Posted Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004

A pope who plays the saxophone?

An interview with Cardinal ”scar Andrťs RodrŪguez

The archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Cardinal ”scar Andrťs RodrŪguez, is one of Latin Americaís most visible Catholic leaders and a leading candidate to be the next pope. President of CELAM, the regional bishops conference, from 1995 to 1999, RodrŪguez brought to the post a balanced theological perspective that contrasted markedly with the conservative bent of his predecessors. Asked by Pope John Paul II to take the lead on the issue of foreign debt, RodrŪguez became the chaplain of the international Jubilee movement, speaking in favor of the poor who are victimized by the massive flow of resources out of poor economies into northern banks. At home in Honduras, he helped do away with the secret police and fought government corruption. Trained in theology, psychology, and classical piano, RodrŪguez holds a pilotís license and speaks several languages. He spoke Spanish for a late March interview with NCR at his office in Tegucigalpa. What follows is a translation.

NCR: Democracy is in trouble in Latin America. Surveys throughout the region show that many people have lost confidence in democracy as a way to resolve their problems. The famed AWashington Consensus@ has failed. Democratically-elected presidents are being overthrown. Are you worried about the future of democracy in the region?

Cardinal ”scar Andrťs RodrŪguez: Weíre very worried. Last month I was in Puebla for a meeting to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Puebla document. When we wrote that original document, there were still civil wars and military dictatorships. Yet 25 years later we canít really say that what we have in the region is true democracy. We have formal democracies, where every few years the people elect their leaders. But the number of people who vote is steadily decreasing. Why? Because people are discontented. These are fragile democracies.

The problem isnít democracy itself, but rather that you canít construct democracies without democrats. And we havenít taught our democrats how to build democracy. We passed from one kind of caciquismo [having political bosses] to another kind of caciquismo. After the civil wars of the 19th Century, we had dictators throughout almost the entire region. Then after World War II, thereís a short period of democracy, only to be eliminated when the militaries once again take control. Between the early 60s to the early 80s, many believed that these military governments could be the solution for Latin America. When the military leaders finally leave the stage, the politicians return but bring with them this mentality of caciquismo and exploitation.

There is no real political education. For me this is the greatest deficits in the region. Thatís why I accepted the challenge to be president of the Department of Justice and Solidarity of CELAM, to begin to implement a different mentality, especially among young politicians. I know it will be difficult. I feel a bit like Quixote tilting toward the windmills. I want to help return to politics its vocation as guarantor of the common good. If not, the weaknesses of our democracies will only become more obvious. Weíve already seen that caciquismo at work in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. These coups are not the work of the military but rather of ethnic groups, or civil organizations that are discontent and angry, and end up weakening democracy rather than strengthening it.

Weíve got to do something. We canít just remain passive. Because is we donít change things, weíre just headed into deeper economic problems which will generate more poverty. The continent isnít moving to overcome poverty, but rather inching toward even greater impoverishment.

Youíre a Salesian, member of an order that traditionally educated many of the political elites. Whatís this challenge mean specifically for the church?

Who weíve trained are adolescents. When they get into the university they forget what they learned from us. And these youth are more willing to accept extremist solutions. It wasnít long ago in Latin Americaís universities that the figure of Che Guevarra was the principal teacher. Or the Chicago BoysBthose neoliberal economists from the other extreme. Solidarity gets forgotten. The great challenge for me is how to open up the future to something new, to political education that will help politics reclaim its dignity.

If Washington hasnít helped Latin America solve its problems, many would argue that neither has Rome. There are tensions in the Vaticanís relationship to regional bishops conferences around the world, including with CELAM. How would you describe the health of the Vaticanís relationship with CELAM?

I have to tell you, in all sincerity, that in recent years weíve had a very weak relationship.  We havenít seen decisive support for CELAM. If anything, thereís been a desire [in Rome] to see CELAM reduced to its minimal expression.

Thatís not the attitude of the Pope, however. The Pope is very clear. When I was president of CELAM I had the total support of the Holy Father. Yet since then, the support has waned a bit. This is the case with all the episcopal conferences and all the regional conferences, in Asia and Africa as well. Perhaps this is a phase of weariness among some of the close collaborators of the Holy Father. Not the Pope himself; he remains very clear about this. But there is a problem with some who are close to him.

