Trends Within the Church since the 1940s

Colombia Table of Contents

The church's involvement in such activities as social welfare and union organization flowed in part from changes in Colombian society beginning in the 1940s. Of equal importance was the process of renewal that characterized the worldwide Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960s. Both Pope John XXIII (1958-63) and Pope Paul VI (1963-78) issued a series of encyclicals that were unequaled in their efforts to modernize the church as an institution and modify its role in society. These encyclicals stressed the government's obligation to reduce socioeconomic inequalities and the church's obligation to take a leading role in reform.

Although the papal encyclicals pointed the Colombian episcopate in the direction of change, it was not until the 1968 Latin American Bishops Conference (Conferencia Episcopal Latinoamericana- -Celam) in Medellín that these proposed reforms were brought home in the form of a declaration specifically involving Latin America. The core concepts developed during the Medellín conference were the conflict between the "haves" and "have-nots," the need for fundamental institutional reforms, and social action as the key means of Christian influence in the world. The conclusions of the Medellín conference gave the Latin American church the necessary mandate to implement social justice and church reform.

In accordance with the thrust of the Medellín conference, the Colombian bishops endorsed the call for social action. Unlike other Latin American colleagues, however, the Colombian bishops shied away from some of the more dramatic aspects of Medellín. They did not, for example, accept Medellín's view that institutionalized violence characterized Latin American societies. Unable to change the shape of the Medellín documents, the Colombians published a dissenting treatise in the secular press.

The bishops' inability to agree on an approach to social reform and to implement it through strong and effective leadership increased the fragmentation within the church in Colombia and the controversy surrounding the latter's role. Some of the problems developed over organizational rather than ideological disagreements between groups fighting for the same resources or powerful positions. The insufficient economic base and the lack of qualified personnel further limited developmental efforts. Consequently, only development programs operating in strongly Catholic areas had substantial success. Competition among upwardly mobile priests for the attention of the local bishop also detracted from reform and tended to promote those priests eager to conform to the status quo.

Frustration over the lack of dynamic leadership caused some priests to strike out on their own. The first to do so was Camilo Torres, an upper-class Colombian who left the priesthood to become a guerrilla. Torres was killed in 1966, less than six months after he joined the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional--ELN), thus becoming the first so-called martyr of the Catholic left in Latin America. He became a symbol for many leftists with his commitment to radical change through violence.

In the late 1960s, many Colombian clergymen, encouraged by Torres's example, were determined to work for social change. Except for Gerardo Valencia Cano, bishop of Buenaventura, none of the episcopate supported their work. Spurned by the hierarchy, the group attempted to develop a power base strong enough to break the religious and secular hold of the elite. Basing their platforms on Marxist concepts, they began to hold protest demonstrations to rally support against the hierarchy and to promote programs of radical social change.

In spite of the rejection of the Medellín conclusions by the majority of Colombian bishops, the activists led by Bishop Valencia became the first group in Latin America to issue a manifesto and a platform for social reform based on the resolutions of the Medellín conference. Meeting in 1968 and taking the name Golconda Group-- "Golconda" after the farmhouse where they first met--the group led the revolutionary wing of the Colombian church until early 1970. The Golconda Group elaborated an anticapitalist, anti-imperialist stance and a platform that included recourse to violence under certain conditions. By advocating violence, however, the group touched a sensitive nerve among Colombians and undercut potential support from many progressive Catholics who were ready to promote change.

The Golconda Group became involved in political as well as social issues and encouraged the Colombian people to boycott the elections of 1970 and thereby refuse to give a democratic stamp to either of the official parties. This antagonistic attitude toward the government led to charges of communist sympathies and to the eventual repression and imprisonment of members of the movement. Because the group was small and radical and because government and ecclesiastical opposition was effectively organized against it, it was short lived. After several members were imprisoned on the eve of its third annual meeting in early 1970, the Golconda Group ceased to exist as a single organization, although individuals continued to use its name. Despite the fact that their efforts to effect sweeping social changes were not successful, members of the Golconda Group came to be considered forerunners of the controversial liberation theology movement among the Catholic clergy elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere.

After the demise of the Golconda Group, radical activity remained largely diffuse and ineffective, appearing to have subsided. Bishop Valencia was killed in an airplane crash in February 1972, and with his death the radical clerics lost their only supporter among the hierarchy. Other groups were formed, and support grew for the radical wing of the church, but no group was as dynamic or controversial as the Golconda Group had been.

The lack of active commitment on the part of the bishops had several effects. On the one hand, the weakness of the hierarchy's approval and/or disapproval of radical clergy led to confusion in the public interpretation of Catholic social ideology among Colombians. On the other hand, the lack of protection against government repression convinced many that the official church was not genuinely interested in change. Finally, the national effort at socioeconomic development was hampered because, without consensus, the impact of the church on reform remained piecemeal.

The explanation for the Colombian church's relatively undynamic nature rested primarily with the distinctive political context within which the church operated. The church had become most prominent in those countries of Latin America where a repressive political context simplified options and displaced ordinary social pressures and where the episcopal leadership--more often than not impelled by lower-level activism within the church--was willing to commit the institution to an active role in public conflict. Neither of these conditions existed in Colombia after the Medellín conference.

The Colombian church functioned within a relatively open, competitive political system. Despite continuing high levels of violence, Colombia's political context allowed some play of social and political forces, keeping open channels that when closed in other societies displaced pressures onto the church. The political system showed at least some responsiveness to changing demands and was accompanied by considerable economic success. The nation's imperfect, oligarchical democracy, muddling as usual through a series of crises, did not offer a target to justify violent corrective action. No convincing case had been made by anyone-- whether militants in the church or the secular left more generally- -that gathered significant popular support behind armed overthrow of the regime.

The absence of a repressive political context limited the political role of the Colombian church. Indeed, after the 1960s the church's ability to shape the outcome of political issues declined substantially. Nor did the church use its teaching authority compellingly enough to affect clearly the broader agenda of social choices. Its negative pleas--for example, against birth control and political violence--were notably ineffective.

The one way in which the church may have been important politically was in upholding the legitimacy of Colombia's oligarchical democracy. It came to this position in the mid-1950s, after having been long divided over identification with the Conservative Party. The horrifying spectacle of la violencia (1948-66) and the affronts of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla led the church hierarchy to endorse his overthrow and the subsequent regime of the National Front. It consistently defended the National Front regime and its less formally consociational successor against critics in the church itself and in society in general.

Has this church legitimation of the existing political system made a difference? Colombia's oligarchical democracy survived, against many predictions and in contrast to the civilian politics of many other countries. The continuing support of the institutional church was one potential explanation. A long line of "rebel priests" and nuns, beginning with Torres in the mid-1960s, believed that the church's legitimation of established politics was both morally wrong and politically important. They frequently suggested that the church's support was crucial to the status quo.

The recent past, however, did not bear out this assertion in any clear way. The church had demonstrated a potential negative power to topple a regime (for example, in helping bring down Rojas Pinilla in 1957). From that, however, the weight of its positive support, as distinguished from its neutrality, could only be indirectly inferred. If progressive activists had been able to move the institutional church into a militant, liberationist position against the regime, they would undoubtedly have threatened the regime's foundations. In addition, if they had even won enough support for the church to have publicly divided internally over the legitimacy of the regime, they would have deeply shaken the regime's stability. However, neither development occurred.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress