Liberation Through Reconciliation

Reconciliation Theology Has Made a Difference in El Salvador. It Has Yet to Be Tried in Nicaragua.

EL Salvador 1980. The place and the time conjure   up a nightmare of violence: death squad killings, the martyrdom of a Catholic bishop and four churchwomen, massacres of peasants and other innocents seeking nothing more than a measure of justice amid mounting repression.

For many Latin American liberation theologians, El Salvador has remained frozen in time. 1987 is 1980. Nothing has changed. The conflict between the oligarchy and the peasants, between the state and a prophetic Church, between U.S. imperialism and an indigenous insurgency remains alive and the theologians’ righteous outrage undiminished.

For other Latin American theologians, however, El Salvador 1987 is not El Salvador 1980. Such Churchmen contend that the country’s seven-year journey toward democracy — highlighted by free elections and a sharp reduction in death squad killings — challenges both the static vision and Marxist dialectic of radical liberationists. El Salvador has changed for the better, argue these moderate bishops and scholars, because of the local Church’s concerted effort to promote Christian principles, not political ideology, and dialogue, not confrontation. Believing that any effort to establish a just order will fail if it is not inspired by Christian love, truth, and personal conversion, these Church leaders advocate a non-violent, orthodox formula for approaching regional problems known as “reconciliation theology.”

Describing the basic thrust of reconciliation theology, Chilean theologian Fernando Moreno explained:

A theology of reconciliation must deal with the same problems that are addressed by liberation theology — but not in the same way. We must adopt the perspective of the Gospel, which provides the doctrinal basis for an approach reflecting love and reconciliation. Confronting the problem of violence, for example, we cannot justify it as a means for resolving social conflicts. Rather, we must denounce violence. Many liberationists perceive social issues in the same way as Marxists. We do not share in their ideologization or mythification of our problems here.

Though the matter is little discussed outside Latin American church circles, El Salvador’s fragile democracy is viewed as a victory for reconciliation theology and its advocates among the local hierarchy. Since 1982, and contrary to the demands of Catholic radicals in the country, the Salvadoran episcopal conference has protested both military and guerrilla abuses, backed the democratic process, and offered itself as a mediator between government and insurgent forces.

Last year, when San Salvador’s auxiliary bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez was in Lima, Peru for a theological conference, he observed that El Salvador was the flagship for one sector of the Catholic Church in the region. If El Salvador survived as a democracy, it would further justify the bishops’ advocacy of dialogue and their rejection of class struggle to achieve political freedom and economic justice. For this reason alone, liberationists have had to dispute the changes that have occurred in El Salvador.

Meanwhile, there is Nicaragua, the flagship for another sector of the Church in Latin America. In the wake of the 1979 revolution, many liberation theologians described the country as an earthly paradise for the former victims of right-wing repression and capitalistic exploitation. Today, Nicaragua is in shambles, and even Gustavo Gutierrez, the author of the seminal work, A Theology of Liberation, has publicly distanced himself from the Sandinista version of heaven.

El Salvador and Nicaragua 1987. Each symbolizes a different path for a Church that has sought to exercise a preferential adoption for the poor.

The southern hemisphere has witnessed almost two decades of violence since Gutierrez published his book. And though the threat of Marxist revolution may have forced some regimes to provide a measure of civil liberties, none of that violence achieved what it allegedly set out to do: free the poor from poverty and injustice.

A perverse reaction to the demise of the Alliance for Progress, the most typical version of liberation theology was a grab-bag of Marxist and leftist social and economic theories. Foremost were the principle of class conflict and “dependency theory,” which blamed Latin American underdevelopment on U.S. economic dominance. Ironically, rather than theological principles determining the liberationists’ judgment of the status quo, the reverse was true: Radical social and economic concepts were dominant, ultimately leading some theologians to question the very basis of Church authority. For the Christian Marxists, just as true revolutionary consciousness resided in the proletariat, so they gradually believed that real Catholic consciousness existed in the poor and oppressed — not the Magisteriuin. And only the most fervent liberation theologians could properly interpret the mind of the poor and oppressed and relay that information to the Church at large.

Earnestly seeking a better life for their people, some Church moderates accepted or tolerated the liberationists’ publications and leftist activism in universities and impoverished barrios. If the liberationists’ consciousness-raising stressed social and political conflict and downplayed traditional Christian virtues, some prelates accepted the necessity of a new kind of evangelization, one that directly linked Christian salvation with Marxist revolution.

But liberation theology soon fired conflict within the Body of Christ. Chile was one of the first battlefields. In the early 1970s, under the presidency of Marxist Salvador Allende, Christians for Socialism, a Santiago-based movement that included prominent liberationists from all over Latin American, began publicly to attack the local episcopal conference. Adopted by Allende’s Socialist government to demonstrate Church backing for his Marxist social agenda. Christians for Socialism was a less rabid variant of the “popular church” which presently serves the interests of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

Today the on-going war between the embattled Nicaraguan bishops and the popular church is a dance of death for liberation theology. Unable to derail the bishops or attract the poor, the popular church is dependent on government largesse and foreign funding for its existence. Already schismatic, it will wither away, as leftist religious orders and Christian organizations in the West leave Managua for greener pastures.

Continued endorsements of the popular church by Brazilian prelates and U.S. missionaries are a cause for scandal. However, a positive development has emerged from this disturbing chapter in Latin American Church history. Encouraged by papal efforts to curb Marxism in the Church, affirm Christian freedom (as the true goal of Christian liberation), and renew a non-partisan preferential option for the poor, orthodox prelates have begun to repudiate radical liberationists. Citing the apostolic exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Reconciliation and Penance, 1984) and the recent pair of documents on liberation theology issued by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, key bishops and theologians have promoted Christian reconciliation, symbolized first by the Eucharist, as a means of healing societies divided by ideology, class, and violence.

Peru, the cradle of liberation theology, has been center stage for the confrontation between Church leaders backing Ratzinger’s two documents, and those who assert that theological perspectives on poverty and injustice must be informed by the “social sciences,” i.e., Marxist theory. Four years ago, Peruvian prelates representing the two positions locked horns when John Paul II asked the local episcopal conference to evaluate the orthodoxy of Gutierrez’ works. After several drafts, the conference’s final document supported Ratzinger’s instruction criticizing Marxist elements in liberation theology; Gutierrez was not named.

Emboldened by Vatican support, moderate bishops and new episcopal appointees have been increasingly assertive. In November 1985, Lima Auxiliary Bishop Alberto Brazzini Diaz-Ufano signaled a new era when he cancelled a public conference on the Vatican Council featuring Gutierrez as a speaker. During the same period, Bishop Ricardo Durand Florez of Callao, a former friend of Gutierrez, wrote a book demanding that the theologian correct his use of Marxism. In Cuzco, the new archbishop Alcides Mendoza Castro, a former military chaplain, closed two pastoral centers and a regional seminary that promoted liberation theology.

Since reconciliation theology first gained support in Peru, a half-dozen episcopal conferences in the region have issued pastoral letters urging the establishment of a “civilization of love,” based on Christian love, “dialogue in truth,” and personal conversion. Believing that a theology which claims to address regional problems must offer concrete examples for the faithful, bishops in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela have sought to stem labor strife, guerrilla violence, or other battles by offering themselves as mediators who can be trusted by the government and its critics. Such “reconciling gestures,” say advocates, are only possible because Church leaders reject the liberationist argument that solidarity with the poor requires a “partisan” Church. “The situation in Latin America does radicalize people. It’s up to the Church to develop a response from Catholic tradition and not to polarize the situation,” explained Bishop Sean O’Malley of the Virgin Islands, a frequent participant at Latin American theological meetings.

The most noteworthy episcopal action has surfaced in Chile, where Cardinal Juan Fresno of Santiago has vigorously sought the unification of the country’s fragmented democratic opposition. In 1985, led by Fresno, eleven center, center-right, and center-left parties signed the National Accord on a Transition to Full Democracy, which outlined democratic and anti-totalitarian principles for a future government. Though the National Accord process has since been undermined by partisan rivalry, it remains a powerful sign of the Church’s commitment to nonviolent democratic change. The establishment of democratic governments throughout most of Latin America is likely to change the Church’s role as reconciler. In Guatemala, Argentina, and Uruguay, bishops must mediate the process of justice and forgiveness in societies scared by repression. Other challenges must also be addressed, the most serious of which is the endemic poverty of the region.

Liberation theology was advanced as one approach to the problem. It has been discredited; but local bishops conferences have not offered solid alter native solutions to regional underdevelopment. Of course an acceptance of Christian freedom and truth must be the beginning. But then Latin Americans need to develop an economic system and philosophy which encourage the creation of wealth, the opening of economic markets to the poor, and technological advancement without the rejection of religious and cultural values.

Assuring critics that reconciliation theology is not an “insincere exhortation for the oppressed to opt for an alienating resignation, or a tranquilizer for those who are not prepared to sacrifice their privileges,” the proponents of this movement have shied away from unfashionable free-market solutions. In the past mercantilism and statist capitalism have prevented Latin American economies from growing fast enough to provide jobs and services to the poor. In reaction liberation theology advocated socialism, an even less workable solution. Now reconciliation theology, which also addresses problems of underdevelopment and economic justice, must find a just and effective answer to poverty in Latin America.

Unity and reconciliation in the Church have emerged as the key concern of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate. In meetings with national bishops conferences throughout the world, especially prelates from Peru and Brazil, the pontiff has stressed the importance of unity among Catholics and their leaders as a sign of Christ’s presence and Christian truth. In Reconciliation and Penance he encouraged the development of a “civilization of love” based on Christian virtues and nurtured by the sacraments. “We believe [John Paul said] that the reconciliation of Nicaraguans, so yearned for, must come from the only source that can produce it, that is, from the heart of Christ — the font of mercy and pardon, of unity and charity — which the Eucharist opens up to people with all its redeeming power, with all its liberating force.”

“Pope John Paul II has made an exceedingly important point: we human beings cannot create community,” Cardinal John J. O’Connor has said. “What brings us together and creates community is the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.”


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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