After the 1959 Cuban revolution, guerrilla groups appeared across Latin America, their ranks crowded with urban middle-class student radicals anxious to emulate Fidel Castro. But, as Ernesto Che Guevara learned to his cost, they had neither support nor organization among the peasants, workers, and slum-dwellers in whose name they were acting. And, gradually, they were wiped out—in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia,, Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and, finally, Argentina.

In Central America, however, a new generation of guerrilla groups emerged in the late 1970s, this time made up largely of Indian and mestizo peasants and factory workers. And when repression came on a scale exceeding even the horrors of Argentina, the guerrilla movements survived: in Nicaragua, they seized power in July 1979; and in El Salvador and Guatemala, they are still at war with brutal military regimes.

What happened, then, to make the armed struggle seem alive in Central America today when it proved so hopeless in South America a decade or so ago? Poverty is certainly not the answer, because Bolivia, for example, is decidedly more backward than El Salvador. Repression as a catalyst for rebellion is also an unlikely explanation since official terror did, in fact, eliminate the guerrillas in Guatemala in the late 1960s. Nor, despite the Reagan administration’s insistent assurance, is Cuban involvement a major factor since, disillusioned by the failure of its effort to “export” revolution to the continent, even Havana was caught off guard by the surge of popular unrest in Central America.

Rather, the key lies in the changing role of the Roman Catholic Church. It is not the only reason—the Carter administration’s human rights policy undoubtedly helped to destabilize the region’s near-feudal political structures; the dimensions of the tiny Central American republics also create a “politics of scale” in which the ingredients for revolution can reach the combustion point more easily—but the most important single variable is the Church.

In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church, still sharing the fears of communism of the ruling élite, had yet to address the root causes of poverty. But by the late 1970s, important parts of the Church were not only busily promoting political organization among the poor masses, but they were also increasingly identified with radical groups. In Central America, at least, activist priests served as a bridge between the guerrillas and the poor and helped make armed struggle legitimate, while Christian revolutionaries took up arms and helped to temper the Marxist dogmatism of the rebel groups. The Church changed, but so did the left.

It is not difficult to argue that the metamorphosis of the Church is the most significant political development in Latin America since the Cuban revolution. And it is made easier by the fact that so little else has changed. The economic structures of the continent are still designed to bring growth for the few rather than development for the many. Political freedom is even scarcer than two decades ago, as corrupt and repressive military regimes proclaim themselves to be the predestined saviors of “Christian civilization.” And, as the Reagan administration has set out to demonstrate, the inability of the United States to understand the complex social and political dynamics of the region as anything but “communist agitation,” remains pure and intact.

A good place at which to begin the education of the new administration on Latin America would be Penny Lernoux’s fine book about the Church in Latin America, Cry of the People, which was first published last year and is now being reissued. The publishers have probably lost Ms. Lernoux a few readers by describing the book as recounting “United States involvement in the rise of fascism, torture, and murder and the persecution of the Catholic Church in Latin America,” because, in reality, her book is not a standard radical tract on the evils of “Yankee imperialism” south of the border. Rather, it tells a story of far greater importance: how the centuries-old alliance of Sword and Cross in Latin America is suddenly falling apart.

The significance of this can only be truly recognized by taking account of the Church’s historical role in the continent, starting with the religious justification that the missionaries provided for the Spanish conquest of the mainland early in the sixteenth century. Ms. Lernoux might in fact have dealt at greater length with the Church’s deep roots in society, if only to explain its resilience against attack today. Throughout the colonial era, in fact, the Church stood close to political power. And, as a wealthy landowner in its own right, it also exercised enormous economic influence. There were some notable defenders of the Indians among the clergy, not least Bartolomé de las Casas in Mexico, but on the whole the Church was identified with a colonial system—and with such niceties as the Inquisition—that kept the Indians in a state of serfdom. Even after independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, little changed. And, while the Church lost much of its real estate in the liberal reforms that swept the continent between 1850 and 1880, its vast influence over the people soon replenished its political strength.


