For two decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s, liberation theology intertwined with Marxist ideology, and intensely promoted by communist Cuba and the Soviet Union, carried out bloody “wars of national liberation” throughout Latin America.
Liberation theology iconography often included the image of a guerrilla Jesus carrying a soviet weapon. Today, it seems to be undergoing something of a revival. Since divinity is not in my wheelhouse, I will stay within the boundaries of history and politics.
Liberation theology began as a movement within the Latin American Catholic Church. In its present form, it is a varied inter-denominational, international movement. The origin of the Latin American brand of Liberation theology is credited to Peruvian priest and theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez. In 1971, Father Gutiérrez published A Theology of Liberation, one of the movement’s defining books. Today, Gutiérrez holds a prestigious professorship at the University of Notre Dame in the United States.
Liberation theology has been defined as: “An interpretation of Christian faith out of the experiences of the poor.” Liberation theologians propose reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor to help them interpret the Christian faith in a new way. For example, Father Gutiérrez popularized the politically charged phrase “preferential option for the poor.”
The intellectual methodology of liberation theology relies heavily on Marxism. In its present form, the movement has distanced itself from Marxism, but uniformly advocates some form of socialism. For Gutiérrez, poverty is the result of unjust social structures and dependency on developed countries.
This would be simply a historical note, except for two intriguing developments. The first originates with the highest-ranking defector from communism in the 1970s, three-star general of the Romanian secret police, Ion Mihai Pacepa. The second originates with the highest authority of the Catholic Church, and the first Latin American to hold that post, Pope Francis.
According to Ion Pacepa, liberation theology was the creation of a 1960 top-secret KGB program.
The program called for the KGB to secretly take control of the World Council of Churches based in Switzerland, and use it as a cover for converting liberation theology into a destabilizing revolutionary tool. The KGB began by building an international religious organization called the Christian Peace Conference as an appendix to the World Peace Council.
During his years at the top of the Soviet intelligence community, Pacepa managed the Romanian operations of the World Peace Council which he claims was “as purely KGB as it gets.” Pacepa goes on to explain how these organizations were able to “maneuver a group of leftist South American clerics into holding a Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellín, Colombia.” Indeed, the 1968 Medellín Latin America Episcopal Conference laid the groundwork for liberation theology.
It is tempting to dismiss Pacepa’s claims, but his credentials are impressive. After defecting in 1978, he helped the Central Intelligence Agency dismantle the intelligence network of communist Romania. He has written several books describing Soviet intelligence operations, and has been the target of assassination plots with millions of dollars as bounty. The CIA has described his cooperation as “an important and unique contribution to the United States.”
In the years following the Medellín conference, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI censured liberation theology. John Paul noted that “this conception of Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechisms.”
For his part, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) severely criticized liberation theology’s Marxist influence and accused Father Gutiérrez of politically interpreting the Bible. As prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger prohibited dissident priests from teaching elements of liberation theology in the name of the Catholic Church.
But in 2013, Pope Francis met, in the Vatican, with Father Gutiérrez. Following the visit, in an exoneration of liberation theology, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, published an essay stating that with the election of the first pope from Latin America, liberation theology can no longer “remain in the shadows to which it has been relegated for some years.…”
What are we to make of this about face?
Let’s pray Pope Francis’s rehabilitation of liberation theology does not bring about the democracy-undermining consequences in Latin America sought by the KGB.