Pope Francis recently appointed our friend, the distinguished Professor Rodrigo Guerra López, as Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America (PCAL). Guerra, a professor and philosopher from Mexico, is the founder of the Center for Advanced Social Research (CISAV).
In his new position as a secretary in the Roman Curia, he will hold the second-highest* position of any layperson in the Vatican. Guerra is uniquely qualified for this position. He is currently a member of both the Pontifical Academy for Life and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. He has also accumulated decades of experience with the Latin American Church as a longtime collaborator with the Mexican bishops and the Latin American bishops’ conference (CELAM).
In recent years, he has worked to help Pope Francis build bridges across the current divisions in the Church. His wide range of academic and professional experience spans across three papacies—his doctrinal dissertation was on the personalism of St. John Paul II—and through the years he has collaborated with many influential Catholic thinkers and clergy from around the world who find themselves divided during the pontificate of Pope Francis. His broad perspective, therefore, has been very valuable in helping Catholics around the world understand the first pope from the Americas.
We have been fortunate to have Rodrigo Guerra as a guest for a 3-part podcast last year (See Part 1, “Pope Francis and the Latin American Church”; Part 2, “A Heart Conquered by Christ: Rodrigo Guerra on Pope Francis”; and Part 3, “Communio in the Americas and Postmodern Traditionalism”), and to publish some of his other interviews and articles in the past.
Rodrigo’s friend Jaime Septién asked Rodrigo a series of questions in his first interview following his appointment, which were originally published on Aleteia. This is our English translation of that interview.
Who is this man who will soon be the highest-ranking* layperson in the structure of the Vatican hierarchy? What can we expect when he arrives in Rome? What will be his mission in this Commission, taking over a role that for two decades (until 2019) was held by the Uruguayan Guzmán Carriquiry? Above all, what does his arrival in Rome represent for the Church in a region—Latin America and the Caribbean—that makes up just over 40 percent of the world’s Catholics?
Q: Pope Francis has appointed you Secretary of the PCAL. With this move, you seem to have become the highest-ranking layman in the structure of the Catholic Church. What does this mean to you?
First of all, I thank the Holy Father for the confidence in me that he has shown by this appointment. Suddenly I find myself extremely humbled but confident that Jesus only calls us when he wants and in the way he wants us to follow and serve. And he calls, not on the best, but often on the most fragile, who, having hit rock bottom, entrust themselves to Divine Mercy.
In the Vatican there are, in fact, lay people who collaborate as undersecretaries and as advisers. As far as I know, only Guzman Carriquiry, my dear friend and predecessor, has held the title of Secretary. It is an honor to be able to work in the same place he dedicated his life. I hope that the upcoming reform of the Roman Curia will allow more lay people to participate in these kinds of responsibilities for the good of the Church.
Q: You have worked in several universities as a professor-researcher and in the service of the Church for over three decades. How did a philosopher with an academic background begin assisting bishops?
When I returned from studying for my doctorate in Liechtenstein in 1994, I worked as professor and academic coordinator of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Mexico City. Soon after, the Mexican bishops’ conference invited me to work as a consultant and collaborate in the redesign of the Episcopal Commission for Social and Pastoral Care. I was a director there for several years. I had the opportunity to learn a lot from Cardinal Sergio Obeso, Bishop Carlos Talavera, Bishop Jacinto Guerrero, and especially Bishop Mario de Gasperín.
They entrusted me with writing the drafts and final version of the Pastoral Letter “From Encounter with Jesus Christ to Solidarity with All,” published in the year 2000. I believe that even though they had not planned it this way, the presence of a layman in these tasks gave them peace. Of course, the bishops had the last word in everything. But many “intermediate” jobs required methodologies and scientific rigor that a layman with my profile was able to provide.
Q: You later worked at CELAM, didn’t you?
In 1989 I taught a class in Puebla for DECOS-CELAM, which my dear friend Bishop (now Cardinal) Gregorio Rosa Chávez led in those days. But it was not until 1996 that I began to take part in activities with DEPAS-CELAM. Since then, without interruption, I have taken on various responsibilities in CELAM. One of the most beautiful experiences I had was the opportunity to found the Socio-Pastoral Observatory in 2004 at the invitation of Archbishop Jorge Jiménez and Bishop Carlos Aguiar.