One of the goals of our work as CELAM is to push this, and weíve petitioned the Pope to have a fifth general conference of the bishops. This would follow on the meetings in Rio de Janeiro, Medellin, Puebla, and Santo Domingo. Itís been 12 years since the last meeting. We thought next year would be appropriate, given that CELAM will celebrate its 50th anniversary, but thereís a synod that makes that difficult, so weíre looking at 2006. One of our big concerns will be to see how we can strengthen the churchís support for the regional conferences.

A weakened regional conference isnít a threat to those in the curia who are enjoying the good life in Rome and donít want to let go of their power.

That could be part of the problem, and the Holy Father said this to the curia in a recent speech. Itís a big temptation. Nonetheless, the ecclesiology of Vatican II is an ecclesiology of communion and collegiality. CELAM can be rightfully proud of the collegiality and communion that has been achieved among the bishops of the continent. We arenít strangers. We know each other. We appreciate each other. We stay in touch. And we help each other. CELAM isnít an instrument of power. Itís an instrument of service, and during these fifty years it has grown a lot in this respect.

The most prominent Latin Americans in the Vatican today are very conservative. Are you worried that these colleagues of yours have the Pope brainwashed, that theyíve distorted the way he sees this region?

Itís not that they have so much influence. It could be that the problem is in the system of communication. Many times the decisions taken in the Vatican are more a product of the information that comes from the nuncios than the information that comes from the episcopal conferences. Many times at the highest levelsBIím not speaking of the Pope but of those below himBthey prefer and confide more in information from a nunciature than in information from an episcopal conference. This has its effects.

When I was in the leadership of CELAM I tried to build bridges. Polarization keeps us from achieving anything. Iím very pleased with some of the things I achieved, such as a dialogue between liberation theologians and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This seemed impossible, but we did it in a simple and beautiful manner. Even Cardinal Ratzinger thanked me. Thatís the path for us to follow. Rather than hardening our positions or closing off the other without listening, but rather extending bridges. Weíve lacked that in certain places in the church.

The church in Latin America is being reshaped by some strong internal movements, and Iíd like to know your view of some of them. First of all, the neocatechumenal movement, known to its adherents as El Camino (The Way). Several bishops in the region have had problems with El Camino. What are the positive aspects of this movement, and what tensions exist about its role in the church?

El Camino has a lot of positive aspects. One of them is that the layperson feels part of the church. Itís very demanding in how it forms its members, demanding about how they practice the faith, and demanding in regards to how they manage material wealth. El Camino looks for those who have drifted away, and it has had good results.

Yet itís also had a very closed dependence on the model of its founder, the model of Kiko [ArgŁello]. So all the communities are cut from the same mold. I donít see the flexibility that inculturation demands. In the songs, for example. Kiko is a composer, but those songs from Spain, from Andaluz, arenít really part of our culture. And so they end up being somewhat artificial. Yet youíre not allowed to even change a comma of the lyrics.

They also suffer from a tendency to close themselves off from the rest of the community. When they celebrate their closed Eucharists, their closed catechisms, the argument they use is that since itís El Camino, they canít improvise, and they have to go step by step. Thatís true to a point, but they need a little more flexibility, a little more integration in the larger community.

Weíve achieved that a bit here in the archdiocese. Before they didnít participate in any activities of the shared ministries. But now when I call them to participate, at least they show up, though perhaps with a bit of an attitude. Iíve been very clear with them that I want them to be part of the church, not of a sect.

How about Opus Dei?

For me the problem is their ecclesiology. Because they are part of a diocese but theyíre not part of a diocese. Here in Tegucigalpa we havenít had a bad experience with them. They work, and they work well. But they donít have communication with the rest of the church. At least Iíve managed to get the superior to participate in all the meetings of the clergy, but in many other places thatís not the case. They are independent of the church.

Iím also worried about their link with the economically powerful. Itís not that we shouldnít evangelize the rich. I agree with that. What I donít agree with is that in an environment of so much poverty, they engage in some projects that arenít appropriate. You can build a residence, for example, without it being so luxurious. And in the economic life of the dioceses, they donít collaborate. Thatís not good ecclesiology. All the religious communities need economic support to maintain their educational buildings and all the rest, but the communities participate in diocesan life. Opus Dei does not.

You went to a meeting in Spain not long ago at their invitation.

They invited me to a theological congress, and I went and made a presentation. I enjoyed it. Their university maintains very high quality. The research carried out in their medical facilities is very important. I liked the experience there, but I still have these two objections that have to do with ecclesiology. I donít understand how a prelature thatís international in nature can be present in a diocese but not participate in diocesan life.

Yet it was the Popeís decision to grant them that status.

But itís the only case where heís done so. The only one.

Letís hope he doesnít make any more?

Letís hope not. Iíve never understood their ecclesiological status. I still donít understand it.

After all the euphoria of the 70s and 80s, and all the fervent opposition of some in the church, many base communities are still alive and kicking. How do you see these grassroots communities?

For us the communities are the way to work. In the 60s, they flourished here and throughout the continent during a time of military dictatorships in almost every country. And they were the only setting where you could speak about certain things. Political and social issues could only be discussed within the base communities. Brazil was one of the best examples of this.

As a result, many communities were politicized. Yet once this phase was over, some people thought they disappeared. But thatís not the case. What disappeared was the politicization of the communities, but the communities themselves continue.

Here we have almost 30,000 delegates of the word. Each delegate supervises a base community. Itís the way to conserve the faith. Theyíre very active. Far from having disappeared, in many places they are the closest thing we have to real civil society. That means that the seed that was planted was good; otherwise they would have run their course and ended.

In Honduras, they arenít politicized. Here everything is so politicized that the base communities are a refuge for the person who canít take the politicians any longer, the political bosses. They are a hope for us.

The sex abuse crisis has wracked the church in the United States in recent years. What lessons do you draw from that experience for the church in other parts of the world, particularly in the global south?

For me, this is a painful page of our history. Itís true that these things happen. And they happen here among us. But the majority of sexual abuse is within the family. At times itís an uncle or a cousin, or a stepfather. Itís common here. It also happens in the schools with teachers, and frequently in the evangelical churches. But theyíve only publicized the experience of the Catholic Church. So Iím left wondering if some people want to quiet the ethical voice of the church by discrediting its ministers.

The number of people involved is small relative to the whole number of priests. But if you go to the United States, everyone thinks that all of us priests have this problem. Everyone. So it seems like a campaign to me.

Another factor is that lawyers have turned this into a business. Sadly, they almost are literally digging up cadavers to make huge profits off them. They tell me that oftentimes the lawyers keep 30 percent of the judgement. Whatís apparently justice turns out to be unjust. They donít even respect the memory of the dead, which is sacred in other parts. If itís a priest whoís died, who is facing judgement before God, theyíll still dig up everything in order to condemn the diocese.

There are some lessons for us here, however. First of all, I doubt that all these cases are really pedophilia. I donít believe they are. Some certainly are, but the majority are cases of homosexuality. Because of the lobby of the gay movements, however, at times we donít call things by their name. So they donít call homosexuality whatís really homosexuality. Because there is fear that the power of the homosexual groups will be turned against the church. Iíve seen that and it worries me.

I canít prove it but it seems to me that this corresponds to decisions in the past about admitting seminarians to the clergy. Just as the heterosexual who assumes celibacy has to care for his celibacy and not give free reign to his natural tendencies toward women, if itís a homosexual he has to do the same. But thatís not the case. Because the heterosexual celibate is formed in a tranquil environment, knows women in a pastoral relationship, and can live out his celibacy. But the homosexual, whoís educated amid and works only among men, is in his element. This was a decision that was wrong and has borne consequences.

Another element is that the sexual education of that era was all wrong. It was almost repressive. You couldnít talk clearly about things. Today in the seminary Iím the one who teaches this class. And I speak very clearly. I call things by their names. Itís been a big advance.

A third lesson we could take from this is that from the beginning of seminary weíve got to provide psychological accompaniment, especially to those we have doubts about. From the beginning. Before there as a fear of psychology. They said, >No, with prayer and penitence...í No. No. There are some things that correspond to psychology and weíve got to approach them in that manner.

In the seminary itís clear that we have to counsel a boy with this inclination that he needs to seek out another life. Not this one, because it could otherwise have dire consequences in the future.

But isnít part of the problem here the isolation within which the education of priests takes place? In many places in the region the Vatican has demanded that the church close down programs that allowed seminarians to mix with the general population, insisting that they be sent off to isolated locations to study.

When seminarians are forced into an environment thatís overly closed, the result is the contrary to whatís desired. Repression doesnít lead to maturity. Among all the risks, people have to learn to use their freedom. That doesnít mean to be in a dissolute environment; that would ruin anyone. But a healthy opening is needed. Thatís what we have here. On the weekends, our seminarians are out working in the parishes. During their vacations theyíre in missions in poor parishes. We want them to have relationships with other youth, with women, old people, everyoneBgetting to know the world the way it is. Thatís the correct way to develop. A moderate opening to the world is much better than isolating them again, returning to what we once had. The world has changed.

You were an articulate opponent to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) during the last few years of negotiations. With CAFTA now approved by the Central American governments and awaiting approval in the U.S. Congress, is the battle lost?

Even with the approval, I still have grave reservations about CAFTA. One has to do with how long the treaty lasts. They tell me it doesnít have an expiration date. It could go on eternally. It also promotes a model of development which isnít appropriate for Latin America. We are agricultural countries, yet what weíve witnessed in Mexico [with the similar North American Free Trade Agreement] is the almost complete disappearance of agriculture. Just like with us, corn is at the center of the Mexican diet, yet Mexico today has to import corn. What kind of model is this? Will it bring genuine development? Will it make poverty disappear or grow more widespread? What can peasants do here if they arenít educated for anything else?

Another concern I have is that in order to modify the constitution of a country, you need two-thirds of the votes of the deputies [in the parliament]. Or you have to have a constituent assembly. But there are no mechanisms for changing CAFTA. You canít modify it. And there are strong sanctions for those who violate its provisions. We are condemning future generations to live with treaties that bind their hands and feet.

Iím going to continue to manifest my concerns to the authorities of our country. If my criticisms are just, then approval of CAFTA amounts to an unforgivable error.

Iím still asking why they signed a treaty with InterAirports [a North American company] that impedes the construction of an airport in Ruinas de Copan [a town in western Honduras]. Why hand over the sovereignty of the country? Our terminal at Toncontin Airport [in Tegucigalpa] is worse than a bus terminal. And two years ago they started remodeling, tearing down a hanger. What have they built? A stone wall. It would have been better to leave it the way it was. Whatís behind all this? Why do we have to mortgage the sovereignty of the country to treaties that provide wealth to those who negotiate them but leave the rest of the country submerged in poverty?

Behind all this is the ideology of a new empire. We have to learn from history: an empire that wants to become absolute destroys itself. I believe this model of empire carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The eighties are coming back to haunt Latin America. Argentine President Nestor Kirchner just inaugurated a museum to the dirty war in a former military torture center. In Mexico, President Vicente Foxís special prosecutor has just started arresting people charged with human rights violations in the eighties. Are these and other incidents a sign that reconciliation is still a pending issue in Latin America?

Psychology and faith teach us that a person who isnít reconciled cannot live in peace. A society which isnít reconciled wonít be able to find peace. Itís indispensable that we heal these wounds of the past. Itís indispensable. Itís been achieved in some places but thereís a lot of places in our region, including here in Honduras, where we need to advance even more.

In Chile, the parliament has just approved a law allowing divorce, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church. Is this a sign that the Catholic Church is losing power in Latin America? And if thatís the case, is that all bad?

Power in itself isnít bad, because power allows us to serve others. If power is used to serve oneself, then itís very bad. Iím not afraid of the church losing power, because our power is service. Thatís what our Lord Jesus said.

Evangelization is destined to present the values of the Gospel within society. But thereís a confrontation here, because the values presented by a secularized society are anti-values. You canít convince me that the death penalty is a value. Itís anti-value, because it goes against life, the maximum value. So even if itís approved by a legislature, the death penalty is an evil. No one has the power to take life; only God. The state doesnít have that right.

Whatís the state? Itís not God. Thereís the problem: awarding divine status to the state or to leaders. Later we discover they have nothing of God about them. General Pinochet considered himself a god, but now heís being chased by justice and has only escaped because of his mental illness and age. This is always a temptation in society.

The church has been around for 2,000 years and continues announcing the Gospel. If itís persecuted in one place it goes to another. Values should be proclaimed everywhere. For the believer, itís important to believe in the indissoluble nature of marriage, no matter what the laws of the society proclaim. Whatís been lost there is a commitment to Christianity among the legislators, in their desire to achieve a hedonistic society in which values and morals are less important, all for a false hedonism, for the ability to get along with everyone. But thatís difficult. And the church in Chile continues doing its work with faith.

You were known in many circles as the cardinal of the debt. Yet people donít talk as much these days about the foreign debt. Thereís more discussion of the widespread nature of corruption.

The problem of debt has not been resolved. In April, weíre planning a meeting in Washington to once again call attention to this issue, to tell the world that this current economic model doesnít work. It only makes the people suffer more. The adjustment packets and letters of intention with the International Monetary Fund come and go, yet the suffering keeps increasing and the people lose any hope in a better future.

Itís true that corruption could be a worse problem today in the region. The debt can be managed and reduced in order to alleviate poverty. Corruption, however, is growing steadily, especially given the power of organized crime, particularly that linked to drugs. This is linked directly to the debt, however. Because Latin Americaís  impoverishment has meant the only thing we can export to make a profit are drugs or illegal immigrants.

Today the economy of Honduras is sustained by the poorest. Theyíre the ones in the United States, working and sending home remittances. Itís become the biggest income of the country. How sad that the task of sustaining the country falls on the backs of the poor, when the country ought to be able to generate riches and sustain itself.

If Honduras, instead of paying $400 million a year in service on its debt, could invest that amount in development, this would be a different country.

Regarding organized crime and corruption, why is justice so weak, why do judges sell themselves? Why do the police practice corruption? Because itís the only activity that gives a little bit of profit. Itís sad when a police officer is accused of corruption, but how much does a police officer earn? If you offer ten years of salary in exchange for firing one bullet, thatís a big temptation. And when he kills someone heís a hero, but the murdered one had a family also, and children, and the right to have a future just the same. Itís a difficult situation. The economic model has to change. The economic system we live with now is not working.

When you speak with people in the United States, and they ask what they can do to benefit Latin America, how do you respond? How are people called to practice solidarity today?

In the United States, thereís a value placed on democracy thatís hard to find elsewhere. Citizens who elect their representatives can be in touch with them, and if they donít respond they wonít be reelected.

Iíd like to have that in all democracies. Here we call people representatives of the people, but the people didnít elect them. They were elected in a lottery. They got their name on a list, and if their candidate for president wins they win the lottery. And they usually have to pay a lot to buy their lottery ticket, to get on the list. This system doesnít work, and should be changed.

The U.S. has a system where communities can argue their values with their representatives. I always tell people in the U.S. that they can use this to help us. To help us with the famous TPS [Temporary Protected Status]. It shouldnít be simply a political weapon of whatever politician is in power, just to get votes or get reelected. Itís to help the communities here in our countries.

We also need economic solidarity. The U.S. has been so economically blessed, but what the government designates for development assistance is infinitesimal. They still havenít reached that agreement of the more developed countries to give 0.7 percent of the gross domestic product. And much of what is given is destined to maintaining the state of Israel. Thereís not much left for development in other countries.

Youíre a leading papabile. You play the saxophone. If your colleagues decide to elect you as the next pope, are you going to play the saxophone in St. Peterís Basilica?

It will be difficult, but Iíll try. John Paul II sings, he recorded some songs, he writes books. So why canít a pope also interpret a bit of music that way? Music is a beautiful thing.


National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2004

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