Only weeks before Pope John Paul II's triumphant visit to Central America, Jesuit priest Juan Luis Segundo, a founder of liberation theology, died. The movement Segundo helped to found interpreted the Gospel's teaching in light of Marxist class theory, lending a religious cast to social and political revolution.
In recent years, liberation theology has been ailing in Central America, in large part due to the courage of the pope, himself a survivor of both national socialist and communist tyrannies. In place of the ideology that held sway in the region for 20 years, authentic faith and a new vision of liberty hold the promise of a peaceful and more prosperous future.
Nicaragua once was the last hope of the liberation theologians. Like Moscow, Cuba and Hanoi before it, Nicaragua had become the world gathering place for Western political and religious pilgrims looking for the fulfillment of their socialist utopia. Many Catholic priests and religious were involved heavily in the revolutionary Sandinista Front, which put them at odds with their bishops and, ultimately, the pope.
Just prior to his troublesome 1983 visit, the pope wrote a fierce letter to the Nicaraguan bishops about the Marxist corruption spreading among the clergy and Church workers. "A `Popular Church' opposed to the Church presided over by legitimate pastors," he wrote, "is a serious deviation from the will and the plan of salvation of Jesus Christ."
Letters such as this caused the pope to be branded by the media as authoritarian and reactionary. He was said to be cracking down upon dissent while being insensitive to the demands of the poor. The reality was much different. In fact, he was intervening to prevent the Gospel from being corrupted for political purposes contrary to human dignity.
For several years, theologians and clerics had been coming from all over the world to attend conferences on the moral necessity of socialism, communism, worker collectives and investing all power in the government. Their works were studied in all the best seminaries.
The pope's visit in 1983 was not mentioned in the official Nicaraguan press, and the opposition press was censured, shut down or denied enough paper and ink for a print run. The Sandinista government received the pope as any other chief of state, despite Vatican protests. When he arrived, he waited 15 minutes in the hot sun as President Daniel Ortega delivered a speech attacking U.S. imperialism.
Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, the minister of culture and a socialist-revolutionary priest, greeted the pope in blue jeans and a black beret, and then fell to his knees. …