The Battle for the Catholic Church

by Phillip Berryman

Phillip Berryman, a writer who specializes in Latin America, is the author of The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in Central American Revolutions (Orbis) and Inside Central America (Pantheon). He lives in Philadelphia.

This article appeared in the Christian Century May 17, 1989, p. 523. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The author criticizes the Curia and the pope himself for an attempt to return Catholicism to a pre-Vatican II authoritarian church.

Even liberal or radical Catholics generally shy away from taking on the pope. In 1979, about 30 theologians gathered on the margins of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) meeting in Puebla, Mexico; they had been expressly excluded by the CELAM administration but were informally invited by some bishops. One of their first decisions was what to do about some of the statements of newly elected Pope John Paul II, which journalists were interpreting as condemnations of liberation theology. In principle, the theologians could have refuted the pope’s arguments. Instead, they carefully went through his many speeches and culled out certain lines of thought, such as his strong words on behalf of the poor, which they used as best they could in the short essays they hurriedly typed up and sent into the meeting through friendly bishops.

Again, in 1984, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, with the pope’s approval, issued his critique of liberation theology, most Latin American theologians sidestepped it by saying that what Ratzinger was describing was not liberation theology but a caricature, and hence his criticisms did not apply to them or their colleagues. The only exception was the independent-minded and idiosyncratic Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo, who wrote a short book critiquing the Ratzinger document. Segundo accused Ratzinger of either not having understood Vatican II or wanting to turn back the clock. He said, in effect: If Ratzinger’s right I’m wrong and I’ve been wrong for 25 years, and so have a lot of bishops. His book stood alone, however.

The papacy as an institution is another matter. Few Catholic biblical scholars would argue today that Jesus instituted the papacy with particular words to Peter. Writers as diverse as Karl Rahner and Andrew Greeley have daydreamed in print of popes taking a very different stance toward the church and the world.

In the meantime, Vatican positions and disciplinary actions continue to generate controversy, as any reader of the religious press, or even Time, is quite aware. In addition to clashes over liberation theology, Vatican authorities have continued to uphold official teaching on sexual ethics in general (as in a 1986 statement on homosexuality by Cardinal Ratzinger) and have withstood calls even for an open discussion of women’s ordination or of ending celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood. Despite the pope’s statements on the dignity of women, many see his attitude as overtly patriarchal. The Vatican has subjected Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle to a humiliating investigation and at one point took away most of his authority. The firing of moral theologian Charles Curran from the Catholic University of America and the recent announcement of a loyalty oath to be administered to those who teach Catholic theology threaten the academic integrity of Catholic universities and theologians.

Ecumenism, at least on the formal level, also seems stalemated despite earlier advances made by various working parties and the theological community. Some church people criticized the episcopal ordination of Barbara Harris for complicating relations between the Anglican Communion and Rome. Couldn’t one just as logically argue that the Vatican’s refusal to permit even discussion of changes in church order -- despite a quasi-consensus among Catholic biblical scholars, historians and theologians for perhaps 15 years -- is the more basic complicating factor?

Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has used the word "restoration" to describe his and the pope’s program for the church. The ostensible aim is not to reverse the Vatican II process but to correct abuses and bring back to the church the discipline and order supposedly lost in postconciliar excesses and enthusiasms. Others, of course, see "restoration" as a code word for undoing the deeper thrust of the postconciliar renewal.

Lernoux’s treatment of what she calls the "religious international" shows the results of several years of investigative reporting on three continents. She profiles the Knights of Malta, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, and Tradition, Family and Property. Each organization is different in national origin and methodology, but all combine religious conservatism and right-wing politics.

The Knights of Malta arose as a medieval chivalric order. All its members are of the Catholic elite, either through blood or wealth. In this century Knights have been involved in such unsavory activities as helping Nazis escape justice at the end of World War II and participating in a secret Mafia-connected terrorist lodge in Italy called P-2. American Knights have included the late CIA director William Casey, Alexander Haig, William Buckley, Claire Booth Luce and William Simon, to mention some recognizable names. Lernoux describes in some detail the numerous pursuits of Knight J. Peter Grace, the millionaire heir and executive of W. R. Grace and Company. In 1984 while visiting New York’s Cardinal O’Connor, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua made contact with a Grace representative and would have obtained $30,000 had revelation of the funding not proved too embarrassing. According to Lernoux, Grace used Knights of Malta privileges and contacts to send the contras in Honduras supplies worth millions of dollars. While activities such as Grace’s are relatively independent of Vatican policies -- and hence this section could be seen as a digression from the author’s theme -- the Knights are headquartered in the Vatican and have connections with powerful members of the hierarchy like O’Connor and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.

At a deeper level Lernoux notes the parallels between John Paul II’s papacy and Ronald Reagan’s presidency: both men are right-wing populists whose few powerful ideas derive from experiences of three or four decades ago. Hence it is not surprising that for different reasons their visceral anti-communism has led to similar stances, especially toward Nicaragua.

