LUIS AGUIRRE, dressed in a red Harlem Wizards T-shirt, looked weary at the end of a daylong workshop in Managua on how to grow and make food from soybeans, one of several projects sponsored by the ``base community'' program he helps coordinate. ``We are different from other church movements,'' Mr. Aguirre explained. ``We live ourselves as the people live. We don't want the church to merely stay inside the temple, but to work alongside its people.''

``Base communities'' focus on rediscovering and applying the Bible in daily life and on the politics of poverty. But the ``movement,'' as it is known in America, is not trying just to promote self-help among the poor. Its goal is also to transform society and, in effect, change the status quo in religion and politics.

The base community concept and the ``liberation theology'' that has grown up alongside it amount to ``revolutionary Christianity,'' which could herald a new ``post-modern era'' in which religion will be central to all aspects of life and politics, according to Harvard Divinity School theologian Harvey Cox. Theologians and social scientists in New Delhi, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Managua also contend that religion will have a far-reaching impact in the next historic era.

The movement in Latin America reflects the increasing dynamism of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide, visible in different forms and over different issues also in Poland, the Philippines, Haiti, and South Korea. Latin American Catholicism was indeed one of the first widely visible religious movements in contemporary politics, and it has grown increasingly active in recent years.

In Chile, the Bishops Conference blasted the right-wing regime in March for political excesses and economic inadequacies. Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte said angrily he thought he was reading about ``the creation of a new political party.''

In Nicaragua, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo first gained prominence for the church's role in the 1979 revolution. He later said, ``We incited to rebellion. We justified armed struggle. The only thing we did not do was take up a rifle and kill national guardsmen.'' Yet he has also been so critical of the Sandinista regime that the foreign minister last year called the cardinal ``the principal accomplice of aggression against our people.'' Because of his criticism, the cardinal was named last Thursday as a mediator between the contra rebels and the government.

The Brazilian church was a key agitator against the former military regime and remains a pivotal catalyst on land-reform and trade-union issues. El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated in 1980, the day after his radio broadcast condemning the government for ``reforms stained with so much blood [that they] are worth nothing'' and calling for a military revolt.

Catholic scholars date the emergence of activism - which varies widely in application within Latin America - to the 1962-65 Vatican II Council. Bishops were granted greater autonomy from central Vatican authority to provide local leadership on social and economic issues. The climate created by these reforms has marked a dramatic shift in Latin America after five centuries (with isolated exceptions) of church quiescence or cooperation with colonial powers and postcolonial dictatorships or oligarchies.

But the status quo has been shaken even more deeply by the subsequent emergence of base communities and liberation theology which have:

Reversed the traditional order of leadership.

Expanded the Catholic agenda to encompass more than just religious issues.

The movement within Catholicism is more amorphous than in other faiths, since it does not operate within territorial borders as in Israel, or have well-defined political strictures as in Islam.

Growing activism, however, is manifested in several ways. Base communities, which first evolved in Brazil and Panama in the 1960s, were initially an attempt to provide a forum for poor parishes unserved due to the shortage of priests.

They have since become bases for organizing social, political, and economic alternatives. ``People gain the courage to take action from discussion of the scriptures,'' said Tom Quigley of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The impact is evident in Brazil, which is now estimated to have about 80,000 base communities, and in Nicaragua, where activities include sewing collectives, farm cooperatives, natural medicine workshops, and discussions of the Bible as a basis for political engagement.

Before the government crackdown on the church in 1979, Guatemalan base communities had developed potable-water projects, chicken and rabbit cooperatives, health programs, and, after the 1976 earthquake, relief projects. ``In poor countries, controlling water can be an important source of power - or independence,'' a regional analyst said.

THE activities seem small-scale compared with the impact of religion elsewhere. But in a region where democracy has rarely flourished for long, they are highly controversial, particularly in setting a precedent for political challenges.

The perceived challenge has been reflected in the killing of 14 priests and an estimated 500 leaders of base community groups since 1980 by death squads, said Curt Wands of the Guatemalan Health Rights Support Project. ``The military identified people working for community change outside the government context as subversive or communist,'' he said. They now meet clandestinely.

Base communities symbolize one of two ways today's Catholic movements are unlike earlier eras of Christian activism. They are emerging from the grass-roots level, reversing the order of traditional leadership. The egalitarian nature of their forums has also, in varying degrees, created new power blocs.

``The opposition of religion to political power has ample precedent,'' said political scientist Daniel Levine in his book ``Religion and Political Conflict in Latin America.'' But today, the center of action has moved beyond ``ecclesiastical institutions to rest, for the first time, with poor people in groups which they themselves take a major hand in running.''

Liberation theology, the other innovative force that was first propagated by Peruvian theologian Gustavo Guti'errez in the late 1960s, encourages social change, beginning from the bottom of society. Jesus Christ is viewed, in effect, as a political liberator. It also implies that the church is not above politics and that conflict in the name of justice is inevitable, even a moral duty.

Liberation theology fostered the establishment of the self-described ``church of the poor,'' which follows traditional church teachings but its own practices.

