Liberation Theology and American Foreign Policy

Last summer marked the seventh anniversary of the overthrow of Somoza and the installation of the revolutionary Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Underplayed in most analyses of this betrayed revolution is the role of radical elements within the Catholic Church. Indeed, this role is of such significance that it deserves careful study by U.S. foreign policy makers as a dramatic example of how Marxists can exploit Christianity to advance their revolutionary goals in the Third World.

According to Father Antonio Castro of Managua, a longtime backer of the Sandinistas, “Many guerrillas surged from our parishes” to join the forces who ousted Somoza. Some of them were even tying rosary beads to their weapons. With the coming to power of the Sandinistas, three revolutionary clerics were awarded with government positions — positions held in defiance of the Pope’s demand that they resign. Each of these individuals (who were disciplined by Rome for their disobedience) is a proponent of liberation theology and subscribes to the Sandinista thesis that “Between revolution and religion, there’s no contradiction.” One of them, Sandinista Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto, is a Maryknoll priest who founded Orbis Books. Controlled by the Maryknoll Order, Orbis Books publishes much of the literature expounding liberation theology.

In the past, traditional Marxism opposed the church head on; Marx’s most famous utterance was that “Religion . . . is the opium of the people.” But in some regions today this maxim is counterproductive, inasmuch as the people’s devotion to religion is too deeply ingrained to eradicate easily. This is certainly true in Latin America, where a relatively new “theology of liberation” has been cleverly used by some Marxist-Leninist groups to promote their revolutionary objectives. The Gospels are not rejected, but are rather re-interpreted in Marxist terms with “national liberation” as the new salvation. Liberation theology forcibly merges religion and politics. It accomplishes this feat by manipulating the Gospels in an effort to reconcile Marx with Christ. Indeed, some liberation theologians make the audacious claim that the Christian and Marxist views of mankind are compatible, if not identical.

Liberation theology has profound foreign policy implications for the United States because of its virulent anticapitalist, anti-U.S., and pro-Marxist bias. Religiously inspired revolutions can be formidable, as we have seen in the Middle East. Despite their many dissimilarities, both Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalists and a number of liberation theologians see the United States as “the Great Satan” — the source of evil in today’s world. Adherents of both have even sanctified violent acts to deal with that “evil.”

In Latin America, the liberation theologians combine the indigenous Catholic religious traditions of the campesinos with the hope of economic transformation that, the liberation theologians claim, is realizable here and now, not in the after-life. They identify capitalism and free enterprise with the Protestant ethic of economic individualism, which they reject as too selfish and materialistic.

But perhaps these points are best illustrated by liberation theologians themselves. One of them writes:

I consider Fidel Castro to be a person inspired and led by the Holy Spirit. I liked it when Fidel went to Chile and told the priests that in Latin America the alliance between Marxists and Christian revolutionaries is not a tactical, but a strategic alliance, that is not temporary, but permanent and necessary. Also, I like the saying of Che Guevara (another Marxist saint, who gave his life for the poor guided by the Spirit of Jesus without knowing him) that “when the Christians in Latin America take seriously the revolutionary teachings of the gospel, the revolution will be invincible.”

Those provocative words are taken from To Be a Revolutionary, the autobiography of Padre J. Guadalupe Carney, an American-born priest, who is believed to have starved to death in 1983 while in the company of Cuban-trained guerrillas in Honduras. In his autobiography, Fr. Carney also makes it plain that his intention is to convince Christians that Christianity and Marxism are harmonious:

. . . I invite all Christians who read this to get rid of any unfair and un-Christian prejudices you have against armed revolutions, socialism, Marxism and communism. I would hope that this book has helped you get rid of any mental blocks that you might have because of capitalist propaganda and a false, bourgeois version of Christianity that has been put into your heads since childhood. There is no contradiction whatsoever between being a Christian and a priest, and being a Marxist revolutionary.

Equally revealing are these comments from A Theology of Liberation by the Reverend Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, generally acknowledged as the founder of liberation theology:

The building of a just society means the confrontation — in which different kinds of violence are present — between groups with different interests and opinions . . . . Participation in the process of liberation is an obligatory and privileged locus for Christian life and reflection . . . . To characterize Latin America as a dominated and oppressed continent naturally leads one to speak of liberation and above all to participate in the process . . . . Among more alert groups today . . . a new awareness of Latin American reality is making headway. They believe that there can be authentic development for Latin America only if there is liberation from the domination exercised by the great capitalist countries, and especially the most powerful, the United States of America . . . . Moreover, it is becoming more obvious that the revolutionary process ought to embrace the whole continent. There is little chance of success for attempts limited to a national scope. [Emphasis in original.]

Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, a former Trappist monk and the Sandinista Minister of Culture in Nicaragua, said it bluntly: “Christians are not only able to be Marxists but, on the contrary, to be authentically Christian, they ought to be Marxists.” He explains:

Our only solution is Marxism. It is the only possible way to achieve freedom. I do not see any other course we can take if the promises of history and of the gospel are going to become true. There is no salvation outside the Church, and there is no liberation outside Marxism; that is why I preach both. For me, the revolution and the kingdom of heaven, mentioned in the gospel, are the same thing. A Christian should embrace Marxism if he wants to be with God and all men . . . .

Needless to say, this kind of rhetoric has gotten the attention of Marxists around the world. Illustrative of this is a special July-August 1984 issue of the New York-based Marxist journal, Marxist Review. In that issue the editors, Paul Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, discussed their new-found interest in religion as follows: “When we went to Nicaragua in December, 1982 to take part in a conference on agrarian reforms, we were enormously impressed, even startled, by what we learned about the role being played by religious people (foreign as well as Nicaraguan) in the constructive work of the Nicaraguan revolution.”

Magdoff and Sweezy went on to observe that “those who accept the identification of liberation with revolution can hardly avoid a confrontation with the Marxist world view and its associated analysis of the transformation of social structures through class struggle.” That observation helps explain why some of those preaching liberation theology become blind apologists for communist states with their own brand of disinformation. Fr. Carney, for instance, reported that “. . . in June of 1981, I had the opportunity to visit Cuba, I could say many good things about free Cuba and its revolutionary process . . . . There is no persecution of the Church today in Cuba. It is a shame that the Catholics in Cuba (with a few very good exceptions) have not incorporated themselves into the human socialistic revolutionary process there.”

Fr. Cardenal is no less enthusiastic in his praise of Castro’s utopia. In edited dialogues between Cardenal and his parishioners, published as The Gospel in Solentiname (4 volumes, Obis, 1976-1982), even shortages of material goods are viewed positively because they indicate that everything is being equitably distributed, as in a well-managed monastery.

These are not mere academic speculations by Latin American theologians and revolutionaries. Liberation theology has serious consequences inasmuch as it is now being adroitly exploited by enthusiasts such as Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas as a means of solidifying and exporting their revolutions. It exercises real influence over the imagination of Christians in this hemisphere. Many liberation theologians, unfortunately, are naive about the nature of man and the nature of Marxism. If they succeed in their efforts to merge religion and politics, they will not liberate people, but will rather submit them to a new and more suffocating bondage than the world has yet known.

Criticism of liberation theology from within the Catholic Church has focused on the inherent contradiction of wedding Christianity with Marxism. Cardinal Obando y Bravo of Nicaragua and Archbishop Rivera y Damas of El Salvador have been particularly outspoken on this point as they have worked tirelessly to separate the Church’s social justice agenda from endorsement of leftist revolution. Cardinal Obando y Bravo knows liberation theology from intimate experience. He had high hopes for it at first, but now sees clearly what it really involves. “I thought liberation theology could help people and could play a role in reducing the enormous gap between rich and poor,” he said. “But now, watching it in practice, I think this is unlikely because I see that it foments class hatred.” Lenin himself was instructive on this point, for he declared in a 1923 speech to the Commission of Education in Moscow that “We must hate — hatred is the basis of communism.”

Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, a leading American prelate with close ties to Latin America, points out the fundamental conflict between Marxism and Christianity. Marxism, he says, “presents class hatred and the class struggle as a fundamental postulate of human liberation” which is “incompatible with the Gospel whose first commandment is love.”

Pope John Paul II has a personal grasp of what Marxism really means, as a Pole who lived under communism in his native land. In 1984, the Pope approved a Vatican instruction about liberation theology prepared by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and Archbishop Alberto Bovone (Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”). This document underscores the essential problem:

Atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and his rights, are at the core of Marxist theory. This theory then contains errors which directly threaten the truths of the faith regarding the eternal destiny of individual persons. Moreover, to attempt to integrate into theology an analysis whose criterion of interpretation depends on this atheistic conception is to involve oneself in terrible contradictions. What is more, this misunderstanding of the spiritual nature of the person leads to a total subordination of the person to the collectivity and thus to the denial of the principles of a social and political life which is in keeping with human dignity.

The philosophy of Marx excludes a spiritual realm. History, Marx declared, unfolds according to the immutable law of the process of dialectical materialism. “Dialectical” means that every entity begets its opposite, and the entities, classes or societies inevitably conflict. Out of this conflict the original entities become submerged into a new entity which then proceeds to beget its opposite. And so the dialectical process unfolds.

