Camilo Torres, His Life and His Message
Camilo Torres por el Padre Camilo Torres Restrepo (1956-1966), Sondeos No. 5.
ColombiaCamilo Torres, Un Símbolo Controvertido, 1962-67, CIDOC Dossier No. 12. publications.)
The historic view of Latin America is that it is a thrill. Huge mountains, lush jungles, exotic wealth and poverty, bloody politics—this is the exciting continent. The image has obsessed not only tourists and artists but businessmen, churchmen and statesmen, and revolutionaries. Its strongest enthusiasts now are the New Leftists, here, in Europe, and in Latin America. They see the death of Camilo Torres, the Colombian priest and sociologist killed in revolutionary action in 1966, like the death of Che in 1967 as a brilliant case of martyrdom in the long march to freedom. Camilo Torres is a special hero, a real intellectual who went off with the guerrillas.
There is a darker view of Latin America, that it is a bore. Incredibly various, dense and complicated, resentful of change, in constant pain, it is the depressing continent. In this view Torres died in vain, not a martyr because he was not a cynic.
Colombia—What is the meaning of a man’s death in its politics? It is a grim country, “developing” but disjointed and constricted. Three Andean ranges lifting it from the Pacific pull it into knots. Up the cold hollows the rural folk rot in grudges and feuds. In the valleys along the rivers, the Cauca and the Magdalena, the coffee planters and cattle ranchers stew in their rancor. In the big cities, Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali in the interior, Barranquilla on the Caribbean, all deals are suspect. Rain is forever falling, or threatening to fall, shutting people in, making the streets empty and shining, deepening the mud in the fields, turning the country as gray as a newsreel. Everywhere the feeling is of loneliness, exclusion.
Colombia has a superficial coherence. For 150 years, since independence from Spain in 1819, one class has ruled there. Maintaining Liberal and Conservative parties, letting parvenus marry into their ranks, easing diehards out, several Great Families have traditionally provided the hierarchs of the political, religious, and economic establishments. Masters of manipulation and co-optation, they are modern Latin America’s shrewdest oligarchy.
But their enduring control of the country aggravates its conflicts. The worst burden is the very agency of rule, the two old parties. Among the Great Families the parties have been yokes of union, holding Liberal and Conservative gentlemen in erudite debate in Bogotá. But out among the plain people with mud on them, where the Liberal Families have organized their clients, employees, debtors, and tenants as the “reds,” and where the Conservatives have organized theirs as “blues,” the parties have turned local feuds into local crusades. Because of the Great Families, politics pervades but does not relieve the loneliness.
On the rare occasion when the oligarchy loses control, the country goes into agony. The latest debacle lasted from 1948 to 1958, when the parties disintegrated and Colombians murdered each other to the sum of probably 180,000 deaths. The killing started under a Conservative president, with the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a remarkable Liberal leader of popular origins and convictions. In Bogotá and other cities, his people exploded in tremendous riots. To suppress them, Conservatives mounted crusades against all “reds.” In retaliation Liberals still in office mounted crusades against all “blues.” The killing increased after 1950, when a vicious Conservative became president.
Colombians recognized that, in spite of its political tone, this was not a Civil War nor a War of National Liberation. This was simply, as they called it, The Violence. Often the killing was partisan. But always it was berserk, the action of small gangs, petty massacres with no strategy and with none of the dignity of a struggle for a cause or for defense. It was idiotic in the classical sense, a private affair, tens of thousands of private affairs, neighbors burning each other’s houses and slaughtering each other’s families, homicidal maniacs arising as local chiefs, and the government sending out the army and police to shoot the refugees as renegades.
In 1953, to rescue the country, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla seized power and established a military dictatorship. For several months the killing abated. Then Rojas Pinilla lost himself in corruption, and the killing resumed in a second swelling wave. Not until the oligarchy recovered, deposed Rojas, and reinstalled the parties in 1958, did the killing subside. Mere terror and revenge, The Violence had never grown into revolution. The memory it left was of shame, not pride or rage.
Since 1958 the oligarchy has firmly managed the “development” of the country. Conservative and Liberal Party bosses have cooperated in a National Front, a deal to trade the presidency every four years and to maintain parity in other offices until 1974. The economy, replete with an Institute of Agrarian Reform and a graduated income tax, was once “the showcase of the Alliance for Progress”; it still performs creditably for AID and IMF (with a 6 percent rise in GNP last year). Difficulties persist. The distribution of income leaves three quarters of the population poor. In a few remote areas The Violence goes on, and in some places it has grown into a revolutionary struggle under Communist leadership. But the oligarchy remains intact and solidly in authority. President Carlos Lleras Restrepo visited Washington in June, the only president in Latin America now who could leave his country for a trip to the United States—and smoothly return to office.
