Christian Base Communities: Spiritual Renewal or Political Manipulation?

Between 1969 and 1982 I had the privilege of participating in several different Christian base communities, particularly in Nicaragua and Panama, but also briefly visiting others in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru. Despite their differences, there were certain common characteristics. Usually a team of priests and sisters would begin by applying the theory of group dynamics to religious experience. The goal was to transform the traditional Church, in which the majority of the population claimed to be Catholic simply because of tradition, into a Church of small groups with a sense of belonging, able to discuss together, and willing to participate in both the parish and the community.

Another characteristic was development of a liturgy for each parish. At least two “popular” Masses were written, sung and distributed throughout Latin America, with typical rhythms and easily understandable language. The sermons in the liturgy of these communitarian parishes were usually a “dialogue” which encouraged participation of the faithful. The theory that produced the communities comes from priests like Jose Mann, Jesus Andres Vela, and Gregorio Smutko, all experts in group dynamics, who wrote such books as Group Dynamics Techniques, Lay Evangelizers for Latin America, Techniques and Practices of Human Relations, and The Living Experience of Group Dynamics.

These books and, their techniques were put into practice in a particular situation—Latin America—where the stratified atmosphere is, in broad terms, of the powerful and the powerless. These techniques opened the way for the masses to participate in something, to have a voice, a status, a role. Until the base community movement took form, the majority of the people simply had no structure that allowed them participation, no group that permitted them expression. The numbers of people involved in labor unions, political parties, and civic groups are pitifully small, and their influence even more lamentable. The success of the base communities, their rapid growth, and their palpable influences on society is due equally to the vacuum they filled in society as it is to the need to revitalize a stagnant Church. And the fact is, they have transformed both Society and the Church.

The techniques of group dynamics lessened the traditional vertical leadership of the Church in varying degrees, helped by a new liturgy after Vatican II, with some groups going totally to a permissive style where they could make all of the decisions. Interestingly enough, Archbishop Obando y Bravo in Nicaragua, one of the principal promoters of group dynamics courses ‘before the revolution and now furiously attacked by groups that call themselves Christian base communities, has not repented of his support. He continues to promote lay leadership courses and community betterment projects. Nevertheless, the attacks against Obando and the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference by these groups demonstrates another characteristic of the base communities—anarchy. Within the authoritarian atmosphere common to most Latin American societies, where there are great class differences and widespread oppression, the base communities increase the desire of the members for participation and also automatically lead them against authority, even church authority. The base communities tend to align themselves with the forces that want to destroy the “establishment.” They see themselves as a model of a church organization which tries to recapture the way of life of the communities of the early Church, where small, intimate groups worshipped together. But the present base communities frequently suffer an ideological vacuum which is, also frequently, infiltrated by Marxist-Leninists, who fill the vacuum and develop Marxist-Christians. This process has been assisted by the Liberation Theologians who have built theoretical communication bridges between Marxism and Christianity.

Another important phenomenon of the base communities is that of fragmentation and division. Within the contradictory reality of Latin America, they tend toward a certain partiality and the formation of sects. Since they are against authorities as part of their way of being and against the authoritarianism practiced by the majority of the regimes in which they live, their break with the central authority of the church, the bishops, and the Pope follows naturally. By doing so they show their real anarchical nature. Even when they might continue to say in their declarations that they will obey the bishops and the Pope, their actions demonstrate the contrary. In fact they not only do not agree with the bishops, as in the case of Nicaragua, but they support their enemies. They have developed a community of free thinkers, obeying their local leader instead of the central authority. Each base community is capable of being a small “church.” Thus, in Nicaragua we have the community (church) of Ernesto Cardenal, that of Uriel Molina, that of Fernando Cardenal, and others. Knowingly or unknowingly, these pastors are accomplishing one of the principal goals of the Marxists-Leninists: the splitting of the Church into isolated units that are easy to manipulate and further divide. This tendency to anarchy has produced another phenomenon related to the societies within which the communities are formed, namely the assassination and disappearance of the communities’ leaders, both religious and lay. In some cases this has been due to the direct participation, or sympathy, of the individual in a guerilla group, but the majority have been activists whose sense of mission and leadership qualities made them threats to both the rightists and the leftists.