The church of the poor's potent mixture of religion and politics is evident in the earthy Goya-esque murals at Managua's St. Mary of the Angels Church. Next to the entrance is a larger-than-life C'esar Antonio Sandino, Nicaragua's best known 20th-century rebel, after whom the Sandinistas are named. Other portrayed heroes include a Guatemalan priest who rebelled against Spanish colonialism in the 1500s, and a Colombian priest who joined antigovernment forces in the '60s.

Such imagery has led both liberation theology and base communities to be criticized for having a Marxist tinge. ``The church hierarchy calls us the religious branch of the [Sandinista] revolution,'' Aguirre conceded of base communities.

But advocates disagreed. ``Nobody here wants Nicaragua to be another Cuba. At the same time, we want to end the backyard mentality of living `under' the US. We don't want our identity attached to any outsiders,'' said Xabier Gorostiaga, a Jesuit priest and economist.

Even traditional church figures, such as Radio Cat'olica's Msgr. Bismarck Carballo, agreed on that need. ``Nicaragua is an acculturated country. We've been influenced by the Spanish, then by the US.'' Msgr. Carballo, who was banned last year and his radio closed down for criticizing the Sandinistas, returned from exile recently under terms of the Central American peace plan. ``We originally supported the revolution, because it spoke of two important principles: authentic nationalism and nonalignment. We still believe in those goals. Every culture must find its own identity,'' he said.

The second difference from earlier eras is thus a broader agenda. Grass-roots Catholicism is now part of a political, social, and moral upheaval that energetically addresses fundamental questions of existence particularly troubling for the third world. The long-term goal is to find alternative ways of life and new identities for both the individual and the state that are independent of dominant Western theology and conventional ideologies.

That theme is also evident in Africa's emerging ``black theology.'' Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-apartheid activities in South Africa, once said: ``The church in Africa, and the church in the third world generally, must come into its own. ... For too long Western theology has wanted to lay claim to a universality that it cannot too easily call its own.''

On ideology, Archbishop Tutu, an avowed anticommunist, said: ``Capitalism seems to give unbridled license to human cupidity and has a morality that belongs properly to the jungle - `the survival of the fittest, the weakest to the wall, and the devil take the hindmost.''' He called on the church to find a ``new'' way.

LATIN AMERICA'S grass-roots movements are still in the minority. And they are under increasing pressure from Protestant evangelical groups that have made deep inroads into the world's most Catholic region in the 1980s.

But analysts contend that the trend has given many third-world Catholics, even nonactivists, a new sense of individual worth, a new national agenda, and political precedents applicable elsewhere.

Indeed, base communities are now growing throughout the Catholic world. In Hungary, an estimated 135 groups are involved in opposing military service. European base communities have campaigned against nuclear armament. Bishops' conferences throughout the world increasingly focus on the concept's innovations and potential.

They may even have forced the Vatican's hand. Last year, the Vatican issued an instruction on ``Christian Freedom and Liberation,'' stressing support for the poor and affirming as ``perfectly legitimate that those who suffer oppression on the part of the wealthy or politically powerful should take action'' - including ``armed struggle.''

Although it warned against illicit action and mixing Christianity with political ideology, it took Vatican II's primary focus on social and economic issues one step further - to include politics.

For the first time, the third-world church had led the way, setting a potent precedent for Catholicism in politics that no government with a significant Catholic population can afford to ignore.

Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Suspended priest: religion and revolution are compatible

Fernando Cardenal, then a Jesuit priest, was first approached in 1970 by the fledgling Sandinista National Liberation Front. His initial reaction was to say he needed to know more, particularly about how the guerrilla movement looked at Christianity.

Three years later he joined, convinced that the two movements were not only compatible, but that together ``believers and nonbelievers could build a new Nicaragua.''

He and two other priests are now members of the Sandinista Cabinet. Mr. Cardenal is minister of education; his brother Ernesto is minister of culture, and US-educated Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann is foreign minister. For their activism, the Vatican has suspended all three men from the priesthood.

Some excerpts from an interview with Cardenal:

On the revolution and religion: ``The Sandinista founders started the movement on behalf of Christians. The revolution is against exploitation and injustice, as are Christians. In the revolution there is a special preference for the poor. As Christians, we also feel a special love for the poor.''

On Marxism: ``It's not a revolution that wants to copy the Soviet model, where atheist science is taken as a principle. ... For so many years we fought against the North American government, which had taken from us our independence and self-determination. How could you imagine that the revolution would turn itself over to another foreign power? We did not betray the blood of 200,000 for someone else. If that were the intention, it would have been better to stay with the US.''

On the changing church: ``The greatest change in the Latin American church is putting their concern in the cause of the poor - putting it into practice, not just words. For 2,000 years the church talked about love and justice. But the words were so abstract that they did not apply to anyone.''

On conflict with the Vatican: ``We never thought of organizing a national church independent of the Pope. We continue within the church and we are obedient to whatever teachings he transmits to us. The US church gives the Vatican more problems; we don't talk about abortion or women's ordination.

``What I will never accept is that, disguised as doctrine of the church, they're going to impose political doctrine on us. I'll never accept that, disguised as the will of God, they want us to betray and abandon our people. ... The problem between Nicaraguan Christians and the Vatican is not a theological or moral problem. It's a political problem. So when the Vatican people pressure me to give up the revolution, I plead conscientious objection.''

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