The Tablet InterviewRobert Mickens
- 12 May 2007
Cardinal Hummes, now back in his native Brazil with Pope Benedict for tomorrow's opening of the Latin American bishops' conference, tells Robert Mickens of the problems facing the Catholic Church in Latin America
Cardinal Cláudio Hummes seems too young for someone who will be 73 in August. Most people his age are already eagerly contemplating retirement, if not having begun it already. But Dom Cláudio - as he is still known in his native Brazil - is unlikely to be collecting a pension cheque for a long while. Last October Pope Benedict XVI offered the then-Archbishop of São Paulo a new and entirely different job by calling him to the Vatican to head up the Congregation for the Clergy.
"Yes, this is different," the cardinal told me a couple of weeks ago, as we sat in one of the ornate antechambers leading to the office he now occupies. "Very different; diversissimo!" His use of the Italian superlative, in his twangy Brasileiro accent, made the point loud and clear: this has been a major transition. In one swift stroke of the papal pen he moved from being chief pastor of the world's third-largest diocese to becoming "chief bureaucrat" of a Roman Curia office that occupies one floor in a quiet, mausoleum-like palace overlooking St Peter's Square.
Dom Cláudio left behind a burgeoning and bustling local Church that has six auxiliary bishops and more than five million "parishioners". He now oversees a handful of staff members in a government-like ministry that is designed principally to give the Pope advice and to facilitate canonical paperwork regarding the world's more than 400,000 priests. While insisting that there is a "pastoral dimension" to his work at the Congregation for the Clergy, the cardinal could not deny that the Pope sets the agenda. "He is the pastor and we help him; we are at his service," the cardinal said of his office.
Returning to his former archdiocese this week with Pope Benedict must be a poignant reminder of the change his life has undergone. Although he could not have predicted it last autumn when he accepted the Vatican position, he certainly found out a month later when he arrived in Rome to begin the new job.
Just two days before Cardinal Hummes left São Paulo, he told journalists that clerical celibacy was not a dogma and its usefulness could therefore be put up for discussion. The comments were somewhat surprising given that he had never before championed this issue. Some speculated that it was a sign - and the Pope's desire - that he would use his new position in the Roman Curia to help stimulate open discussion on this and other topics that have long been taboo in the Vatican.
But as his plane landed in Rome on 4 December, the Holy See press office had a statement ready - allegedly written by the cardinal himself - that completely reversed his pre-flight comments. Dom Cláudio nuanced the retraction in an exchange with reporters after leaving the plane, but several weeks later an article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano - again attributed to him - that presented historical and theological arguments in defence of the discipline of clerical celibacy.
When I asked him if this meant that the Pope had given a definitive "no" to the possibility of ordaining married men of proven virtue (viri probati) - an issue that many bishops, especially in Latin America, began discussing in earnest immediately after Vatican II - Dom Cláudio smiled wryly. "This is not on the table," he said. Full stop.
Despite Vatican efforts to kill the question, there are still many Catholics in Latin America (including some silent bishops) who believe that a married clergy is the only way realistically to cut the region's alarmingly high laity-to-clergy ratio. But it is unlikely that anyone will now be courageous or stubborn enough to insist on this when the fifth General Conference of CELAM (episcopal conferences of Latin America) gets under way this Sunday. Pope Benedict XVI is to inaugurate the three-week meeting at the Marian shrine of Aparecida about 100 miles north-east of São Paulo and, if he follows the custom of his predecessors, the bishops can expect him to deliver a 15- to 20-page speech telling them what issues require urgent attention and the best way to respond to them.
"The Pope and all of us are worried about all the new questions that are emerging in Latin America," Cardinal Hummes told me, as he offered a preview of the gathering during our conversation in Rome. Even though the region is still vastly Catholic, the cardinal noted that people were walking away from the Church at an alarming rate (1 per cent annually over the past 30 years in Brazil). He said the first culprit was an "urbanised and secularised postmodern culture" that had brought "much relativism and religious indifferentism", especially among the highly educated, and civic and business leaders. "If they move further away from the Church towards a religious indifference we will have many, many problems," the cardinal warned.
The second cause is what Dom Cláudio said was the continuous expansion of "Pentecostal sects". Although Brazil remains the world's largest Catholic country, some statistics show that it is also the largest Pentecostal one. Such evangelical groups have also made inroads all throughout Latin America, attracting especially the poor and marginalised.
There's only one way to stop people from drifting away from the Catholic community, according to Cardinal Hummes: "The Church in Latin America must become more missionary in its own territory." But this is exactly what all three CELAM conferences since Vatican II - Medellín in 1968, Puebla in 1979 and Santo Domingo in 1992 - said in one way or another. In fact, it was Pope Paul VI, not John Paul II, who first used the term "new evangelisation" at the 1968 meeting in Colombia. At any rate, the slogans have done nothing to stop the haemorrhaging of the Catholic Church in this part of world. Nor have they boosted vocations to the religious life.
"The Church must respond today to the issues of today and not try to repeat what was done in the past," the cardinal told me. He said that now, more than before, lay people would have to bear most of the responsibility for bringing people back to the Catholic community. "We have to prepare them, invite them to visit families, above all families of the poor in the periphery, those who feel abandoned," he said. "These [marginalised] people need to feel the physical presence of the Church, the solidarity of and warmth of their Church," he added.
The Latin American bishops thought they had provided this in Medellín when they pledged the Church to an historic "fundamental option for the poor" and supported the proliferation of the small "basic Christian communities". In Brazil, towering Catholic figures such as Cardinals Aloísio Lorscheider and Paulo Evaristo Arns and Dom Hélder Câmara became advocates for the rights and dignity of the exploited and those in poverty.
Even Dom Cláudio was known as the "labour bishop" in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he befriended and encouraged the young union boss who is now Brazil's president, the man known universally as "Lula". The Catholic hierarchy at the time consciously aligned itself with the poor and became more socially minded than ever before. This made it the most credible institution in almost every country of Latin America. And in most places today, despite the Vatican's appointment of more conservative bishops, the Church continues to hold the trust of the majority of people. But still the defections continue.
So were those bygone years, when military dictatorships and Marxist revolutionaries battled for power in many countries, an oddly golden age for the Catholic Church in Latin America? Pope John Paul II and the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger evidently did not think so. They were worried that the bishops had allowed church organisations to become too political and left-leaning theologians to create a parallel Magisterium. The late Pope and his doctrinal chief moved to eradicate these trends. The current Pope's recent condemnation of the writings of Fr Jon Sobrino SJ - a major figure of liberation theology - seemed nothing less than a frustrated admission that their efforts were not entirely successful.
"History moves forward and we must move with history, otherwise we will keep sliding into the past," said Cardinal Hummes. "The Church's presence among the poor continues today and very strongly, albeit a bit less ideological and less political," he said, noting that even "basic Christian communities" have undergone de-politicisation. "Today we are more attentive to the Church's social teaching than to left-wing political ideology," Dom Cláudio claimed, though he was quick to point out that he had "never been involved in politics".
As for his predecessors, he said: "All that they did, these great bishops of that time, resounds in the Church today and continues. But I always say that we do not and cannot repeat the past."
The biggest problem is that since the 1979 general assembly the CELAM bishops have had an increasingly difficult time in solving the riddle of the present. Until they do that, it is hard to see how they will be able to solve lingering old problems or dare to apply new solutions to them.