Only in this century did the Church suffer two serious reverses—when it backed the losing side in both the Mexican and the Cuban revolutions. Yet, despite the fierce anticlericism that led to the persecution of Catholic priests and the brutal suppression of the Cristero rebellion in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s, the Catholic hierarchy is still a powerful conservative force in Mexico today. In Cuba, the communist regime has come to recognize that persecution is the surest way of preserving religious fervor but those who are openly Catholic are still subject to considerable pressure and encounter difficulty in their careers.

Elsewhere in Latin America, the Church remained wholly in league with the ruling economic and political elites. In Argentina, for example, well-to-do families would ensure that at least one son joined the army and another entered the Church. In rural areas, local priests controlled the peasantry more effectively than any band of landowners’ pistoleros. In the cities, the clergy was dedicated largely to educating the children of the rich, passing on social and political values often unchanged for centuries. The Catholic hierarchies, on the other hand, played politics at the highest level, willing to bless—literally—the most distasteful of regimes on the one condition that their power was recognized and respected. Leading bishops, in fact, often seemed as comfortable rubbing shoulders at social gatherings with presidents, generals, and land-owners as they did at the altar.

The Cuban revolution, however, sent shock waves through the religious as well as political structures of the continent. Politically, the Church’s response was not unlike that of the United States: Washington rushed to prepare the continent’s armies to combat “communist subversion” while also promoting reforms through the Alliance for Progress, and the Church stepped up its anti-communist rhetoric but also helped to found Christian Democratic parties formally committed to social reform.

But there were also serious institutional motives for alarm: the churches of the continent were growing emptier by the year, while the shortage of young men willing to take up orders was forcing bishops to “import” more and more priests from Ireland, Spain, and the United States. Further, with the Church seemingly out of touch with contemporary realities, growing numbers of priests and nuns were renouncing their vows. The Church was in fact facing a challenge to its survival as both a religious and political institution.

The first important signs of change came from Rome. Pope John XXIII issued his revolutionary encyclicals Mater et Magistra in 1961 and Pacem in Terris in 1963 which emphasized the right to education, a decent standard of living, and political participation. The second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, then established the equality of laity, priests, and bishops and indirectly stimulated the emergence of the so called “Church of the Poor,” comprising grass-roots Christian communities. Finally, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, dealing with the economic, social, and political rights of mankind, set the mood for the second Latin-American Episcopal Conference in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968.

“Medellín produced the Magna Carta of today’s persecuted, socially committed Church, and as such rates as one of the major political events of the century,” Ms. Lernoux notes. “It shattered the centuries-old alliance of Church, military and the rich elites.” Pope Paul himself traveled to Colombia for the meeting, telling a crowd in Bogotá: “We wish to personify the Christ of a poor and hungry people.” In their final document, the bishops of the continent developed this theme, denouncing “institutionalized violence” and the “international imperialism of money,” and committing themselves to the “option of the poor.”

In reality, with the exception of a few bishops, such as North-East Brazil’s Dom Helder Cámara, most prelates were not yet identified with the struggle of the poor and oppressed. But there were many younger priests, frequently Spanish-born or European-educated, who were waiting for the theological green light that Medellín gave their social and political activities: suddenly they could wield the words of the pope and their bishops as powerful revolutionary weapons. And, from this group, which included Peru’s Gustavo Gutiérrez, Brazil’s Leonardo Boff, and El Salvador’s Catalan-born Jon Sobrino, emerged the so-called Theology of Liberation. In fact, when many bishops recognized that the political implications of the Medellín documents were far more radical than they intended, they seemed anxious to reverse themselves, and the battle between conservatives and “progressives” inside the Latin American Church began.


The principal factor of radicalization, though, was no more theological than the fierce repression unleashed by the military regimes that were seizing power across South America at the time. The year 1968, for example, was the year of Medellín, but it was also the year that Brazil’s ruling generals turned nasty. Brazil’s bishops, still digesting the Church’s new social philosophy, were suddenly forced to defend a number of Dominican priests who were arrested—with the usual trappings of torture—for involvement with leftist guerrillas. Circumstances, then, more than initiative led Brazil’s Catholic hierarchy into its first serious confrontations with the military regime. And, having jumped to the aid of radical priests, the bishops had little choice but to speak out against abuse of radical members of the laity. With the local press censored and opposition politics banned, the Church was alone, its voice amplified by the surrounding silence.

