In a series of meditations the Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal described the “kingdom of god” as a socialist society. Twenty years later, in 1979, Cardenal and three other Catholic priests became ministers in a Sandinista government which came to power through revolution.
Watching Cardinal Ratzinger’s rise to power, it is hard to imagine how these people could belong to the same institution. Liberation theology was born out of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II, 1962-5) organised by pope John XXIII. The purpose of the council was to engage the church with issues of social justice. There had always been radical currents in the Catholic church — like the worker priests who flourished after the Second World War. But as the Vatican allied itself with the West in the Cold War they were ruthlessly disciplined.
In Latin America this meant that the church worked with the wealthy and the powerful. Vatican II proposed a new Christian duty, “the option of the poor”. In part this was a response to a new atmosphere in Latin America, set in motion by the Cuban Revolution.
A new generation interpreted their religious obligation to be to support the struggles of the poor. Colombian priest Camilo Torres gave a last sermon before joining a guerrilla army — he promised not to say mass again until Colombia was transformed. He died with a gun in his hand in 1966.
The bishops’ conference in Medellin, Colombia, met in 1968 under the shadow of his death. It was here that the key figures of liberation theology — Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and others — began to develop their new theories of “a church of the poor”. Using language borrowed from Marxism, Gutiérrez described this new theology as “a critical reflection on praxis in the light of the word of god”.
The consequences were immediate. Christian Base Communities emerged in the early 1970s as the focus of a series of battles over land, social justice, human rights and so on. Perhaps more important was the emphasis they placed on democracy and community organisation. New religious practices emerged. Masses were held in local languages and would often turn into community assemblies discussing local issues.
The logic of liberation theology led inescapably to revolution. Catholics working with peasant organisations or political groups found themselves coming face to face with an official church that condemned their struggles.
Some figures, such as Helder Cámara in Brazil and Oscar Romero in El Salvador, tried to reconcile the two positions. They sought to persuade the Vatican to adopt a firmer line on social questions, undermining the grassroots movement which so directly challenged a conservative, hierarchical church.
Romero was murdered by the right in 1980. In Central America military regimes did not distinguish between priests and peasants when they shot protesters.
For the Catholic hierarchy, on the other hand, the language of liberation theology seemed to have merged with the language of Marxist revolution. By the mid-1970s, no Vatican pronouncement on social issues went unaccompanied by dire threats against the “church of the poor”. Gutiérrez was summoned regularly to Rome to be reminded (by Ratzinger among others) of his obligations to the Vatican. Boff was hounded and eventually silenced, leaving the Church in 1992. The Nicaraguan priests were forbidden from practising while they remained members of the government.
I saw Leonardo Boff speak to 18,000 people in Brazil. His message was clear, and his reputation unblemished for the audience of young, largely working class people who saw him as a hero.
That is the dilemma for the new pope, with his commitment to the discipline and authority of Rome. For those fighting globalisation, repression and exploitation, it is only a social transformation that can change their lives. From Ecuador to Bolivia to Chiapas, liberation is still the only option for the poor.