The continuing decline of base communities in Latin America is tied more to the changing nature of politics and peoples’ movements than internal church policies or conservative leadership, according to the National Catholic Reporter (Nov. 12). Base communities, small groups based on social action and Christian reflection, were seen as the embodiment of liberation theology and the radicalization of the Latin American church two decades ago.
Since the early 1990s, many of the communities have either stagnated or declined, with many supporters blaming the flank of new conservative bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II. But the decline and malaise in the communities was experienced in other popular or peoples movements as military regimes were defeated while economic problems increased. Throughout the region, those who report a decline in the base communities often note that yesterday’s leaders are no longer present. In Brazil, much of the communities’ leadership was lost to secular popular movements.
“The decline in the communities came not as a result of ecclesiastical repression, but rather from history moving on, leaving the base communities…behind as a now obsolete nursery of the current crop of leftist political leaders,” write Barbara Fraser and Paul Jeffrey. This is particularly true of the ascendancy of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and his Workers Party to power, which “in a certain sense means that political hope has displaced eschatological hope and that has had a negative impact on the [base communities],” says Brazilian sociologist Jose de Souza Martins.
The communities in rural areas do seem stronger, attracting both men and women, than those in cities, according to research by sociologist Madeleine Cousineau. Activism continues to be generated by base communities; in Nicaragua they are involved in ministry to sex workers and anti-corruption campaigns. In Honduras, where leadership takes the form of lay pastors and shows a more stable structure, the communities have been important in the country’s environmental movement.
(National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 41928, Kansas City, MO 64141)