The Diego Rivera murals in the Palacio de Gobierno in the old centre of Mexico City are incredible and moving. They chart the history of the Mexican people before during and after the Spanish conquest. You could spend hours poring over them. The thing that most struck me was the way Rivera puts the Church at the heart of colonial Mexican history: a bible here, a cross there, a tonsured priest looking on approvingly as indigenous people are massacred.
A lot of people I know, from lots of different places, think that religious people are nutters, and that religion is responsible for a good proportion of the world’s problems. And you have to admit, they’ve got a point. Most obvious at the moment is the horrific form of Islam most barkingly represented by the Taleban in Afghanistan, and apparently followed in some form by a number of insurgents in Iraq and its surrounds. Their views are abhorrent and they do as many stupid things in the name of their religion (like blowing up vast, gorgeous Buddha statues) as violent and vicious things.
Go back a few hundred years and the crimes of the Catholic Church in Latin America were just as vile as those presently being committed by some in the name of Islam. And Christians have a proud history of lopping heads off other people’s statues. More recently, during the military repressions in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, the actions of parts of the Church were almost as brutal.
And you’d be mistaken if you thought that that was all past, and that the only Catholic crimes currently blighting this continent are the crimes against art that populate so many churches – blood, gore and graphic pain on statues which are today so kitsch that, although tempting, lopping would be an inappropriately harsh response. The church today plays a more subtle role in Latin American politics, but still a very powerful one.
Take sex and women’s rights. Whatever your views on abortion, it should at least be an issue of debate when women still die every year in back-streets – it hardly is in Mexico. It is difficult to separate the conservative approach to the role of women in many parts of the continent from the historic (and sometimes current) views expressed by the dominant religion. Abstinence rather than condoms in the face of AIDS is one of the more imbecilic views of my church that I am sometimes expected to defend by incredulous inquisitors. I reply that the day I accepted that Catholicism, Christianity and in fact all religions (except perhaps Hinduism in the age of Karma Sutra) are simply wrong about all aspects of sex, was the day I… well, let’s not go into that. Suffice to say it was a self-serving analysis but also an insightful one.
Why then, with its dark legacies and theological lunacies, am I still proud to be a Catholic? Partly because you don’t need religion to commit atrocities – murder and evil abound quite happily without religion interfering so to blame religion is simplistic. But mostly because I choose to sit in a corner of my church that is centuries old and still new and inspiring. It’s a bit like being proud to be British – I associate myself enthusiastically with Shakespeare, democracy and Monty Python, while expressing profound shame at imperialism, Thatcherism and Benny Hill.
The theology of liberation began on this continent and is the latest incarnation of a radical social message that dates back to, well, Jesus. And despite the best efforts of some popes who shall remain shameless it has had a profound impact on millions of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, trying to make sense of their faith in a sceptical era. Gustavo Gutierrez, father of liberation theology, expressed a devotion to changing our world whose basis is more profound than secular equivalents for its acknowledgement of men and women's need for spiritual wholeness (quite obvious you might have thought but nowadays very unusual). And his vision and historical analysis (from the perspective of the poor, from the underside of history) is as radical and innovative as any in the last century.
So the conservative forces in the Latin American church are balanced by a movement of passionate priests and laypeople who think more about this life than the next and are committed to building God’s kingdom in this world, in this time. (Recently the work of an important church NGO was threatened by the appointment of a conservative Archbishop – the struggle continues.) They’ve always been there but now they have a (local) theological backbone. Many take as their hero Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered by the military for denouncing the Salvadorean repression.
I like the line that “to not be involved politically is the greatest compromise the church has already made” (Steve Chalke) but the reality is that it is impossible not to be political, for church-people or anyone else. The decision not to actively side with a movement for social justice is a political decision with political and human consequences. Romero realised that.
So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’ll admit it; the Catholic Church doesn’t have all the saints. Despite being a Lutheran, Bonhoeffer was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the last century. He talked tentatively about Christianity after religion. The Catholic Church needs to think about that (unlikely). To hear Pope Benedict savaging the façade of modern secular liberal ethics is to enjoy a masterclass in philosophy – but it is ever so slightly undermined by the fact that he still thinks gay sex is evil. Allowing apparent theological rigour to cloud what is self-evidently right is what religion does worst – it is an abuse of power.
The liberation theologians claim they do their theology from the bottom up (much as NGOs claim they do their policy!) listening to the reality of people’s lives and trying to live the gospel alongside that reality. The more traditional Catholic Church, and all the other religions (why not throw them all in for this final harangue), need to divest themselves of wealth and power, in both its material and psychological form, if they want to inspire progress, rather than block it.
Maybe then when the next set of Mexican murals is commissioned the Church will get a better paint-up.