AMSTERDAM: THE DISCOVERY OF THE THIRD WORLD

Thus, still in the upswing of the mobilization cycle begun just one year earlier, the European Assembly of Priests continued to expand and to make waves. In part because of the mediating position of Septuagint between the more cautious reformers of the Germanic states and the more overtly revolutionary sentiments of many Romance-language groups,[1] the Netherlands was chosen to host the next international conference. Hitherto, all international gatherings had been, in a way, reactions to official conventions organized by the hierarchy for the hierarchy. The forthcoming conference in the Netherlands was, thus, the first convention of radical priest groups which could meet and deliberate unconcerned with parallel manoeuvres by their superiors. For that reason, the 1970 Amsterdam Congress is sometimes referred to in contemporary documents as the First World Congress of the movement. Initially planned for the spring of 1970, the Assembly eventually took place from 28 September to 3 October 1970. One of the reasons for the delay was, no doubt, the need to consolidate the various fledgling national groups.

Not only was Amsterdam by far the largest assembly of radical priests up to that point, it also became the first true world gathering of this movement, notably including a significant delegation of Latin American activists. A total of 372 delegates officially registered for the proceedings in the Van Nispelhuis, with one entire afternoon and evening, Wednesday, 30 September 1970, devoted to Latin American Affairs. In fact, it was the Latin American contingent which largely stole the show at Amsterdam. A post-conference assessment by some Rotterdam sympathizers of Septuagint captures the sentiment which emerged from other accounts as well. Introductory keynote speeches ‘contributed little to the course of the Congress. Especially the presentation by Albert van den Heuvel [from the ecumenical Geneva World Council of Churches] on the topic of ecumenical Christianity struck barely a chord. The Congress only really got going when the topic of the Third World began to be addressed.’[2]

Even five years later, an internal document providing a synopsis of the overall evolution of Septuagint highlighted that ‘especially the contribution of the Mexican delegation was of great importance for Septuagint’ and also what became of Septuagint. ‘The theology which was introduced to the Amsterdam Congress by the Mexican delegation consisted of two points: exodus and solidarity.’ Solidarity referred to the urgent need to combat relations of exploitation which dominate the world. ‘We must analyse and document the various mechanisms of national and international exploitation. As prophets we must confront this sinful and unjust condition.’ ‘Exodus’ meant ‘that a community of believers should never rest, but should always attempt to be on the move, to depart’, aiming to replace the deficient present with a ‘more humane and more just future. The other world, a possible and desirable world, functions as a sort of mirror, in which present conditions are reflected as comparatively less free and less ideal.’[3]

The Amsterdam assembly occurred precisely at a moment when European activists, initially motivated by efforts to reform—if not revolutionize—the church, began to shift their attention to the critique of society as a whole. The particularly dire circumstances of Spanish and Portuguese activists had already primed attentive observers from other European states, certainly the radical priests who had listened to the horror stories of their Spanish and Portuguese colleagues at international gatherings, to acknowledge the deep gulf between their own relatively privileged societies and the socio-political circumstances of Iberia. The discovery of the Third World magnified this recognition of the fundamental flaws underpinning modern societies. It was a process which equally affected other activist milieux at this particular conjuncture, not just Left Catholics. The issue which prompted European (and North American) activists in the late 1960s and at the very beginning of the 1970s to begin to formulate an increasingly scathing critique of the world around them was precisely the topic of global inequalities in the form of the exploitation and oppression of the Third World. Via the prism of Third World oppression, European activists quickly became ardent supporters of Third World liberation movements and tireless solidarity activists. Left Catholics mutated from reformers and revolutionaries within the church to radical critics of uneven development and the contemporary world system underpinning this vicious cycle. This process affected not just the European Assembly of Priests but the entire kaleidoscope of Left Catholic activists, notably including virtually every single branch of specialized Catholic Action, at roughly the same time.

For the priests, as for others, the learning process proceeded at a remarkable pace. Septuagint had begun its journey with a critique of celibacy. It quickly began to attack what they regarded as the generally deplorable state of church affairs in general, though initially focusing on their roles as priests. The official motto of the European symposium of bishops in Chur, ‘The Priest in the World and the Church of Today’, triggered the first international assembly of critical priests precisely because the subject centrally occupied their hearts and minds. In October 1969, the emphasis had already begun to shift slightly: ‘To Liberate the Church in Order to Liberate the World’. The Amsterdam assembly had adopted the unifying slogan: ‘The Church in Society’. Never again would church affairs be so central for this fronde of rebellious priests.

  • [1] This division between moderate ‘North' and radical ‘South’, however, should be regarded,above all else, as a heuristic device, and it does not do justice to the multiplicity of viewpointswithin each national group of the European Assembly. The case of the German Arbeitsge-meinschaft der Priester- und Solidaritatsgruppen in Deutschland (AGP), which, in a May 1971document listing the membership of all European groups, emerged as the largest group of all interms of absolute numbers, with 1,500 members, is a good case in point. (Incidentally, theNetherlands came second with 1,250, France third with 1,000 members, and Belgium fourth with700 members—subdivided into 400 Walloon and 300 Flemish.) Anton Buhler, a Swiss activist inthe European Assembly, points out in his 1975 monograph—a cogent comparative analysis ofthe German, Dutch, and French detachments—that the important local groups operating in theMunich area and the Trier region rather differed from the general penchant amongst AGPmembers for—relative!—moderation. See Anton Buhler, L’Innovation dans I’institution reli-gieuse. Une analyse sociologique de trois groups de pretres contestataires: France, Allemagne,Hollande (Leuven: Faculte des Sciences Economiques, Sociales et Politiques, 1975), p. 169. TheGerman group, it should be pointed out, appears to be the sole group of the original constellationof radical forces amongst European priests which survives until today. For a recent history of theAGP, see Edgar Utsch and Carl-Peter Klusman (eds), Dem Konzil verpflichtet—verantwortlich inKirche und Welt. Priester- und Solidaritatsgruppen in Deutschland (AGP) 1969-2010: eine Bilanznach 40 Jahren (Munster: LIT, 2010). The document listing membership figures is ‘Situationfinanciere de l’A.I.C.S. au 27 mai 1971’—KDC, LXX, fo. 85.
  • [2] ‘Liste des participants’, ‘Assemblee Internationale des Chretiens Solidaires’, ‘Van Nispel-huis, Amsterdam, du 28 septembre au 3 octobre 1970’—KDC, LXX, fo. 215; the special sessiondevoted to Latin America can be verified in the detailed conference programme, ‘Communiquede l’equipe d’organisation aux participants’, p. 4—KDC, LXX, fo. 150; the astute assessment ofthe momentous impact of Latin American participants is taken from ‘Samenvatting van hetgesprek van enkele sympatisanten van LXX uit Rotterdam en omgeving, gehouden op 13-10, ’70te 20.00 uur in de Thomas Morus school’, citation on p. 1—KDC, LXX, fo. 5.
  • [3] ‘Septuagint’, n.a., n.d., pp. 7-8—KDC, LXX, fo. 1.
 
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