What’s love got to do with it? The life and work of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI

Centre: Ben Wildflower‘s image of Mary and her words in the Magnificat (Luke 46-55). Among speakers at the 2005 World Forum on Theology and Liberation in Porto Alegre, Brazil, were Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff (left) and Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya (right), both reprimanded by the Vatican in previous decades.

Jim Hodgson

Why write about the death of a former pope and cardinal in a blog about development? Because his condemnation of several liberation theologians in the 1980s and later were attacks on the most vigorous and coherent critique of contemporary development practice – or the ways inequality and exploitation are either maintained or overcome – to emerge from Christians in the late 20th century. And whatever good he may have done will always be overshadowed by the harsh treatment of some of our era’s finest theologians by Ratzinger during his leadership of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). 

When I came to Toronto in early 1984 to work with Catholic New Times, one of my “beats” was to cover the ways the Vatican was contending with liberation theology and its advocates. Over time, such scrutiny was imposed on feminists, defenders of LGBTI people, and advocates of respect for religious pluralism – and continued into Benedict’s pontificate. (Other writers elsewhere are recalling too his role in covering up clerical sexual abuse.)

Over the years, I have had the privilege of meeting many of those who were reprimanded by Ratzinger and his CDF successors. Some found solidarity in the global ecumenical movement and join events like the World Forum on Theology and Liberation, an event held every couple of years since 2003 alongside the World Social Forum.

The central tenet of liberation theology – the preferential option for the poor – is now enshrined in Catholic social teaching. Debates continue, of course, about what we mean by “the poor” as new (and not-so-new) theological “subjects” emerge among those who are marginalized from patriarchal power in churches and beyond, and by political and economic structures that persist. And it’s important to remember that not all of those censured by the CDF had come under scrutiny because of their option for the poor, but also because of their analysis of power in the church (Leonardo Boff), relationships with other religions (Tissa Balasuriya, Roger Haight), rights of women (Ivone Gebara), ecology (Matthew Fox), or defence of sexual and gender minorities (Raymond Hunthausen, Jeannine Gramick, Robert Nugent), among others.

My single encounter with Cardinal Ratzinger came on April 23, 1986 when he spoke to a crowd of about 6,000 people at the old Varsity Arena at the University of Toronto. Outside, members of the Canadian Catholics for the Ordination of Women protested. The event was sponsored by Frank Stronach’s multinational auto parts company, Magna International. The crowd, made up mostly of conservative Catholics, welcomed his criticism of “theologians who abuse their authority as teachers.”

I saw Ratzinger as an obstacle, a foe, and was disheartened when he was chosen to be pope in 2005. 

Pope Benedict: Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

On a Saturday morning in November 2007, I slipped in to a pew in Havana’s Santísima Trinidad Anglican Cathedral to reflect on the social teaching of Pope Benedict XVI. 

The ecumenical lay education centre known as ISEBIT had welcomed Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the Apostolic Nuncio in Cuba to speak to students. (Bonazzi would later serve as nuncio in Canada and is now the nuncio in Albania.) 

In the context of a class on International Development Cooperation, in which students had been debating issues of humanitarian aid, Don Luigi began his reflection based on Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love).

With Don Luigi’s guidance, I found myself surprised and then intrigued by the pontiff’s approach. “Being Christian,” Benedict wrote in the opening to his encyclical, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

For Benedict, the heart of Christian faith is in the simple statement, “God is love.” There are many implications: from the nature of God (“God is love” / “Love alone is” / “love makes being” / “love remains”) to “ways to address needs that require love” and “the need of humans for the witness of Christian love that is inspired by faith” and “the charitable action of the church.” 

There is a complex challenge here to those of us who react to what we perceive to be simplistic acts of charity by proclaiming the need for justice. Justice, for Benedict (and Don Luigi), cannot be “over” love: but Christian witness to love opens new paths for justice

At this point, various aspects of Catholic social teaching find their place: 

  • each person is understood within a community of people, overcoming the idea of enemy;
  • affirmation of the human person as subject, not object, not instrument; 
  • encouragement of people to participate passionately for the common good; 
  • the church does not seek power over the state, but to avoid that politics in the “polis” (city) becomes about power, not service; all of our ideas are needed so that the “polis” can function;
  • the church participates “partially” in political life for the sake of a just society.

A student asked about social justice. Don Luigi responded: “Given these commitments, the church participates truly in the building of a just society. It participates and cannot not participate.” 

When we truly love, we cannot help but get involved. 

Later, Pope Benedict would write Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), a 144-page encyclical that is mostly about our collective economic life (with digressions). Its essence is the “principle of gratuitousness” – that being itself is a divine gift, including economic life. “The market is the economic institution that permits encounter between persons” as “economic subjects” who choose to trade goods and services of equivalent value. That, he says, involves trust and fraternity. The market used justly is an application of charity, which is the virtue Benedict believed to be at the core of all things, not “an added extra” tagged on with other activities.

