Maike Hickson

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Pope Benedict XVI waves to the faithful as he arrives at the St. Peter's Basilica for a mass with newly appointed cardinals on November 25, 2012 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia/Getty Images

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Pope Benedict already rejected paganism-affirming proposals made in Amazon Synod working doc

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August 22, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – In 2007 during his visit to Aparecida, Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI clearly rejected certain aspects of Liberation Theology, especially its claim that the colonization of South American was a time of injustice that needs to be undone and that it is more important to serve the poor than to convert them to the Catholic Faith. On his flight to Brazil, Pope Benedict also referred back to his own 1984 Instruction concerning Liberation Theology that was a detailed critique of this theory.

In light of the fact that the upcoming October 6-27 Pan-Amazon Synod is heavily influenced by aspects of Liberation Theology and also refers back to the Fifth General Conference of Bishops of Latin America and the Carribean in Aparecida that took place in 2007, it might be well worthwhile to recall here the words spoken by Pope Benedict XVI during his 2007 visit in Brazil.

At the time, there were the same ideas from Liberation Theology circulated – namely that the Church should make the defense of the poor and of the indigenous people a priority, at the expense of conversion and catechism – which then influenced the discussions at the Aparecida gathering. As a matter of fact, the Latin American bishops had even invited some of the representatives of Liberation Theology – who had organized themselves in the group Amerindia – to send in contributions for the Aparecida conference. This General Conference had as its theme: “Disciples and Missionaries of Jesus Christ, so that our peoples may have life in him.” 

Pope Benedict, most prominently, tried to influence the discussions of the Latin American bishops by his speech to the assembly of bishops in Aparecida on May 13, 2007. Unlike the Liberation Theologians who sharply criticize the colonization of the Americas by Catholic countries and who mostly point out the corruptions that went along with that process of evangelization of a whole continent, Pope Benedict paints in his speech a positive picture of this overall historical process. 

He states that “Faith in God has animated the life and culture of these nations for more than five centuries,” and he then adds that, from this “encounter between that faith and the indigenous peoples,” there has “emerged the rich Christian culture of this Continent, expressed in art, music, literature, and above all, in the religious traditions and in the peoples’ whole way of being, united as they are by a shared history and a shared creed that give rise to a great underlying harmony, despite the diversity of cultures and languages.”

The nations of Latin America, explains the Pope, accepted the Catholic Faith, which meant “knowing and welcoming Christ, the unknown God whom their ancestors were seeking, without realizing it, in their rich religious traditions. Christ is the Saviour for whom they were silently longing.” Through Baptism, he continues, these peoples received “the divine life that made them children of God by adoption”; with the help of the Holy Spirit, they made their cultures “fruitful” and “purified” them.  

It is clear here that Pope Benedict stresses the supernatural aspect of the Catholic Faith, not its social or political dimensions. And he goes further by insisting that this conversion to the Faith did not mean “an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.”

With these words, he strongly distances himself from the major views of the Liberation theologians. 

Pope Benedict goes on to say that “it is only the truth that can bring unity, and the proof of this is love. That is why Christ, being in truth the incarnate Logos, 'love to the end', is not alien to any culture, nor to any person.” “On the contrary,” he adds, “the response that he seeks in the heart of cultures is what gives them their ultimate identity, uniting humanity and at the same time respecting the wealth of diversity.”

Further distancing himself from ideas stemming from Liberation Theology, the pope states that “the Utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal Church, would not be a step forward: indeed, it would be a step back. In reality, it would be a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past.” 

This sentence in itself would be a good response today to the authors of the Amazon Synod's working document. Moreover, Pope Benedict regrets that there is to be found in the Latin American countries “a certain weakening of Christian life,” which is due to “secularism, hedonism, indifferentism and proselytism by numerous sects, animist religions and new pseudo-religious phenomena.” Thus, the idea to welcome the religions of indigenous tribes, as it is now being proposed in the Amazon Synod's working document, is also alien to the understanding of Pope Benedict.

On the contrary, for Benedict “the Church has the great task of guarding and nourishing the faith of the People of God, and reminding the faithful of this Continent that, by virtue of their Baptism, they are called to be disciples and missionaries of Jesus Christ. This implies following him, living in intimacy with him, imitating his example and bearing witness.” Benedict calls upon the Catholics of this region to be missionaries of Christ. 

The supernatural life of faith has to come first.

Benedict asks: “What is real? Are only material goods, social, economic and political problems 'reality'? This was precisely the great error of the dominant tendencies of the last century, a most destructive error, as we can see from the results of both Marxist and capitalist systems. They falsify the notion of reality by detaching it from the foundational and decisive reality which is God. Anyone who excludes God from his horizons falsifies the notion of 'reality' and, in consequence, can only end up in blind alleys or with recipes for destruction.”

As is likely still known, in the mid-1980s, the Vatican admonished Liberation Theology for its pro-Marxist tendencies and for its neglect of Catholic doctrine. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger had signed that document. During the Aparecida conference itself, Amerindia put much pressure on the conference debates and distributed pamphlets to the bishops of that meeting calling for basic communities, female priests, the abolishment of priestly celibacy, and the democratic election of bishops, among other things. Additionally, the texts distributed by Amerindia called for support for Fidel Castro.

