US Still Fighting “Threat” of Liberation Theology
On September 15, 2011, I wrote to Rev. Msgr. Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, the First Counsellor of the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. In that letter, which was prompted by the killing of the 79th priest in Colombia since 1984, I expressed my concern for the continued killing of Catholic priests and other religious in Colombia. I asserted my belief “that this assault on the Church in Colombia is both state policy of Colombia as well as the United States which is propping up that military with billions of dollars of assistance, and which views organized movements for social justice in Latin America as a threat to its economic domination of the region. I am not alone in this opinion as other priests in Colombia, notably Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., have also expressed this view for many years.”
I copied Father Giraldo on this letter who responded to me with a short note which simply thanked me for the letter and stated, “It is correct the interpretation you gave of what I think.” As for the Holy See, it never responded to my letter – presumably because it does not share my concerns for these priests.
Someone else who has been talking and writing for years on this subject is Noam Chomsky, a friend and supporter of Father Giraldo. In response to my most recent article on the continued assault against the Church in Colombia, Professor Chomsky wrote to me: “Very few are aware of the war the US waged against the Church after the heresy of Vatican II, seeking to return the Church to the Gospels for the first time since Emperor Constantine. You probably know that I’ve been writing about it for a long time. To closed ears, mostly.” Alas, it was a video of a lecture which Chomsky gave in 2009 which really awakened me to the reality of this war and its true nature.
Thus, in December of 2009, Professor Noam Chomsky gave a fascinating speech at Columbia University which summarized events known to few in the developed world: In 1962, Pope John XXIII, through the Second Vatican Council, attempted to reclaim the early roots of the Church; the Church of the first 300 years when it was the “persecuted Church,” the Church of the martyrs. The nature of the Church had changed with Constantine’s declaration in 324 A.D. that the Catholic Church would be the official Church of the Roman Empire, thereby making it the “persecuting Church,” with the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and complicity with Nazism among the numerous crimes which flowed from this.
With the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Church worldwide began to reevaluate itself. In Latin America, this took the form of “Liberation Theology” – a philosophy which took a “preferential treatment for the poor” and which called for active support for social justice movements on behalf of workers, landless peasants and indigenous peoples and active opposition to military rule and corporate domination.
This philosophy, which combined Christianity with Marxism, was first formulated at a meeting of Latin American theologians, spearheaded by Gustavo Gutierrez, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1964. Brazil became ground zero for this new movement and Christian “base communities” dedicated to Liberation Theology began to spring up in that country and to spread throughout Latin America, with more theological meetings to develop Liberation Theology held in Havana, Cuba; Bogotá, Colombia and Cuernavaca, Mexico in June and July 1965.
As Noam Chomsky explains, the United States, not content to sit back and watch as an openly Marxist theology take hold in Latin America – a theology which threatened the U.S.’s economic and military domination of the region – quickly moved to wipe out this emerging movement through violence. For its part, the Vatican, after the death of John XXIII, also moved to wipe it out through the censuring, removal and even de-frocking of liberation priests and bishops.
The first strike against Liberation Theology by the U.S., Chomsky relates, took place in its very cradle – Brazil. Thus, in 1964, the U.S. sponsored the toppling of democratically-elected Brazilian President João Goulart, setting up a military dictatorship which would rule until 1985 and which, through continued U.S. military assistance, violently attack Liberation priests, religious and base communities, thereby extracting the new radical theological movement by its roots.
The U.S. would continue to engage in active, military operations to wipe out Liberation Theology, leaving a slew of murdered priests, brothers and sisters, and even the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, in its wake. All told, well over 100 religious were murdered in Latin America between 1964 and 1985, and the bloodshed did not stop there.
As Chomsky emphasizes, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which marked the official end to the Cold War, the U.S. continued its onslaught against the Liberation Church, most famously through its support of the military slaying of 6 Jesuit Priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter, in November of 1989. As we know from the 1993 UN Truth Commission report, the intellectual authors of the killings of these Jesuits was Col. Inocente Orlando Montano Morales and Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce – fellow 1970 graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia. And, this stands to reason, for as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer notes in his book, School for Assassins (Orbis Books, 1999), in 75% of the training exercises at the SOA, the priest or other religious figure (usually played by a U.S. army chaplain) end up either killed or wounded.
