Ahead of national elections, Colombian bishops call for strengthening democracy

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[Editor’s Note: This is the eleventh in a series of articles by Inés San Martín exploring the state of the Catholic Church in Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America. The 10th can be found here.]

ROSARIO, Argentina – This week, the more than 90 prelates of the Bishops’ Conference of Colombia held their first meeting of 2022, and discussed the upcoming presidential elections.

“Colombians are living a crucial moment in the history of our nation,” says the statement. “The serious social problems that persist – such as inequality, corruption, the devastating action of drug trafficking, poverty and violence – call for the strengthening of our democratic system and a common commitment to the integral development of the entire population.”

During the four days of work, the prelates listened to the witness of several of their peers who have “confirmed to us the dramatic situations that are being experienced in their regions.”

One of them was Bishop Rubén Darío Jaramillo of the port city of Buenaventura, who has received several death threats in recent months for denouncing the increased activity of armed groups in the country.

“Various illegal actors (ELN guerrillas, FARC dissidents, clan of the Gulf and others) want to take over the territories, forcing internal migration of populations,” Bishop Luis Manuel Alí, secretary general of the conference and auxiliary bishop of Bogotá, told Crux on Thursday. These groups finance themselves through “drug trafficking, micro-trafficking and illegal mining, all of these realities that are increasing.”

A woman speaks near an image of our Lady of Guadalupe as people demonstrate against removing abortion from the penal code, in Bogota, Colombia, Nov. 18, 2021. Abortion is currently a crime punishable by between one and four years in prison. (Credit: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters via CNS.)

He said the country is currently in the scenario of “very complex situations of public order,” in many regions including Arauca and Tibu, on the border with Venezuela, where criminal gangs of both countries fight over territories where they want to plant illegal crops.

“For this reason, we saw a priority to invite all citizens to commit ourselves to the exercise of democracy; and politicians to exercise leadership motivated by the common good and service to the new generations and the poor,” said the prelate, who is also a member of the Vatican’s Commission for the Protection of Minors.

Bishop Juan Carlos Cardenas of Pasto, a diocese in western Colombia that has many rural territories also coveted by the armed groups, told Crux that the bishops have “repeatedly called for the structural problems that perpetuate the evils that systematically afflict the nation to be addressed.” 

He also sees a need for political leaders to “focus on long-term programs rather than on personal confrontations; to dissociate themselves from the cancer of corruption and to think first and foremost about the best interests of the nation and the common good of all Colombians.”

As a counterpart, citizens are called to be responsible while exercising their democratic rights, Cardenas said.

Among the topics being put forth by some presidential candidates are abortion and euthanasia, both permitted in Colombia, but with strong restrictions.

“St. Paul reminds us that we must preach in season and out of season, with or without opportunity,” Cardenas said when asked about these life issues. “Beyond such punctual discussions, there is something more fundamental: The relativization of the value of life.”

“As pastors we cannot remain silent when this fundamental value is called into question: to defend and care for human life in all its stages and situations,” he said. “Life from the moment it is conceived, and as it is ending. But we are also called to speak up in defense of the right to life of peasants, of ethnic communities, and the life of a citizen that is taken away during a robbery because of a cell phone or a bicycle.”

“I believe that we must be unconditional missionaries of the gospel of life,” Cardenas said.

The bishops’ assembly also discussed how the national consultation for the Synod of Bishops on Synodality will be carried out. The theme for the Feb. 14-18 summit was “The journey together of the Church in Colombia,” and the meeting was lived in “a spirit of synodality, listening to one another, and discerning what the Spirit is saying to our Church,” Ali said.

In addition, several Colombian Catholics took part in November’s Ecclesial Assembly of Latin America, held in Mexico, and their experiences and conclusions were also shared, particularly those of the laity.

“One of our priorities for the next triennium is to insist on the effective leadership of the laity in the particular churches,” Ali said. “For us, the ministry of the catechist is fundamental in so many areas where we do not have ordained ministers. And of course, the vast majority of our catechists are women.”

Cardenas agreed on synodality being the spirit of this assembly, arguing that the local bishops have “allowed ourselves to be permeated by the pope’s call to listen.”

“Beyond responding to the pope’s call on this road to the universal synod, it is a good exercise for us to renew our episcopal fraternity and collegiality,” he said. “In this spirit, we would be better set to lead from the experience and the testimony of a Church in Colombia animated by the spirit of the synod.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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