Saturday, October 27, 2007

"The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties" Gaudium et Spes 1

"The bearded face – eyes staring defiantly to infinity, the long wavy hair beneath the beret stirred by the Caribbean breeze – has become one of the world’s most familiar images," so begins a brief article on the legacy of one Ernesto Ché Guevara, the Argentine doctor turned Marxist revolutionary, in a recent issue of The Economist. It is no small irony this dedicated Marxist, who is so revered by many in the anti-globalization crowd, "has spawned a global brand". According this same article this familiar image, which is a photograph taken of Guevara by photographer Alberto Korda, “has adorned cigarettes, ice cream and a bikini".

No doubt the recent film The Motorcycle Diaries contributed greatly to Guevara’s iconic status "as a universal symbol of romantic rebellion". Please do not misunderstand, I, too, watched, enjoyed, and was moved by this well-made film, which is a stylized and artistic rendering of the young Ernesto Guevara’s travels throughout his native South America. It was during these travels that this idealistic young man came to see the economic disparities, social injustices, and human rights abuses across this long troubled continent. As a result, his conscience was deeply troubled by what he witnessed and experienced. Nonetheless, The Economist article is absolutely correct in the several assertions it makes about Ché. The first assertion is that his status is more about "semiotics" than it is about politics; semiotics refers to a philosophical theory of signs and symbols. Second, like James Dean, Guevara, because he died at age 39, is, in the words of Alphaville’s lone hit, forever young. Guevara was killed in the mountains of Bolivia, where he was organizing a Marxist insurrection, by the CIA working alongside the Bolivian army, forty years ago, on 9 October 1967. The third assertion is, apart from a life holiness, which is characterized by loving perfectly, Guevara has all the trappings of a saint. In a kind of a post-modern irony, this is positive in that it speaks to the intractable Catholicism of Latin America, even among those who buy into secular, atheistic ideologies, like Marxism and who revere Ché. Of course, the same can be said for Orthodoxy and Communism in Russia, where Lenin still lies on public display in his mausoleum in Moscow.

"The wider the cult spreads," the piece continues, "the further it strays from the man". Guevara was not a saint in any meaningful sense of the word; he was not even the secular equivalent of a saint, a humanitarian, despite his beautifully depicted coming of age. Instead, Guevara "was a ruthless and dogmatic Marxist, who stood not for liberation but for new tyranny". Relics of Guevara were auctioned off on Thursday in Dallas. These relics were collected by Gustavo Villoldo, a former CIA operative who helped hunt Guevara and who was put in charge of secretly burying Ché’s body. A lock of the revolutionary's hair fetched $119,500.00!

As has been noted, Guevara was an idealistic young man, whose impulse after his travels throughout Latin America was to help effect a change that would begin to break down the inarguably unjust conditions across this region of the world. That he turned to Marxism as the answer is a tragedy. Ché took his motorcycle trip at the age of twenty-three, in the first years of the decade of the 1950s. At that time, sadly, the Church cannot be said to have been on the side of the poor. Sure, there were individual priests, bishops, as well as religious sisters, brothers, and even whole religious orders dedicated to serving the poor, but there was no institutional effort made by the Church to address these gross injustices at the upper levels of society. So, where was such an idealistic young man to look for inspiration?

Of course, the Catholic Church was and remains perhaps the most influential institution from México to la Tierra del Fuego. In the wake of Vatican II, the Church has begun to address many of the issues that existed in Guevara’s youth but which continue to persist down to now. This disparity between what the Christian faith has always professed but often failed to live out is addressed in part two of the encyclical Deus Caritas Est in a section entitled Justice and Charity, at the beginning of which Pope Benedict XVI takes up an often valid Marxist critique of Christianity:

"Since the nineteenth century, an objection has been raised to the Church's charitable activity, subsequently developed with particular insistence by Marxism: the poor, it is claimed, do not need charity but justice. Works of charity—almsgiving—are in effect a way for the rich to shirk their obligation to work for justice and a means of soothing their consciences, while preserving their own status and robbing the poor of their rights. Instead of contributing through individual works of charity to maintaining the status quo, we need to build a just social order in which all receive their share of the world's goods and no longer have to depend on charity" (par. 26).

While admitting that there is "some truth to this argument, the Holy Father goes on to assert that the Church holds that "the pursuit of justice" is primarily the job of the State. While I much admire this encyclical and do not disagree about the necessary separation of Church and State, each with its own competency, I have to say that my admiration is largely limited to the first part of the letter. It is here that this first encyclical of Benedict XVI’s pontificate has come in for some harsh criticism by many, especially many of the leading luminaries of liberation theology, like Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, whose book The God of Life, at least to my mind, would serve the first part of Deus Caritas Est better than the actual second part of the encyclical, wherein the Holy Father asserts "that the pursuit of justice must be a fundamental norm of the State and that the aim of a just social order is to guarantee to each person, according to the principle of subsidiarity, his share of the community's goods" (par. 26). While it is true that such an understanding "has always been emphasized by Christian teaching on the State and by the Church's social doctrine," it fails to address what the Church’s role is, especially in places like Latin America, where some 473,000,000 of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics live, thus making it the most Catholic region in the world, in bringing about a more just social order.

