The Roman Catholic Church in Latin America once resembled a trim, taut, ecclesiastical ship. But lately it has drifted apart like a cluster of lifeboats. Charismatic renewal groups, liberation theologians, social activists, and conservatives have tried to function as the mother ship, but at the expense of church unity.

Reconciliation of factions, then, was a primary goal for the 180 voting bishops who attended the third Latin American Conference of Bishops (CELAM) last month in Puebla, Mexico. Their task was not easy. At CELAM II, held eleven years ago in Medellín, Colombia, a liberal minority had drafted strong documents on social action that evolved into the controversial “theology of liberation.” The late Pope Paul VI, who attended CELAM II, had selected the conference theme for Puebla: “The Present and Future of Evangelization in Latin America.”

Pope John Paul II picked up on the theme of evangelization during an address at the conference meeting site, the Palafox Seminary. (When speaking of evangelization, Roman Catholic theologians refer not just to preaching the gospel and conversion but also to all of the gospel’s effects on society.) John Paul said that evangelization must focus on the divine Christ—not a political prophet as preached by some who have incorrectly interpreted the Medellín documents.

He insisted that there is only one church, under the see of Peter, with one channel of teaching. The church, he said, is essentially spiritual, not temporal in its influence and mission. He called for unity among bishops, and for the priests to be obedient to the bishops.

On the temporal plane, the pontiff insisted that the church remain aloof from political ideologies; instead, it should aim for “integral liberation for ...

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