Pope wants ‘prophetic Church’ in Chile, but what does it mean?
By Inés San Martín
June 5, 2018
|Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass at Lobito beach in Iquique, Chile, Jan. 18.|
Photo by Paul Haring
ROME - As Pope Francis comes to terms with the magnitude of the abuse crisis in Chile, which pivots not only on widespread sexual abuse but also abuses of conscience and power, he has repeatedly called on the Chilean Church to recover its “prophetic” identity - which, presumably, means it had that identity once and, somewhere along the way, lost it.
The obvious question is, what exactly does it mean to be a “prophetic” Church? While people seem to agree on some broad outlines, the details often lie in the eye of the beholder.
Layman Alexis Parra of Catholic Voices Chile told Crux that for the Church to be prophetic, it has to “announce the Good News; denounce the structures of sin, that today have reached the Chilean Church at all its levels; [and] intercede through prayer, particularly with the Eucharist that is source and summit of Christian life.”
In other words, he said, a prophetic Church is not only one that says, “Lord come,” but one that “never forgets that her life must be “for Christ, with him and in him.”
Yet when Francis told the Chilean bishops two weeks ago in a letter meant to be confidential, but which was, nevertheless, leaked to the media, that the Chilean Church has lost its “prophetic” edge, other locals gave it a different, even political meaning.
In the Chilean context, the idea of a “prophetic Church” is normally used to speak about the Church of the 1960s through the 1980s, a period that ended after the death of a cardinal some saw as a greater-than-life figure, Raúl Silva Henríquez. He served as Archbishop of Santiago from 1961 to 1983 and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1962. He’s revered for defending the poor and standing up against the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
Yet for every person ready to praise him, there’s another eager to debunk what they see as a myth.
On the former side, there’s people such as the dean of the Jesuit-run University San Alberto Hurtado, Father Eduardo Silva.
A prophetic Church, he told Crux, is one that “knows to put Jesus at the center, that talks about who’s coming, not of herself. The Church of the past years in Chile has been one centered on itself.”
“Silva Henríquez confronted Pinochet, he was a sign of a Church that placed the victims of human rights violations, the disappeared [by the regime], at the center,” the Jesuit priest said. Back then, he argues, the Catholic Church in Chile defended everyone, including “people of the left and communists,” regardless of their religious affiliation.
“That is why the Church is prophetic, because it places others at the center and not itself,” he insisted.
Speaking with Crux over the phone, Silva said that the Chilean problem began with changes in the bishops’ conference, and he believes St. Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) played a key role, “reorienting the Chilean Church” as part of a plan to interpret the Second Vatican Council in an “opposite direction of that prophetic Church.”
An American Jesuit living in Rome has a slightly different view, saying on background that “John Paul II appointed many bishops [in Chile] who were administrators, not pastors. But, on the other hand, he didn’t have a very good pool of candidates to choose from.”
In addition to perceived defects in the episcopacy, Silva also pointed to the end of military rule in Chile. As the country was trying to “rebuild democracy, provide truth and justices on matters of human rights and trying to grow equitably,” John Paul II appointed Carlos Oviedo Cavada as Archbishop of Santiago, whom Silva described as “a conservative man worried about sexual morality.”
According to the priest, the Church “spent a decade trying to stop Chile’s divorce law, fighting with a liberal society, banning condoms, criticizing the sexual practices of Chileans from a conservative perspective. This second act is tragic: to discover that under the cassock, the same things we called scandals were also being committed [by clergy], with even worse perversions.”
Finding “conservative” bishops was a strategy which, Silva said, was facilitated by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who served as papal representative in Chile from 1977 to 1988, and who later became John Paul’s Secretary of State.
“It was the troika: while John Paul II was bathing in the crowds and conquering humanity with his apostolic journeys and his remarkable words, ideological control was in the hands of Ratzinger, and the political government was in the hands of Sodano,” Silva said, adding that “remarkable men” were never made bishops because, for instance, they voiced doubts about Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical that upheld Church teaching opposing artificial contraception.
The Jesuit charged that not allowing a married woman to take the day-after pill - which pharmaceutical companies have acknowledged can produce abortions - is an “abuse of conscience,” because he believes that “other bishops would have been able to deal with these problems of sexual abuse, abuse of power and abuse of conscience in a different way. But in a fearful, conservative Church, it is more possible to have this control of power and consciousness.”
Layman Juan Claret Pool, spokesman of the lay people of Osorno, agrees with Silva, saying that the crisis of the Chilean Church is not the responsibility of Francis but previous popes: “Today, the elitism of the Church is criticized, blaming the bishops. [Francis] says so in the letter filtered to the media some weeks ago.”
However, “we ask ‘why are you reproaching them for that, if that’s precisely what they were chosen for?’”
