Comblin envisioned a new Catholic priesthood

Renowned theologian, advocate of the poor, dies in Brazil

National Catholic Reporter

April 15, 2011



Fr. Joseph Comblin, a renowned theologian and advocate of the poor, died March 27 in Salvador, Brazil, of natural causes. He was 88.

The Belgian-born theologian leaves a legacy of a vast body of work in several genres, along with a distinctive model of how to live the theological priestly vocation.

Comblin, a leading exponent of liberation theology, was once a follower and an advisor to Archbishop Helder Cāmara of Recife, Brazil. Because of Cāmara's defense of human rights and advocacy of the church's option for the poor, the right-wing military dictatorships that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 labeled Cāmara and his associates Marxist sympathizers.

I got to know Comblin during a short course on the theology of development in 1968 at the Latin American Pastoral Institute in Quito, Ecuador. While there, he was informed that the Brazilian military dictatorship was not going to allow him to reenter the country.

A background paper Comblin had written for Cāmara in preparation for the 1968 meeting of the Latin American Episcopal Conference at Medellin, Colombia, had been leaked to the press and Comblin was being denounced as a foreign subversive advocating "revolution."

Actually the paper was not a manifesto but a sober discussion of what "revolution," then widely discussed throughout the continent, might entail for the church. After discussion between bishops and the military, Comblin was able to return to Brazil within a few weeks.

To see Comblin up close -- slow of speech, mild-mannered, even shy, steeped in scripture, history, and theology -- made it all the more surprising that he should be considered dangerous. The incident, however, captures some key aspects of his way of working: by 1968 he was not teaching in classrooms but joining Cāmara and others in pastoral work, and his primary concern was how the church should act in the world.

Comblin was born in Brussels in 1923, entered the seminary after high school, and studied theology at he University of Louvain, Belgium, in the 1940s. He received a doctorate and served in a parish for a number of years. Chafing at the conventional routines of Belgian Catholicism and society, he volunteered in 1958 to work in Brazil. He would later explain his move as wanting to experience a "church with a future."

"Theology of the hoe"

In 1969 at the Theological Institute of Recife, Comblin spearheaded a new way of training for priesthood. Rather than living in a seminary and taking the usual courses, the young men, themselves from rural families, lived in a community, farming in the morning, studying in the afternoon, and doing pastoral activity in the evening.

Their first year of study was built around exploration of "everyday realities" explored in dialogue with the people. The first topic was casa("house"): they observed how houses were built, who lived there, people's activities, and what the house meant to the people. They would consider various meanings of house or dwelling in scripture, and then confront scripture with people's traditional ideas -- for example, asking to what extent God dwells in the church building, and to what extent in human beings, families, or communities.

Other topics considered in the initial year included land, labor, male-female relations. The other three year-long course took up Jesus Christ, the church and morality, always starting from the people's own perceptions.

Underlying this project was a conviction that the issue in Latin America was not so much clerical celibacy or a priest shortage, but the model of ministry. Priests were often foreign, and even when they were natives, years of seminary education and clerical culture had alienated them from the ordinary people. This "theology of the hoe" was aimed at developing a new model of priests.

The candidates were trained to delve into their culture and to apply scripture to it; they did not study the usual seminary courses in systematic theology, which are largely the result of controversies from centuries past. Some priests were ordained from the program, and a similar program was started in Chile, but the entire approach was closed down under pressure from the Vatican. As of the 1980s Comblin's major activity was training lay missionaries from poor rural communities throughout northeast Brazil.

In 1972, Brazil's military government finally succeeded in preventing Comblin from reentering Brazil. He moved to Chile, then ruled by the socialist government of Salvador Allende. He kept a low profile did not have to flee when Chile's military staged a coup in September 1973.

He began to study the practice and ideology of the military regimes then in power in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere, and published articles analyzing these regimes and raising the question of the church's response.

