The papal prohibition on political activities by Roman Catholic priests has immediate effect in Latin America, where half the world's Catholics live and where:
* Two priests hold Cabinet posts in Nicaragua.
* Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of priests are engaged in the so-called theology of liberation, which espouses social activism.
* Other priests have joined guerrilla forces and, in some cases, gone into combat against established governments.
* Church groups run peasant cooperatives, savings and loan associations, and other nonreligious activities.
Although the order also affects US REp. Rev. Robert F. Drinan (D) of Massachusetts and several churchmen in government posts in europe, the prohibition appears more directed at Latin America where the church has increasingly become a force in the political realm.
As many as 90 percent of Latin America's 375 million people are nominally Roman Catholic. Portuguese- speaking Brazil, the largest country in the region, is the world's largest Roman Catholic nation with 125 million people; Mexico with 70 million inhabitants in the world's second-largest Roman Catholic nation.
Thus the church's point of view, and most importantly the individual parish priests' points of view, has much relevance in the area.
Just how much of the political activism is actually covered by the papal order is unclear, but the ruling certainly covers Revs. Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, Nicaragua's foreign minister, and Ernesto Cardenal, the country's culture minister.
And church sources indicate that it clearly prohibits churchmen from joining guerrilla groups as did the late Camilo Torres Restrepo in Colombia who left his seminary for the guerrillas -- eventually being defrocked by his church before he was killed in a skirmish. It is estimated that more than 100 Roman Catholic priests have played roles in guerrilla movements over the past two decades.
Nowhere in the world has the Roman Catholic Church taken such an activist role in secular affairs as in Latin America. This activity goes far beyond the presence of priests in government and in guerrilla groups. More importantly, it involves the whole emphasis on political activism by churchmen in many Latin American countries.
The unanswered question about the extent of the papal order revolves around this activist strain within the church.
For the past two decades, latin America's Roman Catholic Church has come down increasingly on the side of the area's often-oppressed masses. Some of this activism springs from the presence of foreign priests in various Latin american communities. In Guatemala, for example, Maryknoll priests, particularly from the United States, were particularly active in the 1960s until their activism was stalled by expulsion and threats from the government.
There is no doubt that Pope John Paul II would like to get priests back into the churches and out of the political fray. He made that clear last year during the conference of Latin american Roman Catholic Bishops in Puebla, Mexico.
At the session, churchmen roundly criticized social justice and other violations of human rights in a number of countries. while their final document was generally moderate in tone, reflecting the Pope's counsel, the basic theme centered on "the construction of a more just, free, and peaceful society" that will satisfy "the aspirations of the Latin American poor."
Pope John Paul, in inaugurating the Puebla meeting, told the bishops, however , that both violence and marxism, even as a means toward achieving such a society, were anathema to the church. Not all the bishops at the meeting agreed.
There is, moreover, a growing rebellion against Vatican authority on the part of many churchmen in Latin america -- and it remains to be seen whether the papal order prohibiting political activity will be accepted by all priests in the area.
The controversial theology of liberation is a scripture-based activist theology that has spread throughout Latin America since the early conference of bishops in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968. It holds that "the object of the social teachings of the church is always the promotion and integral liberation of the human being, and his earthly and transcendent dimensions, in order to build a more just and fraternal society."
To the more conservative, this is strictly rebellion.
It is not overlooked in church circles, however that many priests -- even bishops, archbishops, and cardinals -- partake of this rebelishness. The late Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador, is a case in point.His Sunday homilies and his other pronouncements critical of successive Salvadorean governments often put him at variance with the approach being enunciated by the Vatican. He knew it. Political opponents assassinated the Archbishop last month.
"My conscience is my guide," he told this reporter late last year. "I must be true to my people."
That is close to the words of leading Chilean churchmen who actively espoused birth control practices in their country.
Monitor staff writer George B. Merry reports from Boston:
The Vatican decision forces into elective retirement US Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D) of Mass., the first and currently only member of that church's clergy to serve in Congress.
The former Boston College law school dean and liberal activist had planned to seek a sixth term this fall. At least one other Catholic priest similarly affected by the decision of Pope John Paul II is Rev. Robert J. Cornell of Green Bay, Wis., who was a member of Congress for four years prior to being unseated in 1978 by now Republican US Rep. Tobias Roth. The former Democrat had been eyeing a political comeback this fall.