by Brendan Butler
The assassination of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter by the Salvadoran army 20 years ago made such an impact on Noam Chomsky that in Dublin last week he referred to these murders as “the defeat of liberation theology” and “the end of Christianity”.
On the 20th anniversary next Monday, President Carlos Mauricio Funes of El Salvador will honour these martyrs with the nation’s highest award as a public act of atonement for the state’s involvement in their murders. In Ireland their memory will be celebrated at a Eucharistic celebration in the Church of the Virgin Mary, Shangan Road, Ballymun, on Sunday next, November 15th, at 7pm.
The House of Representatives of the US Congress recently passed resolution 761 to honour these martyrs, thus acknowledging American involvement in these crimes.
Conspicuous by its absence is the official church’s recognition of their martyrdom.
Why were these people murdered in El Salvador in 1989 and why, 20 years later, do they still make an impact?
These six Jesuits were responding to their superior general, Fr Pedro Arrupe, who challenged Jesuits worldwide to take up the preferential option for the poor, stating that “we cannot separate action for justice from the proclamation of the word of God”.
They transformed their Jesuit University of Central America in the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, from being an elitist institution to one which served the marginalised in a country where 14 families owned and controlled the wealth.
The rector of the university, Ignacio Ellacuría, called Jesuits from all faculties to study and analyse the reality of El Salvador and they published their analyses in a monthly publication, Estudios Centroamericanos , which exposed the gross inequalities and violations of human rights in the country. This was liberation theology in action. Fr Amando López, who studied theology at Dublin’s Milltown Institute and was ordained there in 1965, preached that the “root cause of the conflict in El Salvador is wealth distribution”.
Their alliance with the poor brought them into conflict with the rich and powerful in the state and within the Catholic Church, just as archbishop Oscar Romero had done there before them. He was assassinated in San Salvador on March 24th, 1980.
The Jesuits were shunned by the Salvadoran bishops, one of whom was chaplain to the repressive armed forces, and were reported to the Vatican for upsetting the cosy status quo between church and state.
Both pope John Paul II and the then cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) took a hard line against liberation theologians like Fr Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino whose crime, according to the Vatican, was their use of Marxist terminology as sociological tools in their study of the structural injustices in their society. But the Jesuits, in spite of death threats, continued their work of justice.
In the early hours of November 16th, 1989, Salvadoran military occupied the university and took the six Jesuits from their beds and, in a telling sign, shot them dead along with two women, Celina and Elba, so as to leave no witnesses.
Chomsky’s pessimistic view that liberation theology and Christianity have been defeated as a result of the Jesuit murders is inaccurate. El Salvador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Paraguay have presidents who acknowledge their debt to liberation theology, while Brazilian liberation theology Bible groups number over one million.
May the legacy of Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Romeno, Amando López, Joaquín López y López, Elba Ramos and Celina Ramos never let us rest in peace.
Brendan Butler has been active in campaigns on Central and South American issues since 1979