Liberation Theology: Soviet Plant or Native Weed, It’s Poisonous
A former Soviet spymaster has revealed that Liberation Theology was partly a KGB export. What makes it so alluring?
We learned this week from Mihai Pacepa, a former Communist spymaster, that Liberation Theology was at least in part the creation of Soviet espionage agents, who saw the Catholic peasants of Latin America as vulnerable to Marxist recruitment through gullible, idealistic or power-hungry clergy. As Pecepa recalls,
[I]n 1968 the KGB-created Christian Peace Conference, supported by the world-wide World Peace Council, was able to maneuver a group of leftist South American bishops into holding a Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin, Colombia. The Conference’s official task was to ameliorate poverty. Its undeclared goal was to recognize a new religious movement encouraging the poor to rebel against the “institutionalized violence of poverty,” and to recommend the new movement to the World Council of Churches for official approval.
The Medellin Conference achieved both goals. It also bought the KGB-born name “Liberation Theology.”
In subsequent years, hundreds of priests, nuns, and lay workers used their positions of influence over ordinary people to instruct them in a new, revolutionary reading of the Gospel. When the Marxist Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua, Liberation Theology priests worked closely with the government, over the objections of Pope John Paul II.
John Allen offers a thoughtful analysis of the accuracy of Pecepa’s claim, which The Stream’s David Mills discusses here. Steve Skojec analyzes the relevant church documents, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s take on Liberation Theology, here.
What’s most intriguing in Allen’s account is the counter-theory, current among some Catholics in Latin America who resent the competition of Pentecostal missionaries in countries that were for centuries a legal Catholic monopoly: Even as the Soviets were seeding Latin American Catholics with Liberation Theology, the Reagan administration was fighting back by fostering Pentecostal churches there — to build up solidly anti-Communist Protestants. Now I’d never heard that conspiracy theory before, but if it were true, all I could say as a Catholic is, “Thank God for the Gipper!”
Whatever problems one might have with Pentecostalism, it is genuinely Christian, which Liberation Theology isn’t. It’s scarcely theology. And it doesn’t liberate. In Latin America, it served or serves as the pious fig-leaf for nasty dictatorships like the Sandinistas’ in Nicaragua, and the Chavistas’ in Venezuela. Its watered-down American version — popular among leftists who still claim to be Catholic — offers political cover for pro-abortion, anti-marriage lawmakers, who hope they can buy back their souls by dispensing some extra food stamps and reducing their carbon footprints.
Much worse than Liberation Theology’s worldly effects are the spiritual poisons it trades in: toxic envy, gut-gnawing resentment, a craving for the chance to mete out violence, a scorn for thrift and honest work and an acid cynicism that reduces every human relationship to a swap of money or power. All this in the name of Jesus.
Put briefly and starkly, Liberation Theology treats Jesus as a proto-revolutionary who came to save the poor from social injustice. The Kingdom of God is the earthly paradise which we will construct from the ruins of Satanic capitalism. The church serves the role of the Party, as the vanguard of the sacred class chosen by History (oops, I meant to say “Jesus”) to overturn the wicked “structures of sin,” and put the Sermon on the Mount into action at the point of a bayonet. The meek shall inherit the earth, once we’ve rounded up all the non-meek into gulags and confiscated their land. You know, the way the Soviets saved Ukraine from greedy farmers in the 1930s.
It sounds like thinly veiled Marxist theory, and that’s exactly what it is. As Norman Cohn and Eric Voegelin showed, Marx himself seized the Christian vision of a New Jerusalem after the Second Coming, dragged it into politics, and dressed it up in a white lab coat as a “scientific” prediction of a this-worldly utopia. Instead of the Second Coming, he inserted “the Revolution,” and in place of the Christian church he plugged in the proletariat and the Party. For decades, idealists around the world were willing to conspire, betray their country, go to prison, die — and wherever they came to power, to kill their fellow men by the tens of millions, and imprison millions more, to force Marx’s kingdom to come.
That daydream became a nightmare on every patch of earth where it was tried, as any refugee from Vietnam, Cuba, Cambodia, North Korea or Eastern Europe will tell you. He might list the family members who were shot or imprisoned, the small businesses or farms that were outright stolen, the lies he was taught to parrot since childhood in deadening, conformist schools and party meetings. Growing up in New York City, where many such refugees landed, I heard such grim, first-hand accounts over and over again. Many of my close friends’ parents were victims of Communism.
The sordid failure of materialist Marxism to fulfill any — even one — of its messianic promises posed a problem for people who were still, for their own reasons, drawn to revolutionary fantasies that entailed gaining power, confiscating other people’s property and silencing them by force. History, it is perfectly clear, is not inexorably driven to produce a dictatorship of the proletariat. It took Soviet tanks to remind the workers of Hungary and Poland of what was good for them. It demanded concrete walls and barbed wire to stop the common people from fleeing “people’s” regimes by the millions, to live instead in wicked capitalist lands where they would be exploited. What to do, if you still find reality intolerable, and crave a revolution?
You turn to magic. You create a “god from a machine.” You twist people’s faith in Christ into the self-confidence of a conquering social class. You drag down their hope for heaven, and rope it to wishes for cheaper gas and more cassavas. You teach them that real love, tough love, amounts to a cold-blooded calculation about maximizing utility: To make that liberating omelet, Jesus wants you to crack some heads. Perversely, as Marxism by natural means began to collapse all around the world, liberation theologians tried to revive it by calling it Christian.
Latin Americans faced many tragic inequities in the 1970s, when Liberation Theology wisped in with the KGB’s assistance. Millions of people lived under dictators, working in fields for the descendants of conquistadors who had stolen most of the land. But the problem with such countries wasn’t too much capitalism, too much private property, rule of law or freedom of thought. It was too little of each of those things, which we in America were blessed to inherit from our founders.
Every single injustice that haunted that still-challenged part of the world was the heritage of conquest, of the racial subjugation of Indians by Europeans — by Spaniards whose political tradition was haunted by a suffocating paternalism: We will take the Indians’ land and tell them how to farm it. We will tell them what to believe, and keep out any “heretics” who might come along and confuse them. The state will decide which industries will prosper and which will be banned, and it will control all trade. Local initiative, political activism and intellectual diversity — all of these are threats to the unity and dignity of the state.
Such tendencies were not uniquely Spanish, not at all. King George III was trying to revive these kinds of policies in the American colonies when we rebelled. We rejected them, in favor of ordered liberty. Prosperity followed naturally in its wake. As good neighbors to Latin America, we should wish the same for its residents. But neither liberty nor prosperity will come from baptizing the bankrupt utopia of a discredited German thinker like Marx.
In Part II of this analysis, I will examine the ongoing popularity of elements of Liberation Theology in the church today.