The publication of the Documento de Puebla (Puebla Document), containing the renderings of the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM III) in Puebla de Los Angeles, Mexico, January 27 to February 12, may be regarded as a theological event in Latin America. This 300-page book whose title (La Evangelización en el presente y en el futuro de América Latina) reminds us of the central theme of the conference, is primarily meant to provide pastoral guidelines for Roman Catholic bishops in a continent where traditional Roman Catholicism manages to survive side by side with liberation theology. Within a few months after publication it is proving to be equally useful to “traditionalists” and “progressives.”

The liberation theologians (some of whom were present in Puebla, wisely keeping “a very low profile,” according to Harvey Cox) find encouragement in the document’s condemnation of repressive governments and their ideology of “national security,” its support of human rights, its critical attitude toward international capitalism, its ratification of comunidades de base (the grass roots congregations that often provide the social basis for liberation theology) and, above all, its insistence on viewing the poor as occupying a central place in the history of salvation. They notice that if in Medellín CELAM II saw the church as the church for the poor, in Puebla CELAM III went beyond and saw the church as summoned by the poor to conversion to the gospel “for many of the poor actualize in their lives the evangelical values of solidarity, service, simplicity and readiness to receive God’s gift.” They also notice that if in Medellín the church’s “option for the poor” was reluctantly accepted, in Puebla it was taken for granted and the increasing poverty of the Latin American masses understood as the result of the advance of capitalism. And they interpret the inclusion of an analysis of the social, political, and economic situation of the continent as an acceptance of their own theological method—“seeing analytically, judging theologically, and acting pastorally.”

The “traditionalists,” on the other hand, point to a number of passages in the document that confirm their view of the church as semper aedem. Of course, they recognize that CELAM III was by no means the demise of liberation theology. Despite the limitations imposed on Gutiérrez, Assman, Sobrino, Boff, Galilea, del Valle, Vidales, and many other “progressive” theologians during the conference, the influence of these theologians in the writing of the document is too obvious for anyone to deny. At the same time, there are in the document enough strictures, qualifications, and questions posed from a traditional viewpoint to make it possible for an observer to claim that “Medellín was a prophetic voice that did not allow itself to be a mirror reflecting the reality of Latin America. Puebla, on the other hand, articulates the reality of Latin America, but has not allowed itself to be a prophetic message.”

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Special mention should be made of the document’s insistence on its pastoral, rather than political, intention. In his opening address, the Pope stated: “You meet here, neither as a symposium of experts or a parliament of politicians, nor as a congress of scientists or technicians, but as a fraternal gathering of Shepherds of the Church.” His words set the tone for the entire document in such a way that conservatives find in it plenty of ammunition against any attempt to use it as a platform for radical political action.

The document’s endorsement of certain liberationist themes, however qualified, is likely to receive a great deal of attention in the near future as the Roman Catholic church seeks to respond to the challenges posed by the socio-economic and political problems of Latin America. But the document also must be examined from the perspective of its teaching on the more theological aspects of evangelization, such as soteriology and ecclesiology.

Evangelicals will welcome the document’s Christological approach to the gospel, synthesized in the statement that Jesus Christ is “the only Mediator” (p. 213), the only way to the Father (p. 214). They may have some difficulty accepting that the church is also “a part of the Gospel” (p. 223) but would probably agree with this view with some qualification. They will, however, strongly object to the affirmation that “Mary, the Mother, awakens the filial heart asleep in each person. Thus, she leads us to developing the life of that baptism through which we were made [her] children” (p. 295). They will see in it the sacramental approach to salvation and the exaltation of Mary characteristic of traditional Roman Catholicism, and their rejection of Mariology will increase even further as they read that “Mary is our Mother. She, glorious in heaven, is active on earth. She who shares in the lordship of the Risen Christ, with her maternal love takes care of her Son’s brethren, who are still on the way” and that “the Immaculate Virgin now lives immersed in the mystery of the Trinity, praising the glory of God and interceding for men” (pp. 288, 293).

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Again, on the question of ecclesiology, evangelicals will salute the thesis that “the Church is inseparable from Christ because He Himself founded it” (p. 223), that the church is essentially “the family of God on earth, a holy people, a people in pilgrimage throughout history, a people sent” (p. 236). They will also admit that the church is not as yet what she was called to be and remains, therefore, “permanently in need of self-evangelization and greater conversion and purification” (p. 228). They will, however, be distressed by the idea, explicitly stated in the document, that the Roman Catholic Church is the only ecclesiastical comunity in which the church established by Jesus survives through the hierarchy culminating in the Pope, and that, therefore, “in the Roman Catholic Church alone is to be found the fullness of the means of salvation, granted by Jesus to men through his apostles” (p. 225).

Clearly in the Puebla Document the distinctive doctrines of traditional Roman Catholicism find a place side by side with the more biblical emphases which have given the Roman Catholic Church a renewed image since Vatican II. Many of the incongruities and contradictions may simply be explained as a result of the fact that the final document is really a compilation of commission reports written by the bishops working for 12 days in 21 different groups. Many others, however, can only be seen as evidence of the theological pluralism that has become part and parcel of contemporary Roman Catholicism. In the message issued at the end of CELAM III the bishops were concerned about the image of a divided church. The reading of the document shows that the unity at Puebla was the unity of a smorgasbord.

C. René Padilla is the director of Ediciones Certeza, the publishing house of the International Fellowship of Evangelical students in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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