Outspoken Honduran is one of the Latin America’s strongest voices

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa has emerged as one of the College of Cardinals' strongest Latin American voices, especially on social justice issues.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga is archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (CNS file photo)

He has called poverty and social injustice the real "weapons of mass destruction" in the 21st century, and in 2004 he said hunger and hardship were the truly "subversive" elements in Latin American society. Globalization is creating a world in which "the greediness of a few is leaving the majority on the margin of history," he warned in 2003.

Some view him as a potential pope. Although relatively young, he has more than 26 years' experience as a bishop. When the 62-year-old prelate received his red hat from Pope John Paul II in 2001, a crowd of Hondurans present at the ceremony hailed him as "Juan Pablo III."

A longtime teacher and professor, Cardinal Rodriguez has a combination of education, charm, outspokenness and international experience that make him popular, especially with Latin American Catholics, who make up more than 40 percent of the world's Catholic population.

And after the globetrotting, media-intense, multilingual papacy of Pope John Paul, many think the next pope will have to have similar charisma.

Cardinal Rodriguez speaks seven languages, is at ease with the media, is an accomplished musician not afraid to play the piano or saxophone in public and can even fly a plane, although he entered the Salesian seminary before he could get a pilot's license.

His candor ruffled some media feathers in the spring of 2002 when he condemned U.S. coverage of the clerical sex abuse scandal, which had been making headlines for months.

Cardinal Rodriguez said priests who are diagnosed pedophiles must leave the priesthood, but they should be given a fair trial and not be the subject of "witch hunts." He said much of the U.S. media was anti-Catholic and that the major networks and newspapers "made themselves protagonists of what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution of the church."

He also opposed proposals that local bishops turn all allegations of clerical sexual abuse over to civil authorities for investigation and possible prosecution.

"I would be willing to go to jail before harming one of my priests -- I am not a policeman," he said. "I am a priest, a bishop."

Though he would never claim he was a serious candidate for the papacy, the cardinal did say in 2002 that a pope from Latin America would bring the culture's innate sense of hope to the universal church and would be a blessing to the people of the continent.

"I think of what the election of John Paul II meant for ending the conflict between East and West" during the Cold War, he told reporters. "Perhaps a pope from Latin America would be a great impulse for overcoming the North-South divide."

The cardinal's fight against poverty has been waged on several levels: battling for better education for the poor, criticizing corruption in Honduras and throughout the region, and leading the crusade for the alleviation of the heavy foreign debt of the world's poorest nations.

In 2004, he described excessive foreign debt as "a millstone that prevents the people from reaching the resurrection to a better life." As early as 1995-99, when he headed the Latin American bishops' council, or CELAM, the future cardinal promoted pardoning foreign debts of developing countries, such as those in Central America. On more than one occasion he met with leaders of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to try to help find a solution to the issue.

Cardinal Rodriguez has been sensitive to the problems encountered by the world's growing migrant population. He said in 2003 that migrants are often either ignored or humiliated and wrongly seen as usurpers by host countries. At a U.S. conference in late 2004, he warned of "the xenophobia that is growing everywhere" and called for the church to help restore respect for immigrants' dignity.

The cardinal has said an ethical approach to globalization requires that companies make efforts to preserve jobs and create new ones, improve the quality of their goods and services, protect the environment and help their local communities by contributing to social and educational initiatives.

Catholics have an obligation to promote solidarity by helping each person recognize all others as brothers and sisters who have a right to share in the good things life offers, he said. Globalizing solidarity "is not just a task of human promotion," but is an essential part of evangelization because the church is called to be an instrument of people's union with God and with each other, he said in 2003.

Cardinal Rodriguez was also a sharp critic of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Eight days after the ground war began, he said the "true motives for this conflict are already emerging, and there are frightening economic interests involved. For example, destruction is carried out in order to have a pretext for reconstruction."

Democracy, he said, is not something that can be justified or imposed by war. The Iraqi crisis showed the need for a "serious reflection and rethinking of international law," he said, and added: "The world cannot be placed at the mercy of a group of governing states."

Cardinal Rodriguez is a frequent visitor to the United States, and as head of CELAM in the 1990s he worked with North American church leaders to help forge a new partnership within the Americas. At that time, he often spoke against U.S. deportation of Central Americans.

He presided at a 1996 meeting of Latin American church leaders who called for an end to "the contraceptive imperialism of population control promoted with the use of abortion, sterilization and contraception."

Cardinal Rodriguez also has intervened in national issues in Honduras, calling political leaders to accountability and often acting as a mediator to calm tensions in moments of political confrontation.

At a Feb. 5, 2002, Mass attended by Honduras' president, the president of its congress, the president of its Supreme Court of Justice and dozens of other government officials, the cardinal told them, "Do not forget the poor."

Government service, he told them, must be motivated by justice and by a desire to create better living conditions, peace and human dignity for all the land's inhabitants.

In 1997 he was called upon to lead the ad hoc commission that purged the Honduran military police force in preparation for its transition to civilian control. He had been a strong proponent of the changes, which were considered key to strengthening the incipient democracy.

But when the future cardinal was proposed as the first director of the new civilian force, he quickly rejected the proposition as conflicting with his ecclesiastical functions.

In his first eight years as head of the Tegucigalpa Archdiocese, Cardinal Rodriguez transformed many aspects of its work, particularly by decentralizing the responsibilities of the figure of archbishop, facilitating community-based initiatives and stimulating work in the parishes.

In a 2001 interview with an Italian magazine, the cardinal said: "In my country, Honduras, the church is lay. This may scandalize. We don't even have 400 priests in the entire country, and in a medium-size city of 60,000 inhabitants there is only one priest, who must also care for the faithful spread out in 60 or 80 little villages among the mountains. He simply cannot do it."

So the Catholic Church in Honduras has trained and deployed 15,000 lay "delegates of the word," who evangelize, catechize, lead Sunday liturgies and distribute Communion, he said.

At the same time, he has been strongly critical of the aggressive proselytizing of some Christian sects in Latin America, calling their leaders "entrepreneurs, not pastors."

Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga was born in Tegucigalpa Dec. 29, 1942, entered the Salesians at age 19 and was ordained in Guatemala City June 28, 1970.

In addition to degrees in philosophy and in moral theology, he holds a degree in education with specializations in physics, mathematics, natural sciences and chemistry. He also studied music and music composition in El Salvador, Guatemala and the United States.

From 1963 until 1978 he worked in various teaching posts in Salesian institutes in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, covering various combinations of math, science, music and theology. From 1974 to 1976 he served as secretary of the theological faculty of Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala, where he was academic rector, 1975-78.

Even after being named a cardinal, he continued to teach moral theology at the Catholic University of Honduras.

On Oct. 28, 1978, he was named auxiliary bishop of Tegucigalpa, and in 1993 he was elevated to archbishop.

In addition to his teaching and pastoral work, he served as general secretary of the Honduran bishops' conference, 1980-88, and was elected to a six-year term as president of the conference in 1997.

He was general secretary of CELAM, 1987-91.


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