The Miami Herald
January 31, 1999
Rethinking option for poor
Liberation theology barely an echo in old stronghold

             By JUAN O. TAMAYO
             Herald Staff Writer

             MANAGUA -- The Rev. Ernesto Cardenal still gets huffy when he's asked about
             that famous image: Pope John Paul II wagging a finger at Cardenal as the
             white-bearded priest knelt before him.

             ``Meaningless,'' Cardenal snapped, even though that scene 16 years ago came to
             symbolize the bitter fight between the pontiff and Roman Catholic theologians who
             advocated ``a preferential option for the poor.''

             ``I am still a revolutionary who defends the poor. And liberation theology is in
             crisis. Capitalism won. Period. What more can be said?'' Cardenal said in a brief
             and plainly reluctant telephone chat.

             Liberation theology, the doctrine that dominated the Latin American church in the
             '70s and '80s, has today indeed lost most of its punch. Its ranks have been thinned
             or silenced by the Pope, its popularity sapped by political reverses.

             Radical priests like Cardenal have been forced out of the religious fold, while
             moderates like his brother Fernando, once suspended by the Jesuit order, have
             seen their tenets absorbed into the mainstream of church dogma.

             John Paul may even give liberation theology a boost of sorts when he travels to
             Mexico on Friday to unveil a newly sharpened vision of the church's duty to the
             poor in the face of what he has called ``savage capitalism.''

             But the doctrine is certainly not the force it once was, especially in Nicaragua,
             where it gained a powerful foothold during the 1980s rule of the Marxist
             Sandinista Front and the war against U.S.-backed contra guerrillas.

             The Cardenal brothers and Miguel D'Escoto, a Maryknoll priest, served as
             Cabinet ministers under the Sandinistas. Three other priests left Nicaragua to serve
             as chaplains with Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador and Honduras.

             Radical theologians portrayed Jesus as a bearded revolutionary, guerrilla leader
             Ernesto ``Che'' Guevara as his acolyte and Marxism as the way for the poor to
             end oppression -- by armed struggle if necessary.

             Today, it is difficult to find evidence that Liberation Theology thrived in Nicaragua
             before the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990.

             Yesterday's doctrine

             At the Valdivieso Center, a church-run Managua think tank that once was a
             cauldron of radical publications but now works on ecumenical issues with
             Protestant churches, a secretary smirked when asked where one could find a
             liberation theologian.

             ``All that's past,'' she said. ``It ended when the Sandinistas ended.''

             Most telling is what happened at Santa Maria de los Angeles, a 200-seat church in
             central Managua that once served as a virtual cathedral for the ``peoples' church,''
             with openly pro-Sandinista Masses celebrated by the Rev. Uriel Molina.

             Revolutionary murals still cover the inner walls: They show a guerrilla in olive green
             fatigues helping to carry a cross, the Sandinistas' red-and-black flag and a
             greedy-looking Yankee reaching to exploit Nicaragua's forests.

             But that's about all that remains of the 1980s.

             Molina was ordered to leave the parish in 1990, and was dismissed from the
             Franciscan order in 1996 for ``rebellion.'' Only Nicaraguans now attend Mass, not
             the foreign Sandinista supporters who once crowded in to hear Molina.

             And only a Sandinista-era law declaring the church murals a national treasure has
             protected the artwork, said Molina's more conservative successor, the Rev.
             Gilberto Quintero.

             ``Even though it may be seen as political, I can't just throw paint over them,''
             Quintero said. ``But there's been some talk of turning this into a theater of some
             kind, and moving the church elsewhere.''

             Many liberation theologians have toned down their public comments or stopped
             writing altogether since 1990, while others are no longer seen in public, according
             to church officials in Managua.

             Ernesto Cardenal is still suspended from the priesthood but leads ``an almost
             monastic life'' and writes poetry. Miguel D'Escoto remains suspended from the
             priesthood and active in the Sandinista Front, and Uriel Molina runs a preschool
             for poor children.

             Fernando Cardenal, who broke with the Sandinistas in 1995 and returned to the
             Jesuits the next year, now runs religious retreats. He declined a request for an
             interview, saying he wanted to think well about the current status of liberation
             theology before commenting.

             ``All that is heard is their silence,'' wrote the Rev. Jose Maria Vigil, a Nicaraguan
             priest who has authored several essays on liberation theology.

             Roots in Vatican II

             The doctrine dates back to the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965
             with a call to expand the church's social doctrine beyond traditional acts of charity.

             But by the time John Paul was elected Pope in 1978, it had grown into an
             aggressive attack on ``oppressive structures,'' tinged around the edges with the
             kind of Marxism that the Polish-born pontiff strongly rejected.

             John Paul began his crackdown on liberation theology almost exactly 20 years
             ago, when he made his first trip to Mexico in early 1979 to address a summit of
             Latin American bishops in the city of Puebla.

             ``The problem in Puebla was that people were choosing between Marxism or
             capitalism. The Pope told them the solution was neither capitalism nor communism,
             but communion,'' said Mexican Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragan, former head
             of the economic committee of the Latin American Bishops Council.

             Pope forces a choice

             But the Pope did more than talk: He ordered politically active priests like the
             Cardenals, D'Escoto and the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti to quit politics
             or stop administering priestly sacraments.

             He promoted conservative Managua Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo to
             cardinal, gave orders to assign liberal priests to less visible jobs and muzzled some
             of the most outspoken radical theologians.

             The most public moments of the confrontation came during a papal visit to
             Nicaragua in 1983, when John Paul scolded Ernesto Cardenal on the Managua
             airport runway and later angrily shook his pastoral staff at Sandinistas who chanted
             political slogans during a Mass.

             John Paul later had the Vatican issue two documents condemning Marxist aspects
             of liberation theology as putting too much stress on the materialistic side of church
             doctrine and denying the human soul.

             Rampant capitalism rebuked

             Ironically, the Pope these days is condemning ``savage capitalism'' with the same
             vigor with which he once censured Godless communism, and in the process is
             sounding a bit like the liberation theologians of old.

             Too many governments focused purely on economic productivity are abandoning
             the poor to their own devices and widening the gap between the rich, industrialized
             North and the poor, agrarian South, the Pope has said.

             ``Latin America faces unjust conditions imposed by the First World, including the
             United States, that cannot be accepted,'' said Lozano, who now works in the
             Vatican. ``The Pope may regard market economies as a better option, but only if
             they benefit humanity and not just make large profits.''

             Such talk at the highest levels of the Vatican appears to be infusing liberation
             theologians with a new measure of determination.

             ``Now liberation theology seems to have been picked up by the bishops, and even
             the Pope himself,'' said the Rev. John Mulligan, an American Jesuit who has lived
             in Nicaragua for 13 years. ``The thrust for social justice has not diminished. The
             feeling that something must be done is still there.''

             ``Liberation theology is not dead,'' said Uriel Molina, smiling as he sat on a rocking
             chair outside his home and recalled his days of political activism and his expulsion
             from his parish and his Franciscan order.

             ``There may not be as much enthusiasm as it once had,'' he said, ``but liberation
             theology lives on in the commitment of my faith and my church to the poor and the
             oppressed of the world.''


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