Recently, I was motivated to do a Wikileaks search for “liberation theology” to see what might be revealed about the U.S.’s current position toward that philosophy and the individuals who live by it. In all, thirty-one (31) cables were revealed through this word search, and the cables involved numerous countries, including El Salvador, Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, South Korea, the Philippines, Haiti, Brazil, Venezuela, Lebanon and the Vatican itself. These cables revealed the continued obsession with the U.S. State Department with Liberation Theology and the shared hostility of both the U.S. and the Vatican to this doctrine.
For example, the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican — in a cable entitled “Partners for Progress – Working with Vatican Development Agencies,” and dated January 24, 2003 – makes it clear that the U.S. and Vatican are currently on the same page when it comes to their opposition to Liberation Theology and its challenge to the unjust market structures which perpetuate poverty. (1) Thus, the Embassy states:
THE HOLY SEE ITSELF APPEARS TO HAVE MADE A PHILOSOPHICAL SHIFT IN RECENT YEARS ON ITS APPROACH TO DEVELOPMENT. WHILE MANY POSITION PAPERS STILL CARRY MORE THAN A HINT OF A DEVELOPMENT MESSAGE ROOTED IN THE HALCYON DAYS OF LIBERATION THEOLOGY AND THE INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT THEORY OF THE LATE 1960S, RECENT STATEMENTS — AT THE JOHANNESBURG SUMMIT ON SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT, FOR EXAMPLE — REFLECT A POSITION CLOSER TO THAT OF THE USG [U.S. Government]. RECIPIENTS OF DEVELOPMENT AID ARE ASKED TO BECOME PROTAGONISTS AND PARTNERS IN THEIR OWN DEVELOPMENT. CONCEPTS SUCH AS TRANSPARENCY, GOOD GOVERNANCE, ACCOUNTABILITY AND MARKET LIBERALIZATION NOW PROVIDE A COUNTERBALANCE TO BLAMING “UNJUST STRUCTURES” OR “UNBRIDLED CAPITALISM” FOR THE WORLD’S WOES. THE POPE HAS REINFORCED THESE CONCEPTS IN RECENT MESSAGES AND STATEMENTS, WHICH SUGGESTS THAT THE NEW PERSPECTIVE WILL TRICKLE DOWN FROM THE DICASTERIES TO DEVELOPMENT AGENCIES TO SHAPE THEIR POLICIES AND STRATEGIES. GIVEN THE IMPORTANCE OF THE VATICAN’S VOICE THROUGHOUT THE DEVELOPING WORLD. EMBASSY BELIEVES USG DEVELOPMENT AGENCIES SHOULD SEEK TO BROADEN CONTACTS WITH THE HOLY SEE TO BUILD SUPPORT FOR OUR DEVELOPMENT POLICIES AND INITIATIVES AND TO DEVELOP SYNERGIES WITH THE MANY VATICAN-RELATED DEVELOPMENT AGENCIES. END COMMENT
In a May 6, 2007 Embassy cable relating to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Brazil, the U.S. Embassy there discussed this issue at great length. (2) For example, under the heading, “The ‘Threat’ of Liberation Theology,” the Embassy writes:
Another major contextual issue for the visit is the challenge to the traditional Church played by liberation theology. Pope John Paul (aided by the current pope when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) made major efforts to stamp out this Marxist analysis of class struggle. It had come to be promoted by a significant number of Catholic clergy and lay people, who in a political compromise sometimes sanctioned violence “on behalf of the people.” The more orthodox form of liberation theology that sided with the poor and oppressed had undergone a reductionist reading that the Vatican sought to correct. To a large extent, Pope John Paul II beat down “liberation theology”, but in the past few years, it has seen a resurgence in various parts of Latin America.
This same cable inadvertently points to the results of the U.S.-Vatican attack on this philosophy – the continued mal-distribution of wealth in Latin America. Thus, in this cable, the Embassy explains that at a press conference following the Papal visit to Brazil, “the bishops complained about the ‘unjust distribution of wealth and the abysmal differences in the distribution of resources’ in their region. They asked how this could happen when the majority of Latin America’s presidents, business people and professionals claim to be Catholics.”
