'Liberation theology' pits priests against the Pope

Pope John Paul II, preaching in Central America this past week, said he has heard ''the pained cry'' of millions in the region for ''peace, an end to war and violent death.''

In response to that cry, the Pope called for reconciliation.

But that reconciliation, in the papal view, is not one that links Christianity and revolution - as a growing number of Roman Catholic priests hold.

Instead, the Pope's visit to Central America highlights as never before a growing conflict between the Vatican and many Latin American priests over the proper role of the church in addressing human needs.

The Pope minced no words in protesting the trend toward mixing religion and left-leaning politics in so-called ''Peoples' Churches'' - calling it ''absurd and dangerous'' to Catholic unity.

The Pope also swung out vigorously against priests who hold government positions in Nicaragua, where the movement to blend church and politics is strongest. He said they were ''acting outside and against the call of the bishops.''

These tough words clearly pit papal authority against a strong, vocal church minority. Most of the priests criticized by the Pope support ''liberation theology.''

Liberation theology, which spun into public view at the 1963 conference of Latin American bishops held in Medellin, Colombia, holds that the Roman Catholic Church's basic mission is one of relieving poverty and social injustice.

In part, this theology seeks to awaken the ''consciousness of the poor'' that their human rights are being abused because they live in poverty. It also seeks to let the poor know they have the power to unite to change the political and economic systems under which they live.

Increasing numbers of Latin American parish priests, perhaps 20 percent, support this message, or at least aspects of it - and are communicating the ideas through their homilies to their parishioners.

In the view of its most ardent adherents, liberation theology calls on priests to take an active, sometimes radical stand on political, social, and economic matters.

In Nicaragua, this theology is used to support the presence of five priests in the government. And it is used in Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, and elsewhere to support priestly participation in other revolutionary movements.

Critics say that it is more a social message than a pastoral message - and it is this point that worries the more conservative churchmen. It is this point also that apparently prompts Pope John Paul to argue caution on some, if not all , aspects of liberation theology.

This does not imply that Pope John Paul is not concerned about social injustice. Indeed, he is.

''The voice of the Church, echoing the voice of human conscience,'' he said in Mexico in 1977, ''deserves and needs to be heard in our time when the growing wealth of a few parallels the growing poverty of the masses.''

In his current eight-nation visit to Central America and Haiti, he has cried out against ''the rich - indifferent, unjust, and complacent in their possessions.'' They ''must and should change.''

But the Pope's call for change falls short of the call of many Latin American priests, who favor radical political and social change. And the Pontiff added pointedly that ''those who resort to terrorism'' also must change.

What separates the Pope and the liberation theologists, therefore, is not disagreement over the analysis of the problem or over the existence of poverty, but rather over the method of addressing them.

The liberation theologists - including prominent Latin American and other churchmen - hold that the majority of Latin Americans are oppressed by the ''institutionalized violence'' of internal and external colonial structures that ''seeking unbounded profit, foment an economic dictatorship and the international imperialism of money.''

Both capitalism and communism, said the bishops in Medellin back in 1963, affront ''the dignity of the human being.'' The churchmen criticized the technocrats and the ''developmentalists'' for ''placing more emphasis on economic progress than on the social well-being of the people'' and for failing to encourage popular participation in government.

The common man, they concluded, should not be looked upon as a statistic, but should become an active agent for change. And the church should aid them in seeking change.

In the years since Medellin, liberation theology has undergone some subtle changes - mostly in terms of the role of churchmen, many of whom have felt the need to take an increasingly active role in fostering political, social, and economic change.

It is the presence of churchmen in government in Latin America that seems to most worry Pope John Paul. In previous visits to Mexico and Brazil, he let this concern be known; but he has clearly enunciated it during his visit to Central America.

In Nicaragua, Pope John Paul had harsh words for the Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaragua's minister of culture, when they met during the airport ceremony as the Pope arrived.

Fr. Cardenal, wearing a shirt, slacks, and beret instead of clerical garb, dropped to his knee before the Pontiff and sought to kiss the Pope's ring. But the Pope withheld his hand, shook his finger angrily at Fr. Cardenal, and told him, ''You must straighten out your position with the church.''

Other churchmen in the Nicaraguan government, including Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto Brockman, were out of the country during the Pope's visit. But he left word for each, indicating the same sort of disapproval that he expressed to Fr. Cardenal.

It is unlikely that the papal anger will dissuade the Nicaraguans from serving in the Sandinista government. But the message is being heard throughout the church in Latin America and particularly Central America.

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