Courtesy Reuters

The Church in Latin America

The Roman Catholic Church in Latin America has long been criticized for helping to maintain an anachronistic social system and economic underdevelopment-low levels of education, a rigid class system, disinterest in economic achievement and valorization of order and tradition. Catholics themselves admit that few creative thinkers have come from Latin America, that theologically and administratively the institution has conformed to patterns drawn chiefly from southern Europe. Yet today no institution in Latin America is changing more rapidly than the Catholic Church, and in directions that have important implications not only for defining new relationships between Christianity and the values of society, but also for the role that the Church will play in the region's development.

Like many cultural changes, however, this one has been neither as abrupt nor as total as casual observers have often reported. Just as the Church was never as monolithic or reactionary as its critics claimed, recent reform movements have not totally captured the Catholic community or followed a single, unified path. Rather, the Church is in a continuous transition which has greatly intensified in the last decade, building on a long tradition of division and dissent that dates as far back as the early sixteenth century, when Father Bartolomé de las Casas provoked a debate over the Indian policy of the Spanish conquerors.

An examination of the effect of the structure of the Catholic community on decision-making and a discussion of recent trends among Catholic élites will help to clarify the Church's function as an agent for change in Latin America.

Such an analysis must begin with the Catholic people in Latin America, by distinguishing between the masses, 90 percent of whom profess to be Catholics, and the é1ites, who have a greater understanding of what their religious commitment means. The former are not profoundly Catholic by any criterion: theological awareness, sacramental participation, mass attendance or conformity to the Church's ethical teaching. Since Catholicism does not seriously shape their public actions, it is inappropriate to praise or

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