There, we prepared the socio-analytical studies for the V General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, held in Aparecida in 2007. Subsequently, I joined CELAM’s Theological Commission for several years, and currently I am an advisor to the new Knowledge Management Center at the new CELAM.
Q: The entire time, you continued your work as an scholar. Which institutions most influenced your philosophical work and what led you to begin your work as a socio-political analyst?
I owe a great deal to my professors of philosophy at the Autonomous Popular University of Puebla (UPAEP), some of whom I still work with at CISAV today. These include Pablo Castellanos, Jorge Navarro, and an extraordinary man who died a few years ago, Manuel Díaz Cid. Thanks to them, I was introduced to St Thomas Aquinas, St Augustine, the Social Doctrine of the Church, and I developed a passion for the Philosophy of History and the political life of societies. These professors taught me to love truth, the Pope, and the Latin American Church in a very special way.
At the Ibero-American University, I also had extraordinary professors including Jesuit Fathers Bazdresch, “Colorado” Vergara, and Xavier Cacho, as well as Miguel Mansur Kuri, Paco Galán, and others. In my PhD program in Liechtenstein, my greatest influences were Rocco Buttiglione, Tadeusz Styczen, and John Crosby who helped me to delve into the personalism of Karol Wojtyla. Later, I was very fortunate to be able to teach at UPAEP, at the John Paul II Institute, and particularly at the Pan American University. Currently, I do my academic work at CISAV, which is a “sui generis” experience of rigorous study, prayer, and service that began in 2008. CISAV in some ways integrates many of the things I’ve been learning along the way.
Q: Theology and spiritual life are indispensable parts of the work you have done. How would you describe your background in these areas?
My theological training was totally unconventional. Shortly after my conversion at the age of 17, through a group of dear friends, I received a strongly voluntarist Christian upbringing, which severely deforms the mind and heart. I thank God that I met Father José Pereda Crespo, founder of the Servants of Jesus and Fathers Ricardo Aldana and Andrés Balvanera, also members of the order. Fr. Balvanera—as I was finishing my degree in philosophy in 1989—gave me the seven-volume Glory of the Lord, written by Hans Urs von Balthasar. Next, I studied the heavy books of the Jesuit Henri de Lubac.
Later, I started leaning towards moral theology. I took classes with Cardinal Caffarra, carefully studying the controversy surrounding situation ethics. In 1993, Rocco Buttiglione invited me to study the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez and the Jesuit Juan Carlos Scannone. I would meet both of them personally years later. In my spiritual life, I believe that the most crucial things have been my encounters with the Liturgy of the Hours, with the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, with the works of Slawomir Biela, with the Ignatian Exercises, and with the message shared by the Virgin of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego.
Q: A few years ago, you publicly responded to the dubia that four cardinals presented in response to the publication of the exhortation Amoris laetitia. Since then, the controversy surrounding the Magisterium of Pope Francis has not ceased. What have you learned from everything that has happened?
The controversy surrounding Amoris laetitia was very painful for me. My dear professor, Cardinal Caffarra, was very upset when he learned that I had published a theological-philosophical response to his questions. Thank God Rocco Buttiglione, Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández, Cardinal Schönborn, and I wrote essays that together are synergistic and complementary.
I think the main lesson I learned from this controversy was that underneath what appeared to be a doctrinal discussion, the underlying issue was, in fact, a matter of faith. The ministry of the Successor of Peter is a mystery that goes far beyond the man who is chosen. The Pope, whoever he may be, is truly the Universal Pastor of the Church and a permanent sign of ecclesial unity, as the Catechism teaches us.
If we tacitly or explicitly question his role, Gnostic subjectivism quickly devours us, even if we give speeches using the word “Tradition,” with partial and tendentious readings of the works of Benedict XVI, or with fragmentary appeals to the pre-conciliar Magisterium. This lesson, in my opinion, applies to so many other things that have happened: the Pan-Amazonian synod, Laudato si’, or the very recent document “Traditionis custodes.” Often, we see hardness of heart and subtle (and not-so-subtle) vanities often hidden deep within, even if they are dressed up in doctrinal garb.
Q: What can we expect from the relationship between PCAL, CELAM, and the Latin American Confederation of Religious (CLAR) with your arrival as Secretary?
