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THERE is consensus that capitalism has served humanity. It encouraged, for example, the use of energy and creativity to develop new products that helped everyone, rich and poor alike. Quick examples would include noodles, canned goods and cell phones, among other common pandemic fare.
But there is also consensus, especially among students of social development, that capitalism has created conditions that gave rise to income inequalities and that the gap between the rich and the poor have widened as countries grew economically, fueled by the industrial revolution that started in the mid-1700s. According to Oxfam International, “the world’s richest 1 percent have more than twice as much wealth as 6.9 billion people.” In the Philippines today, it is estimated that the richest 10 percent of the population controls 90 percent of the nation’s wealth.
The Catholic Church since the 1891 Rerum Novarum encyclical has warned prophetically that social ills multiply where income disparities abound. In Populorum Progressio (The Progress of Peoples, 1967) Pope Paul 6th proposed that “development is the new name for peace” and warned of conflicts if inequalities remained unchecked. Human development needed to be addressed from an integral and holistic perspective rather than on the sole basis of economic factors.
Elsewhere, Marxist revolutions were shaking the social order in many countries. Half the world has embraced the promise of social emancipation from the oppressive yoke of capitalism. Marxist ideas gained traction even among theologians in the Catholic Church.
The legacy of Catholic lay leaders in the United States such as Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Cesar Chavez, along with Father Daniel Berrigan, remains relevant for Catholic activists today.
Pope John Paul II’s mention of “preferential option for the poor” in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (The Social Concern of the Church, 1987) brings to mind the ripples generated by “liberation theology,” which has been credited with having popularized the expression “preferential option for the poor.”
In the 1960s right after the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965), Latin American theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and Jesuit priests such as Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino, the main proponents of liberation theology, inspired movements that concretized the Catholic Church’s marching orders for its foot warriors to “immerse in human affairs.”
Although discredited by the Vatican for its Marxist leanings, liberation theology inspired “theologies of liberation” in other parts of the world, such as “black theology” in the United States and South Africa, or Palestinian liberation theology. Liberation theology also significantly influenced the social organization of the Church, such as in the formation of basic ecclesial communities, or BECs.
In the Philippines, BECs have taken shape right after Vatican 2, especially in some parts of Mindanao. In 1991, the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP 2) decreed that “basic ecclesial communities under various names and forms — BCCs, small Christian communities, covenant communities — must be vigorously promoted for the full living of the Christian vocation in both urban and rural areas.”
And what were the BECs supposed to do?
While the Church, in the practice of its social teachings, had been active in labor movements, peasant and agrarian reform movements, urban poor movements, as well as in the protection of the environment, all of which have often been in conflict with vested interests in government, the framework for engaging whole communities in social action was not clear to all. The BECs apparently aimed to correct that.
PCP 2 described the BECs as “small communities of Christian usually of families who gather around the Word of God and the Eucharist. These communities are united to their pastors but are ministered to regularly by lay leaders. The members know each other by name and share not only the Word of God and the Eucharist but also their concerns both material and spiritual. They have a strong sense of belongingness and responsibility for one another.” (PCP 2 138)
But gray areas remained. In an article, Father Amado L. Picardal, CSsR, wrote:
“In the 1980s, it was fashionable to classify BECs into liturgical, development and liberational models. The BCC-CO program was known for promoting a more liberational/militant model of BECs and regarded other BEC models promoted by the MSPC and BEC-Service Office as liturgical models — and hence more conservative and traditional. Those espousing the liberational model were suspected of having ideological agenda.”
Many dioceses, especially in areas where conflicts have been stoked by environmental (e.g. logging and mining) or agrarian issues, have lost their pastors to the communist insurgency. Many of them, like those who resisted military dictatorships in Latin America, also ended up losing their lives. The Diocese of Calbayog (Western Samar), for example, had to rebrand its social action unit as “Caritas Calbayog,” because many of the local priests have gone underground in response to widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by the military. Juan Ponce Enrile, the defense secretary at the time, owned logging companies that operated in Western Samar.
Catholic priests also figured prominently as social activists in other areas, such as in the two Negros provinces where agrarian conflicts have been restless. Red-tagging and repression — something which the present government may learn from the Marcos government — have forced them and fellow social activists to go underground. The lesson that violence can only create more problems than it seeks to overcome may need to be relearned, especially by one who is given power by the state to make things happen not only for the common good, but also in the service of promoting individual rights and human dignity.