The secularization of culture has come late to Latin America. Though most of the governments claim to be secular (laico), this designation comes from nineteenth century liberalism. (Note “liberal” in this sense means “freedom from”; US liberals and conservatives are both “liberals” in this sense.)
Yet, in many countries religious still plays a major role in politics and culture. For example, few national politicians here in Honduras would miss the Mass on February 3 of Our Lady of Suyapa, patroness of Honduras (and of the Honduran armed forces). In February 2014, the newly inaugurated president was there and even gave a radio frequency to the Catholic Church; soon after this, he invited major evangelical leaders to pray at the Presidential Palace.
But the religious hold on politics and culture on Latin America is breaking up. You can see some of this in the legislative proposals on same-sex marriage and abortion in some countries.
Some would suggest that many Latin Americans still live in a pre-modern culture, where religion and belief in God are central and the church is the “glue” that keeps society together.
Some liberation theologians have been critical of this situation and suggest that much of Latin America (and the Latin American Church) maintains a “Christendom” mentality, where the church rules.
Yet, as the bishops maintain in paragraph 44, “We are living through a change of epoch, the deepest level of which is cultural.”
The changes are related to globalization. In Latin America you can hear US music and find advanced technology everywhere; Coca-Cola and Blackberries can be found in remote villages.
But the cultural change which the bishops note as most troubling is the secularization of culture: “The all-embracing conception of the human being, in relationship with the world and with God is vanishing.”
Quoting Pope Benedict’s Inaugural Address at Aparecida, they present a rather dire prediction.
This was precisely the great error of the dominant tendencies of the last century . . . Anyone who excludes God from his horizons falsifies the notion of “reality” and, in consequence, can only end up in blind alleys or with recipes for destruction.
But, one might ask, does this mean that the unbeliever who is seeking for the truth really falsify “the notion of ‘reality’”? Pablo Richard sees this as a type of “fundamentalism” that “excludes and belittles the non-believer.”
After echoing Pope Benedict’s analysis that the major problem is the exclusion of God, the bishops offer a deeper analysis, looking at radical individualism as a major challenge to the culture.
Today an overvaluing of individual subjectivity is very much to the fore. The freedom and dignity of the person are acknowledged, regardless of the form they take. Individualism weakens community bonds and proposes a radical transformation of time and space, granting a primary role to imagination. Social, economic, and technological phenomena are at the foundation of the deep experience of time which is conceived as riveted on the present, thereby implying notions of insubstantiality and instability. Concern for the common good is set aside to make way for the immediate satisfaction of the desires of individuals, to the creation of new, and often arbitrary individual rights, to problems of sexuality, the family, diseases, and death. (Emphasis mine)
For the bishops individualism and a notion of freedom based on individualism are major threats to the culture and an emphasis on the community.
I think it is true that the radical individualism which much of globalization flaunts does weaken community bonds and undermines concern for the common good.
The human person and her/his rights are important for the bishops, but they must be related to the common good. A Catholic anthropology of the person as social, as one who is realized in community is central to the Latin American bishops understanding of rights.
The bishops are not opposed to rights and the dignity of the human person, but they are wary of “arbitrary individual rights” that are not related to the common good and to the protection of life. This will become clearer in paragraph 47.
The English translation often uses the word “individual” to translate “persona” – person – or “cada uno” – each one. At times “individual” is used to translate the Spanish adjective “individual.” I think this reflects how strongly the liberal notion of “individual” pervades the English-speaking world and how pertinent is the Latin American bishops’ critique of individualism.
Here is the USCCB translation of the 2007 document from the Aparecida Conference.