Latin America's Roman Catholic bishops yesterday described the life of the poor as "a type of abomination" and, in apparent reference to rightist military regimes, condemned Latin governments that place security "above the basic needs of the abandoned masses."
The comments were part of a 200-page document and accompanying letter, closing a two-week bishops conference in Puebla, Mexico, that is intended as a guide to future church policy. The conference was opened there by Pope John Paul II on Jan. 27.
While the documents rejected capitalism as too materialistic and Marxism as lacking in spirituality, it was considered a suprising victory for the progressive wing of the church, which holds that the Catholic clergy should be concerned with righting immediate social, economic and human injustices in addition to meeting spiritual needs.
In most of Latin America's militaryruled nations, such activities are interpreted as political acts and often are labeled as subversive. While the document did not specifically promote "political" activity by priests, it recognized the church's right to support workers and peasants and denounced "physical violence, immorality... [and] abuses of power."
Religious duty, the document said, includes achieving "a more just, free, more peaceful society," while avoiding involvement in particular ideologies or political parties.
The more than 200 attending bishops, archbishops and cardinals from throughout Latin American have attempted to play down controversy in their closed working sessions and plenaries over the past two weeks. But the conference closed on a note of disunity.
Three bishops walked out of a closing sermon by Bishop Pedro Aparicio, a conservative from El Salvador, when he attacked progressive theology. The several clergymen present who reported the incident declined to provide the names of those who had left.
The three apparently took Aparicio's remarks as a direct criticism of fellow Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero, who has been a strong critic of alleged human rights abuses committed by that country's stridently anticommunist government. Romero also has supported the right of peasant workers to organize and protest economic injustice.
The sermon's attack followed two letters sent Monday to the governments and church hierarchies of El Salvasor and Nicaragua with the signatures of more than 30 progressive bishops.
In the El Salvador letter, the bishops said they were concerned over the "hostility and persecution in word and deed" with which the government had responded to the church's task of "the Christian liberation of the poor and oppressed majority of El Salvador."
Four priests have been killed over the past two years in El Salvador. Romero, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a number of U.S. congressmen and 118 members of the British Parliament, has repeatedly been threatened for his denunciation of those acts and his criticism of the government.
In a letter to the president of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference, the signers condemned the government of President Anastasio Somoza and declared their solidarity in defending human rights and the poor.
Referring to a brief civil war between government troops and guerrilla-led civilians last Septermber, the letter said, "We still remember with profound sadness and holy ire the pain, violations and deaths of so many women, children and humble and generous youths, some of them innocent victims, some who offered themselves to justice and freedom for all."
Among the signers were the most Rev. Marcos McGrath, archbishop of Panama, and Brazilian Archbishop Alioso Lorscheider.
The conference debate was primarily between conservative hierarchies that support or fear repressive reaction from authoritative Latin American governments, and more liberal factions demanding that the conference take a "step forward" from the progressive recommendations made by the last conference 10 years ago in Medellin, Colombia.
The Puebla documents closely followed the Vatican line laid down by Pope John Paul in his opening statements, with heavy emphasis on his comments concerning social and economic inequality.
Early interpretation of the pope's statements seemed to find criticism of political activism by priests. But bishops at that time cautioned that the pope's statements had to be taken as a whole in their condemnation of poverty and authorization of church activism as long as it stays away from specific political ideologies.
Paying homage to the words of both Pope John Paul and Pope Paul VI, who spoke at the Medellin conference, that document noted that the church must not neglect others at the expense of their help for the vast majority poor.
"Our pastoral concerns for the most humble members of society in no way exclude the other [social groups] from our thoughts or our hearts," the documents said.
"On the contrary, they are serious and immediate warnings that the distances do not become greater, that the sins do not multiply.
"Because we believe," the documents said, "that the review of religious and moral behavior must be reflected in the contex of the political and economic process of our countries, we invite everyone, without class distinctions, to accept and assume the cause of the poor."