This and other teachings prompted Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian who is prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, to praise Benedict’s embrace of “integral human development,” a phrase used decades earlier by Pope Paul VI. “To develop truly, authentically, people need to treat each other as the siblings we really are, freely and generously and openly,” he told the Globe and Mail after Benedict’s death Dec. 31.

But the debates won’t stop. Ratzinger’s leadership in the CDF failed to model ways of loving or of constructive theological dialogue. By the time of Benedict’s resignation in 2013, the Catholic Church had endured more than 35 years of top-heavy efforts to close the windows that had been opened by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). That Pope Francis has allowed some breezes to blow in dusty corridors is a sign of hope for those of us who still insist that God’s love is for ALL, that the powerful must be brought down from their thrones, and the poor lifted up (Luke 1:46-55).

Some of my 1984 articles focused on the gaps between Roman understanding of authority and Latin Americans’ perceptions of their own reality. Theological reflection followed action by people to transform their reality, and gave rise to questions of how churches should accompany the poor (and other marginalised groups) in their struggles for justice. (I have added the colour photos I took of people attending a mass celebrated in October 1984 by Pope John Paul II at a racetrack near Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.)

Summit of the Americas: U.S. can’t break old habits

That the White House announced Canada’s planned response to the flow of refugees in Central America said a lot to me about the way the Biden administration mishandled the Summit of the Americas, held in Los Angeles last week.

Canada will welcome 4,000 additional migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, the White House announced on June 10. That number is insignificant compared to the size of the challenge: 

  • Mexico reported apprehending 307,679 undocumented migrants in 2021. About one-third were deported; another third sought asylum in Mexico. The main countries of origin of those apprehended were Honduras (41%), Guatemala (26%), El Salvador (8%), Haiti (6%), Brazil (5%), Nicaragua (5%), Cuba (2%), and Venezuela (1%). None of the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador chose to attend the summit – and Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela were told by Biden not to come. It’s hard to solve problems when you’re not talking to people who can do something about them.
  • As of February in the United States, about 164,000 (Reuters) or “just under 179,000” (Axios) migrants are currently in alternatives-to-detention programs managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE). This is “roughly double the total on Sept. 30, 2020, before Biden took office,” Reuters reported, and doesn’t include dependents – or the people actually held in detention.

The White House announcement of Canada’s support included commitments from other countries on migration issues, and was reported by Canadian Press in an article widely shared in Canadian media (CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, among others).

“The agreement also includes a pre-existing Canadian commitment to bring in an additional 50,000 agricultural workers this year from Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean.” (Those are temporary workers whose rights are limited.)

To its credit, the government (via the Prime Minister’s Office, not Global Affairs Canada) also announced an additional $118 million for “progressive initiatives” aimed at improving the lives of people where they already live in Latin America and the Caribbean. That includes $67.9 million to promote gender equality; $31.5 million in health and pandemic response spending; $17.3 million on democratic governance and $1.6 million for digital access and anti-disinformation measures. It will also spend $26.9 million to address “irregular migration and forced displacement” in the hemisphere.

Washington “still trying to dictate” to neighbours

But it was the exclusions and boycotts that drew most attention. Because Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua were excluded by the host country, Mexico, Honduras, Bolivia and some Caribbean leaders chose to stay away. Leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador did not attend because of issues with U.S. treatment of allegations of corruption and abuses of human rights in their countries. In the end only about 20 of potentially 35 heads of state or government attended.

Apparently modelling the art of understatement, Reuters reported: “Hosting the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Biden sought to assure the assembled leaders about his administration’s commitment to the region despite nagging concerns that Washington, at times, is still trying to dictate to its poorer southern neighbours.”

The presence of the unelected prime minister of Haiti, Ariel Henry, drew fire. During a panel discussion on “journalistic freedom,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had the good grace to seem embarrassed when challenged over Henry’s presence. As Alterpresse pointed out, “not only does Henry govern without a mandate in violation of the Haitian Constitution, he is also implicated in serious crimes, including the death of a Haitian journalist in February 2022 by Haitian police.” (Two other journalists had been killed in January in a gang attack.)

In the tradition of each Summit of the Americas (including the teargas summit in Quebec City in 2001), a People’s Summit was held, gathering more than 250 community organizations, social movements, trade unions and other progressive groups. “In the ‘richest country in the world,’ 140 million live in or near poverty. The US government is addicted to militarism and war and will spend over $800 billion in 2022, on death and destruction,” said the final declaration. “Instead of preparing for war, society must be organized to meet human needs. We want a future without evictions, police violence and mass incarceration, deportations, sanctions, and blockades. We say: no more!”

