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RELIGION: Rebel Bishop Remains Critical but Hopeful at 77

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jan 19 2005 (IPS) - On the eve of his 77th birthday and official retirement from duty, Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, one of the foremost exponents of Liberation Theology, remains as outspoken a critic of the Catholic Church establishment as ever.

In a telephone interview with IPS, he said that the Vatican is in a state of “regression”, that Pope John II should step down, and that the Catholic Church is being destroyed by over- centralisation.

Born in 1928 in Spain, Casaldáliga has spent much of his life in Brazil, where he arrived in 1968. Now suffering from Parkinson’s disease and high blood pressure, he is serving out his last days as the bishop of Sao Felix do Araguaia, in the central-western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

Throughout his years in Brazil, Casaldáliga has worked in close communion with the poorest of the poor, while vocally criticising the powerful elites.

An outspoken opponent of Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, he was a leading figure in the Liberation Theology movement, which developed throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and sought to more actively engage the Catholic Church in the struggle against hunger, poverty and social injustice in Latin America.

His stance has earned him countless death threats, as well as numerous actual assassination attempts. He is considered a saint by his followers, and the devil incarnate by his detractors.

Q: Bishop Casaldáliga, you are on the verge of retiring, and the Vatican seems to be treating you harshly?

A: I presented my resignation two years ago, in compliance with Church law (the mandatory retirement age for Catholic bishops is 75), but I was asked to remain in my post until my replacement arrived. Then, at the end of 2004, a representative of the Vatican in Brazil came and told me that my presence here could cause discomfort when the new bishop comes. I asked if I had to get out of the city of Sao Felix or out of the region as a whole, and I was told to leave the city, which is totally unjust.

Q: So what will you do?

A: I’m an old horse, and I’m getting tired, and don’t want to get in anyone’s way. I don’t own the diocese, I’m retiring, and that’s fine. But now it doesn’t only depend on me, but also on the communities, on the lay pastors who don’t want me to leave the diocese. I don’t want to cause any friction, but I think that in cases like these, the Church’s decisions should include the community.

Q: Is this latest episode with the Vatican a continuation of your clashes with the Church’s positions in the past?

A: Everything that’s happening is part of what the papacy of John Paul II has represented, which is regression and involution. He has tried to mould the identity of the Catholic Church through laws, attitudes, training, the designation of bishops and a series of actions that signify a regression as compared to the more progressive line that emphasises work with the poor. When it comes to relatively extreme cases, like those of us who have become involved in the struggle of the indigenous peoples, the struggle for land, and international solidarity, then this regression has become even more marked.

Q: What do you think of the current pope? Is he responsible for this supposed regression?

A: Yes, and his stances can be explained to a large extent by his Polish background and his personal history, particularly with regard to communism. For him and for the Polish people, understandably, anything that seems in any way connected with socialism or communism is anti-Catholic. At the same time, “real” communism made terrible blunders. So when socialists and Christians work together in Latin America, and we respect revolutionary movements, this leads to suspicion, and sometimes even to reprimands. In the Vatican, they were afraid that Latin America would turn communist, and therefore atheist, because they were unaware, and continue to be unaware, that the movement to promote justice and socialism here has had a strong Christian component.

Q: Under Pope John Paul II, Liberation Theology has been largely squeezed out, along with its promoters. Do you think that this movement, which some believe to have elements of Marxism, has been permanently abandoned by the Catholic Church?

A: Liberation Theology is alive and well. It is a theology that calls for faith to be more closely linked to life, to history, to different cultures, different peoples, and popular movements. Liberation Theology essentially means to practice the faith on the basis of realities. We believe in a God who doesn’t want slavery, who defends life. Jesus himself said that he had come so that we could all have life, and have it in abundance. Obviously, he was speaking above all about life here on earth. Life in the hereafter, once we have died, is well taken care of by God. It is our task to correct history, in this life. Eternal life is in God’s hands, and it is entirely safe there.

Q: Is the Vatican’s stance against Liberation Theology a result of the fact that it doesn’t really understand Latin America?

A: I think the problem is that the majority of the Church’s decisions are adopted in a highly centralised manner. We believe that the Church needs to be decentralised, because this current course is destroying it. None of us defies the pope, all we ask is for him to practice a more open ministry, and to respect plurality, especially when it comes to countries or continents with different cultures and different histories. It has to be acknowledged that the Catholic Church continues to be markedly Westernist and even Eurocentric. We feel we are part of the Church, but we demand respect for plurality.

Q: Can the Church continue to be led by John Paul II, who is clearly tired and very ill?

A: I have said in the past that the pope should have stepped down when he turned 75, like all bishops are meant to do. I don’t think it’s a good idea to hold posts for life. I believe that we old people face limitations, we don’t have the same strength and flexibility. I’m just about to turn 77 myself, and I’m much weaker than I was 20 years ago. I can’t get around like I used to. A pope is still a human being, which is why I don’t think it’s a good idea to hold the position for life.

Q: What do you think the Catholic Church of the future should be like?

A: That’s an invitation to dream. First of all, I think the Vatican should cease to be a state, because it is terrible to be the head of the Church and a head of state at the same time, which is the case with our pope. But most importantly, the Church should be more open to the realities and the needs of the world’s different regions, and the needs of the poorest among us. The right of women to be priests must be recognised as well. The fact is, the Church is shaped by history, and I believe that the foundation of the Church, its followers, will ultimately push forward the changes that are needed. Those who are pessimistic about the current state of the Church should be reminded of something that Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano said, “Let’s save pessimism for better times.” I have a lot of hope in change, and changes will come, you’ll see.

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