Ouch! I'm not sure that what O'Hagan asserts is 100% true, but it is sufficiently true that I'm going to reprint it here and suggest that we who support liberation theology need to give it some consideration and ask ourselves why. Or, more to the point, why have we allowed a dichotomy to develop between good social gospel analysis and the charismatic renewal (which is the main thing Catholics look for in their flight to the pentecostal denominations)?
by Steve O'Hagan
This weekend, the government of El Salvador will issue a formal apology for its persecution of the Jesuit order during the bloody civil war of the 1980s. This comes a couple of months after the honouring six priests, killed 20 years ago. For all the murdered priests, nuns, catechists and ordinary churchgoers it's all a little late, but it's still pretty incredible news given the scale of the search for reconciliation and justice that this country still faces nearly 20 years since the shooting stopped.
The Jesuits have been torch bearers of liberation theology in Latin America, and in a wider sense the accolade was a recognition of not just them, but their controversial belief system. Emerging in the 60s as a fusion of socialist theory and religious devotion, liberation theology put the poor at the heart of the church's mission. It aimed to remake society in the image of Christ's example, confronting injustice and inequality. It offered utopia, the construction of a socialist paradise on earth. But while filming in Central America for a documentary looking at the religious map here, despite the belated recognition for the Jesuits, I've had to ask the question: what has become of those hopes?
For a brief period in the early 1980s, it looked like liberation theology might be on the verge of creating the just, egalitarian society it envisaged. The revolutionary Sandinista government that took power in Nicaragua in 1979 included several liberation theology priests. In El Salvador, even the conservative Archbishop Oscar Romero began preaching against his country's gross injustices – for which he was murdered by rightwing forces in 1980.
But stereotyped as pulpit communism, this rebellious theology has been subjected to a prolonged ecclesiastical counter-insurgency campaign by an implacable matrix of hostile powers.
Beginning in the 1980s, the Vatican under John Paul II denounced its political alignment, and began appointing conservatives across the region. Ronald Reagan's administration stepped up support for the savage military regimes of El Salvador and Guatemala, and the cross-border Contra terror campaign against Nicaragua. Local and foreign evangelical churches branded it communist heresy and preached obedience to state power. And all the while the entrenched ruling elites plumbed new depths of savagery.
By the end of the 1990s, all the countries of Central America had been returned to peace, but not the peace envisaged by the liberation theologians. The US military training academy for the rightwing armies of Latin America, the School of the Americas, proudly declared that liberation theology had been defeated. Today, 75% of Guatemalans live below the poverty line. And in El Salvador, while the state terror has largely gone, the murder rate has risen to 12 per day, the highest per capita in the world.
Even in Nicaragua, a relative oasis of social cohesion despite being the second poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti liberation theology no longer thrives. Its most famous exponent – priest, Nobel prize nominated poet, and former government minster Ernesto Cardenal – is now a punchbag of the rightwing press over an ugly financial row involving ownership of a hotel.
On the ecclesiastical plane, the Vatican continues to reassert its authority under Pope Benedict (who led the curia's campaign against liberation theology in the 1980s). But of greatest concern to many Catholics is the ongoing triumph of the Central American religious market's newest big-hitter, Protestant pentecostalism.
An entrepreneurial web of institutions that began franchising out of California in the 1900s, Latin American pentecostalism in the last few decades has effected what has been described as the largest mass conversion in history. Estimates suggest as much as 40% of Central America has turned to this new faith – mostly the very same poor people liberation theology stood up for. Some figures put the ratio of pentecostals in Guatemala at an extraordinary 60%.
As the maxim goes, as long as there is poverty, there is a need for a theology of liberation. Well, the poverty is still here, but the poor of Central America are turning in their droves not to the faith that wants to build justice and equality, but the one that's often more concerned with building TV stations and mega-churches.