Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Liberation Theology: Its Legacy in Mexico and Central America

The young priest said Mass for his parishioners, just as he had a hundred times before, and lying on the altar were the tools of his trade: a Bible, a wine goblet, a lit candle – and a .357 magnum revolver.

After Mass, he climbed the stairs to the bell tower of his Spanish colonial church, where he scanned the surrounding countryside. He was on watch for government troops. They were the enemy. As a priest, it was his job to bring the message of the Church to his flock, but he was also a member of a revolutionary guerrilla network, which had brought its own message to the people: it is time to rise up against your oppressors.

For the priest they were one and the same message.

Nor was he alone.

All over Central America in the 1970s, priests and nuns were re-evaluating their traditional role within the Church, and the role the Church should play in effecting social change. They were calling for a “theology of liberation,” and their call has had serious consequences, threatening to divide the Church irreparably. It had also affected them on a personal level. By 1980 more than 50 priests had been killed for their activities, including an archbishop.

In 1979, the debate over the role of the Church in Latin America had swept past the local parishes to the highest levels of the Roman Church. When Pope John Paul II journeyed to Puebla, Mexico, to inaugurate the Third Latin American Bishops Conference, it was clear that the quiet, charming colonial town, known for its staunchly conservative Catholic population, had become the backdrop for a theological battleground that would determine the future of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America.

Liberation theology draws the Church into an active role, demanding that it help the poor meet social and economic needs and liberate the oppressed from authoritarian regimes. Some priests, supported by dissident bishops, argued that only through establishing communist governments can the poor and oppressed be liberated. A few had gone so far as to join guerrilla movements. Most followed a more moderate line, contending that neither communism nor capitalism is suited for Latin America, and that a new political and economic order is needed.

In Puebla, those espousing liberation theology were officially excluded from the conference, but some got around it by becoming personal advisers to sympathetic bishops who were delegates. For example, Gustavo Gutierrez, the principal spokesman of liberation theology, became the adviser to eight bishops. But the cards were well stacked against what has become known as the Church’s progressive faction by Colombian Archbishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo. The conference was controlled by political conservatives led by Trujillo; Belgian Jesuit Roger Vekemans; and the Roman Curia’s Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, who was Trujillo’s power broker at the Vatican.

The dominance by the conservatives was not unexpected.

Ever since the conquistadores set foot in the New World, claimed the land and all its people and then sanctified their conquest with a priest saying Mass, the Church has been considered one part of the traditional triumvirate of power in Latin America, along with the military and the large landowners.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the identification of the Church with the rich and powerful was not so clear. An increasing number of the continent’s poor were apt to think of their parish priest as a defender of their interests.

The radical change had surfaced only in the last 10 years, largely due to the theology of liberation. Although most advocates of liberation theology condemned communism as well as capitalism, it was Marxism that forced the Catholic Church in Latin America to confront the plight of the continent’s poor and oppressed. In the mid-1960s, with guerrilla activity spreading throughout the continent, young theologians began to question their traditional view of Latin American Catholicism. They turned to Marxism as an analytical tool to help them understand the causes of economic and social under-development on the continent that seemed to underlie the growing revolt.

Marx was respected as a sociologist in many parts of the Third World, and the use of Marxian analysis was dominant among scholars from countries with colonial backgrounds.

But an acceptance of Marx the sociologist did not necessarily lead to support for a Marxist ideology, much less communism, which most liberation theologians rejected as a political system incompatible with Christianity. What attracted the theologians was not Marx’s formulas for a new society, but his suggestion of the interrelationship of experience and theory – that one supported and furthered understanding of the other. As a result, the dissident theologians developed a series of new religious and sociological insights based on Latin America’s historical condition as an economically and politically dependent continent. The work that resulted became known as the “theology of liberation.”

Gutierrez, a Peruvian, was the principal spokesman for this new theology. He studied at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, where he met Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest from a well-to-do family. The two students argued about the role of priests among the poor in Latin America. Torres, who espoused direct involvement by priests in revolutionary activity, later took up arms with the Colombian guerrillas, and was a prototype of an increasing phenomenon in Latin America, the guerrilla-priest. He was killed in his first battle. Gutierrez is among those who declined to follow in Torres’ footsteps.

“Those who attribute violence to the theology of liberation do not know what they are talking about,” Gutierrez said in an interview. “The theology’s position on violence is the same as the Church’s traditional teaching on “just wars” that dates to St. Thomas Aquinas: that violence is possible as a lesser evil and last resort against a greater violence, such as tyranny, but that no Christian willingly accepts such a choice.”