The key word is process, proceeding rigidly, mechanically, not through chance or circumstances, but according to immutable laws of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Marxist philosophy is totally materialistic. Marxists believe in no spiritual realm, no immortal soul, and hence no sin (except “social sin” as they define it) and no salvation. People in the Marxist system are no more than units of production and consumption. The, only reality is material. Hence religion is dangerous folly in theory as well as in practice. Lenin once said, “We must fight religion,” and the tyrants who have followed him in power all over the world have done precisely that. It is thus astonishing to find priests who declare themselves to be Marxists. “Marxist priests,” the exponents of liberation theology, constitute a perfect oxymoron, no less contradictory than a “carnivorous vegetarian.”

This is not to deny the idealism of many priests who identify themselves with liberation theology out of a sincere desire to exercise a “preferential option for the poor,” to change the social and economic environment in which they find themselves. They see grinding poverty all around; they question the systems that allow such conditions to exist. Imbued with a strong desire to obtain social justice for their flock, many of these clergymen become frustrated with what they perceive as a perpetual status quo. Some of the more militant eventually join guerrilla groups, as we have seen with such priests as Fr. Camilo Torres in Colombia, Fr. Don McKenna in Guatemala, Fr. Guadalupe Carney in Honduras, and Fathers Ernesto Cardenal and Miguel D’Escoto in Nicaragua.

The real beneficiaries, therefore, of these revolutionary developments in the Latin Church often have been those from the radical left who harbor strong anti-U.S. feelings. A number of these groups have been the recipients of money and safe havens, as well as vigorous rhetorical and spiritual support from the “liberationists” who, in some instances, are serving as chaplains, combatants, or even leaders with the guerrillas.’ Such activities indicate that liberation theologians need to look more closely at God’s side of the equation. They musk ask themselves whether their concern for social and economic justice, justified as it is, has become so overpowering that the message of the church is lowered from the spiritual level to that of political and social action.

This clearly appears to be the message the pope was trying to convey in Colombia during his trip there in the summer of 1986. Colombia, it should be noted, has special significance for the liberation theology movement. A Latin American Bishops Conference held in Medellin, Colombia in 1962 issued a pronouncement that, among other things, emphasized the Church’s obligation “to defend the rights of the oppressed.” That statement has been viewed in liberation theology circles as an official blessing for activities which in Nicaragua, for example, are carried out through a network of some 2001 “base communities,” patterned somewhat after the communes that prevailed in the early days of Christianity. The activities of these groups run the gamut and include agricultural, educational, and medical assistance, as well as some organizing of military defenses in rural areas.

J. Brian Benestad of the University of Scranton has written a thoughtful study of this question, The Pursuit of a Just Social Order. He agrees that working for economic and social development and the protection of human rights is important and necessary. But Dr. Benestad also points out the limitations of this kind of work from a spiritual point of view, namely, that while these are worthy goals, their attainment by the people of a nation does not directly lead to conversion of its citizens. Persons who have sufficient material goods and socioeconomic, political, and civil rights may be theists, or may simply be dedicated to their own self-interest. In other words, justice as it is popularly understood today does not imply transformation in the individual soul. Ought not the transformation of souls be the chief task of the Church? Since Catholic doctrine has always maintained that the salvation of our soul is the ultimate goal of every human being, surely a Christian should put the highest priority on guarantees of religious freedom, so that all men and women can respond to God’s invitation to know Him and be saved.

The triumph of Marxism, however, means the end of religious freedom. The sorry results Marxism has brought to nations unlucky enough to try it provide compelling evidence that Marxism is more a road map to hell than an antidote to oppression and poverty. Marxist Christians in Latin America should look at those communist countries where the Marxists have had enough time to consolidate their power. In the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other communist countries, overt hostility to religion is a feature of the Marxist system.

Religion, as the institutional acknowledgement of man’s relationship to God, is the indispensable underpinning for human dignity. That is why religious freedom is a basic human right. That is why Marxists, when they strip away religious freedom, are attacking the very basis of human dignity. Religion is only acceptable when it serves Marxists’ ends as we have seen in Nicaragua, where a Sandinista-backed “popular” church is pitted against Cardinal Obando y Bravo and other Nicaraguan Catholic bishops. The following excerpts from an April 7, 1986 statement by the Nicaraguan bishops speak volumes: “A belligerent group of priests, religious workers and lay people of various nationalities, who say they belong to the Catholic Church, are in reality working actively to undermine the church . . . . They manipulate the fundamental truths of our faith, taking upon themselves the right to reinterpret and even to rewrite the word of God, in order to make it fit their own ideology and use it for their own ends.”