The case of Brazil is particularly important, not only because liberal bishops are now in a majority in the world’s most populous Catholic nation, but also because it has become the laboratory for the Church of the Poor. The human rights advocacy of the Brazilian Catholic Church has inevitably attracted most attention. Sao Paulo’s valiant Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns has dared to challenge publicly the fiercest of hard-line generals, holding defiant funeral masses for political prisoners tortured to death, even endorsing strikes from the pulpit. In a new book, Mystic of Liberation, a Spanish author-priest, Teofilo Cabestrero, tells of another extraordinary prelate, Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga of Sao Félix, who has defended the Indians of Brazil’s Amazon region against the “theft” of their communal lands for “development” by powerful groups.

Yet the growth of grass-roots Christian communities—comunidades de base—throughout Brazil has perhaps been even more revolutionary. In villages and slums, they began as Bible groups with just ten to fifteen participants, but they soon became educational sessions in which social and political problems, as varied as alcoholism in the community and trade union repression, were analyzed in the light of the Bible’s teaching. It was just a question of reading the same Bible, one priest explained, but with the eyes of the poor. Growing as a kind of “Church of the Catacombs,” the comunidades de base have now emerged as a genuine People’s Church in which bishops, and even priests, are almost redundant.

As in Brazil, though, it was the outrageous abuse by military regimes that forced other Church hierarchies to take sides against them. Chile’s Cardinal Raul Silva, for example, was a renowned critic of the socialist government of the late President Salvador Allende. Yet, after General Augusto Pinochet seized power in September 1973, Cardinal Silva, for simple humanitarian reasons, heard and echoed the complaints of relatives of “disappeared” persons. And, for this, the regime heaped abuse upon him. “The experience of repression, like the experience of living in a slum or a backward village, almost always provides a radical political education,” Ms. Lernoux observes. “In the Church’s case, the bishops asked themselves why laity, priests, and nuns were being imprisoned and tortured and murdered in Chile and a dozen other Latin American countries merely because they objected to the lack of such political freedoms as the right to organize a union or because they were trying to improve the living standards of the masses. And by studying the reasons for this repression, many bishops came to the conclusion that they had been right after all to take a hard line at Medellín.”

The story of repression against the Church in Latin America matches the story of repression against all critics of dictatorships. Literally dozens of priests and nuns have been murdered, and hundreds have at different times been threatened or arrested. In Argentina, two bishops were killed in the late 1970s. Ms. Lernoux tells the story of many of these manyrs, but she also recounts how military governments encouraged such fanatical Catholic groups as “Tradition, Property and Family” in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to counter the influence of reform-minded clergy.

But conservative governments have found other ways of attacking the Catholic Church. A favorite weapon is the fundamentalist Protestant sects, which invariably support the political status quo and, in the polarized atmosphere of Latin America, are dangerously right-wing. For example, they are frequently given air time denied to Catholic radio stations and, more specifically, they are urged to evangelize—in reality, to divide—communities where radical priests are active. Brazil’s generals, on the other hand, had the novel idea of stimulating the growth of the spiritist movement—known broadly abroad as macumba—which has its roots in the pagan traditions brought over from Africa by the slave trade, but which is now widely popular among the white middle-classes of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.

In Central America, however, the growth of church radicalism was different. Throughout the 1960s, the tiny republics of the isthmus remained political backwaters. The guerrilla movement in Guatemala brought political violence, but no popular mobilization, while El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras were all ruled by the traditional triumvirate of Oligarchy-Army-Church.

The problem facing restless sectors of the Church, then, was not how to defend government critics from repression, but how to awaken poor peasants and workers from the apathy, resignation, and religious fatalism of centuries. In doing so, however, many priests themselves became more radical. They saw that their mobilization of the poor only brought on repression. And, as peaceful methods of protest and pressure became suicidal, they could not dispute the logic of taking up arms. Only a few priests actually joined the guerrillas, but the number who sympathized with la revolución grew rapidly. The impact on rural populations above all was dramatic: suddenly priests were telling peasants that the armed struggle was also a Christian cause.