Distancing himself from such secular-political initiatives, Pope Benedict reminds the Latin American bishops in his speech in Aparecida that “only those who recognize God know reality and are able to respond to it adequately and in a truly human manner. The truth of this thesis becomes evident in the face of the collapse of all the systems that marginalize God.” He insists upon the “unique and irreplaceable importance of Christ for us, for humanity.” Without knowing God in Christ, he continues, “there is neither life nor truth.” 

If a person knows God who “loves even to the Cross,” the Pope explains, that person “cannot fail to respond to this love with a similar love: 'I will follow you wherever you go' (Lk 9:57).” When following Christ, we also will meet our brothers and sisters and grow in moral “responsibility towards the other and towards others.” “In this sense,” Benedict goes on to say, “the preferential option for the poor is implicit in the Christological faith in the God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).”

It is clear here that Pope Benedict sees the work for the poor as a consequence of a deep love for Christ. The work for the poor, then, must flow out of a deep Catholic Faith and has to be guided by it. (Let us note here, however, that some Liberation Theologians at the time saw it as an encouraging sign that the Pope mentioned the “preferential option for the poor” in his speech.)

It is in this context that the German Pope urges the Church of Latin America and the Carribean to foster a “profound knowledge of the word of God,” through which “Christ makes his person, his life and his teaching known to us.” Here, he also reminds the Catholic shepherds that it is necessary “to intensify the catechesis and the faith formation not only of children but also of young people and adults.”

Also, this point can be seen as a counterweight against ideas of a Liberation Theology which often neglects catechism and Catholic doctrine for the sake of social and political issues. But Pope Benedict makes it also clear that “evangelization has always developed alongside the promotion of the human person and authentic Christian liberation. 'Love of God and love of neighbour have become one; in the least of the brethren we find Jesus himself, and in Jesus we find God' (Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, 15).” It is here that the Pope also recommends the fostering of “social catechesis and a sufficient formation in the social teaching of the Church.” “The Christian life is not expressed solely in personal virtues, but also in social and political virtues.”

Rejecting any idea of a missionary work that omits attempting to convert people to Jesus Christ, the Pope states: “Discipleship and mission are like the two sides of a single coin: when the disciple is in love with Christ, he cannot stop proclaiming to the world that only in him do we find salvation (cf. Acts 4:12). In effect, the disciple knows that without Christ there is no light, no hope, no love, no future.”

In discussing the underlying political concepts of Marxism and capitalism, the pontiff explains that both models “promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would function by themselves; they declared that, not only would they have no need of any prior individual morality, but that they would promote a communal morality. And this ideological promise has been proved false.” About Marxism, Benedict adds that “the Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful oppression of souls.” But also in the West, there is to be seen a growing distance between rich and poor and also “a worrying degradation of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.”

Pope Benedict thereby reminds us that any reasonable political idea must have a Christian foundation. 

Although Pope Benedict did not mention Liberation Theology by its name, he clearly had some of its tenets in mind when delivering his May 13 speech.

However, in his earlier press conference on his flight to Brazil on May 9, the Pope explicitly touched upon the topic after being asked what his message would be to the exponents of liberation theology. For, he points out that Liberation Theology was now faced with political changes, saying that “it is now obvious that these facile millenarianisms – which as a consequence of the revolution promised the full conditions for a just life immediately – were mistaken.” 

He then refers back to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” with the help of which “we sought to carry out a task of discernment. In other words, we tried to rid ourselves of false millenarianisms and of an erroneous combination of Church and politics, of faith and politics; and to show that the Church's specific mission is precisely to come up with a response to the thirst for God and therefore also to teach the personal and social virtues that are the necessary conditions for the development of a sense of lawfulness.”

The Vatican at the time tried to “identify guidelines for just policies, political measures,” he continues, adding that there is “room for a difficult but legitimate debate on how to achieve this and on how best to make the Church's social doctrine effective. In this regard, certain liberation theologians are also attempting to advance, keeping to this path; others are taking other positions.” The Magisterium's intervention was thus meant “to guide it [the commitment to justice] on the right paths and also with respect for the proper difference between political responsibility and ecclesiastical responsibility.”

Important to know is also that earlier in 2007, on February 17, when meeting with the papal representatives of Latin America in preparation for the Aparecida conference, Pope Benedict had also indirectly referred to some of the claims of Liberation Theology when he first speaks of the “fortunate blending of the old and rich sensitivity of the indigenous peoples with Christianity and the modern culture. Some sectors, as we know, point to the contrast between the wealth and depth of the pre-Colombian cultures and the Christian faith that is presented as imposed externally from outside or as alienating for the peoples of Latin America.”

Pope Benedict once more contradicts this critical assessment of the colonization of Latin America when he states: “In fact, the encounter between these indigenous cultures and faith in Christ was a response inwardly expected by these cultures. This encounter, therefore, is not to be denied but deepened, and has created the true identity of the peoples of Latin America.” Benedict goes further and adds that “indeed, the Catholic Church is the institution which is the most respected by the Latin American population.” 

Finally, the Pope also once more reminds those working in the field of social justice to remain loyal to the Catholic Faith when he stresses: “Giving Ecclesial movements certainly constitute a valid resource for the apostolate, but they should be helped to stay in line with the Gospel and the Church's teaching, also when they work in the social and political realms.”

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.