Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bell, Day 3: A Crisis of Ecclesiology

In Chapter 2, "The Church of the Poor in the Wake of Capitalism's Triumph," Dan Bell wrestles specifically with the self-identified crisis faced by liberation theology in Latin America. On one hand, the liberationists have bravely and fiercely opposed the excesses of savage capitalism in Latin America. However, Bell argues that their vision is not sufficiently radical to escape capitalist discipline, but instead has been subverted and circumscribed by it. The end result has been a "deficient" social theory, usually a hybrid of capitalism (democratic capitalism) or a variant of Marxism. Bell sees both the cause and the solution to the crisis in the liberationist understanding of the church. Today, I will focus on the cause- faulty ecclesiology and a dependence on statecraft.

1) The origins of a New Christendom ecclesiology in Latin America
Beginning in the 19th century, the liberal revolutions in Latin America witnessed a gradual decline in the power and authority of the Church. Often, the new liberal states were hostile to the Church. This trend changed in 1922 with the election of Pope Pius XI. The Pope lost confidence in conservative political parties to represent the church, and so he shifted the Church's emphasis to social witness. The Church shifted its role in politics towards an indirect influence. The Church would focus her energies on an active laity that were formed "in the principles and values of which the Church is the custodian" (45). The development of Catholic Action groups spread throughout Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s and produced a new generation of Catholic reformers and progessives. Jacques Maritain became the influential voice of New Christendom. The New Christendom that emerged during this time viewed the Church as "a moral and spiritual force that works at the level of the human heart, not at the level of politics... a sort of leaven of the temporal realm" (48). Thus, a New Christendom ecclesiology favored "a withdrawal of the Church from the temporal realm of politics" (48). With regards to this shift, Bell states,
"At the heart of this vision was the desire to sever the ties between the Church and the status quo by withdrawing the Church from direct involvement in the political realm. As a consequence of the Church's evacuation of the temporal realm in favor of an indirect, moral influence, the state was left as the uncontested overseer of the political realm. Politics was a matter of statecraft" (51).
2) The Liberationists Partial Rejection of New Christendom.
Following World War II, capitalism mutated dramatically, and the reform movements supported by New Christendom floundered. The Latin American states also went through a dramatic shift in the 1960s as new, more authoritarian regimes rose to power. These new regimes had little time or desire to effect reform, but were instead concerned with warfare and national security. Violence replaced reform in many Latin American countries. At the same time, many Catholic students and priests became very concerned with the plight of the poorest of the poor in Latin America. As this group of priests and students witnessed the horrors of poverty, they began to challenge New Christendom's withdrawal from politics and called for a much more radical Christian commitment to the poor. Out of this movement, liberation theology was born. Gustavo Gutierrez develops the idea of the Gospel's preferential option for the poor and for the Church of the poor.

Bell critiques liberation theology for not pushing far enough. The liberationists recognized clearly that the Gospels quite clearly have political and social implications; however, liberation theology never fully breaks from the moorings of New Christendom ecclesiology. Indeed, Bell states,
"The liberationists' break with New Christendom did not include a rejection of New Christendom's vision of an apolitical (indirectly political) Church and politics as statecraft" (65).
Instead, the liberationists' hope is to create a Church that recognizes the plight of the poor and calls upon the State to work for justice for her poorest citizens. "The state remains the great hope countering the depredations of the capitalist order" (70). The ultimate failure of liberation theology is its failure to realize that capitalism is "not simply an economic system that has escaped its proper domain and can be reined back in by the state" (44). In making this mistake, the liberationists continue to "define the church within the limits of the secular order" (72).

I will close this section with an outstanding quote from Bell and with an apology because there are many intricacies and details that I am glossing over. Here is the quote:
"Liberationists fail to appreciate how savage capitalism, through the neoliberal art of governmentality, renders even the 'free space' of civil society a form of discipline and control. In this era of global capitalism, when Coca-Cola and Nike find their way into every nook and cranny of the earth well ahead of clean water, roads, and life-sustaining diets, far from furthering the cause of liberation and life, civil society can only be a means of discipline, an instrument in of the regnant capitalist order for overcoming resistance and forming desire in its own image. Indeed, by opting for civil society, Latin American liberationists reflect a commitment to the same insufficiently radical vision that led them to the point of crisis at the 'end of history' in the first place, namely, a vision of a Church that traffics in abstract values and apolitical options while the state is granted sovereignty over the social, political, and economic field" (70).
3) What does this mean for us today?
As I read Bell's arguments about the failures of liberationist ecclesiology, I cannot help but see our own ecclesial context in the same light, if not worse. At least the liberationists called for social justice, an end to poverty, and worked to feed the poor. In most Western countries today, Bell's critique (at least for protestants) would sound strange. Why would the church involve itself in "secular" politics? How could the Church do anything else but form the private morality of the state's citizens?

Bell calls for a radically different ecclesiology. He states that "the Church is a public that, short of emasculation, cannot inhabit the private, apolitical space assigned to it as a prison cell by modernity" (73). He argues, "that refusing politics as statecraft and reclaiming the Church as a fully social, political, economic reality in its own right may establish it as a genuine site of resistance to capitalist discipline" (43). Tomorrow we will begin to examine the scope of this ecclesial vision put forward by Bell.


Blogger St.Phransus said...

this post makes me think of oscar romero. he was so reluctant to become a liberationist and once he did, he did it in such a way that it was an ecclesiological movement and not defined by secularity.

do be murdered by the state while serving eucharist is such a dramatic symbol for his liberationist vision. i wonder what dan bell's thoughts on romero are?

thanks scott, this is great stuff.

November 23, 2005 12:19 PM  
Blogger Scott said...


Bell appears to see in Romero some early moves towards forgiveness as the refusal to cease suffering. On pp. 166-167, Bell refers to Romero identifying the poor of Latin America as a crucified people. On p. 192, he talks about Romero identifying the Church's location to be as crucified alongside these poor.

It makes you wonder how Romero's memory is appropriated by various communities. In one sense, he fits in perfectly with Bell's vision and Cavanaugh's vision in Torture and Eucharist. In another sense, he seems to be appropriated quite a bit by secular and liberal reformers who focus only on his social action, and miss the deep sacramentality he was committed to.

November 23, 2005 12:29 PM  
Blogger St.Phransus said...

YES YES definitely!! I wonder if that's because we've not had the ecclesial language of RO to do justice to Romero's form of liberation.

although he sympathized with the liberationist priest after having witnessed the oppression of the poor in his parish, he disagreed with how they expressed a liberation perspective.

But in a lot of ways- he is THE PRACTICAL LIBERATION THEOLOGIAN par excellence.

November 23, 2005 3:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home