In the Indian villages of the Guatemalan highlands, where the visiting padre is traditionally the only trusted white man, priests first became involved in promoting a cooperative movement in the mid-1970s. When this became the target of landowners worried that the peasants might stop migrating at harvest-time to the coastal cotton and sugar plantations, a more radical peasant movement emerged. The priests by then had recognized the natural leaders of the Indian communities and served as a bridge between them and the new Committee for Peasant Unity, which was in turn linked to the guerrillas. Soon afterward, for the first time, Guatemala’s Indians began joining the guerrillas.

The activities of the Church in El Salvador are better known because of the outspoken denunciations, and subsequent murder, of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980. Yet, the less visible work of ordinary priests among the poor was, at least in the long run, more significant politically. Starting in the early 1970s, more and more priests and nuns began trying to stir the country’s deeply impoverished peasantry, first by forming comunidades de base from which lay preachers—known locally as Delegates of the Word—emerged as community leaders, then by encouraging the landless peasants to campaign for an agrarian reform. One group of Jesuits, for example, took over the parish of Aguilares, twenty-five miles north of San Salvador, and helped to organize the first strike ever in a local sugar mill. They also prompted the local peasants to join the Christian Federation of Salvadorean Peasants—or FECCAS—which by the end of the decade was providing the main rural support for the Popular Forces of Liberation, one of El Salvador’s five armed groups.

By 1976, the military government was alarmed at the growing impact of the radical priests and the “hostile” pastoral letters of the aging archbishop, Monsignor Luis Chávez y González. The government therefore put pressure on the Vatican to retire Bishop Chávez and was delighted when the conservative bishop of San Miguel, Monsignor Romero, was named in his place. The activist priests, on the other hand, were depressed by the appointment. In his book, Archbishop Romero: Martyr of Salvador, Father Plácido Erdozaín recalled his image of the prelate shortly before the change in February 1977: “Churchy, lover of rules and clerical discipline, friend of liturgical laws, he was convinced that ‘the most important thing is prayer and personal conversion.’ ” A number of foreign priests even thought of going to some other country “where we would be able to do pastoral work among and with the people—the people’s church.”

Inexperienced politically and insecure theologically, however, Romero proved willing to listen to the radical priests who sought his ear. Further, after he took over, the new archbishop was forced to take public stands, denouncing first a massacre that followed protests against an electoral fraud on February 28, 1977, and then the murder, on March 12, of Father Rutilio Grande, one of the Jesuits working in Aguilares. In May, another priest was murdered, and in June Aguilares was attacked by the army, which set up barracks in the local church. By mid-1977, relations between Church and State were worse than ever. Archbishop Romero refused to attend the inauguration of the new president, General Carlos Humberto Romero (no relation), while all the Jesuits in El Salvador were threatened with assassination if they did not leave the country.

Like so many Latin American bishops before him, then, Romero moved from defending his own clergy to defending the poor and oppressed in general. And, with all the opposition intimidated into silence, he was soon the only critic to be heard. Through the priests that surrounded him, he also met the leaders of the emerging militant peasant and labor groups and, in his sermons, he began to echo some of their positions. Then, in November 1978, a priest, Ernesto Barrera, was killed in combat alongside guerrillas of the Popular Forces of Liberation. The archbishop was shocked and confused, Erdozaín recalled, but was also forced to address the question of revolutionary violence for the first time. It was an important turning point in Romero’s political conversion. He decided, for example, to attend Barrera’s funeral and later said:

When a dictatorship seriously violates human rights and attacks the common good of the nation, when it becomes unbearable and closes all channels of dialogue, of understanding, of rationality, when this happens, the Church speaks of the legitimate right of insurrectional violence.

The archbishop always insisted that he was not a politician and should therefore not be asked for political solutions to El Salvador’s crisis. But, as the most popular public figure in the country, he was unavoidably drawn into politics. When young army officers ousted General Romero in October 1979, for example, several liberals consulted the archbishop before joining the junta; the new regime’s only credibility came through a request by the archbishop that it be given time to prove its good will. And when all liberals in the government resigned ten weeks later, after a promised program of reforms had been blocked by the army, they again sought the prelate’s approval for their move. Members of the Christian Democrat party, who to this day share government with the army, then replaced them in the junta. Soon afterward, Romero spoke words that still apply today:

The real power is in the hands of the most repressive sector of the armed forces. If the junta members do not wish to be accomplices in these abuses of power and outright criminal behavior, they should publicly announce the names of those responsible and apply the necessary sanctions, for their hands are red with blood.