The characteristics of the base communities depend greatly on the capabilities and theological orientation of the priests and nuns in the parish. We can observe Catholic activists in certain parishes (e.g., San Pablo) who channeled their energies and dedication into the Cursillo movement, the Christian Family movement, and community betterment projects. As a contrast the youth groups in parishes directed by Marxist or pro-Marxist priests such as Solentiname and Barrio Riguero, took up reading Marxist texts and formed armed groups under the leadership of the FSLN. Other parishes combined these elements with some political agitation against Somoza, ongoing religious formation, and community projects. But in every case, the success of a Christian base community in organizing the local people has been followed by infiltration of the parish groups by Marxist-Leninist militants. Too often the clergy in these cases have been painfully naive about this or have been criminally negligent by promoting a mystique of class struggle frequently expressed in terms of armed action.

The sense of comraderie that develops in the communities usually generates energies that demand to be channeled. Men who have previously wasted hours of their lives chasing women or liquor are now at the disposition of the parish and the community. Because of these new idealistic activists, the Church in Latin America has become, more than ever before, a center of community development, an option for the poor and a simultaneous threat to the leadership of both the Leftist and the Rightist regimes.

But within some groups there also develops a sense of elitism. The idea that one has rejected the vices of the past (with a sense of deep personal guilt in cases where the person supported or profited from the local tyranny or imperialism) and undertaken a new Christian commitment has been interpreted by some as a new arrogance towards those who haven’t been “chosen,” or who prefer to continue with a more traditional or less violent Catholicism. Some of the former begin to call themselves the “good revolutionary Christians” and refer to the latter as the “bad bourgeoisie Christians.” Where once the Church was alienated from the lives of the majority because it was too ritualistic, too supportive of the status quo, too ethereal, and with a clergy and religious too separated from the laity, now we are witnessing a new alienation as many base groups become a new elite with their own leadership, no longer looking for guidance from the local hierarchy, the traditional interpretation of the Scriptures, or Rome. They also tend to belittle other Catholics who “are not like them.” Some examples: “In my judgment, the Pope speaks a very stylized language, not understandable to our people.” “The Cursillo Movement is now a nest of reactionaries. They are the powerful, those with privileges, all the bourgeoises and those aspiring to be bourgeoises that have nothing, but they are bourgeoises.” “What happens is that there are two classes of Christians. There is the Christian that before never appeared as a Christian, and now he is dressing himself in Christian clothing, but not because of Christian conviction, but rather to defend his materialistic Christian values….lt is a tremendous responsibility that the Christians in this process have, that of clarifying for the hierarchy those positions that are inconsequential or incoherent with the way that we Christians should participate in the popular process that wants to favor the poor majorities.”

Because of their sense of being a new church, many of the individuals who become activists through the base communities eventually form their own communities under the direction of a priest sympathetic to their views. In Nicaragua there now exists a group called “Revolutionary Christians” made up of those who work for the government and no longer attend their local parishes, but express their new “revolutionary faith” only with people of similar ideas and methodology.

These are some of the dangers and weaknesses of the base communities. They should not blind us to the positive aspects of the base community model. The communities have produced interesting elements within the Latin American reality. Their members demonstrate a cohesiveness, a sense of belonging, an identification with Christian living, and a very practical sense to religious life and the practice of spiritual values. They produce an environment of religious self-development from below that fortifies widespread lay participation in the church structures, which previously did not exist because of an excessively vertical structure. The problems flow from the fact that these communities are not formed in a vacuum but rather within a reality, political and social, which forces their members to take partisan stances. Any attempt to remain neutral is untenable. And the most logical stance for these Christians, who have deepened their sense of justice within an extremely unjust reality such as Latin America, is to struggle towards change of structures even when this means that they might be manipulated and used by the Marxist-Leninists. This manipulation is most likely when the forces that maintain the oppression oppose any change, even democratic changes, and where the deeply conscientized base communities see no other alternative. Manipulation of base communities is also most likely when the clergy and religious who learned these techniques in other cultures and other realities do not analyze the long-term effects of creating activists within the Latin American reality.

Perhaps this is the message of Archbishop Obando y Bravo and Nicaragua. The majority of Catholics there still follow the leadership of the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference, and many speak now of a resurgence of faith in Nicaragua. Obando has not given up on the base communities despite the problems, and he continues to support lay participation. Perhaps he sees that if the persecution of the Church in Nicaragua continues and follows the pattern of other Marxist-Leninist countries, it will be precisely the loyal base communities which will keep the church alive and promote the faith, despite threats and reprisals.


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