Pope Francis apologized to the people of Mexico, and conservatives in Spain are furious

While Indigenous people in the northern part of this continent await an apology from Pope Francis for abuse suffered in church-run residential schools (next steps to come after a series of conversations in Rome in December), the Pope apologized to the people of Mexico for the violence committed by Spanish conquerors during the colonization and evangelization of the Americas.

In March 2019, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had written to King Felipe of Spain and Pope Francis, urging them to apologise for the “abuses” of colonialism and the conquest. (This year, Mexico has been marking the 500th anniversary of the fall of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán, to the conquistadores, and the 200th anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain.)

The apology by Pope Francis to the people of Mexico came in response to the letter from López Obrador. While it was made public Sept. 27 by the Mexican bishops conference, it was dated Sept. 16 and issued from Basilica of St. John Lateran—the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome.

In 1511, Diego Colón, governor of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, was furious when a young priest denounced land-owners and colonial authorities for their treatment of the Taíno Indigenous people. Contemporary Spanish politicians (among them Isabel Díaz Ayuso and José María Aznar) were similarly angered by Pope Francis’s recent apology to the people of Mexico.

The apology, received calmly in Mexico, set off a furor among conservative politicians in Spain. 

José María Aznar, a former president of the Spanish government, made a series of racist jokes about López Obrador during a meeting in Seville of his Partido Popular. Another prominent PP politician, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of the Madrid regional government, told a U.S. audience that Spain had brought to Latin America nothing but “freedom, prosperity, peace, understanding.” Spain’s socialist government had earlier dismissed the call for an apology, saying “the arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations.”

The Spanish reactions brought to mind the fury of Diego Colon, son of Christopher Columbus and governor of the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo when, in December 1511, a young priest denounced the crimes of the land-owners and colonial authorities against the Taíno Indigenous nation.

A large statue of Antonio de Montesinos delivering his sermon faces the Caribbean Sea in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The stone and bronze statue is 15 metres tall and was designed by Mexican sculptor Antonio Castellanos. It was donated to the Dominican people by the Mexican government and inaugurated in 1982 by the presidents of Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Photo: Jim Hodgson
A Robert Lentz icon of Bartolomé de Las Casas adorns the cover of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s biography.

Leaders of the Dominican religious order in Santo Domingo had chosen Antón Montesino (more commonly referred to now as Antonio de Montesinos), to deliver a message to land-owners and the colonial authorities. By then, the leaders of the Taíno people had already been killed. Tens of thousands more died from famine and disease. 

Drawing from gospel descriptions of St. John the Baptist (John 1:19b-28), Montesino spoke: 

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. In order to make your sins known to you I have mounted this pulpit, I who am the voice of Christ crying in the desert of this island… Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery? By what right do you wage such detestable wars on these people who lived mildly and peacefully in their own lands, where you have consumed infinite numbers of them with unheard of murders and desolations? Why do you so greatly oppress and fatigue them, not giving them enough to eat or caring for them when they fall ill from excessive labours, so that they die or rather are slain by you, so that you may extract and acquire gold every day?… Are you not bound to love them as you love yourselves?” 

The young priest’s words sparked immediate anger. In the congregation that day was Diego Colón, the island’s governor and son of Christopher Columbus. Montesino could barely complete the celebration of Mass. Later in the day, Colón led a delegation to a meeting with the Dominican superior, Pedro de Córdoba, who told him the sermon was the responsibility of the entire community. 

A week later, on Dec. 28, Montesino preached again on the same themes. This time, Colón and others sent their protests to King Ferdinand V in Madrid. Over subsequent years, priests were recalled, studies were carried out, promises were made and broken—and the Taíno people continued to die. Worse, the colonial enterprise, based on slavery and ruthless exploitation, expanded throughout the hemisphere. By the time Hernán Cortés headed for Mexico and new genocides in 1519, between 80 and 90 per cent of the Taíno population on Hispaniola had died, and the pattern was being repeated in Cuba and Puerto Rico. 

Also present for Montesino’s homilies was a young priest who was also a land-owner, Bartolomé de Las Casas. As became his practice over the next 55 years, he wrote everything down. 

The Montesino sermon was a turning point for Las Casas. He came to see that Jesus Christ was being crucified again in the slaughter of the Indigenous people. He joined the Dominicans and dedicated his life to challenging the church and the Spanish empire of his day. In 1543, he was named bishop of Chiapas, but only spent about six months there before opposition from colonial land-owners forced him to carry his struggle to defend the Indigenous people to Rome and Madrid. 

Much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561. In his long life, he was able to correct errors: among them, failure to denounce slavery, particularly that of Africans. He later advocated that all slavery be abolished.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first publication in Spanish of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, the book that opened the door to subsequent decades of writing theology from the context—the ways people practice their faith in their real lives. 

In Las Casas, Gutiérrez found a model leader and writer who bore faithful witness to the struggles of his time. Gutiérrez wrote a lively biography: Las Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (Orbis, 1993).