The Church and social justice in Latin America – lessons for Uganda

We are taught that the earth was created with enough resources to be shared fairly so that everyone meets basic human needs of food, clothing, shelter and healthcare through the instruments of equal opportunity, education and employment. In reality justice or fairness has not occurred. Through various imperfections resource allocation has been skewed in favor of a few at the expense of the many, leading to social injustice and a failure to eradicate poverty. To achieve justice, communities at national and international levels need to address the issues of basic needs, personal dignity, solidarity and social structures as called for in Christian writings on Justice and peace (Joseph Stoutzenberger1987). The Catholic Church has been one of the leading champions in promoting a just world. As early as 1891, Pope Leo XIII stressed the rights and conditions of workers.

The colonial and neocolonial history of Latin America, a vast area with a wide range of resources, distributed resources inequitably that Indians and Blacks were grossly disadvantaged. The Catholic Church got concerned about the degree of social injustice in Latin America and other regions and resolved to do something about it through social reform. Through the “Reawakening” of the Church, Pope John XXIII, initiated bold social reforms and called for addressing the global challenge of economic inequality. His proposals were approved at the meetings (1962-65) of the Second Vatican Council. The Pope called on the ‘pastoral’ mission of Catholics around the world to care for the needy and underprivileged. The clergy and faithful would take an active role in economic and social reform to empower the poor and oppressed. Meanwhile, state welfare policies were encouraged and the faithful were called upon to establish organizations through which to work toward peaceful eradication of human suffering.

This call ‘to all people of goodwill’ to work toward peace and social justice resonated very well in Latin America. In 1968, all Latin American bishops met to agree on a strategy to implement the decisions of the Second Vatican Council. Until then the Catholic Church had been conservative and a champion of the status quo, preaching obedience to the state and deference to the social elite. Pope John XXIII’s “reawakening” changed all that. Pope Paul VI also called for steps to be taken to address economic, social and human rights challenges.

Liberation of the poor took center stage of the Catholic Church’s work. Village priests found it increasingly difficult to preach eternal salvation while ignoring economic, social and political violence meted out to their parishioners. A report prepared for the conference denounced social and economic inequalities. It proposed that the Church should exercise a preferential treatment of the poor, adding that Christian theology should make a commitment to construct a just society.

The conference gave birth to Liberation Theology to apply the Good News of Jesus and Church’s social teachings to address the challenges of exploitation, repression and abject poverty in Latin America. This approach followed in the footsteps of work pioneered by Bartolome De Las Casas. The Church would become the voice of the voiceless. Liberation Theology also influenced papal announcements. During his visits to Latin America and other regions, Pope John Paul II discussed church teachings on justice and the situation of poor people. Through its work, Liberation Theology has played a vital role in political change not only in Latin America but in other poor countries, helping in the transitional process from dictatorship to representative democracy.

With reference to Brazil, the 1968 conference of Latin American bishops was followed by the establishment of religious associations (cebs) that undertook local reform measures including in the political area. During the military dictatorship in the 1970s these associations were the only mass political movement in the country. Many bishops spoke out openly against injustice, calling for peaceful social reform. Popular demands for better economic and social conditions in Latin America focused on activities of military and civilian dictators. “By the late 1980s, all the dictators had vanished. Most were forced to resign as a result of popular opposition to their repressive policies and, often, as a consequence of their inability to cope with a growing financial and economic crisis” (Daniel. R. Brower 2002).

What are the lessons for Uganda? Uganda, like Latin America, has a wide range of resources sufficient to provide every Ugandans with an adequate standard of living. However, like in Latin America, a few Ugandans have accumulated so much wealth at the expense of the majority who are trapped in absolute poverty and kept silent by a repressive and dictatorial regime in the name of maintaining law and order to inter alia attract foreign investors. Corruption, sectarianism and mismanagement have driven economic (outside of Kampala), social and ecological systems to the brink of collapse. Slow economic growth far below the minimum level to meet the MDGs, neglect of agriculture that supports some 90 percent of Ugandans, youth unemployment in excess of 80 percent, collapsing education and health systems and spreading desertification conditions and absolute poverty of over 50 percent, call for a ‘reawakening’ of church leaders and the faithful in Uganda similar to what happened in Latin America after the Second Vatican Council meetings of 1962-65.

Leaders of all Faiths need to map to out a clear strategy to speak out for the voiceless and empower them to end suffering silently under the weight of military dictatorship. A new political, economic and social agenda is needed urgently. The work that has begun is commendable. But more needs to be done to overcome poverty and associated ills. To this end, a true representative democracy underpinned by presidential term limits and an independent electoral commission are prerequisites. And Uganda’s religious leaders are best placed to champion this cause.

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