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 bearded
priest knelt before him.
``Meaningless,'' Cardenal snapped, even though that scene 16 years ago
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
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
1970s 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,
moderates like his brother Fernando, once suspended by the Jesuit order, have
seen their tenets absorbed into mainstream church dogma.
John Paul may even give liberation theology a boost of sorts when he travels
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
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.
Radical theologians portrayed Jesus as a bearded revolutionary, guerrilla
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
before the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990.
At the Valdivieso Center, a church-run Managua think tank that once was
cauldron of radical publications but now works on ecumenical issues with
Protestant churches, a secretary smirked when asked where one could find a
``All that's past,'' she said. ``It ended when the Sandinistas ended.''
Most telling is what happened at Santa Maria de los Angeles, a church in
Managua where the Rev. Uriel Molina celebrated openly pro-Sandinista Masses.
Revolutionary murals on the inner walls show a guerrilla in olive green
helping 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
parish in 1990, and was dismissed from the Franciscan order in 1996 for
``rebellion.'' Only Nicaraguans now attend Mass, not the foreigners who once
crowded in to hear Molina.
Only a Sandinista-era law has protected the murals, 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
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 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
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
Jesuits the next year, now runs religious retreats. He declined a request for an
interview, saying he wanted to think well about the status of liberation theology
``All that is heard is their silence,'' wrote the Rev. Jose Maria Vigil,
priest who has authored several essays on liberation theology.
Roots in Vatican II
The doctrine dates from the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965
call to expand church social doctrine beyond traditional charity.
But by the time John Paul was elected Pope in 1978, it had grown into an
aggressive attack on ``oppressive structures,'' tinged with the kind of Marxism that
the Polish-born pontiff rejected.
John Paul began his crackdown on liberation theology almost exactly 20
ago, when he made his first trip to Mexico in early 1979 to address a Latin
American bishops in Puebla.
``People were choosing between Marxism or capitalism. The Pope told them
solution was neither capitalism nor communism, but communion,'' said Mexican
Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragan, former head of the Latin American bishops'
John Paul later had the Vatican condem Marxist aspects of liberation theology
putting too much stress on the materialistic side of church doctrine and denying the
Rampant capitalism rebuked
Ironically, the Pope these days is condemning ``savage capitalism'' with
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
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,
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 recalled
days of political activism.
``There may not be as much enthusiasm as it once had,'' he said, ``but
theology lives on in the commitment of my faith and my church to the poor and the
oppressed of the world.''
Copyright © 1999 The Miami Herald