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.)

World Council of Churches: for peace, against sanctions, and sexuality talks continue

From this small city in southwest Germany, impacts of the WCC Assembly may be felt from Cape Town (9,284 km) to to Phnom Penh (9,519 km).

KARLSRUHE – As sometimes happens in large gatherings, I found myself on a single track in this Assembly of the World Council of Churches. For several years, I have participated in Rainbow Pilgrims of Faith, a global coalition that has accompanied the WCC work on sexuality (specifically) and gender justice (generally). 

Here in Karlsruhe, I led the group’s media work: blog posts, news releases and a few interviews. My colleagues managed more direct forms of engagement with delegates and other participants through an information booth and in various panels and workshops. 

At the same time, 660 delegates and more than 2,000 other participants from all parts of the world worked to shape ecumenical priorities for the next eight years or so.

Signs are positive that WCC will continue work on sexuality (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression), but that was just one thread in a tapestry of concerns addressed here.

There are many documents and scores of news releases to pour over, but two stand out for me. 

One, the more theological or spiritual of the two, is A Call to Act Together. For inspiration, it drew from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, and its themes of human suffering at work in the world: war, death, disease, and famine. “We were conscious of their manifestations in the world today. In their wake come injustice and discrimination, where those who have power often use it to oppress others rather than to build inclusion, justice, and peace.”

The message continues: “As the climate emergency accelerates, so does the suffering experienced by impoverished and marginalized people.”*

A sign of peace in Toronto’s distillery district.

The second document, The Things That Make For Peace, is also worthy of attention. It is longer and more focused on policy options.

“We understand that making peace involves addressing racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, hate speech and other forms of hatred of the other (all of which have increased and intensified during these years, in large part encouraged by populist nationalist movements); crisis and competition for essential resources for life; economic injustice and inequality in the marketplace; interstate conflicts and re-emergence of war; and the raising of the spectre of nuclear war.”

It is specific about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other armed conflicts – from Colombia to Eritrea and Ethiopia – calling for a global ceasefire “as an urgent moral imperative.”

Particularly close to my heart are sections that call for “support for the churches and peoples of Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and Zimbabwe in the midst of oppression due to international sanctions that affect these populations’ human rights and dignity.” 

Syria is an important case in point, the document says. “International and unilateral sanctions are contributing to worsening the humanitarian situation, harming a civilian population already made vulnerable by war. Moreover, sanctions are damaging the historical multicultural and multi-religious fabric of the Syrian society, forcing Christians and other indigenous groups to flee the country.”

The document calls for the removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism and to “accompany the churches as prophetic voices of peace, hope, cooperation and mutual respect.”

* There is a third, equally-impressive document that I found later: The Living Planet: Seeking a Just and Sustainable Global Community. The document calls governments to “practical actions… to meet the pressing need to avert ecological disaster.”

At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala

Fernando Us (left) and Mónica Chub (right).

As my 15-day visit in Guatemala came to an end in early May, I had the chance to meet Fernando Us, Maya Kiché human rights defender and self-described sexual dissident. Fernando hails from a village in Uspantán municipality, Quiché department, that is not far (though accessed via a different road) from the had village I visited in the company of a team from Breaking The Silence and the Highlands Committee of Peasant Farmers (CCDA).

Fernando, who among other activities is a Mayan spiritual leader, met me on a Sunday afternoon in a downtown café located between the National Palace and the San Sebastian church where Bishop Juan Gerardi was assassinated in 1998. Religion and politics would become prominent themes in our friendship: fundamentalist religious groups very nearly scored a victory with an anti-LGBTI “life and family law,” but after an international outcry, congress finally voted in March to table the bill

Back home in Toronto two days after I had met Fernando, I was trying to catch up on news from CCDA. I came across a news article that quoted people from CCDA and Mónica Chub, a Trans woman and Maya Q’eqchi’ rights defender with whom Fernando and I would be working just a few weeks later. CCDA leaders and Mónica had attended a demonstration May 11 in Cobán, capital of the Alta Verapaz department, demanding freedom for prisoners accused of crimes they could not have committed. At the same time, high levels of violence against Trans women persist in Guatemala.