Within the theology of liberation, the “choice” ranges from the non-violent preachings of Brazil’s Archbishop Dom Helder Camara, to the Spanish missionary priest, Gaspar Garcia, who became a comandante with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN guerrillas in Nicaragua. Camara rejects violence in any form. Not only is violence un-Christian, he said, but it does not work. Nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Camara’s influence stretches from Brazil to other parts of the world. His teachings are especially revered in Third World countries.

“We are replacing the force of arms by moral force, the violence of the truth,” wrote Camara in his book, “The Desert Is Fertile.” In it he offered a plan for his followers to counter institutionalized violence: “Love will help them to decide firmly that the goal is not superficial reform but the transformation of human structures...”

“What we need to find for Latin America is a line of socialism adapted to Latin American needs,” said Camara during an interview. “I am thinking of a conscious participation by more classes of the population in the control of power and the sharing of wealth and culture,” he said.

Though battle lines have been drawn between those who advocate violence and those who condemn it, both sides agree that capitalism has been a failure in Latin America. Some conservatives in the Latin American Church also question the behaviour of multinational corporations and the terms of trade imposed by the industrialized nations, especially the United States. At the Puebla bishop’s conference, various participants criticized the United States and its large corporations for much of the misery in Latin America. One archbishop exhorted the underdeveloped countries of the continent to shake off whatever kind of political, economic and social colonialism the United States exercises over them. At the local level, many among the clergy direct their criticism not toward the theoretical problems or questions of American economic dominance, but at daily concerns – housing, sanitation, and social services. In some cases they do so under the threat of death.

In 1980 alone, four priests working with poor Indians in rural Guatemala were murdered by right-wing terrorists affiliated with the country’s military dictatorship. The most recent case occurred in the predominately Indian state of Quiche in July 1980, when a Spanish missionary priest, Faustino Villanueva, was murdered in his church office by two men. Villanueva, a follower of Camara, had spent more than a dozen years in Guatemala. Warned by fellow liberationist priets that his work with the Indians endangered his life, he replied: “Why would they want to kill me? I’m not politically involved.” He declined offers of protection by his parishioners and refused to abandon his work.

Less than eight miles from where Villanueva was murdered, another priest made a decision to take up arms against the government he held responsible for his friend’s death. Donald McKenna was an Irish priest who had been active in Guatemala for two years. A committed follower of Camilo Torres, McKenna was convinced that violence does have a role to play in the modern Church. With his name on the Guatemalan government’s death list, McKenna carried a .357 magnum revolver, stored Molotov cocktails on the premises of the church, and met frequently with guerrillas and planned revolution.

Soon after Villanueva’s funeral, gunmen made three attempts on the life of the bishop of Quiche. As a result, the bishop took the extraordinary action of removing all priests and nuns from the state. He then flew to Rome to discuss the assaults with the Pope. At this writing (1980)there are no clergy in the state of Quiche. But Father McKenna, with help from his friends in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), was making plans to return.

To the south, in El Salvador, nine members of the clergy were killed between 1977and 1980. At the bishops’ conference in 1979, the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar A. Romero, made an impassioned plea for official condemnation of the Salvadoran government’s attacks against the Church. With tears rolling down his face, Romero, an outspoken critic of the government, begged for action by the conference attendees, saying, “They are killing my church.”

Romero, a Nobel prize nominee and influential advocate of liberation theology, was murdered in his church while saying Mass earlier in 1980.

On April 2, two traditional enemies joined hands in Mexico City to condemn Romero’s murder and to show solidarity for the revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Guatemala. Communists and liberation clergymen stood together for the first time under the banner of Mexico’s Communist Party, which later adorned the country’s most sacred religious shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico.

But the same country that offered tight security for the clergy attending the bishops’ conference and which allowed a show of solidarity for a fallen archbishop, appears to have been responsible for the murder of a simple priest trying to serve his impoverished parishioners three years earlier. The U.S. military intelligence branch became interested in the case of Father Rudolfo Aguilar through their monitoring of leftist activities in Mexico. The murder of the activist priest is described in a report by U.S. intelligence agents as follows:

Aguilar was the parish priest of a poor neighbourhood in Chihuahua, which Mexican authorities claimed was sympathetic to leftist urban guerrillas. The priest frequently intervened on behalf of his working-class parishioners with various government agencies. He was usually successful in obtaining needed services for the his people. The neighbourhood needed a sewage system. In order to empty into the Sacramento River, the pipes had to pass through land owned by the mayor of Chihuahua. Aguilar pressured the official to get him to allow the pipes through his land, but the mayor refused. The mayor was afraid the value of his land would decline, although the river was already polluted by industrial waste. The governor of Chihuahua, under pressure from the mayor, sent a letter to that state’s archbishop, demanding that Aguilar be removed. Eight days later, on March 2, 1977, the priest was found shot in the back of the head. State police officials announced that Aguilar was a member of the 23rd of September Communist League, at that time Mexico’s most active guerrilla group. They officially concluded that the priest show himself while handling firearms.

