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The Rise and Fall of Liberation Theology in Latin America

Souad Sharabani: Liberation Theology in Latin America has been an integral part of progressive movements. Dan Kovalik is a Human Rights lawyer and an activist that has been writing extensively about how the Vatican, with the support and guidance from the United States, has sabotaged Liberation Theology in Latin America. Their aim has been to maintain the status quo and stop the progressive forces from taking control. I talked to Dan Kovalik about the rise and fall of Liberation Theology in Latin America.

Dan Kovalik: I am a labor lawyer and I also teach International Human Rights Law at the University of Pittsburg’s School of Law. My interest in social justice came from my visits to Latin America. I would say Liberation Theology moved me a lot as a young person and formed who I am today.

Souad Sharabani: How can a movement such as Liberation Theology be so easily dismantled? After all it is not just the Vatican but also the widespread progressive philosophy of the Jesuits that appears to have been sacrificed.

Dan Kovalik: Only some sectors of the Jesuits are progressive. There are some who profess a belief in Liberation Theology and others who are extremely conservative. But certainly in the 60s and 70s Liberation Liberation Theology motivated many of the religious people in Latin America. Initially the progressive movements were spurred on by the Vatican. With the Second Vatican Council beginning in 1962, Pope John XXIII made a concerted attempt to remake the Church into “The Church for the People” for the first time since Constantine in the 4th century made the Church the official church of Rome. This was a very radical shift.

The Bishops in Latin America capitalized on the opening brought about by Vatican II and they unveiled the concept of Liberation Theology. In so doing they elevated ‘preferential treatment for the poor’ as one of its leading tenets. It was manifested in various ways in a variety of communities, particularly in Brazil.

I don’t believe Liberation Theology was easily dismantled, but was indeed violently dismantled, beginning with the 1964 coup in Brazil. The United States supported this coup and a military dictatorship was established. The coup itself was motivated in large part by the desire to violently wipe out Liberation Theology. You see that with the violence in the 60s, 70s and even until now, repressive forces continue to eliminate liberation priests and clergy.

Souad Sharabani: Did Liberation Theology simply attract like-minded adherents or did Liberation Theology actually change the beliefs of its people?

Dan Kovalik: That is always a greyarea. I would say it is a bit of both. It is a dialectical relationship. It works both ways. Due to the Spanish colonization of Latin America, the Catholic Church had considerable power and influence in Latin America. The direction of the Church affected very much the direction of the greater society in Latin America.

The more progressive left wing turn of the political leadership in Latin America also had an impact on the greater society. But as you said, there were seeds of rebellion and resistance in any case that Liberation Theology tapped into. This had its historical roots in the repression of the indigenous groups and the poor in Latin America.

I think one of the reasons you see Liberation Theology more in Latin America than anywhere else in the world is because of that history. It was fertile ground in which the people shared grievances against their own governments and against the United States, which by that time was the imperial power. This is why it became such a powerful force. You had both the influential Church adopting progressive theology and the people, given their difficult situations, were certainly ready to consider it.

Souad Sharabani: Why was the Vatican so willing to abandon progressive Catholics and lose Latin America to the fundamentalists?

Dan Kovalik: Yes, they were willing to do that, just as they were willing to sacrifice the entire Church by protecting child molesters. It is a different issue but here is another example of horrible choices that the church has made over the years. I think that they viewed themselves as saving the Church and saving Rome’s domination of the Church, but by doing so, they ended up sacrificing much, much more. In hindsight, did the church recognize how many people would be lost due to that, or had it thought that in the end they would gain more followers?

Souad Sharabani: What happened to the progressive priests and nuns once the shift to the right came about?

Dan Kovalik: First of all you had very influential leaders, who were killed, the most famous being Archbishop Romero. He had been a conservative clergy member who became radicalized in El Salvador when his friend Father Grande, a Liberation theologian, was murdered. This is what really awakened Father Romero to the injustices in his own country. Important people were being murdered and military dictatorships were being installed in various countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Uruguay, and in Brazil. There was also Operation Condor in South America’s Southern Cone, including Argentina and Chile, in the 1970’s. These military dictatorships terrorized and carried out atrocities and massacres against their own people, including not just clergy but the base of Church laity who were in support of Liberation Theology.

These dictatorships were being mostly sponsored by the United States. The Vatican was not opposed, particularly after the very right wing Pope Paul 6th succeeded Pope John 23rd. Pope Paul himself turned against Liberation Theology and from that time forth the Church itself began its own repression against liberation theologians. This was achieved not through violence as used by the dictatorships, but by censoring priests who were too radical. This was personified by the iconic scene in Nicaragua wherein the Father Ernesto Cardenal, who had supported the Sandinista Revolution, was openly scolded by Pope John Paul II when he attempted to to kiss his ring. Father Jean Bertrand Aristide of Haiti was also censored because he took an active role in government. This was emblematic of the church’s attitude towards Liberation Theology by that time.

Souad Sharabani: You referred to ‘other world events’ that occurred which impacted the failure of Liberation Theology. Can you elaborate on that?

Dan Kovalik: In the early 90’s the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist block had an impact on people. None of these things happened in a vacuum. You cannot separate the fact that Vatican II happened in 1960’s when the anti-colonial struggle was taking place around the world not only in Latin America but also in Africa and Asia. You had the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and you had many peace movements. All were happening together, and affecting each other. Liberation Theology was weakened because the left in general was being weakened. They were all connected.

Souad Sharabani: Liberation Theology has been identified almost exclusively with Latin America. It is not as active in the rest of the world. Why not?

Dan Kovalik: What I know about Latin America is a long history of rebellion and revolution. Look at figures like Augusto Sandino, Jose Marti, Faribundo Marti, Fidel Castro, or Che Guevara. Latin America has long been a very fertile ground for Left Wing Revolution, and Liberation Theology found such fertile ground in Latin America as a result. For example, in Nicaragua I saw a painting of Che on a cross, just like Jesus. In these societies those kinds of images make sense. It was a perfect storm that fostered its growth.

Souad Sharabani: The new Pope seems to be more progressive than the recent previous Popes. Do you expect Liberation Theology to gain ascendency once again?

Dan Kovalik: Yes, I do think it could move in such a direction. Francis is the first Pope who is not from Europe. He lived in Argentina during the military junta there, and he knew priests who were killed. The woman who mentored him was a communist. He is bringing this historical context to the Vatican. So yes, he has the potential to lead the church towards rebuilding Liberation Theology in Latin America. The retreat of Liberation Theology due to American policies and the Vatican has been a great loss to the world. I do hope that this spirit and vision will be reclaimed. And that is all good.

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