Last night I received word from Padre Matías Camussi, parish priest of Cristo Obrero Church, in Villa Del Parque neighbourhood of Argentina’s Santa Fe city: word that the remains of the late Padre Aldo Büntig, a forerunner of liberation theology, little known outside of Latin America, even outside of Santa Fe, had been repatriated from where they had remained since his death in exile, in 1978.
“Hola Alex! Han llevado al Padre Aldo a la parroquia Jesús Resucitado! Has conseguido información sobre él? God bless you!!!”
The short message was accompanied by an article in Sante Fe’s El Litoral newpaper. It was from the article that I first learned of Bùntig’s escape to Puerto Rico, sent there by Archbishop Zazpe who had feared for the priest’s life. The El Litoral article joined the few other sources of information I had on the activist priest and intellectual. His written work, as far as I can see, has never been translated to English. A search on Amazon or even AbeBooks for his name shows how few of his untranslated works are available for purchase. It was this that sparked my immediate curiosity about why, then, Aldo Büntig’s name appeared alongside the likes of Gustavo Gutiérrez and other well known liberation theologians in Christian Smith’s The Emergence of Liberation Theology — the key English-language text on the history of the movement in Latin America.
For that reason I had contacted Father Matías in May, 2016, searching out more on the priest who had worked decades before in Alto Verde, 20 minutes drive from Matías’ own parish. I was grateful Padre Matías remembered me and brought the news to my attention. It is an opportunity to try and write again something of a short biography on Aldo Büntig, a legend of liberation theology in his own right, a local man of the people, one for whom parades are carried out in the streets of his hometown.
“Era un chico feliz que ya daba indicios de convertirse en lo que fue: un ser excepcional, de esos que ya no se encuentran.”
Those were the words uttered by Taher Elías Bude, a worker, a pen manufacturer from Santa Fe, a friend of Aldo’s: “He was a happy boy who already showed signs of becoming what he was: an exceptional being, those who are no longer found.” These words are all I know of Büntig’s life before he became a priest, when he was a child growing up in Progreso. Of his life and work as the priest at Jesùs Resucitado I have managed to get only glimpses, glimpses that are telling, however, of the character of a man committed to the wellbeing of the people, which, in the context of the Onganía regime, meant commitment despite the danger.
Along with Raúl Sufritti and Osvaldo Catena, Büntig was instrumental in creating Act 5110, establishing the ‘Social Pension Fund of the Province of Santa Fe aiming to provide social assistance by granting pensions to the elderly, disabled, homeless mothers and children.’ These are the typical areas that the activist priests like Büntig committed themselves to, concerned with the conditions of their communities: whether workers are treated fairly, whether the young can access education, whether the elderly are valued and listened to. It is these types of concrete social action alongside the sectores populares that radicalised the priests both in their Christian understanding of solidarity with the people, who are mostly poor, and in the eyes of the state who saw the dangers of popular action. To stand alongside workers during the years of the Onganía regime, which lasted from 1966 to 1970, demanded courage. Labour strikes were outlawed, and violence could be expected for those who did not comply.
It was from this context of commitment to the people in the face of military and corporate control, violence and inequality that Büntig, like so many of his generation, began to think anew on the role of the church in Latin America. The involvement on the side of the masses under dictatorial rule — in opposition to the exploitation of the ruling classes — was a move away from a civil religion which had been handed down from the time of conquest, a pacifying faith which had nothing to say to human conditions.
For Padre Büntig it meant a new analysis of popular religion was necessary: Where was faith serving liberation? Where was it serving oppression? How was religion, as popular culture, serving ambivalent cross-purposes in an Argentina facing so many sharp crises?
Those questions were being asked across Latin America. Put in the words of the poet-priest and former Sandinista revolutionary, Ernesto Cardenal:
“They told me that the Argentine priest Aldo Buntig, who was here not long ago, said that the earliest Christians celebrated their liturgy clandestinely in the catacombs but lived their lives immersed in the world. Here the Christians do the opposite: they celebrate their liturgy in public and live their lives in the catacombs. They told me that Sergio Arce, Professor of Theology at Matanzas Evangelical Seminary, said that the Christians here were like the Apostles before the Pentecost: ‘The Church shut itself in upon itself, and when the Church closes its doors the Lord is left outside the doors. The Church must serve the world, and in Cuba that means serve the new society, not sabotage it.'”
The liberationist theologians, philosophers, and sociologists like Büntig saw themselves living between the death-dealing old order and the emerging new epoch, and that in-betweenness was characterised by revolutionaries and dictators and the sharpening of difference between right and left-wing leaning social movements. Meanwhile, the church, maybe particularly in Argentina, had remained an ambivalent force: at once ubiquitous as a cultural reality for all major sectors of society — elite, middle class, and impoverished; conservative, liberal, and radical; white, black, Indigenous, and mestizo — and yet had remained in the stasis of the status quo, unable to respond to new realities. The liberationists, committed to the marginalised sectors in which the real progressive politics was manifesting itself alongside the old conservatism, would become the intellectual arm — and so sometimes elitist in itself — of those fighting for a new social reality.
