There was already an ancient conciliar tradition, from the first steps of the American evangelization.
General Conferences of the Latin American Episcopate and Celam
In addition, in 1899 at the Pio Latin American College in Rome, a Plenary Council of Latin America (1899) was held to study pastoral problems. It was an interesting experience with moderate success. In 1955, the Holy See encouraged the celebration of another General Conference of the Latin American episcopate, which took place in Rio de Janeiro (1955). The assembly brought together some 350 representatives of dioceses and other ecclesiastical structures. And it was a success: the commonality of many problems was noted, evangelizing experiences were shared, and a remarkable experience of communion was lived.
The idea then arose to create a stable structure to study the issues and convene periodic meetings. With the support of the Holy See, CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Council, was born, with its headquarters in Bogota (1955). It was not a jurisdictional structure, like the Episcopal Conferences, but a coordinating and advisory body. After the Rio de Janeiro conference (1955), general conferences were convened in Medellin (1968), Puebla de los Angeles (1979), Santo Domingo (1992) and in the Brazilian sanctuary of Aparecida (2007). They form a very important body of reflection for the Church in Latin American countries and also for the universal Church.
Three great values
With different emphases, all the assemblies always took into account the common characteristics of Catholicism in Latin America, which can be summarized in three great values and three great problems, which for this very reason are also three great challenges.
The first value is that the Christian faith is the main cultural root of most nations. They have a strong Catholic identity. And this faith has deeply impregnated and permeates the vision of the world and of the human being, the patterns of moral behavior, the rhythms and festivities of social life. And it is the basis of a great respect for the Church, despite the tensions that have occurred with liberal governments in the past and with progressive governments in the present. The Church is deeply rooted in the people and this category, quite diffused in Europe, is very important in Latin America.
Secondly, evangelization reached the most remote places and the simplest people. Truly, the poor were evangelized, even if there remained scattered pockets of population unevangelized or less evangelized. This was done with the self-sacrificing dedication of many evangelizers and with much effort and ingenuity in creating and translating catechisms into the indigenous languages. It is a Christian feat comparable to the ancient European evangelization, even greater because it was so extensive. This evangelizing effort has remained in many local Churches and was beautifully renewed in Aparecida. The Church in Latin America feels itself to be on an evangelizing mission.
As a result, there is a strong and joyful popular piety that is a great value of faith in almost all Latin American countries. Faith accompanies the main milestones of personal and social life with a deep, joyful and festive piety. Popular piety has been and is a great factor of evangelization, especially among the most stable and traditional strata of the population. This has been recognized and encouraged in the CELAM assemblies, from the first to the last. However, the challenge of evangelizing the cultural elites in their own field: sciences, humanities, politics, arts, is also increasingly recognized.
Three major problems and challenges
The first chronic problem of Latin American nations has been the scarcity of clergy and, as a consequence, of formative structures. Much of this is due to the fact that most of the clergy, during the colonial period, came from the metropolis. And because it was decided not to ordain indigenous clergy. The problem worsened with the arrival of independence. And it was mitigated by favoring the arrival of foreign clergy.
This trend has changed in many nations in recent decades, especially in Mexico and, most notably, in Colombia, which has become a great focus of missionary vocations. Seminaries and faculties have also been developed and are now enjoying great development and experience. It would be very nice to tell this story well. The problem of the shortage of clergy, especially in rural areas, had as a positive effect the development in many places of a structure of "catechists" or lay people responsible for maintaining the life of the Church in many communities and villages. This institution was very stable and deeply rooted in rural areas.
The second challenge is Protestant competition. With the end of the colonial regime and the establishment of liberal legislations, freedom of worship was admitted, to varying degrees. This led to the emergence of an urban Protestant presence, which grew slowly. From the middle of the 20th century, the decolonization process of African nations caused the American Protestant evangelization effort (along with the political presence) to turn southward. In addition to the development of Protestant denominations in the United States, depending on their origin, Pentecostal, charismatic or independent evangelistic churches also developed, which depend simply on the initiative of a pastor, and which have a sentimental tone, which reaches the simple population well. This model has spread successfully throughout Latin America and is a growing presence; sometimes belligerent with Catholicism, which they consider heretical and perverted, according to the Lutheran tradition. This happens more in the independent churches, which tend to be less educated as well. It gives rise to much confusion and sometimes direct propagandistic attacks, and is a growing concern of Latin American pastors.
Third, there are the imbalances in development and poverty. In many American nations, there are strata of the population that have barely enjoyed the benefits of progress. At the beginning of the 20th century, this affected large sectors of peasant populations, generally with a strong indigenous component or, in some cases, descendants of African slaves. In the course of the 20th century, another immense pocket of poverty, often misery, was generated in the shantytowns surrounding the American megalopolises: Mexico, Bogota, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro... They were formed by mass exoduses due to better life expectations, often illusory, because of war and terrorist violence in the countryside; and also because of the increase in population, as sanitary conditions improved in the midst of it all. They are immense uprooted populations with phenomena of marginalization, violence and drug trafficking. And they contrast sharply with the high standing and the consumer habits of the "VIP" stratum of the population.
