The Miami Herald
January 21, 1999
Church revisits `option for the poor'

             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 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
             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, while
             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 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.

             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 church in central
             Managua where the Rev. Uriel Molina celebrated openly pro-Sandinista Masses.

             Revolutionary murals on the inner walls show a guerrilla in olive green fatigues
             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 the
             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 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 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 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 from the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 with a
             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 years
             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 the
             solution was neither capitalism nor communism, but communion,'' said Mexican
             Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragan, former head of the Latin American bishops'
             economic committee.

             John Paul later had the Vatican condem 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 recalled his
             days of political activism.

             ``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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