By early 1980, the archbishop felt he would soon die. “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people,” he told a Mexican journalist. “I’m not boasting or saying this out of pride, but rather as humbly as I can.” In his sermon on March 23rd, Romero addressed the country’s soldiers: “No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. It is time that you come to your senses and obey your conscience rather than follow sinful commands.” The Army High Command saw this as a call to mutiny and was enraged. The following evening, as he celebrated mass in the small chapel of the cancer hospital where he lived, Romero was struck in the heart by a single bullet fired by a sniper standing at the door of the building.

Even before his death, though, there were serious tensions within the Salvadorean Church. In the country’s six-member Episcopal Conference, Romero was in a minority, supported only by Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas of Santiago de María and sharply criticized by the rest for being “manipulated” by “communist” priests and, worse, by the Jesuits. Further, one month before his murder, Romero returned home depressed from a visit to Rome where Pope John Paul II had expressed his open disapproval of the Church’s deep political involvement in El Salvador.

When the Vatican appointed Bishop Rivera y Damas as Apostolic Delegate and Acting Archbishop, then, he was instructed to work for the unity of the Church. He had the reputation of being progressive, but he adopted a more centrist position, criticizing each extreme with equal fervor. The activist clergy, by now thoroughly identified with the guerrilla movement, were dismayed and bitter. Yet, more political and less emotional than his predecessor, Rivera insisted that violence no longer offered an answer. Instead, he urged the US to suspend military aid to the junta and called for a negotiated solution to the conflict.

In El Salvador, though, as elsewhere in Latin America, the Catholic Church remains deeply divided. Conservatives dominate the hierarchies in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico as they do the Secretariat—through the manipulative Archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo of Medellín—of the Latin American Episcopal Conference. Even in Nicaragua, where the Church endorsed the 1979 insurrection against the Somoza regime and, for the first time, seemed to be on the side of revolutionaries, most bishops are now hostile to the Sandinist government and are aligned with its conservative business and political critics.

But a new popular church is nevertheless emerging on the continent, in some countries supported by the bishops, in others strongly opposed. For example, the priests and nuns who helped organize the urban slums of Nicaragua for the uprising against the Somozas are still working among the poor and still support the revolution. And, despite pressure from Rome, three priests have refused to resign as Cabinet ministers in the Nicaraguan government. Elsewhere, from Paraguay to the Dominican Republic, the comunidades de base are growing steadily. The Challenge of Basic Christian Communities, which brings together papers presented to a seminar in Brazil last year by the region’s top liberation theologists, confirms the dynamic strength of the movement. Among the authors are Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, Miguel Concha, and Juan Hernández Pico.

Had these essays been prepared by the State Department, they would be stamped “Top Secret” because they reveal the profound social and political changes taking place among the Latin American Catholic masses. But in practice, while annoyed and upset by the anti-Americanism of some Latin American bishops, the US has failed to recognize the structural changes being wrought by the Catholic Church. Until just a few weeks before his death, for example, Archbishop Romero was being dismissed by the US Embassy in San Salvador as just “another agitator” rather than being recognized as the symbol of a national mood.

The Reagan administration’s response to the leftist challenge in El Salvador, however, is the climactic proof of Washington’s inability—or unwillingness—to understand the region: a complex problem is explained away as the result of Soviet bloc arms shipments, while US military aid and advisers take the place of a sophisticated political response. US policy is in fact an amazing tribute to Fidel Castro: it imagines, quite erroneously, that Cuba could orchestrate from afar the kind of revolutions that are erupting from the very bowels of Central America. In reality, these movements are being stirred by more powerful forces—the human instincts of hunger and faith. But US policy toward Latin America has no room for such subtleties. Policy-makers in Washington should therefore be warned about these four books: they could muddy their crystal-clear thinking.

This Issue

May 28, 1981