Of course, this query answers itself. The continued unjust state of affairs in Latin America is in no small part the result of the Vatican’s own actions, with the help of the repressive forces of the U.S., in promoting a strain of Catholicism which allows the rich and powerful in Latin America to feel comfortable about their wealth – that is, to believe that they have a far better chance of entering heaven than a camel through the eye of a needle as Jesus had warned – and in “stamping[ing] out” the Liberation Theologians who took active, real-world steps to challenge the unjust hold of the rich and powerful upon their nations’ resources and land. In short, the continued injustice quite naturally, and quite predictably and intentionally, follows from the very actions of the Vatican and the United States.
The U.S. Embassy to the Vatican, in a January 14, 2008 cable, analyzes Pope Benedicts views on a number of subjects, including in regard to various countries in Latin America. (3) Of note, the Embassy acknowledges that “For the Holy See, Catholics in Cuba are enjoying some level of religious freedom.” Citing a member of an international lay movement to Rome, the Embassy states that “relations between the Church and the Cuban government were ‘not great, but not too bad either.’” (Indeed, it must be pointed out that the Catholic clergy in Cuba have never suffered the type of violence inflicted upon the clergy living in U.S. client states in the region.)
In light of its own obsession with the subject, the Embassy goes on in the cable to talk at length about the Pope’s current views on Liberation Theology:
Also important — and disturbing — to the Holy See is the resilience of Latin American liberation theology. During his time as the powerful Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the 1980s and 1990s, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger opposed liberation theology for its overt sympathy for revolutionary movements. Some of the supporters of this theology — including former clerics — now occupy prominent political positions in countries like Bolivia and Paraguay, a phenomenon that one commentator has described as the secular reincarnation of liberation theology. For the Holy See, the Church Magisterium (the teachings of the Catholic Church) on social issues already advocates strongly for the rights of the underprivileged. This advocacy, often described as the Church’s “preferential option for the poor”, should not include clerics assuming high level governmental positions or running for office. In calling for a reduction of domestic tensions in Latin America, the Holy See hopes to prevent a climate fertile for activist, progressive clerics to coalesce with populist, authoritarian governments.
In a September 27, 2005 cable emanating from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, and entitled, “El Salvador: The Declining Influence of The Roman Catholic Church,” the U.S. gives a self-serving, though inadvertently revealing, analysis of what has happened in that country for the past few decades. (4) Thus, the Embassy states that
In 1977, former Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero adopted an outspoken stance in favor of “liberation theology” that alienated many of the church’s most influential members. Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas followed Romero’s example during his 1983-1994 tenure. Much changed in the years following the 1992 Peace Accords, which ended repression and violence on the part of government forces and guerrillas. With the selection of Fernando Saenz Lacalle as Archbishop of San Salvador in 1995, the Catholic Church entered a new era during which it withdrew its support for “liberation theology”; Saenz-Lacalle has placed a renewed emphasis on individual salvation and morality. However, an underlying division still exists within the Salvadoran Catholic Church vis–vis such political issues.
The Embassy later on explains that, with its withdrawal from Liberation Theology, “[t]he Salvadoran Catholic Church has in effect been ‘re-Romanized’ . . . .”
As is true so often, what is not said in the foregoing passage is what is most illuminating. Thus, the Embassy refers to Oscar Romero as the “former Archbishop” who embraced Liberation Theology. Of course, as we all know, Oscar Romero is in fact deceased, and, what’s more, he was murdered while saying Mass by forces trained, funded and armed by the U.S. The Embassy, wanting to avoid these inconvenient facts, simply sloughs him off as the “former Archbishop,” as if he may simply be retired. And, what is left unspoken is that it was the murder of good people like Archbishop Romero that led to the Church “re-Romanizing” – a term with a double meaning, for it can properly mean that the Church is again in line with the Vatican in Rome (the intended meaning), but also that it has returned to the pro-Empire stance the Church has maintained (with limited interruption after the second Vatican Council in 1962) since 324 A.D. In other words, mission accomplished for both the Vatican and the U.S.
Fast forward a few years later to February 27, 2009, and the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador is wringing its hands again over a new and “More Outspoken Archbishop” who the Embassy suspects of having Liberation Theology sympathies. (5) Thus, the cable contains an entire section about the new Archbishop which reads, “SYMPATHETIC BUT NOT WEDDED TO LIBERATION THEOLOGY.” As the Embassy explains, Archbishop “Escobar’s public statements suggest that he may hold views close to liberation theology, a movement in the Catholic Church that emphasized liberating the poor and oppressed and led some adherents to support revolutionary activity in Latin American including the FMLN’s insurgency (1980-1992)” – an insurgency, of course, which the U.S. vigorously opposed through its support of the repressive military forces in El Salvador which crushed the insurgency and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the process.
