Vatican reverses anti-liberation policies in Mexico

Late last month Mexican Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel announced that after a 14 year church-ordered suspension of the rite, indigenous deacons would again be ordained in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas—where the local church serves a largely Maya population.

A rare reversal in church policy, resumption of deacon ordinations in Chiapas appears to signal an end to official ecclesiastical suppression of liberation theology and practice.

In a striking statement, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the current head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican organization that once spearheaded the Vatican attack on liberation theology under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) recently placed liberation theology in context with the work of the “great Doctors of the Church like St. Augustine and St. Thomas.”

Cardinal Müller also edited a collection of essays on liberation theology—including one by its founder, Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez—published with a preface by Pope Francis and presented to the public this past February.

Pope Francis welcomed Gutiérrez to the Vatican during his stay in Rome for the presentation. In his first official teaching document, The Joy of the Gospel, Francis exhorts Catholics to “overcome suspicion” and embrace “a church with many faces.”

Still, until now, Francis had not rescinded the actions of two predecessors who censured liberationist theologians and dismantled institutions that promoted liberationist thinking and practice. But the Pope’s approval of Bishop Arizmendi’s plan to ordain 100 new indigenous deacons to serve the Maya populations of Chiapas is a game changer.

Ordination of Maya indigenous deacons in Chiapas was the brainchild of Bishop Samuel Ruiz (1924-2011), one of the beloved (so-called) “red bishops” of Latin America and a renowned advocate of Mexico’s Maya and other indigenous peoples during his four decade episcopal ministry. An erstwhile seminary rector, Bishop Ruiz was “converted” by the poor of his diocese, much as Oscar Romero had been.

There are more than two million Maya indigenous in the Diocese of San Cristobal, which encompasses both the sprawling mountain highlands and the vast Lacandon Jungle in one of Mexico’s poorest states. Ruiz responded to the extreme poverty and marginalization of the diocese’s majority indigenous population with pastoral innovations that promoted liberation on the ground. With financial support from Mexico’s Papal Nuncio, the bishop established schools for catechists that drew scores of Maya indigenous to San Cristóbal where they encountered the Catholic teachings of Vatican II and, for the first time in Maya history, were entrusted with the Bible.

After a period of church testing and consultation with local communities, Bishop Ruiz began ordaining some of these catechists to the permanent diaconate. As ordained ministers permanent deacons are authorized to baptize and preside at marriages and communion services in the absence of priests in the 2500 local Maya communities in Chiapas. Unlike transitional deacons eventually ordained to celibate priesthood, permanent deacons in Chiapas are married and rely on the assistance of their wives in attending to pastoral needs, including catechism classes, marriage preparation, and visits to the sick.

Bishop Ruiz elevated an extraordinary number of Maya men to the permanent diaconate, an ancient institution revived by Vatican II. In 2000, 341 of Mexico’s 800 deacons served the Diocese of San Cristobal, the largest number of deacons in any Catholic diocese in the world.

Vatican suspicion of Bishop Ruiz’s liberationist pastoral strategy resulted in a failed attempt to remove him in 1993. The deacon program came under particular scrutiny after the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, with reports that Maya catechists defied the bishop and enlisted in the indigenous rebel army. In an effort to neutralize Ruiz’s influence, the Vatican named Dominican prelate, José Raúl Vera, as co-adjutor bishop to direct the Diocese of San Cristóbal alongside Ruiz. But against Roman expectations, direct experience of Maya Catholic communities persuaded Bishop Vera to align himself with the diocese’s liberationist pastoral project.

Alarm at the ratio of priests (60) to deacons in the diocese was aggravated by false reports from reactionary quarters that Bishop Ruiz was ordaining women deacons to the diaconate and had sanctioned married priests. The diocese vigorously defended itself against these false claims, but, following Bishop Ruiz’s retirement in March, 2000, his successor, Felipe Arizmendi, agreed to the Vatican’s request to temporarily suspend diaconal ordinations in the diocese.

This suspension became permanent in 2002 when the Vatican formally ordered the Diocese of San Cristóbal to cease the ordinations indefinitely.

This move further confirmed Rome’s determination to curb local pastoral initiatives, particularly those of a liberationist bent. In fact, the Vatican pursued its disciplinary agenda against liberation-leaning bishops throughout the Mexican church with a rash of forced resignations and retirements. Pope John Paul II replaced as many as 86 of 100 Mexican bishops in two years alone, between 1997-1998. In the most famous case, the indigenous-identified bishop Arturo Lona Reyes of Tehuantepec refused to tender his resignation. The same year, 1997, saw the closing of two Mexican seminaries that seemed to be sympathetic to the Chiapas rebellion.

The Mexican pattern of closing seminaries and replacing bishops was repeated throughout Latin America, as the Vatican dismantled the infrastructure of the theology of liberation. In his previous capacity as Jesuit provincial in Argentina, Pope Francis himself had labored to contain the liberation movement. As head of the Argentine bishops conference, then-Cardinal Bergoglio, expressly criticized application of Marxist interpretations of the bible and the theology they inspired. His relations with government authorities who prosecuted Argentina’s “dirty war,” largely conducted in secrecy, continue to be scrutinized along with his apparent ambivalence toward priests working in liberationist-inspired solidarity with the poor.

As a result of the dismissal of sympathetic hierarchs and the dismantling of progressive wings of the institution conducted in a climate of suspicion, liberation theology came to be understood as a failed vision, while the Vatican continued to pronounce it a false one. Before a gathering of Brazilian bishops in December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared liberation theology “deceitful.” After almost three decades of systematic Vatican suppression, liberation theology appeared to be dying.

When Francis welcomed Gustavo Gutierrez to the Vatican last year, it appeared no more than a simple gesture of respect for the beloved and aging patriarch of liberation theology. But Pope Francis’ revitalization of the diaconal ministry in Chiapas indicates a deeper level of support.

In a June 12 letter following announcement of his intention to ordain 100 new deacons, Bishop Arizmendi lamented that 50 years after Vatican II revived the permanent diaconate, “in many parts its importance is still not understood.” For over a decade the Diocese of San Cristóbal has endured “saddening tests and incomprehension” as result.

There are many who hope that these new ordinations will help to build a wholly “indigenous church” guided by the faith of the people “from below,” in liberationist terms, and overseen by bishops in collegial, rather than submissive, communion.