger is the president, writes in "Faith and Inculturation":

Badly directed, popular piety can even lead to the formation of sects and thus place true ecclesial community in danger. It also risks being manipulated, be it by political powers or by religious forces foreign to the Christian faith. The taking into account of these dangers invites us to practice an intelligent catechesis attracted to the merits of an authentic popular piety and at the same time capable of discernment. A living and adapted liturgy is equally called to play a major role in the integration of a very pure faith and the traditional forms of the religious life of peoples.(28)

From a purely strategic point of view, the notion of inculturation has enabled the Catholic Church to castigate evangelical Protestantism for its lack of respect for indigenous cultures. Part of the church's "catholicity" resides in the fact that it is able to syncretize elements of various cultures and religious traditions, whereas evangelical Protestantism tends to defend the purity of the faith. The Catholic attack on Protestant sectarianism, however, has its own contradictions. For example, despite its calls for inculturation, the Vatican did not accept the Afro-Brazilian Mass, a service that commemorated the experience of slavery and abolition. Perhaps because the themes explored were closely related to a rising racial consciousness in Brazil, the Vatican saw it as a threat to unity and universality.(29)

The hierarchy thus encourages inculturation as long as it does not conflict with the interests of the universal church. Moreover, with the crisis of modernity and especially of emancipatory metanarratives such as Marxism, inculturation becomes a call to reform secular culture, to recover its "traditional" Judeo-Christian values. The church presents itself as a critic of the failure of modern projects (including liberalism and socialism) and the source of moral regeneration in a fragmented, meaningless, and threatening world. It further offers itself, in a manner reminiscent of the Christendom model, as the foundation of a new "civilization of love."

The attempt to renew secular society morally and spiritually under the tutelage of the church, the repository of universal values, helps explain why, at least early in his papacy, John Paul II favored groups such as Opus Dei and the charismatic renewal in his evangelization strategy.(30) While both movements reflect the evangelistic "ardor" the pope has called for and permit a certain level of lay participation, they do not challenge the church's authority, unity, and universality. Because both work at the personal level to bring spiritual liberation and moral renewal, they are excellent vehicles to build John Paul II's new Christian culture. Moreover, the clerical nature of movements such as Opus Dei and the charismatic renewal strengthens the church's hierarchical structure.


The nueva evangelizacion reveals the contradictory tendencies and traditions that make up the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. Certainly, it shares some themes, including an emphasis on centralized authority, with other conservative religious movements such as evangelical Protestantism. In other ways, however, such as the continuing concern for the poor and lay participation, the new evangelization remains true to some of the concerns of Vatican II and progressive Catholicism. These paradoxes can best be understood, perhaps, by seeing the new evangelization as an effort by church authorities to synthesize old and new pastoral methods and doctrinal concerns in an effort to strengthen the church in a new and confusing social context. Thus the new evangelization programs, and John Paul II himself, are not wholly anti-modernist, as some critics claim; neither, however, can they be called postmodernist, as David Harvey suggests in The Condition of Postmodernity. Harvey believes that John Paul's critique of modern, Enlightenment-based projects makes him a postmodernist of sorts.(31) Although there is some evidence for this identification,(32) it is not supported by the pope's understanding of the church and its role in the social world. Rather than celebrating the fragmentary, multiplistic, and ephemeral nature of today's world, as the postmodernists do, the pope wishes to reaffirm the church's authority, unity, and universality. Through the new evangelization, the pope seeks to present his hierarchical, unified, and universal church as the source of core values to an empty and spiritually starved society. The stress on universal, traditional values, however, does not mean that the pope wishes to return the church to its preconciliar rejection of all elements of modernity, as did Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors (1864). John Paul II accepts democratic values as the best way to order human society;(33) indeed, these values were central to his critiques of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Further, in his recent trip to Cuba, the pope took to task both the Cuban government (for limitations on civil liberties) and the U.S. government (for the embargo) out of a strong concern for human rights.

