Civil Rights Movement: another “sign #11

The Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel”  said the cardinal document of Vatican ll, Gaudium et Spes.(#4).

The next 40 years saw much of the church embracing the signs as manifestations of the Holy Spirit.The Church was not yet societas perfecta, the perfect society containing the totality of truth. The Spirit was destined to break in with even more truth, deeper insights into the nature of life, into a fuller realization of the just society. This was painful to a whole bevy of clerics who thought that they had arrived, that their seminary education was  enough to get them through, to lead eucharistric communities. They were dead wrong. Many had breakdowns, became serious grumps and unless they read and opened themselves up, they would be missing a new inbreaking iof the Holy.

A great example would have been the Civil Rights struggle in the USA. It became obvious that a movement born of solidarity with the weakest was a holy moment.After all when we looked deeply into this secular movement (filled by the way with largely black religious people) one saw a movement built on non-violence (Jesus), one which dramatically upheld the dignity of the human person. Attacking these nonviolent activists was tantamount to rejecting God. Yet many of the white crackers doing the abuse were card carrying members of some branch of the Christian church. Not many Catholics in the south but there were  many Catholic churches which indeed were segregated. They were on the wrong side of history and  of the gospel.

Gaudium et Spes was a powerful motivator. In section 38 it stated hat “Jesus taught us that we too must shoulder that cross which the world and the flesh inflict on those who search after peace and justice.”

The Church had read this particular sign and based on the reverence for the human person, a major part of the Jesus ethic. It de facto blessed engagement in the civil rights movement.

So, as was stated in the last essay, it was easy for the Synod of Bishops six years after (1971)  the end of Vatican ll and three years after Martin Luther King’s murder to say that” Action on behalf of justice is a constitutive part of the gospel.”In other words, it is central to being a Catholic Christian.

The next decades we watched as so many bishops, priests, nuns and lay people marched into Latin American history to defend the poorest of the poor.Bishops like the martyred Romero paid the supreme penalty here.He had read the signs of the times and knew his role was on the side of the marginalized in El Salvador.Yet the day he was murdered the Polish pope egged on by terrible information and a poor analysis of Latin American conditions had Romero’s dismissal as archbishop on his desk.

How could he have been so blind? Well for one his right hand man Joseph Ratzinger who had never been active in justice movements listened to the wealthy prelates and their patrons who painted Romero as some Commie dupe, a follower of Marx.

And so it went throughout Latin America. Bishops and lay leaders on the ground who had read the “signs of the times” were brave enough to “shoulder the cross” of the lives of the humiliated poor.That was where Jesus was.That was where the Spirit was. That was where crosses were.

Those decades were shining Spirit moments for the Church.The blood of the martyrs had once again been the seedbed of the Church.

Finally by the mid 80s Pope John Paul ll came to his senses, repudiated the present pope and stated that Liberation theology was necessary.

In the last decades much of the “signs of the times” witness was undone by both John Paul ll and Cardinal Ratzinger. What happened?

Very simply they replaced evangelical giants of the Council, bishops like Romero, Lorscheiders, Casaldaliga, Silva, Girardi, Ruiz, Mendes Arceo, Helder Camara, Cardinal Arns—the list is endless, with pious hacks who were blind to the signs.They retreated once again into the safe precincts of a church disengaged from history.


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