Opus Dei is a highly secretive organization founded in 1928 by Josemaría Escriváde Balaguer, a Spanish priest. The organization seeks to attract young professionals and give them an intense formation so that they may influence society. The highest members of the organization take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Descriptions given by those who leave Opus Dei make it sound rather like a religious cult whose members lose personal autonomy. In keeping with its origins in traditionalist Spain, Opus Dei is quite rigidly classist and sexist; thus, university-trained people are segregated from others and men are segregated from women, who are given essentially housekeeping jobs. The organization is so secret that its constitution is known only to a small circle.

Communion and Liberation is not secretive, but like Opus Dei it targets young people and is obviously not at home in a pluralist society but intends to remake society to fit its ideals. Lernoux tells in some detail how under John Paul II, Communion and Liberation has sought to take over Catholic Action, the major lay organization of the Catholic Church in Italy.

While Opus Dei and Communion and Liberation have few adherents in the U. S., they are strong in certain countries of Europe and Latin America. Moreover, they enjoy the esteem of John Paul II. The Vatican’s press secretary: Joaquin Navarro-Valls, is a member of Opus Dei. At the 1987 Synod of Bishops, which focused on the laity, a major topic of discussion was the "new movements" -- meaning primarily Communion and Liberation and Opus Dei -- even though many of the bishops would have preferred to deal with other questions.

What the pope seems to find appealing in such movements is that they act like disciplined troops that manifest no sign of doubt or hesitation. Many Catholics are disturbed not that such movements exist in the church, but that they should be singled out and proposed as models.

Similar tendencies are evident in Brazil, Chile and elsewhere. Lernoux points out that Rome’s insistence on appointing bishops is relatively recent, a product of the centralization that followed Vatican Council I (1870) Traditionally, bishops were chosen locally and approved by Rome. Lernoux neglects to mention the positive side of such centralization -- that it made hierarchies more independent of monarchs and governments.

In any case, the present pattern is one of appointing bishops whose qualifications are primarily their loyalty to a Vatican-set agenda rather than their ability to communicate the gospel in terms relevant to their own people. Lernoux is concerned that such a pattern may undermine the most promising developments of 20th-century Catholicism, especially the base ecclesial communities of Latin America. To take but one example: Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho, who succeeded popular Archbishop Hélder Câmara in Recife in northeast Brazil, has dismantled much of his predecessor’s work and forbidden him to speak in the archdiocese.

Lernoux’ s anguish stems from the fact that people are being hurt and will continue to be hurt. Throughout the book she provides anecdotes that illustrate the impact of new pastoral approaches among the poor. She begins by telling of the "church of the catacombs" in the Quiche region of Guatemala, where after the bishops, priests and sisters were driven out by threats and murder in 1980, Indian catechists hid the eucharistic bread inside tortillas and smuggled it in. In one especially dramatic example, military authorities told villagers to kill five catechists as subversives or the whole area would be razed and the people killed. When told of this, the catechists themselves insisted that the villagers carry out the order because it was better that a few die than thousands. And so before the sun rose the villagers dug graves, killed the five men with machetes and buried them. The army’s purpose was ultimately defeated, however, because the witness of the martyred catechists continues to inspire the people in their struggle.

By picking this rather awesome example to introduce her book, Lernoux emphasizes that what is at stake in "the battle for world Catholicism" is not simply whether the church is in tune with the times or whether theologians will enjoy full academic freedom, but the life and death of people. If the restorationists have their way, the kinds of pastoral renewal manifested in base communities and new approaches to spirituality will be stifled.

Others have raised similar points, of course. Hans Küng and Leonard Swidler brought together some 25 essays in The Church in Anguish: Has the Vatican Betrayed Vatican II? Their collection was more focused on European and North American theologians, and the only article expressly on Latin America was written by a German. Interestingly, in The Silencing of Leonardo Boff, Harvey Cox, while leaving no doubt about his sympathies, makes greater efforts than Lernoux to help readers understand Ratzinger’s viewpoint.

Penny Lernoux wrote People of God because she cares about the Catholic Church. Part of her motivation came from the appeals of other Catholics, especially bishops, who, feeling that they could not publicly challenge the Vatican, urged her to write the book. Although for some years I have been following the issues and controversies she reports on, I have tended to take a somewhat laissez-faire attitude, noting that many Catholics have found their own solutions to authoritarian impositions (e.g., deciding on contraception for themselves).

That may be too individualistic a solution. By presenting the issues comprehensively, Lernoux is demanding at least that they be discussed openly in the church. What kind of action can be taken is a more difficult matter -- one that Lernoux doesn’t really address. Certainly some bishops’ conferences, notably those of Brazil and the United States, have done what they can while treading close to the edge of hierarchical protocol. Perhaps there will be greater efforts to forge a transnational consciousness of the issues.

If ecumenical dialogue has led many to consider that a "Petrine ministry" -- even one not of "divine inspiration" -- can serve a useful purpose in today’s oikoumene, non-Catholic Christians also may have a stake in the "struggle for world Catholicism."