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Claude Lacaille opens the body of his new book Rebel Priest in the Time of Tyrants with a brief description of a flight into El Salvador in 2008. From his poetic description of clouds and mountaintops he moves to a discussion of the Christian theology known as Liberation theology. He then shares a letter he wrote to the current Pope’s predecessor, Pope Benedict. The letter is a challenge to Benedict’s attacks on that theology. Having grown up in a Catholic Church identified with Pope Pius X and defined by its support for capitalism and its military forces, an obsession with personal morality, and a distaste for the poor, Lacaille had joined the priesthood in the hope of practicing a different faith—one in service of the poor, of the least among us. In doing so, he would come up against a powerful and reactionary hierarchy.
We live in a world where religion is both the inspiration and an excuse for some of the worst acts committed by humans on their fellows. Acts of terror against civilians by non-state actors in the name of this or that faith are common occurrences. Repression of entire groups of believers by state forces acting in fear of the anger that repression has stirred up are a standard part of national security politics around the world. Politicians from every faith fight a never ending battle of words against other faiths in pursuit of power. Religious institutions manipulate their believers in and out of government into making discrimination against other humans because of their sexuality and gender a fact of law. Misogyny is legalized in the name of religion and war is blessed, as it almost always has been.
This reality does not exist in a historical vacuum. Besides the economic and political histories that led to the current situation, there are also complementary religious histories. When it comes to the Catholic Church, that history is one where the Church identified with the aforementioned Pius was briefly liberated during and in the immediate wake of the ecumenical council known as Vatican Two, only to be restored after Pope John XXIII (who led the Council) died and was followed by a series of reactionary clergy. These clergymen were not only intent on restoring the pre-Council Church in matters of religion, they were also intent on restoring its alliances with rightwing political forces and its patriarchal, homophobic and ultimately misogynistic take on human sexuality. As Lacaille’s Rebel Priest makes clear, their first goal was getting rid of priests too closely aligned with popular Marxist forces organizing for social justice in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Lacaille’s story is at times harrowing. At other times, it is heroic, although he would most certainly deny any heroism. Choosing to live and practice his vocation in some of the world’s most impoverished and repressive nations, he writes of religious communities joining revolutionaries in the streets of Santiago, Chile facing brutal repression. He also tells of Haitian troops attacking villagers without remorse or restraint. The reader discovers priests and bishops in alliance with the fascist dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet conspiring against those priests opposing the fascists. Facing a psychic breakdown after years of such work, Lacaille left Chile after a particularly violent time that saw several antifascist activists killed (including two who were burned to death) and his bishop dismissed by the Vatican most likely because of his support for the protests against the dictatorship. Naturally, Lacaille finds himself questioning his vocation, his Church and his leaders. Yet, he remains true to this god and keeps his hope in the Church.
The radical, even revolutionary priests of whom Lacaille was one are prime examples of religion’s possibilities. They, along with other believers who took Marx’s “sigh of the oppressed” and turned it into more than a cry, more than a plea; indeed, they turned their faith into a philosophical justification and inspiration for revolutionary change. It is one of history’s unfortunate realities that those more powerful than they—in their church and in the government and economy—rejected their cry and did their best to render it impotent. Those with less faith might have turned their rejected cries into something else, like those who in recent times have decided mass murder to be their means to be heard.
Catholics whose faith accepts liberation theology as the true gospel, and those who work with them, may be breathing a bit easier now that the most reactionary members of the Church’s hierarchy have lost control of the Vatican. Recently, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez was invited to the Vatican to discuss redirecting the Church towards the poor and with less emphasis on enforcing personal morality. Like earlier attempts to do so, there is much opposition to this change in direction. Those priests and laypeople who see the Church’s primary role as controlling its believers—especially women and youth—are slow to change their direction, continuing to focus their sermons on opposition to abortion and other forms of contraception. Indeed, at the Catholic college I work at, a female student was denied an opportunity to intern at the local Planned Parenthood office because of the Church’s opposition to those aspects of Planned Parenthood’s mission. As one would hope, it is a prominent discussion topic on campus, given that the student body (about 50% Catholic) is considerably more liberal than the Church hierarchy.
Rebel Priest is a valuable document. It provides a personal story of a movement in the Catholic Church that stood up against monopoly capitalism and dictatorship. Complementarily, it is also a petition for that Church to redirect its mission towards the social gospel of Jesus Christ; a gospel that states it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. One need not be a believer in a god to appreciate Lacaille’s story. However it is essential that they be a humanist to understand its worth.