From Under The Rubble
by Christopher Manion
The Wanderer, July 2, 2009
During the early days of the Reagan administration in 1981, Guatemala was living through one of its more chaotic moments. The country’s military waged pitched battles with armed Marxist-Leninist terrorists throughout the country. Cardinal Mario Casariego, Archbishop of Guatemala City, was candid regarding the number of Catholic priests who supported the revolutionaries. There were quite a few of them, he told me – disobedient, passionate, and harmful to the Catholic Church as well as to the country.
The Cardinal’s observation came to mind when I was given a briefing by the U.S. embassy staff in Guatemala City. This "country team” meeting involved in-depth presentations by all the senior embassy officials -- perhaps ten in all. As they surveyed the economic, political, agricultural, and military disasters besetting the country, they never mentioned religion, much less the Church.
When they were finished, I asked a simple question: "I understand there are many American protestant missionaries here in the country. Have any of them come to you and said something along these lines: "Please tell the military government that our church doesn't preach politics like the Catholics, we only teach the Bible."
“Oh, yes!” came the answer -- from virtually everybody around the conference table, almost in unison. Then there was a moment of silence as they all stared at one another. Apparently, every one of them had heard similar complaints from American protestant missionaries in Guatemala – they were afraid that the military government classified all American missionaries as leftists, just because so many Catholics were. These non-Catholic missionaries -- primarily independent Evangelicals and Baptists – were all over the country, including some remote village areas that were often controlled by the terrorists. They didn't want the military to think that they were terrorist supporters -- "like those Catholics."
What surprised me most was how ignorant our State Department officials were. Every one of these "experts" at that briefing had heard the same complaints from Americans in Guatemala, but had never bothered to report them or even to discuss them with each other. As far as religion goes, they were clueless -- like most secular government types then and now. Furthermore, most of them were liberals, if not socialists, and they probably thought that, for all they knew, Liberation Theology represented progress for Latin America.
Well, it certainly didn’t represent progress for the Catholic Church there. Evangelical missionaries from the United States roundly denounced the Catholic Church. Like the Liberation Theologians, they attacked it as a backward institution that kept the people poor. Like their American sponsors, they preached “the Gospel of Prosperity,” promising Latin Americans that “God wants you to be rich.” Jimmy Swaggart packed them in, 90,000 people a night, at the soccer stadium in Lima, Peru.
Most of these American evangelical missionaries were supported by individual, independent congregations throughout the United States. Those churches tithed religiously and made their foreign missions a highlight of their activities. Their missions built schools, medical clinics, and orphanages, and also provided a good number of volunteers from the congregation for several weeks a year to work on those projects.
Unfortunately, leaving the Church has not helped Guatemalans achieve either peace or prosperity. A friend there tells me that gangs, kidnappings, and murder now abound. He’s been there since I first visited in 1959, and he’s never seen it worse. People are looking to get out, either to Spain, or to the U.S.
The Theology of Reconciliation
Liberation Theology was popular among the Latin American left for political, not religious reasons. “Human rights” advocates in the United States would criticize only governments, not the revolutionaries who terrorized their countries. Politically, the terrorists got a free ride in Congress: the domestic Left relentlessly attacked President Reagan’s policies, often employing religious language and stooges. Not surprisingly, the culturally illiterate State Department officials were pathetic, and always on the defensive.
That was not the case with the Latin American Church. Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo of Colombia became known and beloved by American Catholics in the 1990s because of his heroic efforts on behalf of the family. But in the 1980s, as secretary and then president of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM), he championed “the Theology of Reconciliation,” an authentic antidote to Liberation Theology based on man’s true liberation from sin in Christ, rather than in ideology and revolution. Cardinal Lopez Trujillo was never fooled by the religious trappings of liberation theology – he knew from long years of study and experience that it represented the Marxist theory of class warfare, which he knew would destroy Latin American culture.
Pope John Paul II made over 100 international trips during his pontificate, but the very first was to the meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979 – arranged by then-Archbishop Lopez Trujillo. Puebla lay the important groundwork for the Church’s response to Liberation Theology for the next 25 years.(Incidentally, the principal advocate of liberation theology, both at the preparations for the meeting in Puebla and throughout the 1980s, was Father Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P., who now serves as the Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.)
A Two-Front Battle
For 40 years, the Catholic Church in Guatemala (like its sister churches throughout the hemisphere) has fought on two fronts: first, against the "liberationists," and second, against the "sects" -- the fundamentalists. Unfortunately, a recent report from the Catholic News Agency (CNA) indicates that the battle is far from over – that the Catholic Church in Guatemala is seriously threatened by the growth of Evangelical sects that try to win converts with offers of money, jobs, and other material goods:
“Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a Catholic Charity that works with oppressed and suffering Christians throughout the world, found that half of the people of Guatemala are now Evangelical, and new churches are appearing rapidly,” says the report, which actually describes a steady process that took over 30 years. The report details allegations that the fundamentalists’ recruitment efforts include outright payments and even bribes, which may be true; but the most powerful attraction of the “sects” is their focus on the Bible, and the stress they place on economic advancement as part of their evangelization.
Our own bishops confront similar problems -- again, on two fronts. First, we have our own Liberation Theology -- the "parallel Catholic Church" applauded by Obama at Notre Dame – that is advocated by Catholic university faculties and the staff of the USCCB. Second, a detailed study by the Pew Charitable Trust reports that ten percent of American evangelicals are former Catholics. Of course, some of those defections can undoubtedly be attributed to Catholics who disagreed with the moral teachings of the church and who left in search of friendlier pulpits. But as Wanderer readers know all too well, there are other very plausible reasons, too many to number, for this sad exodus.
The U.S. Church also confronts the Latin American dilemma. The millions of Hispanic immigrants, legal and illegal, in the United States undoubtedly comprise millions of former Catholics who are now members of fundamentalist churches. Like their brother bishops in Guatemala, our bishops naturally want to keep the Catholic faithful from jumping ship. While we might differ with their chosen means – supporting amnesty for illegal aliens, and advocating a left-wing political agenda in Washington – the laity should certainly do all it can to help our bishops and priests bring wavering Hispanics back to the fullness of the faith.
Perhaps we can start with Sonia Sotomayor.