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During the Cold War’s earliest years, right-wing governments and oligarchic elites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua fostered closer relationships with the Catholic Church. Dictatorial leaders like Guatemala’s Carlos Castillo Armas and dynastic regimes like Nicaragua’s Somoza family regarded the Church as an ally against supposed Marxist influence in the region. Those ties began to fray in the late 1960s, as the Second Vatican Council’s foundational reforms moved Catholicism farther to the political and social left around the globe. This shift was especially prominent in Central America, where Catholics like El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and Guatemala’s Father Stanley Rother were among Central America’s most visible critics and reformers as political violence increased across the region during the 1970s. Relatedly, evangelical Protestants, particularly Pentecostal groups based in the United States, flooded Central America throughout that decade. Their staunch anticommunism and established ties to influential policymakers and political lobbyists in the United States, among other factors, gave evangelical Protestants greater influence in US-Central American relations. Their influence was strongest during the early 1980s, when José Efraín Ríos Montt, an ordained Pentecostal minister with Eureka, California’s Verbo Ministries, seized Guatemala’s presidency via a coup in March 1982. Notable US evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson praised Ríos Montt’s regime for its rabid anticommunist ideology, while President Ronald Reagan claimed that the dictator had received a “bum rap” in the global press. Concurrently, some US evangelical missioners and pastors also foregrounded the Sandinista government’s anti-Protestant activities as additional justification for US support for Nicaragua’s Contra forces. Religious actors were also instrumental to Central America’s peace processes after the Cold War, as Catholic and Protestant leaders alike worked closely with regional governments and the United States to end decades of political violence and enact meaningful socioeconomic reforms for the region’s citizens.

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Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez (b. Ciudad Barrios, San Miguel, El Salvador, August 15, 1915; d. San Salvador, El Salvador, March 24, 1980) was the seventh Archbishop of San Salvador. During his episcopate (February 22, 1977–March 24, 1980), Romero gained international renown for his human rights activism, advocacy for the poor, and denunciation of El Salvador’s political repression and violence. Romero was one of Latin America’s most influential political and social voices and routinely drew thousands of people to San Salvador’s Metropolitan Cathedral, while his homilies were broadcast across Central America on shortwave radio. In 1978, members of Britain’s Parliament, the United States Congress, and the US press supported Romero’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts to halt the economic, political, and social violence that plagued El Salvador and, more broadly, Central America, during the late 1970s. In his final homily, delivered on March 23, 1980, Romero directly addressed members of the Salvadoran military and police forces, “in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.” The following day, Romero was murdered by Salvadoran government forces while he celebrated Mass at the Church of Divine Providence in San Salvador. His assassination sent shockwaves through Central America, and over one hundred thousand people attended his funeral. In May 2015, Pope Francis beatified Romero and elevated him to sainthood on October 14, 2018.

Article

In 1947, a Colombian priest, Padre José Joaquín Salcedo Guarín, established a small radio station in Sutatenza, Boyacá to provide basic literacy education for poor peasants. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, Salcedo’s pioneering example gave rise to hundreds of similar initiatives across the Andes. Amid widespread illiteracy, entrenched poverty, and a mountainous terrain that limited access to state institutions and the mainstream media, radio was seen as a technology of immense promise that could increase education levels and stimulate development. The escuelas radiofónicas (radio schools) were an innovative form of distance learning designed to be followed in groups within the home or in a community building. In other parts of the world, radio education was largely delivered by secular agencies, but in the profoundly Catholic Andean region they had a strongly religious character, being operated by priests and funded by international Catholic organizations. Although hailed by many for their transformative impact on rural communities, others criticized their “developmentalist” assumptions and tendency to spread anticommunism. Initially focused on basic numeracy and literacy, radio schools later included programs on agricultural techniques, health, family relationships, music, and spiritual guidance, which were accompanied by newspapers, pamphlets, and readers. Peasant leaders and so-called auxiliaries were recruited and trained to promote radio school attendance and reinforce new ideas and practices. As the tenets of liberation theology filtered out through the Latin American clergy in the 1970s and 1980s, radio education acquired a more activist tone and moved away from didacticism toward community participation, often having a cultural and political impact far beyond that intended in the 1960s. Cultural and economic changes of the late 20th century brought an end to many such radio schools, but a number persist and radio continues to be vitally important among rural Andean populations.

Article

Vatican foreign relations with Latin America comprise both bilateral diplomatic negotiations with states and the Holy See’s spiritual leadership of national Catholic Churches in the region. Apostolic nuncios—papal diplomatic representatives—are the principal intermediaries of Vatican foreign relations. Since the early 19th century, Vatican diplomacy has been the purview of the Papal Secretariat of State, the “foreign relations” branch of the Roman curia. The beginning of modern Vatican foreign relations with Latin America should be dated to the Napoleonic wars in Europe and the movements for home rule in Spain’s colonies. From 1810–1820, the papacy stood unwavering in its defense of Spanish absolutist claims to the peninsula and to its colonies. Latin American Independence shattered Spanish Royal Patronage and left a legacy of regalism in the region, with which the ultramontane papacy of the 19th century would contend. The professionalization of the Vatican diplomatic corps (1889–1914) conformed papal diplomacy to the norms of the international state system, incrementally increasing the political and spiritual legitimacy of the Holy See after its loss of temporal power to the Italian state, sparking the so-called “Roman Question” (1870–1929). During the interwar period, Vatican policy centered on concordats and Catholic Action, evincing both a pragmatic approach to diplomacy and a highly regimented and non-party political model of lay activism. Mexico’s Cristero Rebellion (1926–1929) represented the most strident conflict in the period, where Rome’s concordat/Catholic Action policy neither negotiated a durable modus vivendi nor managed to pacify radical lay Catholics until the 1940s. During the pontificate of Pius XII (1939–1958), a strident anti-communism marked the policy of the Holy See, aligning the Catholic Church in Latin America with conservatives and authoritarian leaders. After the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), the policy of Ostpolitik guided diplomats towards rapprochement with communist and revolutionary states such as Cuba and Nicaragua. The end of the Cold War temporized the relationship between progressive sectors in the Latin American Church, which had been influenced by Liberation Theology, and the Vatican under John Paul II (1978–2005). A “New Evangelization” campaign was heralded by Pope Benedict XVI (2005–2013). Argentine Jesuit and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio crafted many of the seminal documents for the New Evangelization. Bergoglio, elected Pope Francis in 2013, emphasized the socio-economic and the spiritual aspects of Vatican policy, bring issues of poverty, economic inequality, and justice to center stage, fostering a diplomacy of piccoli passi (small steps) and brokering improved relations between the United States and Cuba.

Article

The role of religion shifted dramatically in Central American politics during the 20th century, as the Catholic Church moved from a position as conservator of the status quo to a powerful force for reform and human rights. The century also witnessed the rise, then the “boom,” of Protestant—specifically Pentecostal—religion. By the century’s end, Central America had become among the most Protestant regions of Latin America, with every country except Costa Rica and Belize measuring a large and rising evangélico minority. These changes unfolded alongside, and deeply affected, one of the most traumatic and violent periods in the region’s history, the so-called Central American crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, when Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala became the battlegrounds for one of the last large proxy wars of the larger Cold War, between Marxist insurgencies and authoritarian governments.