In early June, in partnership with Dignity Network and InterPares, I had the privilege of accompanying Mónica and Fernando during their days in Toronto. Together with Olowaili Green, an Indigenous film-maker from northern Colombia who is lesbian, their visit to Toronto followed participation in the Canada Pride Human Rights Conference, held in Winnipeg May 27-June 5.

In Toronto, there were public presentations at Glad Day Books and the San Lorenzo Church (an Anglican parish serving mostly Spanish-speaking people). At San Lorenzo, part of the conversation was about spirituality and the churches.

Fernando, whose father was a Catholic lay catechist murdered by a death squad in 1980, called on churches to distance themselves from those fundamentalist churches that “demonize” Mayan spiritual leaders

In June 2020 in Petén department, Domingo Choc Che, 55, a Maya Q’eqchi’ expert on traditional herbal medicine, was tortured and burned alive by people who accused him of witchcraft. In June this year, Adela Choc Cuz, a member of the Q’eqchi’ Maya Ancestral Council of the El Estor municipality, Izabal department, was kidnapped with her daughter. They too were accused of witchcraft, but both were released.

On their final day in Toronto, I talked more with Fernando and Mónica about the intersections of Indigenous and LGBTIQ+ identities in Guatemala.

Fernando: I think there is a sort of accumulation of oppressions within the structural racism that is found in Latin America – all of America – racism as an ideology of racial superiority that has permeated since the time to the Spanish conquest and is maintained to this day. 

What does that mean for Indigenous people? Displacement, loss of land, situations of poverty. In a country like Guatemala, there is a lot of cultural diversity and also biodiversity. The Indigenous people live on land that is not as good for cultivation. We have less access to running water and to education, and therefore less access to good jobs.

In that context, to be gay, or to be a person of diverse sexuality or queer, means another form of oppression and vulnerability. In the face of racism, you have fewer opportunities, but if you are part of that sexual diversity, your possibilities and conditions of life are even more limited.

Mónica: When we talk about inclusion in social struggles, we’re talking about many different struggles. When we talk about LGBTIQ+ rights where we live, it’s like we’re talking about the territories from which we struggles in ways that are separate from other struggles, like those going on in the cities. We realize that these social struggles are connected, but what we live in our territories is what we embody collectively, the theft our Q’eqchi’ land, the criminalization of land defenders: those events make us reflect and embody together with all our companions. There are members of our community who face repression, but we realize we are in a difficult context, one of vulnerability, racism and discrimination. 

Part of our community is hidden, and needs to hide. But to confront that situation, some of us have to be visible.

Jim: These situations of criminalization of land defenders, the political prisoners: what is going on now in the struggles for land?

Mónica: We embody those situations. As defenders, we too are diverse. Think of the people who are criminalized and condemned to years in prison. In any moment, they could criminalize us, we who are defenders of diversity, imprison us, persecute us. It’s very important to have solidarity. The colour of our organizational flag doesn’t matter. This is collective humanitarian work.

Fernando: The claims for land and natural resources are historic. The Indigenous people have built their claims around land issues. In Guatemala, Indigenous peoples have been forced from their land, or they have land that is not good for cultivation, and the conditions in which the land was taken are not very clear in legal terms. In effect, in recent years, the aggression and attacks against those who reclaim the land have increased.

I am from a village in Uspantán that is called Macalajau, more up in the mountains. Even though I have not lived there, I maintain a relationship with the community. It feels like a town that is growing. There’s more business, and it’s more culturally diverse now. But I think that outside the village, conditions of access to water are limited. There’s malnutrition. Access to primary education is still a problem, especially for Indigenous children. And because of lack of opportunities, some people, especially young people, migrate to the United States.

Mónica: Our people are being forced from their homes and communities. Why? Because our presence is not convenient for the land-owners, the ranchers, the hydro-electricity developers who want to take over Mother Nature and the ancestral lands of our communities. What they do is to force our people out. They’re forced to flee, risking their lives, walking to another place to seek refuge. We continue to see this. They criminalize people who defend their land, condemning them unjustly. That’s what is going on in the territory from which I come.

San Miguel de Uspantán, Quiché

My posts about people and issues in Guatemala, May through August 2022, are in different spaces. Here they are in chronological order:

Unwrapping Development:

Breaking The Silence:

Unwrapping Development

  • At the intersections of Queer, Trans and Indigenous in Guatemala [above]