But according to confidential U.S. military intelligence reports, father Aguilar was killed either by the Chihuahua State Judicial Police or the federal government’s illegal, anti-terrorist organization called “La Brigada Blanca,” the White Brigade.
The reason for his death, said Chihuahua’s archbishop, was that Aguilar “dared to cry out for justice on behalf of poor people.”

Mexico has also been the scene of a little-known struggle between progressive members of the Roman Catholic Church and the government. In 1977, Arturo Lona Reyes, the bishop of the southern city of Tehuantepec, issued a strong protest against what he called government-sanctioned killings of students, peasants, and workers.

“We cannot remain silent in the face of these murderous deeds,” said the bishop, who is an advocate of liberation theology, “and we denounce the lack of respect for human life. There is no doubt that the poorest people are once again the victims. We will neither accept the excuse of incompetence (by the authorities); nor are we satisfied with vague promises that these gory deeds will be investigated and justice done.”

Soon after his denunciation, assassins attempted to murder the bishop.

In Guerrero, also in southern Mexico, Bishop Fidel Cortes Perez, another follower of the new theology, repeatedly received death threats. The chancery was robbed, gunshots were fired into the church patio, and the bishop’s chauffeur was attacked by three men and a woman who tried to kill him.

Mexican authorities failed to respond to the new church activism until 1972, when, according to members of the clergy, a paramilitary group calling itself the Anti-Guerrilla Squadron kidnapped two priests, one of whom they reportedly severely tortured.

The campaign was stepped up in 1977. In addition to the incidents involving the two bishops, two priests were murdered and two kidnapped, and several church organizations were raided. In every case, the priests involved were advocates of the new theology and were engaged in applying its principles through work with Mexico’s slum and rural poor.

This, then, was the backdrop – division in the Church, activism in the local parish, murder and government harassment f clergy – that Pope John Paul II faced when he arrived in Mexico to inaugurate the Third Latin American Bishops Conference.

The Pope’s universally acclaimed warm welcome by Mexicans – millions greeted him wherever he went during his week-long stay – lay in stark contrast to the reason for his coming: to attempt to narrow the extreme differences that plague the Latin American Church. At first, liberation theologians were convinced that the Pope had come to speak out against their activism. En route to Mexico, the pontiff had said, “Jesus Christ was not a political figure, a revolutionary...” He continued his theme in a speech at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, admonishing priests “not to give in to socio-political radicalisms which in the long run become inopportune, counterproductive.” Lecturing the clergy, the Pope continued, “You are spiritual guides who try to orient and improve the hearts of the faithful. You are not social leaders, political leaders or employees of temporal power.”

The opponents of the new theology were delighted.

Two days later, however, the pontiff journeyed to the south of Mexico, and before an audience of 40,000 Indians in the Oaxacan town of Cuilapan de Guerrero, adopted a tone that shocked Church conservatives and elated proponents of the new theology. Abandoning the speech that had been prepared for him by Vatican advisers, the Pope passionately addressed the problems of poverty and powerlessness, denouncing the “exploitation, plunder and abandonment” of Latin America’s indigenous peoples and peasants.

“It is not just nor humane nor Christian to continue with certain unjust situations,” the pontiff said, and he emphasized that all private property has “a social mortgage” that must be attended to. If common welfare demands it, he went on, then expropriation is in order. Uniting his cause with that of the poor, the Pope continued to stress the obligations of the wealthy and powerful toward the less fortunate, and the growing impatience of the impoverished masses for “dignity” and “recognition.”

The response by the audience of indigenous peoples was tumultuous. But at the pontiff’s side, astonished bishops sat in disbelief. Afterwards, one of his entourage judged the speech as “the most severe that any Pope has delivered.”

By the time the Pope ended his visit, both factions of the Church felt he had strengthened their claims to true interpretation of Christ’s teachings. If anything, the pontiff’s sojourn heightened the divisions, with both revolutionaries and members of the region’s authoritarian regimes quoting from his various speeches.

Today (1980), 20 months after John Paul’s historic trip to Mexico, the Church in Latin America remains bitterly divided. The same divisions that plagued the delegates at the Puebla bishops’ conference continue to fuel instability, both in the Church and in the society it serves.


  1. The world would be better off without religions.

  2. That is the same thing Bill Maher says. I think the problem is when religion becomes too much like a cult. When defending religion gets to the point of violence then there is a problem.

    I can't condemn all religions for the mere fact that a great deal of good (addressing the needs of the poor) has been done in the name of religion. When that occurs I can't go along with the claim that all religion is bad.