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Up From Europe : PEOPLE OF GOD : The Struggle for World Catholicism by Penny Lernoux (Viking: $19.95; 385 pp.; 0-670-81529-2)

April 16, 1989|Peter Hebblethwaite | Hebblethwaite is the Vatican Affairs writer for NCR (National Catholic Reporter). He is best known as the author of "Pope John XXIII, Shepherd of the Modern World" (Doubleday, 1984).

It is impossible to review this book with urbanity. It begins with a story that in a work of fiction might be dismissed as sadistic. But it is sober truth that in the misty highlands of Guatemala in 1982, government troops ordered the local people to kill their five catechists or see their village, Santa Cruz el Quiche, razed to the ground.

The soldiers withdrew while the villagers discussed the matter. At first they refused to do the deed. But the catechists insisted: "It is better for us to die than for thousands to die." At 4 p.m., a weeping procession led by the catechists arrived at the cemetery where they were dispatched with machetes by their relatives.

Thousands of Indians were killed or sent to concentration camps; 440 Indian villages, some dating to pre-Columbian times, were destroyed. The persecution was so fierce that in the diocese of Quiche not a single priest or sister remained.

Martyrdom is an everyday event in life of the 20th-Century church in Latin America. Penny Lernoux remarks that "in such a community people fear not death, but infidelity--to one another and their beliefs."

In Latin America, she says, the real persecution of Christians comes not from Marxist regimes, certainly not from the Sandinistas, but from military dictatorships of the right ("our dictators").

Lernoux lives in Bogota, Colombia. Here I must declare an interest and make a distinction. We both work for the same paper, The National Catholic Reporter of Kansas City, Mo. She covers Latin America, while I deal with Vatican affairs. Of necessity we bump into each other from time to time.

But she writes from a Latin American point of view; I hover somewhere in mid-Atlantic. She is angry where I analyze. Like her I have followed developments in the Roman Catholic Church, "at times with despair but mostly with optimism."

But her Latin American vantage point leads her to say that she "shares the pain inflicted on the church of the poor by a Eurocentric Vatican unable to perceive the need and gifts of other cultures."

Now I don't like talking about "the Vatican" as though it were a solid block through and through. There are some remarkable people in "the Vatican" who are perfectly capable of perceiving the gifts and needs of other cultures and, given a chance, do so.

But the point is that they are not dominant at the moment. The prevailing trend in the Vatican is as she describes it. A Polish Pope and a Bavarian head of the thought-crime department, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, inveigh and condemn, but without really changing very much.

Most of the time, they put the ball in their own net. Condemn a theologian like Hans Kung or Charles Curran, and they are all over the place on TV and their books sell like hot cakes.

Take episcopal appointments: There can be no doubt that dud bishops are being appointed, whose special quality is that they will be unpopular. Cardinal Joachim Meissner was moved from East Berlin to Cologne to teach the uppity Kolner a lesson.

It seems obvious that controlling bishops, the middle managers, is the best way to control the church. But the system doesn't actually work. It results in lonely, sometimes terrified, bishops, who dare not step out of their mansions and only take calls from Rome. Meantime, the "People of God" gets on with the serious business of being a church.

Lernoux subtitles her book "The Struggle for World Catholicism." Just who is struggling with whom? What does she expect to happen? Will one side eventually win? And how will we know when this has happened?

I'm not sure Lernoux has reflected on such questions. The whole life of the church has been a struggle in which no "side" ever wins final victory. There is always a dialectic between center and periphery, liberals and conservatives, bold initiatives and cautious malingering.

She is better at reportage than history and absolutely right to report on the way this particular pontificate is heavily influenced by Opus Dei and other movements like Communion and Liberation or CL (as it is known).

Lernoux is the first American to have written illuminatingly about CL. Briefly, it was a student movement founded by Don Luigi Giussani that got a shot of new life as it picked up the aspirations of the student protest movements of 1968. Hence its name: Communion , the ecclesiastical term, allied to and qualified by Liberation, the political term. I don't think it will catch on in the United States.

A "movement" new to me that I was entertained to meet is the "Hermits of San Bento," founded by Brazilian history professor Plinio Correa de Oliveira. His hermits wear a monk's habit, a chain at the waist and jackboots.

Failure to obey the Founder is punishable by whipping, and one unfortunate recruit was allegedly interned in a pig pen for 12 hours while being forced to shout: "I am a pig; I am an imbecile." Happily the movement has been denounced as "blasphemous and heretical" even by right-wing bishops because Oliveira replaces natural family affection by the cult of his own mother.

Opus Dei and CL are more serious "movements." But they are making a fundamental mistake of which Lernoux seems unaware: They are entirely dependent on the favor of the "prince"--in this case the Pope, who behaves like an absolute monarch. In the next pontificate, there will be a terrible reaction against them.

They are also intellectually shallow. No one can name a single Opus Dei or CL theologian who has any importance outside their movement.

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