Will the Next Pope Continue the War on Liberation Theology?

jesus on cross

With the resignation of Benedict XVI and the papal conclave in process, friends have asked me to say something about it all. My thought is simple. The success of any new papacy and the prospect of the Catholic Church rebounding from its worst crisis since the Reformation hinges on one thing more than any other: the attitude of the new pope and of church leadership in general to liberation theology.

Let me be clear on what I’m talking about. I understand liberation theology as “reflection on the following of Jesus of Nazareth from the viewpoint of those committed to the emancipation of the poor and oppressed.” The commitment in question brings to light social implications of the Judeo-Christian tradition – for creating a world with room for everyone, beginning with the poor – that remain opaque for those without such commitment.

Liberation theology in the sense just defined represents the most important theological development of the last nearly 1700 years. More than that, it is arguably the most important intellectual development of the last 150 years – dating back to the publication of the Communist Manifesto.

Popes and presidents have implicitly recognized that importance and power over the last 40 years and more. In fact that reaction has given form to the Roman Catholic Church itself under the last two popes. More than anything else liberation theology has also influenced U.S. politics for the last 30 years. It has literally shaped our world. Liberation theology is the reason behind the current spate of unending wars against the poor people of the world.

When I express such judgment to friends, they remain dubious and unbelieving. Their response not only reflects tone-deafness to the power of religious mythology, it also illustrates how short our memories are. We have trouble recalling what Chomsky calls the “first religious war of the 21st century” – less than forty years ago. That war was fought not against Islam, but against the Catholic Church in Latin America, precisely because of its adoption of liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor.”

In Latin America, the Reagan administration and its successors correctly perceived the grassroots social power of liberation theology. In Central America they saw a threat to control of its “backyard.” So U.S. officials allied themselves with a conservative Polish pope in the Vatican, with reactionary Evangelicals in the United States to strangle the revolutions of the poor who found great hope in powerful liberationist interpretations of their religious traditions which had been traditionally used to keep them in their places.

The threat of liberation theology was perceived well before Reagan. Already in 1969, the Rockefeller Report had identified liberation theology as a threat to the national security of the United States. By 1987, the Latin American Military Chiefs of Staff meeting in conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, devoted several pages of their final report to liberation theology and the threat it posed to regional stability. In between, in 1979 the first Santa Fe Document advised the incoming Reagan administration that it had to do something decisive about the threat posed by liberation theology. The administration heeded the advice, and responded both militarily and ideologically.

Reagan’s military strategy against liberation theology issued in that religious war Chomsky referenced. It was perceived as necessary because in 1969, the Conference of Latin American Bishops had together dared to affirm a “preferential option for the poor” as their official position.

To combat that commitment, the U.S. sponsored blood baths throughout Latin America. Many of us are well acquainted with the best-known martyrs: Camilo Torres, Archbishop Romero, the Salvadoran team of liberation theologians killed at San Salvador’s Central American University in 1989, and with the U.S. women religious murdered years earlier in that same country. And then the unending list of martyrs in this war against the Catholic Church – 200,000 in Guatemala, more than 100,000 in Nicaragua, 90,000 in El Salvador, and literally untold killings and disappearances in Honduras. In every case, the carnage was a response to social movements inspired by liberation theology. Again, as Chomsky points out, official U.S. military documents show that liberation theology was a major target of those wars. In fact within those same official documents, the Army boasts specifically about defeating liberation theology.

As for Reagan’s ideological response to liberation theology . . . . On his accession to power, CIA Psy-ops began funding conservative alternatives to liberation theology in Latin America and in the U.S. So did business concerns that saw the leftward drift of Latin America as a threat to their presence there. Domino’s Pizza and Coors Brewery were prominent among the cases in point.

As a result, evangelicals throughout the region grew rapidly in number, and the recipients of those funds in the United States increasingly identified with Republicans, the “hand that fed them.” So the television programs of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jim and Tammy Baker, Jimmy Swaggart, and others were beamed into every poor barrio, población, and favela. Right wing churches sprang up everywhere feeding and expanding an already robust evangelical presence in areas once completely dominated by the Catholic Church. The message was always the same – a depoliticized version of Christianity whose central commitment involved accepting Jesus as one’s personal savior and rejecting communism including the type allegedly represented by the theology of liberation.

All of this points up the extreme importance of LT. In effect liberation theology was not only responsible for spiritual and political awakening throughout Latin America, it was also indirectly responsible for the rise of the religious right in the United States, and ultimately for the Tea Party. On the other side of the aisle, so to speak, we currently have in the White House the first U.S. president directly influenced by liberation theology. For 20 years, Barack Obama was part of the congregation of Jeremiah Wright – identified by James Cone, the father of black liberation theology, as the latter’s foremost contemporary embodiment.
This is why it is possible to identify liberation theology not only as the most important theological development of the last 1700 years, but as the West’s most important ideological development in the past 50 – perhaps the past 150 – years.

