Santo Domingo (1992)

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Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic was the site of the Fourth General Meeting of the consejo episcopal latinoamericano or Latin American Bishops' Conference held October 1228, 1992. Nine years previously, at a gathering of bishops in Haiti, Pope John Paul II announced that the topic for CELAM IV would be New Evangelization and that its opening would coincide with the five hundredth anniversary of the landing of Columbus in the Western hemisphere, Oct. 12, 1492, and the beginning of the first evangelization.

CELAM IV brought together Catholic bishops from twenty-two nations in South and Central America. It was chaired by the Vatican secretary of state, Angelo Cardinal Sodano. Much of the preparatory work for the meeting, including the drafting of the "working document," was in the hands of the secretary general of CELAM, Bishop Raymundo Damasceno Assis, who also served as cosecretary general of the meeting. The other co-secretary, Bishop Jorge Medina Estévez, was appointed by the Holy See. In addition to a number of lay observers, there were also five Protestant observers from traditional Protestant groups (but no representatives of newer Pentecostal movements).

Preparations. During the nine years between the pope's speech and the CELAM conference, an enormous amount of time and energy was devoted throughout Latin America to meetings, study and research, discussions with laity, and working drafts (that soon became goodsized books). The most important of the drafts was a document entitled Secunda Relatio ("Second Report"), which provided an excellent synthesis of the ideas of all the national bishops' conferences of Latin America, thus providing a panorama of the Church in the entire continent. This relatio was not accepted, however, by conservative leaders of the conference. Another document, the Documento de Trabajo ("Working Document"), was also rejected on the very first day of the conference. The proceedings then were entrusted to small working groups, thirty in all, which were not open to plenary sessions. They discussed and produced drafts on a wide range of topics and issues that were synthesized by a powerful drafting committee and then presented for discussion and voting in the plenary sessions.

Up to the last few days of the meeting in Santo Domingo, there were serious forebodings that the seventeen-day meeting would not be able to produce a final document. In the end, however, a staff under the direction of Archbishop Luciano Mendes de Almeida of Brazil, working around the clock, was able to produce a final document during the last frantic days of the conference. In places it displays signs of haste and poor organization and has been criticized because of its lack of prophetic vision. Although there were serious differences of opinion among the bishops, the document was approved by 201 of the 206 voting delegates, with five abstentions and no opposing votes.

Results of the Conference. Pope John Paul II inaugurated the meeting with a lengthy "Opening Address" to the bishops. The general interpretation of the speech is that it did not open new avenues, but neither did it close any doors. The pope's outline included (1) a "new evangelization," with Jesus as the model; (2) "human development," which appeared to be a euphemism for the struggle for justice and liberation; and (3) "Christian culture," that is, the inculturation of evangelization and social justice in the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. These three chapters became the major building blocks of the final documents.

Chapter One was concerned largely with the diverse ministries and charisms for the new evangelization, including approbation of the base ecclesial communities and the crucial role of all lay persons, especially women and the young. Evangelization was envisioned not only as essential catechesis (a huge task), but also as a vigorous outreach to lapsed and indifferent Catholics and as dialogue with non-Christian religions, non-believers, and members of Christian "fundamentalist" sects.

The subject of women was treated in seven carefully crafted paragraphs (nos. 104111) of Chapter One. This is the most substantive and profound statement on women to be found in the writings of the Latin American bishops. A less successful statement, however, is to be found in the ecumenical arena (nos. 139146). The first sentence on this topic does not bode well for authentic dialogue: "The problem of the sects has reached dramatic proportions and has become truly worrisome, particularly due to increasing proselytism."

In Chapter Two, the bishops achieved a consensus regarding nine "new signs of the times." Each sign was elaborated by a brief social analysis, followed by pastoral reflections and plans for action. These signs for Latin America are (1) human rights, (2) ecology, (3) the earth as God's gift, (4) impoverishment, (5) human labor, unemployment, and underemployment, (6) migration, (7) democracy, (8) foreign debt, and (9) the integration of Latin American economies.

Chapter Three, on "Christian culture," is the shortest part of the document and appears to have taken approaches and concepts from both of the previous chapters, resulting in a kind of mélange. From the beginning a great deal of attention is devoted to inculturation toward the indigenous or Amerindians, the African Americans, and the mestizos, i.e., those of mixed blood. (The new interest in ethnicity and women's issues was dramatically highlighted by the presence at the meeting of Rigoberta Menchú, a Guatemalan Indian woman who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.)

Santo Domingo also emphasized the culture of the city. Everywhere on the continent there is a "passage from rural culture to urban culture, which is the location and driving force of the new universal civilization" (no.155). On the other hand, the bishops showed themselves quite aware of the belts of poverty and misery that surround the cities. Finally, the Santo Domingo documents make a strong appeal for Catholic education, from the lowest grades to the universities, and plea for much more expertise in the use of the social media of communication.

Bibliography: a. t. hennelly, ed., Santo Domingo and Beyond: Documents and Commentaries from the Fourth General Conference of Latin American Bishops (Maryknoll, N.Y. 1993).

[a. t. hennelly]