Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: New Pope a Disappointment to Progressives, Women

Mario Osava*

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 19 2005 (IPS) - “Today was a sad day,” Maria José Rosado Nunes, head of the Brazilian branch of Catholics for the Right to Decide, said in response to the selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope, a decision that in Latin America also disappointed progressive members of the clergy and married priests.

Ratzinger “inspired the most hard-line documents against women produced by the Catholic Church,” and was “the soul of the papacy of John Paul II,” while “logic indicates that changes with regard to women should not be expected” during the new pontificate, said Rosado Nunes, a sociologist by profession.

But his selection “came as no surprise” because John Paul built “a College of Cardinals in his own image and likeness,” thus ensuring that his successor would maintain his “conservative orientation in terms of sexual morality, reproductive rights, and, to some extent, social issues,” she told IPS.

She predicted a “deepening of the abyss between the Church hierarchy and the people of God,” while expressing the hope of a strengthening of movements like the International Movement We Are Church (IMWAC) and a renewal of the process that began with the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, held from 1962 to 1965.

The tension between the leadership of the Church and the grassroots movements will grow, agreed Luiz Alberto Gomez de Souza, director of the Centre of Religious Statistics and Social Research (CERIS).

Pressure is growing for the Church to face up to issues that have been “held in deep freeze”, like violence, sexuality, reproductive rights, and the ordaining of women priests, while the cardinals “were incapable of promoting changes, and chose instead continuity and Roman centralism,” he argued.

“What is occurring in the Catholic communities is important,” Gomez told IPS, saying he did not rule out hope for change in the future, although not for now, because “the Church is surprising.”

For the Movement of Married Priests, the choice of Ratzinger was “a short-term disaster” that will postpone any debate on celibacy, said Francisco Salatiel, a theologian and former priest who left the priesthood to get married in 1978.

But the name adopted by the new pope, Benedict XVI, awakened expectations of a possible “rupture with the previous pontificate,” he added.

The name is significant, and came as a surprise, he said, because Benedicto XV “broke with the prior pontificate of Pius X” and stood out in his efforts for peace during World War I.

He said it is possible that Benedict XVI will assume a “global vision” of peace, and that he will be “less rigid” than he was at the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But he added that “we cannot predict how he will act, as pope.”

Ratzinger, who Salatiel met as “a young priest, who was shy and modest,” became an important figure in the Vatican as a defender of “hard-line, fundamentalist stances,” said the former priest, who criticised the new pope’s “dogmatism and absolute certainties, because faith is an ongoing historical search,” as the Bible demonstrates.

But many in Latin America welcomed the selection of the new pope. Referring to the decision reached by the 115 elector cardinals, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said that a choice “inspired by the Holy Spirit can only be good.”

Leonardo Boff, one of the leaders of the liberation theology movement, which calls for the Church to be more politically and social active on behalf of the poor, suffered at Ratzinger’s hands.

In 1985 he was silenced, and when the punishments continued, he finally left the priesthood in 1992.

Boff said that as a Christian, he “respected the decision, despite the difficulties in loving this pope.”

“I hope he thinks more about humanity than about the Church,” and holds a dialogue with other churches and with the world of science, he said.

Popes have an influence in one direction or another, but the Church remains, because it is “a system, an institution,” said Guatemalan indigenous human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú, who added that she hoped to have “the same close relationship” with Benedict XVI as she enjoyed with his predecessor.

Yet the selection made for the new pope was “lamentable” in the eyes of Chilean theologian Alvaro Ramis of the Diego Medellín Centre, who is also an organiser of the Chilean Social Forum.

As far as he is concerned, Ratzinger is the cardinal whose performance has shown him to be the “most conservative, most anti-ecumenical, and most opposed to opening the Church up to the world,” he told IPS.

The Catholic Church is clearly “regressing” to the stances held prior to Vatican II, “with its back turned on the world and totally closed in upon itself,” said Ramis, recalling that Ratzinger said divorced people and politicians who consistently promote legal abortion should be denied communion, and that he condemned other religions, proclaiming Catholicism the only valid faith.

Argentine priest Eduardo de la Serna, member of a progressive priests movement, commented to IPS that Ratzinger’s election will represent “very difficult times for the church of the poor in Latin America.” It is unlikely that he will be any different “from when he condemned liberation theology without even having studied it properly,” he added.

“Ratzinger does not grasp the reality of the poor,” unlike John Paul II, who came from a poor country, de la Serna said. At the same time, however, he said he did not rule out the possibility of surprises in the future, since Ratzinger was once progressive, and could “return to his roots.”

In Cuba, there is fear that the conservatism of the new pope could lead the Catholic Church to lose more followers to other religions and sects, as well as exacerbating the dependence of local Catholic churches on the Vatican, according to journalist and historian Enrique López Oliva, a former professor of the history of religion at the University of Havana.

The Cuban Catholic Church is already “one of the most dependent on Rome,” as a consequence of confronting the “all-powerful socialist state that adopted atheism as an official policy for three decades,” said López Oliva. “Many fear that this could lead to a new schism.”

Yet there are still some who cling to the slim possibility of change. As pope, “Ratzinger could change and understand that he is not only a representative of a conservative (leader), but that he now belongs to the Catholic people as a whole, who will be listening to him,” said Nilton Giese, a spokesman for the Latin American Council of Churches, based in Quito, Ecuador, with a membership of over 150 churches.

“CLAI’s mission is to promote the unity of all churches, which is why the first thing we must do is congratulate the Catholics on this decision,” said Giese. He added that this was not the time to judge what the new pope will do, although it is well-known that “he supports the staunchest and most conservative stances.”

If Ratzinger sticks to the hard line that led him to oppose the ordination of women and punish the proponents of liberation theology, “the consequences for the Catholic Church are unpredictable,” noted Giese, a Brazilian minister.

In the meantime, the newly elected pope received a vote of confidence from the president of the Venezuelan Bishops Conference, Baltazar Porras, the Archbishop of Mérida. “More than conservative, Ratzinger is a man who is very clear in his way of thinking… with very definite ideas and a great capacity to translate them into reality,” he declared.

* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente in Argentina, Gustavo Gonzalez in Chile, Patricia Grogg in Cuba, Diego Cevallos in Mexico and Humberto Márquez in Venezuela.

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