As for liberation theology’s contemporary importance, today’s religious right and the Tea Party would probably not exist today were it not for liberation theology. And the 2008 debate about liberation theology (i.e. about Jeremiah Wright) nearly derailed Obama’s run for the presidency. That is, liberation theology has been far more influential than most are willing to recognize. In a sense, it has shaped U.S.-Latin American relations for a half-century. It has changed the face of Protestantism in the United States.

Reagan’s ideological strategy against liberation theology also changed the Catholic Church. As indicated earlier, it involved allying himself with a conservative anti-communist Polish pope, John Paul II, who proved to be an inveterate enemy of liberation theology. The apparent agreement between the two was that John Paul would be silent about the war against Latin American Catholics, if Reagan would help him in the pope’s campaign against communism in Poland. Over his reign of over 20 years, John Paul was to gradually replace Latin America’s pro-liberation theology bishops with conservative pre-Vatican II types. He did this throughout the world – mostly in direct response to liberation theology.

Even more virulently set against liberation theology was John Paul’s lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger, whom the pope appointed head of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith (formerly the Office of the Holy Inquisition). In that capacity, Ratzinger penned an official warning about liberation theology in 1985. Basically, it rejected the movement because of its association with Marxist analysis of third world poverty. Of course, Ratzinger succeeded John Paul II in the papacy. He’s the recently resigned Pope Benedict XVI. So the onslaught against liberation theology continues with no end in sight.

Sadly, Reagan’s two-front strategy worked. Revolutionary gains in El Salvador, Guatemala, and most prominently, in Nicaragua were halted and reversed. Militarily, the “Guatemala Solution” was the template. It entailed using military and paramilitary death squads to kill everyone remotely connected with guerrilla movements. According to the Reagan strategy, that included priests, nuns, lay catechists and ministers of the word influenced by liberation theology. The theological strategy worked as well. The slogan promulgated by the Salvadoran military said it all, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

But despite the carnage, and despite the claims of victory by the U.S. military, liberation theology remains alive and well in grass-roots movements for solidarity. And in general, social movements inspired by liberation theology bore fruit in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They continue to bear fruit today. More specifically, one can credibly say that apart from the theology of liberation it’s impossible to explicate Allende’s rise to power in 1973 or the triumph of the Sandinistas in 1979, or the power the FMLN in El Salvador had and continues to enjoy today. The Zapatista movement in Mexico is also intimately connected with liberation theology. Even more, without reference to liberation theology, it’s impossible to fully understand the rise of new left governments throughout Latin America. All of them are indebted to liberation theology and its power to motivate the grassroots.

That same power to motivate is evident in the ongoing “Arab spring.” There the power derives from the liberation currents undeniably present in Islam. In fact, as Gandhi saw in changing the face of India, similar currents are found in Hinduism. All of this indicates that liberation theology has at its roots elements found at the center of all the religions of the world. In this light, the world-wide offensive against Islam represents the latest phase of the now Thirty Years War against liberation theology under wherever form it may appear.

To be on the right side of history and to move the world towards God’s Kingdom, any new pope must call off the war against liberation theology and embrace it fully in word and action. Imagine how the world would change if he did!

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

6 thoughts on “Will the Next Pope Continue the War on Liberation Theology?”

  1. If “the Cappuccino” were elected, I think there may be a chance for change. A cardinal who sells the mansion and lives in a normal house, and who wears his brown robe and open-toed sandals most days, seems to have his heart in the right place. Whether his colleagues think a “house cleaner” is that badly needed that they are willing to risk their worldly trappings is doubtful, but one can hope.

    Hank

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  2. Spot on, Mike. Well done. Felicitaciones.
    To 33 years of the Wojtyla-Ratzinger tyranny I say Good Riddance.
    Hopefully, Bergoglio’s ignacian spirituality will guide him in a liberationist direction.

    Frank Regan

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  3. Thank you for this. I was in Peru more than 20 years and can vouch for the accuracy of Mike’s account. The years of Wojtyla-Ratzinger are hopefully gone never to return. They were asphyxiating. Francis is sending some good signals but will eventually stall when the big issues like women in ministry, homosexuality, human rights in the church become more demanding of a bolder approach. Those issues will confront humanism with dogmatism and up to now the dogmatic has always prevailed. We must go on building a church which is more open to lay input which can help the pastors have a more realistic, practice-based view of how Catholic faith is lived on the ground. We have a civilisation to build, one based on environmental responsiveness, social justice and equality, mutuality between the sexes, solidarity with the weak etc. The church is the mother of Western civilisation. We need to bring our faith values to the construction of a new civilisation. Hopefully the Church will be there also.

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    1. Thanks, Frank, for bringing us back to reality. I’m afraid you’re right about the dogmatism we can expect before the vital issues you enumerate. And it’s true for me: as I write and say things praising the new pope, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I’m afraid that’s going to happen soon. But thanks for vouching for the accuracy of my account. It’s always reassuring to find support from activists like you who have so much field experience. And I can’t tell you how much it means to me knowing that you’re occasionally reading some of these posts. Thanks, classmate.

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