This is the country which produced Camilo Torres, and which killed him for trying to change it.
At his best, Torres was an intellectual. But the privileges his country gave him so cramped and confused him that he could hardly follow his calling. Born into a comfortable Liberal household in Bogotá in 1929 a sickly child, the youngest son of a swank Bogotá pediatrician and a beauty from one of the Great Families, Torres got an early spoiling, but no taste for learning. His schools were the favorites of the city’s elite—the German School, the Jesuits’ Rosario School, the Ricaurte Lyceum, the Cervantes Lyceum. But much more than studying the boy liked sports and scouting and reporting for the student newspaper. During his last year in school his parents wrung a promise from him to improve his marks, and he finished the year carrying off prizes. In the National University’s Law School, a handsome character, newspapering again and happier chasing girls than grinding over books, he lasted only a semester.
The next year, 1948, was a terrible year in the country, with the assassination of Gaitàn, the riots, the repression. Torres grew reflective. But more than The Violence what seemed to trouble him was his grumpy family and a girlfriend who had joined a convent. On vacation in Colombia’s immense eastern plains, far from home, he decided that his life was absurd. In the idealism and egotism typical at nineteen, he pondered “the great problem: where and how would I be most useful?” But the only uses he considered for himself were lucrative professions, “doctor, lawyer, engineer, chemist….” His final answer, “A total solution, the most logical,” was to become religious. But this he imagined as a retreat into a monastery. Home again, he almost ran off to join the Dominicans. But Mama Torres caught up with her son at the railroad station and arranged his enrollment instead in the archdiocesan seminary in Bogotá, to keep him close to home and in the proper circles.
For six years, during the worst of The Violence, the collapse of the parties, and the military coup, young Torres trained for holy orders. But he relished horseplay more than dogmatics or the canon. “They put up with me,” he later said of the seminary. Ordained in 1954, he began his sacramental career not as a country priest, like Bernanos’s, in anguish over the cure of souls, but as another dandy cleric around Bogotá, handsomer than ever in his black skirt. Without a parish or a mission he whiled away his days at elegant ceremonies. Among Bogotá’s gossips he acquired a minor reputation for wowing the nuns. At twenty-five he was interesting only to his family and friends, and to the girls in the city where he was born. It took a trip to Europe to bring out his true talents.
In 1955, probably to get rid of him, the archbishop of Bogotá sent him to Belgium to study at the Catholic University of Louvain. There the young priest found himself in another grim and divided country, but a country that liberated him, a normal European country where social conflicts were not embarrassments, as in Latin America, but deliberate public operations, organized and legitimate; a country where classes carried on a regular struggle over specific issues, where many Catholics, because they were Catholics, considered themselves socialists; a country where citizens admitted the humanity of strife. In a university again, but free now from the stifling pretensions and relentless guilt of home, discovering the mind and the world open to the mind, Camilo Torres resolved to think.
He concentrated on sociology, a specialty at Louvain. His texts were the standard ones, Tönnies, Durkheim, Weber, T. H. Marshall, Parsons, MacIver. But he learned more from his professors than Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft and Structure and Function. From those who styled themselves “pro-Marxists,” in particular François Houtart, he learned that Catholics should know about their societies and try to reform them—that priests should be sociologists and community organizers. Implicit in all his lessons was the doctrine prevailing at Louvain since the war, the modern Catholic Socialism of the Jesuit Roger Vekemans. What Torres was learning was the new theology that would flower in Ecumenicism. Its urgent message was of human responsibility, a warning against the excuse of human limits, an affirmation of man’s competence and accountability. The esoterica of the new theology did not matter to the eager student from Colombia. What mattered was simply that God now revealed Himself not for men to depend on, but for them to answer to. This Torres took as a commandment of charity.
The demands of sociology, responsibility, and charity ran together in his head. “Scientific knowledge cannot be conceived except as the service of man and God…,” he wrote to a seminar at the National University, no doubt astonishing his old teachers there. In Paris on vacation he did a stint with worker-priests collecting garbage. During a brief vacation in Bogotá he declared to a reporter that “we [educated young men] cannot remain impassive before the physical and moral misery of the majority of our population.”
But his best efforts were intellectual. In 1958 he received his M.A. from Louvain’s School of Political and Social Science. His thesis was an “Approche de la réalité socio-économique de la ville de Bogotá.” It was a good piece of scholarship, its discipline testimony that he had his energies in control.
The education took. After a tour through Eastern Europe, Torres returned to Louvain and served as vice-rector of a special college for training Latin American priests. He also planned his doctoral dissertation and organized Colombian students in Europe to study their country’s difficulties.