As this cable explains, some of the statements which Archbishop Escobar has made which make the U.S. suspicious of his sympathy for Liberation Theology are his pronouncements against mining operations in El Salvador, including the mining of Pacific Rim – a “Canadian company with U.S. investors” as the cable explains. Also betraying his Liberation Theology sympathies, the cable explains, is the fact that “in his first homily, Escobar asserted that he wants to be with the weak and poor because that is the Church’s duty and called for priority to be given to the ministering to the poor.” The cable goes on to say that “Escobar also professed . . . to admire Father Ignacio Ellacuria, a Jesuit priest and contributor to liberation theology, who was murdered by the Salvadoran Forces in 1989, and Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was assassinated by death squads in 1981 [sic.].” Again, the new Archbishop’s loyalty to these slain religious makes him suspect in terms of his true loyalties.
Still in another cable from San Salvador, dated June 24, 2008, which purports to give a historical view of the FMLN, the Embassy claims, “During the 12 year Salvadoran civil war (1980-92), the FMLN attempted to overthrow the government utilizing a strategy that included armed struggle, terrorism, socialist/communist political indoctrination. The liberation theology movement within the Catholic Church and labor unions largely supported these efforts. The group received monetary support and arms from the Soviet Bloc and Cuba.” (6) This statement, filled with quite misleading information, is very revealing of the Embassy’s antipathy towards Liberation Theology.
Thus, in this short passage, the Embassy paints the Liberation Theology movement as largely supporting the FMLN’s alleged terrorism, and in conjunction with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Of course, this intentionally ignores the fact that it was the U.S.-backed military and paramilitary death squads in El Salvador which committed the vast majority of the terrorism against the civilian population; that much of the liberation theology movement, as best exemplified by Archbishop Romero himself, condemned the violence committed by both sides of the conflict; and that the claims of Soviet and Cuban support for the home-grown FMLN were always overblown. But what is significant is that the U.S. views the Liberation Theology movement as in cahoots with terrorism and international Communism – that is, with the two biggest targets (or at least ostensible targets) for U.S. violence since World War II.
The cables on this subject go on and on, but suffice it to say that they are consistent in vilifying both religious and political leaders who either are, or who the U.S. believes to be, linked with Liberation Theology. This list includes Fernando Lugo, the sandal-wearing former Catholic Bishop, who was just overthrown in a “legal” coup in Paraguay which the U.S. instantly ratified (7); Jean Betrand Aristide, the President of Haiti who was forced into exile by the joint efforts of U.S., Canada and France (8); Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa (9); Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (10); and even a Shia leader in Lebanon, Sheikh Ahmed Taleb, who the U.S. claims had, during his misguided youth, “taught a Lebananese Shia version of liberation theology; its rhetoric colored with insults aimed at the U.S. and Israel.” (11)
In short, the U.S. very much views Liberation Theology, and those that adhere to it, as enemies. And, it views itself as aligned with the Vatican in their mutual efforts to destroy this philosophy. Of course, this has real-world consequences.
As just one example, an Embassy cable from June 9, 2009, explains how the former Colombian analogue of the FBI, the DAS, had been spying on and “Neutralizing” (a code word which can include actions up to assassination) particular human rights groups, including Father Giraldo’s group, the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace (“CIJP” or “Justicia y Paz”). (12) This cable noted that this surveillance has been ordered by the then-President of Colombia himself, Alvaro Uribe. The cable noted that the “[s]urveillance included physical monitoring of individuals and their families (including minor children), phone and email intercepts, and collection of sensitive financial data. The unit appears to have also taken active measures to disrupt opposition events and intimidate human rights activists. . . . Journalists and human rights activists claim the surveillance [which began in 2004-2005] continues.” (emphasis added).
One must seriously wonder whether, indeed, this state policy of “neutralizing” the CIJP continues even now, and whether the recent assassination attempt upon Father Alberto Franco of the CIJP on February 13, 2013, was indeed carried out pursuant to this policy. I myself will say for the record that should any further ill befall Father Franco or any other priest associated with the CIJP, the Colombian state and its U.S. backer must be held responsible.
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh. He teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.