Latin America was deeply affected by the Second Vatican Council. The initiatives taken in religious life and thought at Vatican II seized hold of the Christian churches throughout the continent, precipitating demands for change that have not yet entirely run their course. Central America shared fully in this dynamic process. Religious change revitalized the Catholic church and challenged the Protestant churches to live up to their Reformational heritage. Indeed, we would characterize the postconciliar period in Central America as one of "Reformational changes."
The churches took a preferential option for the poor. In Central America, this implied an identification with the vast majority of the populace. Assuming that church leaders grasped the implications of such an option, how could an institutionally weak church carry it out? One possibility was to organize the poor so that they could meet some of their own religious needs. The key to this endeavor was the Christian base community and its lay leaders, the Delegados de la Palabra. The hub around which CEB activity revolved was study of the Bible. In the view of dictatorial regimes, the prophetic emphasis given to Bible study made it appear dangerously subversive in a society so marked by inequality and injustice. Religious activism spilled over irresistibly into the political arena.
During the period examined in this book a number of countries in Central America were particularly susceptible to the influence of religious change due to the weakness and illegitimacy of existing regimes. For example, the political system of El Salvador eroded severely during the 1970s. The narrowly based system of oligarchical rule had become totally dependent on the military for its survival; this system of "reactionary despotism" was maintained only through violent repression of the myriad demands for change being voiced within the country. 1 In Nicaraguathe Somocista regime was gravely weakened by a series of events during the 1970s--including the 1972 earthquake, Somoza Debayle's heart attack, and the Carter administration's