Complicating matters on the home front for U.S. foreign policy makers are the ties some liberation theology advocates have to important American Catholic political figures, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill, Jr. In an article that appeared in the October 21, 1984 edition of the New York Times. Michael Novak, resident scholar in religion, philosophy and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute, who also has served as the U.S. Representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, discloses that “Sister Jeanne Gallo of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a former missionary in Brazil and a member of the Nicaraguan action group in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Speaker O’Neill’s home district) keeps him informed on political currents.” “We realized that Mr. O’Neill was key to what happened in the House,” she says. “The group decided to work on educating him about Central America.”

More recently, in a Washington Post story dated June 6, 1985, correspondent Margaret Shapiro reported that “O’Neill also has been strongly influenced by the Maryknoll Order, many of whom are missionaries in Nicaragua today. O’Neill’s aunt, Annie Tolan, was one of the original members of the order, joining it as Sister Eunice when it was founded in 1919, and staying with it until she died two years ago.” The Speaker told Shapiro, “We’ve followed the order all our life. There’s an affinity there, an affection, a trust there.” When Maryknoll members tell him that things have improved under the Sandinistas, he said, he believes them. “They’re only doing God’s work . . . and I have faith and trust when they come and talk to me. I have complete trust,” O’Neill said.

Obviously, comments like that from one of the most powerful and influential members of Congress demonstrate the need for a major educational effort as to the reality in Nicaragua, and Central America in general. Challenging the findings of the clergy is politically difficult, and, to be effective, great care must be given to refuting their contentions in a clear and factual manner. In this regard, substantial attention must be devoted to exposing the fallacies in the arguments of the “liberationists.”

For example, the theology of this movement is particularly vulnerable with respect to what it recommends in the way of a political and economic system after the revolution against the perceived injustices of capitalism. Replacing a dictatorship of the right with one on the left a la Cuba or Nicaragua betrays the aspirations of those who have been seduced by a theology that preaches liberation but which paradoxically can only deliver another version of late twentieth-century serfdom in which the state owns both body and soul. A letter to Nicaragua’s Fr. Cardenal from Polish writers associated with the Solidarity trade union movement warned of this danger: “We know all too well the abuses inflicted on the idea of freedom, and the people who believed in it and fought for it. On the basis of our experience we cannot recognize the purity of intentions of those who hold the banner of freedom but cooperate with the cruelest slave empire in history.”

Michael Novak puts it succinctly when he points out that liberation theology lacks a concrete vision of political economy. “It refuses to say how safeguards for human rights, economic development and personal liberties will be instituted after the revolution. Liberation theology appears to trust its own fervent Christianity as a sufficient brake on tyranny. This is naivete — already unmasked in Nicaragua.” Citing estimates of a projected need of some 76 million new jobs in Latin America by 1999, Novak comments that: “Revolutionaries in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, among other communist countries, mostly create huge armies. Only economic activists create jobs. Sooner or later. liberation theologies will need to grapple with how new wealth can be created and sustained systematically.”

In summary, liberation theology’s impact on Latin American and American politics has presented those who shape U.S. foreign policy with an imminent challenge that must be confronted. This means engaging in public dialogue and debate with the “liberationists” at every opportunity, with the objective of informing both U.S. and foreign audiences of this theology’s shortcomings. It also means demonstrating that the U.S. model of democracy is worth imitating. It is clear that the system in the United States is awesomely successful in creating jobs and wealth. We should also cite our success in administering justice and defending human dignity.

Of course we often fall short of our aspirations, being human and fallible. But indeed we have objective standards to guide us: equal protection of the law and due process at home, and a commitment to freedom and democracy that has been tested in two world wars and other protracted conflicts in Asia. We should make this case strongly to everyone who is sincerely concerned about justice and human dignity.

We should also talk to the liberation theologians themselves. Because they have not thought much about what happens in the post-revolutionary period, I would like to think that we can disabuse at least some of them of their anti-U.S. notions and make them realize that this country’s system is not the problem, but can be a big part of the solution.


  • Henry J. Hyde

    Henry John Hyde (April 18, 1924 – November 29, 2007), an American politician, was a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from 1975 to 2007, representing the 6th District of Illinois, an area of Chicago's northwestern suburbs which included O'Hare International Airport. He chaired the Judiciary Committee from 1995 to 2001, and the House International Relations Committee from 2001 to 2007. He gained national attention for his leadership role in managing the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.

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