John Paul's worldview defies the simplistic categorizations of postmodernist, modernist, or anti-modernist. His approach is best characterized as a conservative redeployment of modernity as it was internalized in Vatican II. In this context, the new evangelization does not represent simply an attempt to return to preconciliar Catholicism.(34) In fact, it shows continuities with Vatican II in its recognition of the church's need to be in touch with the laity's secular life and in its continuing concern for social issues. However, like the pope's approach to modernity, new pastoral methods represent a conservative reappropriation of Vatican II and its further elaborations in Medellin. The new evangelization reformulates notions and methods such as the faith-life link, the see-judge-act pedagogy, and conscientizacion in ways that restore the clerical power lost through progressive pastoral reforms. In this sense, applying the term "conservative Catholic restoration" is accurate.

Progressive Catholicism must contend with the power of institution and tradition, and today it must operate within the context of resurgent conservatism. In this context, the new evangelization represents a "romanization" of post-Vatican II innovations, an attempt to absorb some reformist elements in ways that do not challenge the power structure within the church, while disqualifying others as too ideological or reductive. This romanization befits the church's new vision of its role vis-a-vis the secular world: in a postmodern world of chaos and decay, where all human ideologies appear to have run their course, the Catholic Church can refashion itself as the source of universal and unchangeable values.


1. See David J. Molineaux, "Gustavo Gutierrez: Historical Origins," The Ecumenist 25, no. 5 (1987): 65-69.

2. Juan Luis Segundo, The Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1976), 8.

3. For the best-known statement of Freire's method, see his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970).

4. Pope John Paul II, "Building a New Latin America," Origins 14, no. 20 (November 1, 1984): 308.

5. Alfred Hennelly, ed., Santo Domingo and Beyond: Documents and Commentaries from the Historic Meeting of the Latin American Bishops' Conference (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993), 81, 82, 100.

6. Joseph Ratzinger with Vincent Messori, The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), 37-38. See also Ralph Della Cava, "Vatican Policy 1978-1990: An Updated Overview," Social Research 59, no. 1 (1992): 171-99; and Cecilia Mariz and Lemuel Dourado Guerra Sobrinho, "Algumas reflexoes sobre a reacaao conservadora na Igreja Catolica," Comunicacoes do ISER 9, no. 30 (1990): 73-78.

7. John Paul II, "Visit to a Shantytown: Misery and the Call for Justice," Origins 21, no. 21 (October 31, 1991): 342.

8. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (Origins 15, no. 44 [April 17, 1986]), 723.

9. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), no. 47.

10. See Ignace Berten, "Jean-Paul II et 'l'option preferentielle pour les pauvres," in Ignace Berten and Rene Luneau, eds., Les rendez-vous de Saint-Domingue (Paris: Centurion, 1991).

11. John Paul II, "Visit to a Shantytown," 343. There is evidence that one way in which the Vatican has reinterpreted the "option for the poor" is through a general "prolife" stance. The Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, for example, asserts in its discussion of the option for the poor that the church "is particularly drawn . . . toward those children who, through human wickedness, will never be brought forth from the womb to the light of day." Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 723.

12. John Paul II, "Visit to a Shantytown," 343. According to the newly appointed archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Saenz Lacalle, "Properly understood, the most orthodox and sound Catholic theology is the true theology of liberation . . . Jesus died for our sins, and if we free ourselves from sin, all injustices will disappear." Larry Rohter, "A Church Asunder Awaits the Pope in Salvador," New York Times, February 4, 1996.

13. See, for example, Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Reinvent the Church (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986).

14. According to Thomas Bruneau and W. E. Hewitt, whereas CEBs in Brazil were "once seen as the 'new way to be Church' or the seeds of the new society, [their] mission . . . is increasingly tied to leadership building. In essence, the CEBs and other similar types of lay groups or associations are no longer seen as agents acting autonomously in the name of the Church. Rather they serve to provide militants on an individual basis with a way to operate within secular bodies such as labor unions and popular movements." See Bruneau and Hewitt, "Catholicism and Political Action in Brazil: Limitations and Prospects," in Edward Cleary and Hannah Stewart-Gambino, eds., Conflict and Competition: The Latin American Church in a Changing Environment (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1992), 58.

15. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, 723. In a similar fashion, John Paul II has enjoined the Latin American Conference of Religious (CLAR), one of the key players in post-Vatican II pastoral innovation in the area, to ensure that its initiatives "express a perfect unity, without ambiguity or hesitancy, with the bishops of the church in their respective tasks, since the bishops are 'authentic teachers and witnesses of divine and Catholic truth. . . .'" John Paul II, "Toward the Fifth Centenary of New World Evangelization," Origins 20, no. 13 (September 6, 1990), 214.

16. John Paul II, "Opening Address," in Hennelly, Santo Domingo and Beyond, 56-57.

17. See Otto Maduro, Religion and Social Conflict (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1982).

18. John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), no. 46,

19. CELAM, "Conclusions," in Hennelly, Santo Domingo and Beyond, 92.

20. This echoes Catholic social teaching in early documents such as Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931), which encouraged laypeople to participate in organizations such as trade unions - but under the guidance of the church.

21. John Paul II, "Opening Address," 51.

22. These are the same men who run the parish's central coordinating committee; they thus lead the parish's two most important projects.

23. It is important to keep in mind that early CEBs in El Salvador also focused on local and family issues until the mid-1970s, when political repression and the war diverted the attention of many activists. See Pablo Galdamez, The Faith of a People: The Life of a Base Christian Community in El Salvador (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1986).

24. See Karol Wojtyla, "The Problem of the Constitution of Culture through Human Praxis," in Person and Community: Selected Essays (New York: Peter Lang, 1993).

25. John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (1979), no. 53.

26. CELAM, "Conclusions," 83.

27. Paula Montero, "Tradicao e modernidade: Joao Paulo e o problema da cultura." Revista Brasileira de Ciencias Sociais 7, no. 20 (October 1992): 90-112.

28. International Theological Commission, "Faith and Inculturation," in New Directions in Mission and Evangelization I: Basic Statements 1974-91, ed. James A. Scherer and Stephen B. Bevans (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992), 157. Emphasis added.

29. Penny Lernoux, People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism (New York: Viking, 1989), 133.

30. See Ralph Della Cava, "The Ten Year Crusade Towards the Third Millennium: An Account of Evangelization 2000 and Lumen 2000," in The Right and Democracy in Latin America, ed. Douglas Chalmers, Maria do Carmo Campello de Souza, and Atilio Boron (New York: Praeger, 1992). Opus Dei has not fallen from papal favor. In April 1995, the pope named an Opus Dei member (and strong opponent of liberation theology) as archbishop of San Salvador.

31. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1989), 41.

32. Influenced by John Paul, the bishops at Santo Domingo asserted that "Postmodernity is the product of the failure of the reductionistic pretension of modern reason. It leads humanity to question some of the gains of modernity, such as trust in unlimited progress . . ." CELAM, "Conclusions," 142.

33. "The Church values the democratic system [that] ensures participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility of electing and holding accountable those who govern and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate." John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, no. 46.

34. This conclusion is suggested in passing by Jose-Maria Ghio, "The Latin American Church and the Papacy of Wojtyla," in The Right and Democracy in Latin America, ed. Douglas A. Chalmers, Maria do Carmo Campello de Souza, and Atilio Boron (New York: Praeger, 1992). According to Ghio, the restoration program "recovers elements of preconciliar Catholicism but it also integrates - although in modified form - some aspects that can be readily attributed to the heritage of Medellin" (189). For an analysis of the meaning and impact of the new evangelization in Europe, see Rene Luneau and Paul Ladriere, La reve de Compostelle: Vers la restauration d'une Europe chretienne (Paris: Centurion, 1989).

ANNA L. PETERSON and MANUEL A. VASQUEZ teach religion at Florida State University.
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