CELAM seeks to explain “politics is a way of living the Christian faith”

MEXICO CITY (CNS) – Police regularly patrol outside the parish where Mgr. Carlos Áviles celebrates mass in Managua, Nicaragua. He calls it an act of “intimidation” for his outspokenness on political issues. It also fits a pattern of harassment against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua by a government that has branded priests as “terrorists”.

Seven presidential candidates were disqualified and opposition figures were arrested before President Daniel Ortega won the presidential elections on November 7. Áviles, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Managua, called the process “totalitarian”.

What is happening in Nicaragua shows the disturbing trend of democratic retreat in Latin America, where authoritarian and autocratic leaders are on the rise, political parties weaken and fall into disrepute, and candidates with anti-system agendas gain power. As the Latin American Council of Bishops, or CELAM, meets in Mexico from November 21-28, an important part of its agenda is how to deal with the decline of democracy, a process driven by parties and governments. leaders of left and right.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who speaks favorably of the military regime, has already cast doubt on the outcome of the legislative elections scheduled for October 2022. The Venezuelan government has organized mock elections and persecuted opponents. Bolivian and Honduran leaders have won cases in their countries’ supreme courts for the right to represent themselves, despite constitutional bans – steps that have led to contested elections and violence.

“There is an authoritarian tendency on both sides of the spectrum,” said Jesuit Father Mauricio García Duran, executive director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Colombia. “There are complex challenges in the sense that leaders don’t really believe in true democratic participation. “

In an interview, Archbishop of Peru Hector Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte, president of CELAM, told Catholic News Service: “When we talk about strengthening (democracy), it means that there is a weakness, and it certainly is. the case in many countries. … Although (democracy) is the best system, in which the church believes, it is weak and, in many countries, much weaker still. “

A recent Latinobarómetro poll, measuring attitudes in Latin America, estimated support for democracy at 48% in 2018, up from 63% in 2010.

The situation presents puzzles for the Catholic Church in Latin America. In some countries, such as Chile and Mexico, bishops forged close ties with the elites, who were later dismissed from office or brought into disrepute. In other countries, evangelical politicians claim elective office, especially in legislatures, and threaten the influence of Catholic leaders in the political sphere.

Pope Francis urged Catholics to pursue a pastoral approach of leaving parishes for the periphery, continuing to protect human rights, and raising their voices to deal with social injustices. It is not always a comfortable place for church leaders, who see raising such issues as conflicting with political elites. Observers say this is increasingly competitive ground as evangelical congregations gain ground with the poor.

“Despite the progress of political and social participation, in our region” the harmonious and peaceful coexistence is deteriorating very seriously in many countries “”, we read in the preparatory document of the CELAM assembly, citing the document published in from his Aparecida assembly in 2007. Pope Francis, then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, headed the drafting committee for this document.

“Participation in the revitalization of the social fabric is unique to Christians insofar as we are jointly responsible for the common good”, specifies the preparatory document. “Therefore, it is urgent for us to participate and work for the maturation of the political and social systems of our peoples … so that political systems are truly at the service of people and their integral development.

The role of Catholics in promoting democracy has often been uneven, according to prelates. The grim reality is reflected both in the abundance of politicians professing Catholicism but accused of engaging in corruption or the trampling of human rights, and in the passivity of citizens accepting vices such as buying money. voice or bad governance.

“There is a great lack of political training,” said Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini of Huehuetenango, Guatemala. “We ourselves, coming from the social doctrine of the Church, are more or less trying to do something.

“But (it) is difficult for (people) to understand that politics is a way of living the Christian faith and, in that sense, our democracies are very weak.”

Observers attribute much of the disenchantment to a lack of results.

“For years, the region has seen public support for democracy wane, fueled by widespread frustration with slow growth, stubborn inequality and corruption,” said Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Latin American program at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, based in Washington. . “Latin America’s democratic setback should not be overstated,” he added, highlighting trends such as the increased militarization of public security, the use of the pandemic as a pretext to restrict protests and the obstruction of independent journalism.

“Democracy has brought the illusion of a more just society. It just didn’t happen, ”said Ilán Semo, historian at the Ibero-American University run by the Jesuits in Mexico City.

Intervening in politics – or being seen as siding with the elites – can be problematic for the church. In Honduras, bishops were divided over the condemnation of the 2009 coup. The years that followed have led to a loss of credibility, although recent statements have been “very strong against a political class, which has failed. was not attentive to national issues, ”said Father Germán Calix, former director of Cáritas Honduras.

The political picture seems bleak in the region. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele consolidated power in the presidency, while subordinating the courts and congress and persecuting critical journalists and civil society actors.

In recent years, Guatemala has suppressed an international mechanism to fight impunity – after the country’s elites came under unprecedented judicial scrutiny. The country has been criticized for undermining the rule of law, but also for its mismanagement of the pandemic and its inability to launch vaccination campaigns.

“I can mention myself as one of those who are disappointed with this government,” Cardinal Ramazzini said.

The church in some countries is raising its voice louder. This year, the bishops of Guatemala chided the impeachment of the country’s top anti-impunity prosecutor and demanded that migrants deported from the United States not be thrown into the remote jungle on the Mexico-Guatemala border. The bishops of Mexico have also spoken on the issue of migration.

But the intervention carries risks. In Bolivia, the bishops were invited by the ruling party to mediate the end of the 2019 post-electoral conflict, in which President Evo Morales claimed victory in a vote strewn with irregularities. The deal helped end violent protests and saw the installation of an interim president – a figure that has proven to be polarizing and controversial. Following the democratic return of Morales’ party to power with another leader in 2020, the new government accused the church of participating in a coup.

Bolivian journalist Rafael Archondo attributed the country’s electoral turmoil to Morales seeking a fourth term after losing a referendum on the issue. “It is a tradition in Latin America to have a leader who sees himself as irreplaceable.

Nicaragua also has a leader who sees himself as irreplaceable. After protests erupted in early 2018 and people demanded the ouster of Ortega, Nicaraguan bishops facilitated the talks. The process collapsed as Ortega showed no interest in complying with demands for new elections.

The situation became so tense that Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Baez, an outspoken critic of Ortega, was forced to flee the country. An explosive device was then thrown into the Chapel of the Blood of Christ in Managua Cathedral. Even a COVID-19 program run by the diocese has been shut down by the health ministry.

“I want to be a priest. I want to give catechism lessons. I want to celebrate mass. But when it affects my flock… we have to talk and say something ”, Mgr. Áviles told CNS.

“It’s not that we get involved in politics. I defend fundamental human rights, ”he said. “We are not going to be silent.

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