Frei Betto OP
In the Latin American continent Dominican theology has to have as its starting point the values of the Gospel and a situation marked by poverty and oppression. The basis for theology is the faith of the Christian communities, and here most of them are composed of victims of social injustices. This is why we talk about liberation theology, the product of the liberating action of Christians committed to the values of the Kingdom of God, values opposed to all that is meant by the ‘kingdom of Caesar’.
A Dominican theology coming from this context bears in mind that all of us Christians are disciples of a political prisoner. Jesus did not die ill in bed. Like so many Latin American martyrs, he was arrested, tortured, tried by two political powers and condemned to death on the cross. In a system of injustices and inequalities like ours, ‘persecution for justice’s sake’ turns out to be a beatitude, for it defines which side Jesus’ disciples take in the social conflict.
One of the challenges facing the Dominican family in Latin America is that of having Jesus’ faith, and not just faith in Jesus. Jesus’ faith was focused on fidelity to the programme of the Kingdom of God, which is to ensure that ‘all may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10), and this programme is above all the work of the poor and the excluded with whom Jesus identified (Matt. 25:31-46), as Pope Francis insists so strongly.
A Dominican theology from Latin America must be an instrument and a light to strengthen our preaching and our Gospel witness. It keeps in mind the three commitments that define our vocation and our charism: (1) to fight for justice and for a society in which the goods of the Earth and the fruits of human labour are shared (poverty); (2) faithfulness to Saint Dominic’s charism (obedience); (3) free self-giving in the surrender of our lives in love and solidarity to all, especially those who lack decent living conditions (chastity).
Theology will not have credibility unless it reflects the testimonies of our sisters and brothers who went before us in the mission to bring the Gospel to Latin America and in the spirit of the Gospel defended the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples, slaves, peasants, workers and the excluded. These were Antonio de Montesinos, Antonio de Valdivieso, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Pedro de Córdoba, Rose of Lima, Martin de Porres, Brother Tito de Alencar Lima, and so many more who left the mark of their blood and Gospel commitment on the history of our continent.
It was in this faithfulness to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life that the Dominican brothers came to Brazil early in the 19th century. First they centred their apostolic mission where life was threatened, thanks to the constant genocide and the lack of a policy to protect them, among the indigenous peoples.
Later, in the middle of the 20th century, the Dominican apostolate made its priority the world of students, through the Catholic Action movements for secondary and university students (YCS). Peace comes as the fruit of justice, and so it was an urgent task to invest in the new generations which, untrammelled by property or family responsibilities, were able to get involved in the programme of establishing justice.
The perspective of the theology of sin switched from the individual to the social. The method adopted – See, Judge, Act – corresponded to the Dominican charism of coming to terms with the world around us, evaluating it in the light of the Word of God, and taking action to transform it by dismantling the world of injustice, inequality and oppression and building the world of justice that could create the conditions for peace to flourish.
In response to the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 and the worsening of Brazilian social conditions, together with the renewal of the Catholic Church inaugurated by the Second Vatican Council, the Dominicans adopted as their missionary priority the defence of the rights of the poorest and the recovery of democratic freedoms.
Some brothers engaged in direct resistance to the dictatorship and as a result suffered long years of imprisonment, while others entered the world of the poor, in the spirit of the ‘option for the poor’, in order to make the lower classes the leaders in the establishment of the right to justice and the conditions for peace.
So, in Brazil, the Dominican Justice and Peace Commission has become a ‘sacramental’ expression of the priorities chosen by the Order and the women’s congregations, and of the commitment of brothers, Dominican women, and lay Dominicans to the popular movements engaged in the search for ‘different possible worlds’.