SAN MIGUEL, Argentina — Resisting pressure from political and social sectors, Catholic bishops of the Southern Common Market — known as Mercosur — have decided on a moderate, even hopeful statement regarding the possibilities of globalization and continental economic integration.

For the third time since Mercosur was created 10 years ago, the bishops of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia — Chilean bishops did not attend because the meeting coincided with the country's national feast day — gathered in San Miguel, near the Argentinean capital, to evaluate the effects of globalization and free trade in the region.

Unlike previous gatherings, the meeting on Sept. 16-18 took place while the region, including the two “big partners” — Argentina and Brazil — is undergoing a deep economic and social crisis that many leaders blame on the attempt to free the economy.

The approximately 25 South American bishops who arrived in Buenos Aires were under extreme pressure to issue a highly critical position against the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Continental Free Trade Agreement (known as ALCA) proposed by the United States and against globalization in general.

In fact, before the meeting, Hugo Moyano, president of one of the largest Argentinean workers’ unions, sent a letter “in the name of the Argentinean workers” demanding the bishops openly reject ALCA and globalization.

The delegates of Brazil, the world's largest episcopate, arrived at the meeting shortly after expressing great skepticism about ALCA and calling for a referendum “to let the Brazilian people decide” if the largest Latin American country should join the U.S.-sponsored proposal.

The Argentinean episcopate issued a statement prior to the meeting explaining that the bishops would gather “to analyze the radical abyss between rich and poor, the increasing process of social exclusion and the failure of a policy which, under the name of ‘neo-liberalism,’ has destroyed our economies and deeply damaged our social structure.”

Nevertheless, they made it clear that “as bishops, we will provide a pastoral perspective, inspired by the Gospel, in order to see both the challenges and opportunities for the new evangelization.”

‘Opportunities’

Sergio Rubín, political commentator of the daily Clarín, predicted the day before the meeting that “this time, the bishops will not be able to make general remarks about the social teachings of the Church but will have to take a critical stand toward ALCA, regarded by many as a new neo-liberal project.”

But Rubín was wrong.

In fact, the bishops came up with a balanced document, in which although critical of international organizations such as IMF, they admit globalization “may bring better opportunities.”

Moreover, the bishops concentrated their firepower on the local corruption and the incompetence of the region's political and economic leadership.

A source attending the event, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “At the beginning of the meeting, the environment was clearly very anti-globalization, especially on the part of the Brazilian and Bolivian delegates.”

Nevertheless, according to the source, the intervention of two lay experts invited by the bishops, Brazilian ambassador to Argentina José Botafogo Gonçalves and Uruguayan intellectual Alberto Methol Ferré, was decisive in changing the environment.

“Both Mr. Gonçalves and I explained that globalization is both a challenge and an opportunity, and that it will become whatever we, as Catholics, make of it, as long as we participate in shaping it,” Methol Ferré said.

According to Methol Ferré, Gonçalves made clear to the bishops that “there is no place for isolated economies in the world, and a strong regional organization like Mercosur is not necessarily opposed to a more global agreement such as ALCA.”

“On the contrary, they could interact in a beneficial way,” Methol Ferré said.

U.S. and Globalization

According to the source, Archbishop Estanislao Karlic of Paraná, president of the Argentinean Bishops’ Conference, argued strongly against an anti-globalization position by quoting Pope John Paul II's 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America.

Said the Pope, “The ethical implications [of globalization] can be positive or negative. There is an economic globalization which brings some positive consequences, such as efficiency and increased production and which, with the development of economic links between the different countries, can help to bring greater unity among peoples and make possible a better service to the human family. However, if globalization is ruled merely by the laws of the market applied to suit the powerful, the consequences cannot but be negative” (No. 20).

This passage, as well as other papal texts quoted by Archbishop Karlic, moved the discussion in favor of a more cautious, even hopeful approach to globalization.

The bishops’ final document stated “the need to speed up regional integration, strengthening each particular cultural identity, the values and traditions of each particular people, in relation to the phenomenon of globalization.”

After criticizing the “questionable role” of the IMF and slamming the “dramatic culture of corruption” among regional leaders, the bishops recognized that “globalization can become a positive experience, as long as it promotes an integration based on the most deeply human values: cultural and religious ones.”

“That is why we have tried to respond in the best possible way to the Pope's request of turning the Church into a ‘house and school of communion,’ despite the limitations of such a brief meeting,” the bishops said.

During the final press conference, Cardinal Julio Terrazas Sandoval, president of the Bolivian Bishops’ Conference, said, “The current social, political and economic landscape of our nations is evidence that there will not be a quick recovery.”

“But we believe the IMF and the most developed nations should provide better opportunities for a regional growth,” the cardinal added.

“The bishops have come up with a fair, illuminating final document that we hope will be taken into serious consideration by our leadership,” said José María Simone, president of the Argentinean Association of Christian Entrepreneurs.

According to Methol Ferré “currently, the rejection of globalization and political and economic integration is the lost cause of misguided first-world kids or Latin American political dinosaurs.”

“The bishops were right in leaving the issue of ALCA in the hands of responsible lay leaders,” Methol Ferré said. “We have to work to give a Christian soul to globalization, but we have to do it through concrete initiatives that have to take shape in specific political, social, cultural and economic terms.”

Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru.