Between Liberation Theology and Indigenous Catholicism: Theological and Pastoral Innovation and Conflict in Southern Mexico, 1969–90

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:50 PM
Water Tower Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Eben Levey, University of Maryland, College Park
On November 19, 1990, Bishop Rivera Carrera of Puebla suspended all activities in the Seminario Regional del Sureste (SERESURE). SERESURE opened in 1969 as a project of the bishops of the Región Pacífico-Sur, comprised of all the dioceses in Chiapas and Oaxaca, aiming to specifically train seminarians to minister in their regional reality: poor, indigenous, and historically underserved by the Catholic Church. Yet the pastoral and theological projects nurtured in the seminary, indigenous and liberationist, chafed against the reactionary swing of the global Church in the 1980s. A report from Rome, sent only months before the seminary's closure, accused the seminary of philosophical studies "impregnated with a Marxist cosmovision" and theological studies with "a clear line of Liberation Theology." Seminary leadership was, the authors contended, training priests to be "agents of social change... using the revolutionary methodology of class struggle."

On one hand this paper examines the history of SERESURE as a window into the innovation and turmoil within the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. It illuminates the tension between center and periphery, the perceived heterodoxy of Liberation Theology and the still-nascent Indigenous Theology, and the contested acceptability of syncretic indigenous religiosity. On the other hand, the history of SERESURE was intensely Mexican. Activist clergy and laity looked beyond their local and national borders for political and pastoral inspiration. Yet they ultimately endeavored to accompany an indigenous Catholic laity who demanded that the Church incorporate indigenous religiosities and cosmovisions, translate the liturgy into indigenous languages, and challenge entrenched power structures of caciquismo and economic exploitation. This paper explores the pastoral and theological projects of SERESURE that advanced alternative ways of being Catholic and indigenous in spite of Vatican disapproval, and argues that these projects constituted a meeting of the radical projects of Liberation Theology, indigenous rights movements, and multicultural (neo)liberalism.