Pope John Paul II reprimanding Father Ernesto Cardenal at Managua Airport for Cardenal's support for "liberation theology" and his work with the Sandinista government.
The election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis brings back into focus the troubling role of the Catholic hierarchy in blessing much of the brutal repression that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, killing and torturing tens of thousands of people including priests and nuns accused of sympathizing with leftists.
The Vatican's fiercely defensive reaction to the reemergence of these questions as they relate to the new Pope also is reminiscent of the pattern of deceptive denials that became another hallmark of that era when propaganda was viewed as an integral part of the "anti-communist" struggles, which were often supported financially and militarily by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Much as Pope Pius XII didn't directly challenge the Nazis during the Holocaust, Father Bergoglio avoided any direct confrontation with the neo-Nazis who were terrorizing Argentina. Pope Francis's defenders today, like apologists for Pope Pius, claim he did intervene quietly to save some individuals.
But no one asserts that Bergoglio stood up publicly against the "anti-communist" terror, as some other Church leaders did in Latin America, most notably El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero who then became a victim of right-wing assassins in 1980.
Indeed, the predominant role of the Church hierarchy -- from the Vatican to the bishops in the individual countries -- was to give political cover to the slaughter and to offer little protection to the priests and nuns who advocated "liberation theology," i.e., the belief that Jesus did not just favor charity to the poor but wanted a just society that shared wealth and power with the poor.
In Latin America with its calcified class structure of a few oligarchs at one end and many peasants at the other, that meant reforms, such as land redistribution, literacy programs, health clinics, union rights, etc. But those changes were fiercely opposed by the local oligarchs and the multinational corporations that profited from the cheap labor and inequitable land distribution.
So, any reformers of any stripe were readily labeled "communists" and were made the targets of vicious security forces, often trained and indoctrinated by "anti-communist" military officers at the U.S.-run School of the Americas. The primary role of the Catholic hierarchy was to urge the people to stay calm and support the traditional system.
It is noteworthy that the orchestrated praise for Pope Francis in the U.S. news media has been to hail Bergoglio's supposed "humble" personality and his "commitment to the poor." However, Bergoglio's approach fits with the Church's attitude for centuries, to give "charity" to the poor while doing little to change their cruel circumstances -- as Church grandees hobnob with the rich and powerful.
Another Pope Favorite
Pope John Paul II, another favorite of the U.S. news media, shared this classic outlook. He emphasized conservative social issues, telling the faithful to forgo contraceptives, treating women as second-class Catholics and condemning homosexuality. He promoted charity for the poor and sometimes criticized excesses of capitalism, but he disdained leftist governments that sought serious economic reforms.
Elected in 1978, as right-wing "death squads" were gaining momentum across Latin America, John Paul II offered little protection to left-leaning priests and nuns who were targeted. He rebuffed Archbishop Romero's plea to condemn El Salvador's right-wing regime and its human rights violations. He stood by as priests were butchered and nuns were raped and killed.
Instead of leading the charge for real economic and political change in Latin America, John Paul II denounced "liberation theology." During a 1983 trip to Nicaragua -- then ruled by the leftist Sandinistas -- the Pope condemned what he called the "popular Church" and would not let Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and a minister in the Sandinista government, kiss the papal ring. He also elevated clerics like Bergoglio who didn't protest right-wing repression.
John Paul II appears to have gone even further, allowing the Catholic Church in Nicaragua to be used by the CIA and Ronald Reagan's administration to finance and organize internal disruptions while the violent Nicaraguan Contras terrorized northern Nicaraguan towns with raids notorious for rape, torture and extrajudicial executions.
The Contras were originally organized by an Argentine intelligence unit that emerged from the country's domestic "dirty war" and was taking its "anti-communist" crusade of terror across borders. After Reagan took office in 1981, he authorized the CIA to join with Argentine intelligence in expanding the Contras and their counter-revolutionary war.
A key part of Reagan's Contra strategy was to persuade the American people and Congress that the Sandinistas represented a repressive communist dictatorship that persecuted the Catholic Church, aimed to create a "totalitarian dungeon," and thus deserve violent overthrow.
A special office inside the National Security Council, headed by longtime CIA disinformation specialist Walter Raymond Jr., pushed these propaganda "themes" domestically. Raymond's campaign exploited examples of tensions between the Catholic hierarchy and the Sandinista government as well as with La Prensa, the leading opposition newspaper.