The Church’s continuing institutional challenge in doing more to relieve the plight of the impoverished millions in this region, taking its cue from the leadership of many bishops, like Aloísio Cardinal Lorschieder, OFM, and Archbishop Helder Camera, who once averred, "When I feed the poor, they call me a Saint. When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist," has resulted in some very disturbing trends. The first was liberation theology gone wild, resulting in priests getting involved in violent revolutionary movements, the most dramatic moment of which occurred when Pope John Paul II, upon his arrival in Managua, was greeted by President Daniel Ortega and all the ministers of the Sandinista government, including Jesuit priest Ernesto Cardenal, who continued to serve as a government minister even after the Holy Father ordered all priests serving in political positions to resign, gave Cardenal a very public tongue lashing, complete with finger wagging, right on the airport tarmac. The second disturbing trend that we see resulting from the Church’s inertia is the success of evangelical Christianity throughout the region.

The Holy Father admits that, after the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century "the Church's leadership was slow to realize that the issue of the just structuring of society needed to be approached in a new way" because, with the Industrial Revolution, "the relationship between capital and labour" became the decisive issue (pars. 26-27). What changed the nature of the relationship between labor and capital with the rise of mass production was that "the means of production were now the new source of power which, concentrated in the hands of the few, led to the suppression of the rights of the working classes" (par. 26). While the human economy, at least in advanced societies, is undergoing another tremendous shift, what we might call the Information Revolution, much of the underdeveloped world is still coming to grips with the realities of the nineteenth century and, hence, these countries are ill-equipped to enter this new era.
So, in the end, there is a noticeable disparity between the Benedictine and Pauline teaching on these matters. After all it was Papa Montini who wrote both the encyclical Populorum Progresso and the Apostolic Exhortation Evangeli Nuntiandi. Both of these remain great guides for concrete praxis, especially in regions of the world that are afflicted with the historical and contemporary ills of Latin America.

None of this is written as an apology for the over-romanticized Ché, he made choices and did what can only be characterized as evil things, thus making his legacy irretrievably an evil one. Just to impart some idea of his sins, he was put in charge of executing counter-revolutionaries and was responsible for creating the Cuban gulag system and Communist reeducation camps. As Minister of Industry he was put in charge of the usually violent expropriation all private property, including small farms and shops, a job he carried out with irrepressible zeal. Still, it is difficult not to wonder what would happen if the Church’s social doctrine, which, it is often joked, is the Church’s best kept secret, were lived concretely, not just by individual Christians, but the Church as the Body of Christ, and especially as an institution, in which manifestation it is both a social and political entity. The idealistic young people of the Global South experience, live, and see many of the same injustices as those seen by the young Ernesto Guevara in the Latin America of the 1950s. These young people are the targets of people recruiting on behalf of organizations espousing various radical and violent ideologies, like the perverted form of Islam that currently wreaks so much havoc across the globe. I readily admit that it is easier to outline the problem than to propose a solution. The solution the Church proposes, however, whether in the magisterium of Benedict XVI, Leo XIII, John Paul II, or Paul VI, is the concrete praxis of our Christian faith. Our program consists of nothing but two principles taught some 2,000 years ago by a marginalized peasant who belonged to an oppressed and repressed people: Love God with all our hearts, might, minds, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves. In answering the question, Who is my neighbor, this same peasant, whom we revere as our Lord and God, tells us that all human beings we encounter are our neighbors, but especially the person we encounter who is most in need. So, in this season of elections, as citizens of a free society, let us not neglect what our own bishops tell us is our duty, to vote, to advocate for the common good, to work to bring about a more just society. This is not enough; we also need to make our parishes models of love and justice, true Christian communities.


  1. Regarding the Benedict's encyclical and his assertion that the pursuit of justice belongs to the State...

    I think that what's being asserted here (justice being a matter for the State and not for the Church) is the social role which exemplified by Jesus in the Gospels. It seems to me that Jesus assumed two roles when addressing authority: in the case of the Pharisees, a strong critic; in the case of Caesar, someone almost completely indifferent. In the latter case, Jesus seems completely unimpressed by the great empire; it just wasn't worth his time to address it.

    In my opinion, this creates two examples for the Church. The first is that of a strong critic of state that is willing to reap social change through martyrdom. The second is more strange and perhaps more spiritual: the Church's role is not to get its feathers ruffled by the world, the flesh and the devil whom Jesus has already defeated.

  2. To say that Jesus was indifferent to Caesar and the Romans is a bit of a stretch. True, Jesus did not advocate or condone violent revolutionary action to overthrow Roman rule, á la the Zealots, but he was not indifferent to injustice.

    In the case of Latin America we are not dealing with ancient Rome, or even the Soviets, regimes wholly hostile to the Church. Rather, we are talking about the most Catholic region on earth, where the Church, even now, enjoys great institutional prestige. Engagement with the world is what our faith calls us to, not violent revolution, but a revolution of love, care, compassion, and fierce, albeit non-violent, advocacy for the poor. Pope Benedict would certainly agree with that, just as Paul VI would agree that the Church and the State have their respective spheres of competence. However, when it comes to fundamental justice, these spheres overlap.