When Latin American bishops conclude their convocation here this week, their proclamation is expected to link Roman Catholicism's future there with the poor, creating an open conflict with some political and economic systems.
"All eyes are on Puebla to see whether we have the courage to tell the truth without fear of the mighty ones," said Bishop Clemente Jose Carlos Isnard, one of many liberal delegates in the large Brazilian contingent to the third Latin American Bishops Conference.
In a critique of the first section of the document, the superior general of a Mexican order of priests complained, "It shows timidity in the face of situations of injustice, domination, violation of rights and discrimination."
Archbishop Marcos McGrath of Panama, a member of the committee coordinating drafting of 21 sections of the document, said it will speak with "greater clarity and insistence" than a similar document produced by the last bishops conference in Medellin, Colombia, 11 years ago.
Since then, the Catholic Church in most of Latin America often has been identified with the poor. The church in most countries is the only institution with enough moral authority to denounce violations of human and civil rights under some authoritarian governments and to help organize the poor.
Some Catholic sources have estimated that 850 priests, nuns and lay workers have been exiled, abducted or killed by repressive forces in the last decade.
Pope John Paul II opened the conference last month with an address described by some analysts as conservative. Progressive bishops here generally interpreted the papal speech as a "liberating" go-ahead, marked, however, with caution against theological deviations or separating social action from Christian principles.
More than 200 voting cardinals, archbishops and bishops from 22 countries are expected to release the final document by Tuesday, the last day of the conference. Several bishops in interviews and news conferences have indicated that the statement will not refer to specific countries or officials.
However, Bishop Salvador Schlaefer of Nicaragua disclosed that a group of bishops was preparing a sort of "minority report" to cite one country as an example of human rights violations. Schlaefer, a member of the group, did not deny that the country might be Nicaragua. He noted that the conference documents have no authority to direct the actions of the national bishops' conferences or individual dioceses.
Bishop Manuel Talamas Camandari of Juarez, Mexico, urged delegates to speak courageously. "Otherwise, our ambiguity will be used by mutually opposed ideologies and systems to interpret us in their own way," Talamas said.
But many conservatives believe too much encouragement of intellectuals committed to the "theology of liberation" gives comfort to the church's left wing. As one Argentine bishop put it in a plenary session, "The biggest danger of all is Marxism."
The "father of liberation theology," Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, 50, told a gathering in Puebla that a Marxist-type socialism "couldn't be any worse than what we have today, and we hope it could be better." Several uninvited "liberation" theologians are here having occasional conversations with participants in the conference.
Some conservative bishops -- like ones who accused some Catholics of abandoning "the God of the poor for the poor of God" -- last week in conference debate called for less social analysis and more attention to traditional doctrinal concerns.
Conservative delegates have two key leaders at the conference in Cardinal Sebastino Baggio, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, and the conference secretary general, Archbishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia.
But it would appear that the final document of about 150 pages still will contain a rationale for Christian-based social action. Archbishop Acurath said the document will break new ground in urging dialogues with sincere people in government, business and universities as well as in labor unions and peasant movements.