According to the layman, when John Paul II went to Chile in 1987, he had a first-hand experience of the “popular Church” and “became worried over a possible radicalization of the Church.” He believes the bishops responsible for the ongoing crisis coincide with appointments that took place after the visit, and he too points towards Sodano for his responsibility in choosing the bishops.
“Many of us are skeptical, because everything is centered in how wrong the gladiators did things, but no one is questioning the Caesar who took them to the Coliseum,” Claret told Crux.
Claret does blame Francis for the suffering of the people of the Osorno diocese, however, saying it could have been avoided if the pontiff had accepted the resignation of Bishop Juan Barros one of the two times the prelate presented it. The prelate was transferred by the pontiff to this southern diocese in 2015, and despite warnings and protests, the pope chose to keep him in place.
On the other side stand those who, acknowledging Silva Henríquez’ prophetic challenge of the military government, believe that he left much to be desired in other areas, including in choosing the people with whom he surrounded himself.
As it now turns out, for instance, two of the cardinal’s closest collaborators had allegations brought up over sexual abuse. Father Cristian Precht has been found guilty, and many allegations arose against Father Miguel Ortega, who died before the charges were investigated.
Chilean Father Samuel Fernandez, who belonged to the priestly union once run by pedophile priest Fernando Karadima, but who today describes himself as a victim of the abuse of power and conscience the priest perpetrated, told Crux that viewing the Chilean Church as prophetic until the 1980s when “something happened” to make it “abusive” in the 1990s “doesn’t work.”
First, he said, because they are “the same Church, and secondly, because they’re simultaneous.”
“There’s a risk in thinking that the abuses are related to a conservative ecclesiology,” he said. “Unfortunately, abuse cuts across those lines.”
Another of Karadima’s priestly victims, who spoke with Crux on the condition of anonymity, said that Silva Enriquez maintained a prophetic Church in the social environment, “which is one element in the life of humanity, that of poverty and social injustice,” but insisted it’s the same Church that allowed people with a “corrupted humanity” to be abusive.
The source said he has enough evidence to maintain not only that there were sexual abusers around the cardinal, but also other clergy who knew about the abuse and did nothing, and still others who “used power in an unhealthy way, to exercise their influence with a mafia-like attitude.”
“For me, a prophetic Church is one that has at its core Jesus Christ turned man,” he said. “Meaning, man in his integral dimension. A prophet who’s ideologized over one area of the human person and is centered only on that, is a sick prophet.”
“Prophecy is brave enough to go against the tide, no matter what, defending the human person in all its aspects,” the source said.
In Chile, Fernandez said, abuses have taken place both in very conservative and very progressive places.
“This, I believe, is a call to look deeper into the causes,” Fernandez added, “because it’s a phenomenon that is present in different cultures in the ecclesial environment, which means that a structural change is needed.”
He believes clerical sexual abuse is related to abuse of power and the manipulation of conscience, but there have also been other causes, such as not taking seriously what science and psychology say on the issue, replacing them with spirituality, which though “needed,” he said, is not enough.
Another cause for abuse and cover-up, he said, which has no ideological bias, is a drive to silence and hide allegations in order “to defend, to guard the prestige of the institution, either to maintain certain privileges or to defend the poorest.”
“Wanting to protect the prestige of the institution has led us to neglect the value of human beings,” Fernandez said.
To this day, he argued, there are some who say that “sexual abuse has done great harm to the Church.” He agrees, but he insists “the greatest harm had been done to the people who’ve been injured, damaged by abuse. It was about power, and then sweeping things under the carpet so that the Church can continue to look good.”
Speaking with Crux in Rome, German Jesuit Hans Zollner, a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, partially agreed, saying that at bottom, sexual abuse is not a “liberal v. conservative” issue, and that the divide is not a helpful one.
“I see people on both sides who are very much engaged in and committed to safeguarding, and to doing whatever can be done to do justice to victims,” he said. “And, I see reluctance on both sides to intervene appropriately, in a timely manner, and consistently when allegations come up and when the contact with the victims is an important point of that whole procedure.”
But he also said that the clericalist attitudes which can underlie abuse sometimes, as in the Chilean case, flourish best in a traditional, strongly conservative milieu.
“The fortress mentality is more often found in a conservative environment,” the expert said. “What we’ve seen in the Karadima case especially is a very moralistic approach, which bizarrely, is then combined with an absolutely immoral approach to people. This is striking.”
“Some of those who purport to defend the Church and her doctrine behave in a blatantly contradictory way, thereby destroying the credibility of the Church,” he said.
None of that may quite resolve what Francis has in mind when he calls the Chilean Church to be “prophetic,” but it would, at least imply that whatever it means, it’s not exclusively about the politics of left v. right.