Such glaring and close inequalities have struck a blow to the Christian conscience of pastors and sensitive people. How can such sharp social differences be tolerated in Christian nations? What can be done?
Fidel Castro took power in Cuba on January 1, 1959. He had the support of many Christians and also, in a nuanced way, of the Archbishop of Santiago (Pérez Serantes). It is worth reading, by the way, the study made by Ignacio Uría, Church and revolution in Cuba. Castro overthrew a corrupt dictatorship, but the regime's early communist and totalitarian drift disappointed Christian hopes, and its rapprochement with the Soviet Union turned Cuba into a launching pad for communist propaganda for all of Latin America, and alarmed the United States, which began to interfere much more in all aspects of political and cultural life.
The post-conciliar period was different in the American nations than in Europe, because of the primacy of pastoral questions over liturgical or doctrinal ones, and the strength of traditions and popular piety, which absorbed a large part of the pastoral work. The impact of May '68 was also less, because there were fewer young priests.
On the other hand, the question of poverty and development was placed on the table with an unavoidable urgency. On the one hand, there was the blatant reality, which wounded consciences. Such immense problems could not be tackled with traditional policies, so often slow, corrupt and ineffective. Other, much more powerful and radical means were needed.
In that context, the ubiquitous expansion of Marxist thought provided a quick and simplistic analysis of causes and solutions, and showed a new egalitarian society within reach. All that was needed was revolutionary purification, which was already underway in many places. It was an invitation to launch out for the ends, even if the lawfulness of the means was not always clear: violence, as well as a remarkable manipulation of Christian life. But there was already a theological tradition on the Christian legitimacy of revolution and even tyrannicide (Father Mariana). In reality, the mixture of simplism, utopia, violence and manipulation could not go well, but it was difficult to see it then. It was hidden by revolutionary hope and mysticism.
The whole Latin American Church, but especially the most sensitive and youngest sectors, felt the pull: the pathos of the problems and the illusion of revolutionary, rapid and radical solutions. In quite traditional Churches with deep-rooted customs, four different but related phenomena suddenly and strongly emerged: the base communities, the Christians for socialism, the revolutionary priests, and in that climate the different versions of Liberation Theology also emerged, as many as theologians: Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Ignacio Ellacuría, Juan Luis Segundo; also the Argentine theology of the People of Lucio Gera. They would follow different paths, in some cases to radicalize (Leonardo Boff) and in others to become more nuanced as they gained experience. But an important part of the crude reality was the poverty that was in front of their eyes. This cannot be forgotten.
The General Conference of Medellin (1968)
When the General Conference of Medellin was convened, this whole world was buzzing and will be present in the subsoil of the conference, provoking tensions, but also accurate analysis and happy efforts of balance, which were also discernment.
The conference itself arose in the context of the Second Vatican Council, when the Latin American episcopate that had gathered during the conciliar sessions wanted to think about the application of the Council to the circumstances of Latin American nations. The preparatory document was very much inspired by Gaudium et spesbut also in Mater et Magistra of John XXIII, and in Populorum progresio of Paul VI. And the same would be true of the conclusions.
The convocation coincided with the XXXIX International Eucharistic Congress in Bogota. It was attended by 137 bishops and 112 delegates representing all the nations present in CELAM. Eduardo Pironio, who would later become president, was the Secretary General at the time and effectively carried out the work. This Argentinean bishop is in the process of beatification.
It is always difficult to make an overall judgment of the great documents of the Church. By what criteria do you guide yourself? By what is most novel? By what has had the greatest impact or has been most repeated? There is also the temptation to make a hermeneutical capriola as was done with the Council itself, which is to substitute the letter of the Council documents for the spirit of the Council. It is also possible to substitute the letter of Medellin for the spirit of Medellin, but this usually means substituting the spirit of the one doing the hermeneutics for what the document that everyone voted for says.
Medellín worked on sixteen areas, which are reflected in its chapters. They can be divided into three areas. The first concerns human promotion: justice and peace, family and demography, education and youth; the second area, evangelization and growth in faith: with reflection on the pastoral care of the cultural, artistic or political elites, of catechesis and liturgy; and the third area referred to the structures of the Church, with the mission that corresponds to each protagonist; it deals with lay movements, priests and religious and their formation, the poverty of the Church, the pastoral care of the whole and the means of social communication. The document reflects in all its parts the values and also those problems that become challenges. A milestone in the reflection that goes from Rio de Janeiro to Aparecida.
For more information
This article owes much to the work of Professor Josep-Ignasi Saranyana and Professor Carmen Alejos. In addition to many articles, mention should be made of the monumental Theology in Latin Americaof which the fourth volume is the subject of this article. And the synthetic work of Professor Saranyana, Brief history of theology in Latin Americawhich has very successful and original pages on the last decades of the twentieth century. It is very opportune to remember it because these topics are usually ignored due to lack of synthesized information. But they affect a very important part of the Catholic Church and are very much alive. Therefore, they deserve to be collected and studied as a relevant part of the theology of the 20th century.