Büntig’s contribution to the liberación paradigm would be his studies on what he dubbed ‘popular religion’ and ‘popular catholicism’. He would be one of the major thinkers exploring that religious-political ambivalence, if not the major figure, joined by the well-known Argentinos Lucio Gera, Juan Carlos Scannone, the world-renowned philosopher and historian Enrique Dussel — names associated with what Michael R. Candelaria calls ‘the theology of the people’ — and Fernando Boasso (a name I have just learned through Candelaria’s book on the same subject, Popular Religion and Liberation: The Dilemma of Liberation Theology, 1990). Büntig’s understanding of the catolicismo popular was characterised by his own ambivalence towards the religion expressions in Argentina among the masses. He saw “a religion of vows and the promises of pilgrimage, sacraments received endlessly, devotions given endlessly — all with social repercussions” (Jorge Delgado). At the same time, Büntig saw the anti-hierarchical sentiment of the lay religious, a positive trait during the populist Perón regime that came into power (for the second time) when he wrote in 1973:
“Mientras el pueblo es tradicionalmente católico, las jerarquías nunca han sido populares, salvo honrosas y contadas excepciones. […] El pueblo, verdadero depositario y sujeto de la liberación nacional y social, sigue identificándose con el catolicismo aunque no entienda, ni justifique, las ambigüedades de una institución eclesiástica, inserta estrechamente en la trama de los Poderes del Mundo.”
“While the people are traditionally Catholic, hierarchies have never been popular, despite a few honourable exceptions […]
The people, the true Subject and custodian of national and social liberation, still identify with Catholicism but do not understand and will not justify the ambiguities found in a church institution bound to the ‘World Powers.'”
The popular faith expressions of the people had neither the power to promote the overthrow of the oppressive system, nor the force to keep them subsumed to that system. The people themselves were “the true Subject and custodian of national and social liberation”. The sacraments, parades, and shrines were simple part and parcel of Argentine life, but the prayers of the masses were for a better life. Would the devotions they made to popular saints, would the rosaries they repeated, would the popular pieties turn those prayers into reality? Büntig seemed to think ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and that it was the responsibility of priests and pastoral workers to better know the people, the cry of their hearts, the injustices and humiliations and the dreams of those working class masses:
“Toda sana pedagogía dice que debemos saber quién es el sujeto, conocerlo, antes de iniciar la acción evangelizadora, y el acento recae sobre este punto.
¿Conocemos nosotros al sujeto al que queremos evangelizar? Se magnifica el problema cuando descubrimos que no sólo debemos evangelizar a personas aisladas sino a comunidades, grupos de personas, con valores y cuasi culturas propias y distintas.”
I loosely translated this:
“All sound pedagogy says that we must know who the Subject is, know before starting to evangelise, and the emphasis is on this point.
Do we know the Subject to whom we evangelise? The problem magnifies as we discover that not only do we evangelise to isolated people but to communities, to groups of people with values and cultures almost distinctly their own.”
These thoughts on the starting point of pastoral-theological-pedagogical work being the life world of the people themselves is the hallmark of all contextual theologies of liberation. Gutiérrez saw “in these peoples, at once poor and Christian, there is a concrete point of departure, charged with consequences, for Church life and theological reflection” (quoted in Candelaria, 1990, p. ix). The practical work Büntig had committed to, such as the instigation of working class networks for improving living conditions, was the other side of the coin of this approach to popular culture and religion amid struggle.
The breadth and depth of Büntig’s assessment of the role of popular religiosity in the struggle for liberation and in the ongoing oppression in Argentina and Latin America was not without its detractors. Most of Büntig’s views are hidden to me in the books I do not own, in a language I do not possess, containing concepts I am a novice to. Candelaria’s book on the subject of popular religion and liberation theology is of service to us here. It is in English, for starters, is a thorough treatment of the subject, and is the major source I have found so far engaging Büntig’s line of thinking. It does so through it’s focus on two other major thinkers: the Argentine, Juan Carlos Scannone, and Juan Luis Segundo, from Uruguay. They both detract from Büntig (and from each other) on certain key points, agreeing on others, and providing unique insights into the dilemma of liberation theologians trying to make sense of the religious life of the continent and the church which they had committed themselves to change alongside the masses.
From the threshold of birth to the threshold of death, religion pervades the popular cultural ethos. At critical junctures of human development–birth, childhood, puberty, marriage–ceremonies, festivity, and ritual reinforce human ties with the sacred. […] Everywhere Latino people march in processions, walk in pilgrimages, undertake vows, light candles, worship the Virgin Mother, supplicate saints, ward of demons and ghosts with gestures, recite creeds and formulas.” (Candelaria, 1990, p. vii, vii-viii)
Candelaria quotes the Mexico-based sociologist Pierre Bastian:
“The masses oppressed by colonization, then neo-colonialism and imperialism, have created their own cultures of silence, their own means of giving meaning to their lives and of liberating themselves in the very midst of their captivity. It is in this perspective that the religious factor takes on interest as the determining factor of the social practices of the dominated classes.”
Büntig was involved in this turn toward liberation from (and into!) the popular piety that had grown over the centuries among the poor masses: mestizo, migrant, black, indigenous in the colonial, neo-colonial and imperial matrix of the Americas. He was there at El Escorial in 1972 where the Liberation Theologians and their Spanish counterparts met to discuss the emerging theme of liberación and found themselves discussing popular religion. He was there at the establishment of the Equipo Coordinador de Investigaciones de Sociedad y Religion and edited its 6-volume series in which Dussel and Gera contributed. The Chilean theologian priest Segundo Galilea noted how the “renewed focus on people’s religion ‘has–in general terms–coincide with the emergence of the theme of liberation in social struggle for justice, and, therefore, in the pastoral theology and practice of the Church'” (Candelaria, p. xi). Galilea goes further:
“the poor and the oppressed are the subjects of our liberation endeavors and the subjects of their own form of religion; hence, folk piety is of singular importance in mobilizing the masses for the struggle of liberation” (quoted in Candelaria, p. xii).