New Internationalist

With God On Our Side

issue 130

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CENTRAL AMERICA [image, unknown] The role of religion

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With God on our side
From bible-thumping fundamentalists to the ‘church of the poor’,
religion in Central America is a critical social force. Gary MacEoin
looks at the growing rift in the Catholic church and the clash
between individual salvation and social concern.

ONE HUNDRED and fifty US citizens, delegates of Christian peace groups from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist, we were guests of honour at a Mass in a Nicaraguan slum, The spirit was festive. The spacious church, destroyed in an assault by ex-dictator Somoza’s National Guard, was rebuilt after the revolution with contributions from European countries. Now it was thronged to overflowing.

Flowers before the altar spelled peace. The horizontal beam of the cross was a rifle used in the revolution..

Applause interrupted the service as a bespectacled man in uniform walked awkwardly, in permanent reminder of torture sessions in Somoza’s jails, up the aisle and sat among the visitors near the altar. ‘Comandante Tomsis Borge,’ said Father Uriel Molina, the pastor and celebrant, ‘is no stranger in any church in Nicaragua, least of all in this one.’ Borge, Minister of the Interior, is listed by the regime’s critics as one of several Marxist-Leninists in the Sandinista National Directorate. But here he was totally at ease. The single guard posted behind him made no move to curb the children who swarmed over him as they might a favourite uncle or grandfather.

Two days later at the offices of the Catholic Archbishop we had a radically different evaluation of the church’s role in society and its attitude towards the regime. In language identical with that of US Ambassador Anthony Quainton and the opposition newspaper La Prensa, Monsignor Bismarck Carball protested mounting attacks on religious and civil freedoms.

‘The Sandinistas insulted the Pope when he came to Nicaragua,’ he charged. ‘They have used the literacy campaign to indoctrinate the peasants in Marxism-Leninism.

They vilify the bishops. They are encouraging the development of a parallel "people’s church". They have even censored statements by the Pope and his bishops.’

The political significance of these two conflicting views of the church is obvious. Whichever carries the allegiance of the Nicaraguan people will determine the nature of the nation’s society and its government And in this respect Nicaragua is typical of Latin America. The church, long thought irrelevant to social and political change, or at most a bulwark of those in power, is today a major actor in the unfolding drama of the hemisphere’s search for a new equilibrium. What began as a movement of spiritual renewal has become central to efforts to create a more human society - in the process producing new alliances and new divisions.

But the widely held notion that the church is now split into reactionaries opposed to all change and The tensions are real but more subtle. On one side are so-called ‘progressives’ creating new church structures committed to radical social change, including the transfer of power to the poor. On the other are moderates who believe they can simultaneously modernize church and society and satisfy the demands of the poor for a better life without giving up any of the power enjoyed by the upper clergy and the wealthy.

The progressive group dates from the 1 960s with major impetus from the Second Council (1962-65) and the 1968 meeting of the Latin American bishops at Medellin, Colombia. Dom Helder Camara of Brazil and other Latin American bishops at the Vatican Council were leaders of a Third World group that revived the early Christian concept that the poor hold a privileged place in the church.

The bitter antagonism that had previously marked relations between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism was replaced by a new correlation of forces: progressive Catholics and Protestants against conservative Catholics and Protestants. The progressive theologians worked together to hammer out for the first time a new theology closely linked to the concrete conditions and needs of Latin America - the Theology of Liberation.

This new theology is one of the two main pillars of the Church of the Poor. The other is the comunidad de base or ‘grassroots community’.

Brazil was for many reasons a pioneer in these innovations. Massive movements of peasants to the slums of Rio, 53o Paulo and Brasilia removed them from their traditional parishes. The military dictatorship in the second half of the 1960s systematically destroyed trade unions, student associations and other civic organisations. Into this vacuum moved semi-clandestine Christian groups.

Under the umbrella of the church, groups of 15 to 20 families formed round a catechist who led them in the study of the Bible, Using methods popularized by Paulo Freire they quickly developed a social conscience, a sense of their dignity as human beings, and a confidence that their united efforts could transform their lives. The Exodus story and other Bible passages moved them from spiritual reflection to civic action. And when this was violently suppressed, to guerrilla movements and other forms of counterviolence.

From the experience of these grassroots communities the theologians developed a new form of church life. Now the people became the main actors, with priest or minister as counselor and moderator.

The stress is on identification with the poor rather than theoretic truths. The Kingdom of God is no longer seen as some future form of existence but as the justice that comes when the oppressed are liberated, the hungry fed, the sick restored to health.

As long ago as 1969, Nelson Rockefeller reported to President Nixon on the danger to US interests of this progressive church in Latin America, The Nixon Administration lost no time in initiating strategies to neutralize it.

In 1975, for example, it was revealed that during the previous years several million dollars had been funneled by the CIA to a research institute in Chile headed by Jesuit Roger Vekemans for his campaign against the Theology of Liberation.

During the 1 970s and 80s US-based fundamentalist sects poured money and church workers into the region to promote a form of religion that would concentrate on individual salvation and exclude social concern. Their efforts have had considerable success. The biggest headlines were made by the California-based Church of God whose star convert, Guatemalan ex-President Rios Montt, officiated at mass ‘conversions’ and hectored the country about God’s ‘plan’ for Guatemala on weekly television broadcasts.

When Rios Montt began to visibly favour his Church of God cronies, the military dumped him. Although fundamentalists may have temporarily fallen from grace in Guatemala, they represent a continuing force to create dissension amongst Central America’s poor. They are a potential source of recruits for rightwing death squads and for the ‘rural pacification forces’ now being promoted in El Salvador and Guatemala by the United States, They are also active in Nicaragua, seeking to woo the peasants away from their allegiance to the Sandinistas.

As the grassroots communities spread from Brazil to all parts of Latin America, they were resisted not only by traditionalists but also by modernizers who supported change only if they could control it. The most influential and aggressive opponent is Archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo, a close friend of Roger Vekemans. As Secretary General (from 1972) and President (from 1979) of the Secretariat of Latin American Bishops, López concentrated his energies on corn-batting the Theology of Liberation and domesticating the grassroots communities. Unless brought under full clerical control, he charged, they would become a ‘parallel church’.

In his crusade López has had the full support of Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio. head of the Vatican’s Commission for Latin America. And since John Paul II became Pope in 1979, his messages to Latin America have consistently repeated the López - Baggio line. With a life experience confined almost exclusively to the isolated society of Poland, John Paul depends heavily on advisers for his view of Latin America.

The López-Baggio insistence on the divisiveness of the Theology of Liberation and the danger of a ‘parallel popular church’ cannot but appeal emotionally to him when he places them in a Polish context. The church’s strength in the hostile climate of communist Poland derives in great part from its total unity under its clerical leaders. John Paul urges a similar unity in Latin America, failing to recognize the lack of emotional identification between bishops and people. At 47 and having recently been made a cardinal by John Paul, L6pez is more influential today than ever before.

The cards seem stacked against the popular church. But it has a dynamism and prophetic vision that seem to justify the confidence of its advocates that it is the wave of the future. ‘It is as yet a minority,’ to quote the editor of an ecumenical news service in Peru. ‘But it is the leaven in what has long been an inert mass. The yeast is working, the bread is rising

Dr MacEoin is a journalist and author of haIf a dozen
books on contemporary Latin America, several of them
stressing the changing role of religion.


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