A version in English, The Church and the National Security State (1979) was based on his lectures at Harvard Divinity School. His argument was not simply a protest against the practices of these regimes, (torture and "disappearance"), but was a theological critique of the ideology they used as justification. It was perhaps these writings that prompted the Chilean junta leader Augusto Pinochet to likewise deny him reentry in 1980. Comblin was later able to return to Brazil, where he worked for another three decades.

Comblin published approximately 65 books and well over 300 articles, spanning several genres, primarily in Portuguese, Spanish, and French. Most distinctive may be a series of large studies of what his Louvain professor Gustave Thils called "theologies of earthly realities": theologies of peace, the city, nation and nationalism, and revolution.

Théologie de la Ville (1968), for example, is a sprawling work combining biblical theology, scholarship on urban history and city planning, considerations of the church's relationship to the city, and the pastoral challenges of the contemporary city.

Many of his articles and books address pastoral matters directly: popular religion, education, models of ministry, secularization. Some works addressed theological issues -- for example, the theology of mission or of Christian universality. What he did not write were treatises typical of systematic theology: Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, sacraments.

Comblin's writing is often contrarian. In 1961, when Latin America was believed to have an extreme priest shortage, he wrote that Brazil had a vocation to send missionaries to other lands. In 1990 when theologians were writing glowingly about base communities, he raised a number of serious questions about what was happening in pastoral practice -- for example, the dependency of lay people on priests or sisters -- even though he had been an early advocate of the communities.

Comblin often ranged widely over church history, examining how the church had responded to the challenges of different eras. A persistent theme is that of freedom, the freedom brought by Jesus and Paul, and yet its frequent stifling, even within the church.

Although his articles appeared in Concilium and other theological journals, Comblin is not particularly known in the theological guild. He tends to be classified among the Latin American liberation theologians, and he was involved in their collective work from early meetings with Gustavo Gutierrez and others starting around 1964. However, I suspect that the main reason that he is not more widely known and studied is that many of his writings do not fit neatly into the usual categories of theological work.

To reveal the Gospel

For close to a half century Comblin lived in rural towns; far from research libraries, he was dependent on books he gathered over the years. He did not drive; he traveled by bus.

There is something paradoxical about Comblin's life: writing dozens of books and hundreds of articles, while working with poor people in rural areas, who may be literate but are not his reading public. A key to the paradox is he believed that a major service that theology can provide to the church's mission is to help strip away the accretions of history to reveal the Gospel in its simplicity, especially for the poor.

In recent years Comblin's view of the possibilities of the Catholic church turned increasingly bleak. He saw that the generation of bishops with whom he had worked, men with strong personalities, able to take initiatives, were replaced by Vatican loyalists when they retired or died.

In a talk at the Central American University in San Salvador, El Salvador, last October he made a distinction between the Gospel and religion. "Jesus did not found a religion, he didn't establish rites, teach doctrines," Comblin said. Religion is a human creation. "When did religion enter Christianity? ... When Jesus became an object of worship."

With Constantine the clergy became a class set apart. Christian history itself is the story of the contradiction between those who are devoted to the Gospel and those who are devoted to religion. Religion seeks secular power; the Gospel refuses power.

These are certainly not original ideas, but Comblin was stating them with a simplicity and radical thrust.

He advised people in the audience to realize that church history is subject to periods of institutional retrenchement, pointing to the 1950s, when he was young and Pius XII had just condemned various schools of theology -- which then became the basis for Vatican II.

Comblin was buried near the grave of Padre José Antonio de Maria Ibiapina, a 19th-century priest who did missionary work in northeast Brazil, spreading the faith but also helping peasants improve their agriculture. Tributes poured in from his fellow theologians, bishops, priests, and religious and lay people in Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere.

[Phillip Berryman, a pastoral worker in Panama from 1965 to 1973, lived in Central America until 1980. He is an alumnus of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, California. He and his wife Angie have three young adult daughters.]