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Theirs is the Kingdom of God: the poor in Latin America are looking for leadership. Too bad it's not coming from Rome.

The late Pope John Paul II took many courageous stands during his 26-year papacy. He spoke out against war, communism, unrestrained capitalism, racism, the death penalty and global poverty. He was the first pope to pray with Jews in a synagogue since St. Peter, and he established historic diplomatic relations with Israel. He was also the first pope to set foot inside a mosque.

Yet in Latin America, home to half of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics, he presided as well over huge inroads made by Protestant evangelical and Pentecostal faiths. Under his quarter-century in power, millions--most of them poor--deserted a church that had become irrelevant to their daily lives. During 18 trips to what he called "the continent of hope" Pope John Patti filled plazas and stadiums but not the pews nor the seminaries.

In Mexico, where John Paul visited five times, more than any other country except his native Poland, today there is one priest for every 7,300 Catholics; in contrast, Protestant faiths count one pastor for every 230 faithful. In Brazil, the world's largest Catholic nation, 89% said they were Catholic in 1989; today, 73% do. By 2022, Catholics will be a minority there, some suggest. Pope John Patti contributed to these woeful numbers by his intransigence on such issues as birth control, divorce, celibacy and the ordination of women. Priests who pressed for social justice rarely got his backing.

Such views are out of touch with modern needs. More than half a century ago, Pope John XXIII knew the Vatican had to confront poverty. In 1962, in the Second Vatican Council, he loosened authority over priests and put the plight of the poor at the center of the church's agenda. As a result, thousands of grassroots groups, called Christian base communities, mobilized Catholics to join social involvement and communal self-help projects.

Vatican II also led directly to "liberation theology," a term first used in 1973 by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest. Gutierrez wrote that the Gospel demands that the church help free people from poverty and oppression--even if that means denouncing political systems behind it. When I think of liberation theology, I recall Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who spoke out against poverty and repression and was assassinated while leading mass in 1980. (Guerrilla priests, like Colombia's Camilo Torres, were in the notorious minority.)

There were many other remarkable churchmen of lesser fame who heroically walked the risky line between social activism and politics. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked briefly with a courageous Colombian priest, Hector Gallego, who was disappeared in 1971 for helping Panamanian peasants establish rural consumer cooperatives. I interviewed two "red" bishops in Brazil: Holder da Camara, who allowed his Episcopal palace to become an education center for social justice and was fired by John Paul for his efforts, and Adriano Hypolito, who helped poor Rio slum dwellers. Hypolito was kidnapped, painted red and thrown out onto a street by members of an anticommunist group. In Guatemala, I talked to the gutsy Rev. Andres Giron, who headed an agrarian peasant movement despite being under constant death threats.

Unfortunately, Pope John Paul II saw liberation theology through Cold War eyes--as a Marxist concept that instigated class warfare and aided leftist guerrillas, rather than as a legitimate movement against hunger, poverty and human rights abuses. John Paul replaced progressive bishops and drove out activist priests. The base communities dwindled. Power again centered on Rome.

If the new pope, Joseph Ratzinger, is serious about stopping the hemorrhaging of the Catholic faithful in Latin America, he must decentralize Vatican authority. There must be an end to the bans on birth control, divorce, celibacy for priests and the ordination of women. The region's bloody skirmish against liberation theology has not ended: Dorothy Stang, an American nun, was shot dead in Brazil in February for battling illegal loggers in the Amazon.

Yet Ratzinger walks in John Paul's footsteps in every sense, even making his name in the 1980s by shutting down Latin America seminaries teaching liberation theology. Reforms are crucial to building a popular church based on Christian principles of an egalitarian society. That's exactly what Latin America's poor need, whether they find it in a Catholic Church or not.

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Title Annotation:SILICON JACK
Author:Epstein, Jack
Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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