The passing of the Pope John Paul II has led to an outpouring of world emotion. Iconic-like devotion portrayed the Pope as a flawless global leader and has cost him his humanity. While the pope’s accomplishments are noteworthy, his shortcomings provide critical insight.
Great emphasis has also been placed on the future of the Catholic Church and the role of a to-be-name pope within it. But before we can speculate about the future, we must first evaluate and learn from the past. An honest remembrance yields mixed results. To reflect on the Pope’s failures is not to disrespect his legacy. Rather such reflection comes with the recognition that his passing provides a unique opportunity for the church to learn from its past shortcomings.
By 1989, El Salvador, a postage stamp size country in Latin America was engulfed in a brutal civil war between Salvadorian government forces and leftist opposition groups. The conflict was fueled by peasant frustration over the growing disparity of wealth that stemmed from the country’s agricultural practices. Coffee cultivation, which dominated the Salvadoran economy from the latter half of the 19th century, subsidized the land-owning oligarchy but forced the majority of the Salvadorian population off their land and into poverty. By the 20th century, only two percent of the land-owning population controlled El Salvador’s wealth, and most citizens lived as poor agricultural workers. In the 1930s economic conditions deteriorated further.
The depression of 1932 caused coffee prices to plummet. Farm workers found themselves unemployed or facing large wage cuts. Desperate to ensure their survival, the farmer-peasants began to organize government-opposition groups. In 1932 a peasant revolt (with communist undertones) took one hundred lives. Government security forces responded by instigating a la Matanza (the Great Killing), in which they “methodically lined peasants up against the wall and shot them down.” It is estimated that 30,000 peasants and indigenous peoples were killed in this manner. General Martinez, the dictator and perpetrator of the El Salvador massacre defended the Matanza on religious grounds, contending that it was “more of a crime to kill an ant than a man because a man is born again at death, whereas an ant dies forever.”
After some time, the Roosevelt administration condoned the massacre on more practical grounds. A State Department memo noted that concentrated land ownership forced a large percentage of population to live in poverty but found no link between poor living conditions and the insurrection. Instead, the memo attributed all deaths to the spread of communism in Mexico and praised the Salvadorian government for its “display of efficiency” in dealing with the revolt.
Over the next 50 years, while El Salvador remained under military rule, popular frustrations over economic inequalities intensified. And as opposition groups evolved into a powerful social force, the government began to target “subversives” with death squads and assassinations. One officer described the torture these death squads inflicted. “When the actual physical torture begins, there are a lot of different methods: cutting off pieces of his skin, burning him with cigarettes…Or sometimes you just beat his hands and beat him in the stomach, either with fists or with heavy sticks…In general, you will kill the prisoners because there’s an assumption they shouldn’t live… You learn how to torture, how to cut the balls off a person when he’s still alive. These are things that happen in war.”
Meanwhile, Christian missionaries, inspired by a new “theology of liberation,” traveled to Latin America to promote social justice and equality. This new sense of mission arose in the wake of a 1968 conference of Latin American bishops. There, the clergy branded “concentrated land ownership and the vast gulf separating the rich and poor as examples of institutional violence which led to hunger and misery” and pledged to “make a preferential option for the poor and to call the rich to conversion in an effort to free their societies from the bondage of sinful social structures.” The peasants -- who had previously been told that their poverty was a manifestation of God’s will -- found liberation theology appealing. The ruling elite, who also attributed their notoriety to “God’s plan,” loathed and feared this progressive religious trend.
A 1987 report from the Conference of American Armies (a meeting which brought together commanders from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and the United States) branded liberation theology as the principal security threat facing the region. Throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, Latin American leaders considered progressive churches to be cowards, “hiding behind the cloth as they spread their diseased doctrine to the peasants.”
In 1980, the murder of Archbishop Romero -- a leader and preacher of liberation theology sparked a civil war in El Salvador. The Salvadorian army adopted a zero tolerance policy and targeted “all known subversive elements.”
When John Paul was elected to the papacy in 1978, he “became alarmed by what he said were similarities between some elements of liberation theology and Marxism. He saw links between the groups and the participation of some Latin American clergy” in anti-government insurgency.
American policy makers found similar connections. In 1962, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff broadly defined insurgency as “illegal opposition to any existing government.” The definition was intentionally broad, so as to equate passive resistance, student strikes, general activism, trade unions, peasant organizations, religious catechists, guerilla operations or any other challenges to the status quo with Communism or “evil.”
After 1978, “Vatican commissions visited Romero two times demanding that he explain his outspoken criticism of El Salvador’s military rulers.” After his murder, the Pope appointed Fernando Saenz Lacalle as archbishop, a member of Opus Dei and a starch opponent of liberation theology.
The appointment came as a slap in the face to hundreds of peasant church members and religious workers in Latin America. Progressive advancements were reversed and old inequalities were restored. The Pope’s inability to distinguish between so-called militant Communism and an indigenous movement for justice produced deadly consequences.
Igor Volsky is the host of the Luske-Volsky Show (with Dr. Bruce Luske) and Political Thought, two public affairs programs airing every Monday and Friday from 4-6 p.m. on WMAR 1630AM. Both shows can be streamed at www.politicalthought.net. Igor can be reached at: Igor.Volsky@marist.edu.
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