Pope Francis wants us to live the Church with the structure of an “inverted pyramid” and within a dynamic of true synodality. These are not mere words or suggestions. They are a pedagogical and methodological way of affirming the importance of living in the style of Jesus. Synodality is a constitutive dimension of the Church that must be radically recovered. We are all called by Jesus to walk together, from our particular vocations and ministries.
The PCAL, under the guidance of the Holy Father and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, should more than ever be a place of service and not a hindrance. There were times, many, many years ago, when PCAL was a headache for CELAM and CLAR. Today we all have to learn a new attitude of Samaritan service. The PCAL must be a “diakonia” rather than a bureaucracy, it must be a bridge and not a wall, it must be a place for bishops, consecrated persons and lay faithful to be able to meet truly and deeply, with the mind and heart of the Holy Father. It must also be a place where the multifaceted life of the Latin American and Caribbean Church must be able to find expression, a close embrace, and sincere understanding.
Q: Your main collaborator will be Emilce Cuda, who has been appointed as Head of Office. The profile of the PCAL is as robust as ever, don’t you think?
Emilce is a mature academic who will greatly enrich the PCAL. I admire and recognize her very sincerely. Not long ago she participated in some academic activities with CISAV. We both come from different ecclesial and socio-political backgrounds. However, we both share a deep affection for Pope Francis, for the process of ecclesial renewal he has undertaken, and for the preferential option for the poor and marginalized.
An intelligent and committed lay woman is certainly good news for the Roman Curia. On the other hand, the current PCAL team has extraordinary experience. We will have to learn from all of them as quickly as possible. The charity of Christ urges us!
Q: What will happen to CISAV? The academic community you founded will have to let one of its cornerstones go to the other side of the world.
CISAV is a living community that has been forged in the crucible of pain, prayer, and passionate and rigorous love for truth. Keep in mind, there are three founders of CISAV: Pablo Castellanos, Bishop Mario de Gasperín and myself. I am not leaving CISAV, but in a way its mission now expands ecclesial service within the Roman Curia. I may no longer offer as many classes as before, but I will continue to participate in the Governing Council and seek expert advice in the areas of scientific competence developed by each of its departments. Every person who works and studies at CISAV becomes a gift and a mission. I thank God very much for the opportunity he has given me to learn from everyone in the thirteen years I have belonged to such a unique scientific-academic community.
Q: For the Church in Mexico, your appointment must be a source of great joy and pride. Never before has a Mexican layman been appointed to a similar position. What do you take from your experience with the Mexican bishops?
Over the years, I have experienced a wide variety of things working closely with the Mexican Bishops’ Conference. There were times, around the year 2000, of serious defamation and slander. Time helps calm spirits and things will find their place. I have, first of all, a deep feeling of gratitude towards Cardinal Carlos Aguiar, who has been my dear friend for more than twenty years, including moments of intense trial and pain; I think immediately of Archbishop Christophe Pierre, a true teacher of pastoral prudence and evangelical diplomacy; of Archbishop Alfonso Cortés, an intelligent and good bishop always concerned with education; in Archbishop Faustino Armendáriz, who helped save the CISAV in times of crisis; and in Bishop Fidencio López who has showed me that mercy is the way ever since he was my parish priest. I think of Bishop Rogelio Cabrera and Cardinal Robles, who trusted CISAV even in delicate scenarios. I remember some who have already left: Don Sam (Don Samuel Ruiz), Don Arturo Lona, Don Sergio Obeso, Father-Bishop Talavera, Don Jacinto Guerrero and Bishop Hilario Chávez Joya.
But the one I carry most in my heart is Bishop Mario de Gasperín, my teacher, pastor and friend, who with enormous patience has supported all kinds of projects and undertakings in which I have been involved over the last 24 years. His spiritual fatherhood educated me about truth and charity, discernment and action, prayer and study. Thanks to him I have made many good friends, including you [Jaime Septién]. We owe so many things to him that it would take a very long time to list them. May God give him a long life! Perhaps one day we can write them down so that others may learn how a good priest always bears great fruit, even when sowing on stony ground, like you and me.
* Correction: Rodrigo Guerra is the only layperson in the Roman Curia who holds the rank of Secretary, but Paolo Ruffini, as Prefect for the Dicastery for Communications, holds a higher rank. – ML
We would like to thank Rodrigo Guerra for granting permission to translate and publish this interview in English. For the Spanish original, click here. Congratulations, Rodrigo!
Image: Pope Francis blesses Rodrigo Guerra
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.