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Catechists and Commissars | Piers Paul Read | An excerpt from "Hell" in Hell and Other Destinations: A Novelist's Reflections on This World and the Next

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Last November in El Salvador, after twenty years of civil war, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) made an all-out attack on San Salvador, the capital city. Fifteen hundred guerillas came down from the volcano which overlooks some of the smartest suburbs. Others, in the barrios, dug up weapons which had been hidden in readiness for this offensive. Several areas of the city were occupied, and mortars were fired at the President's home. However, there was no general uprising against the government, and after ten days of fighting the guerillas withdrew.

Up to three thousand people were killed in the course of this offensive, either in battle, or caught in the cross-fire, or killed in cold blood. Most horrifying of all, to the outside world, was the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and the housekeeper's daughter. It happened on the night of 16 November, on the campus of their University of Central America. All the Jesuits were distinguished academics, five of them born and trained in Spain, but resident in El Salvador for so many years that the Rector of the University, Fr Ignacio Ellacuria, had become a national figure. According to the provincial of the Society of Jesus, Fr Tojeira, he was regarded by the President, Alfredo Christiani, as 'the only critical and yet constructive political opposition he had in the country'.

These Jesuits were neither the first nor the most notable Catholic priests to have been killed in El Salvador. Between 1977 and 1981, ten met violent ends, among them a Jesuit, Fr Rutilio Grande. Many catechists, church workers and members of the Christian base communities have been among the 70,000 slaughtered. In 1980 four American women missionaries were raped and then murdered by National Guardsmen. In March of the same year, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, was shot dead with a single bullet as he was celebrating Mass.

To understand this apparent persecution of the Catholic Church in a Catholic country, one must go back to the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII in 1963 in which there was a shift in emphasis from a purely spiritual and self-contained concept of Catholicism to one which was open to and appreciated what was good in the world at large.

In particular the material and the social aspirations of man were deemed good, and a commitment made to help the poor. 'The Church encompasses in her love all those who are afflicted by human misery, and she recognizes in those who are poor and who suffer, the image of her poor and suffering founder. She does all in her power to relieve their need, and in them she strives to serve Christ.'

Such solicitude for the unfortunate was not new. Numerous religious orders had been founded specifically to do charitable work. In the past, however, they had sought to alleviate the symptoms of suffering rather than do anything about the cause. Now, the Council suggested, 'the best way to fulfil one's obligation to justice and love is to contribute to the common good according to one's means and the needs of others, even to the point of fostering public and private organizations devoted to the bettering of conditions of life.' 'Thus,' said the fathers, with a certain optimism, 'there will arise a generation of new men, the moulders of a new humanity.'

None met this challenge with greater zeal than the members of the Society of Jesus. Founded in the sixteenth century by St Ignatius Loyala to combat the Protestant Reformation, the order had succeeded so well in the centuries which followed that Jesuits had become the power behind many a throne. In Europe they became the confessors of reigning monarchs and the tutors of future kings. Their missionaries went to India, China, Africa and the Americas, braving tempests and tortures to bring heathen souls to the one true faith. In Peking they became intimates of the Manchu emperors; in America it was a Jesuit who first discovered the Mississippi. In Paraguay they ruled colonies or 'reductions' of Christian Indians, described as 'the most remarkable example of a whole people transformed and exalted through Christianity that has been known since the Middle Ages'.

Their influence grew so strong that they became loathed and feared. 'Jesuitical' entered the language, meaning unscrupulous and crafty. Any means were justified by the end they pursued which was the greater glory of God. In the middle of the eighteenth century, they were expelled first from Spain and all Spanish possessions, and later from Portugal, France and Naples. In 1773 the Pope, Clement XIV, suppressed the order. In 1814 it was restored.

Most efficacious of all the Jesuits' methods was the education of the young. 'Give us a child until he is seven,' they would say, 'and he is ours for life.' In an age of cuius regio, eius religio, they concentrated their attention on the sons of future rulers. Theirs became the best schools and universities in the major cities of Catholic countries throughout the world. Their pupils were the future elite. In San Salvador, as in Paris, Prague, Warsaw, Washington or Madrid, the Jesuits catered for the children of the upper classes in their high school and University of Central America.

It was therefore the Jesuits who felt most chastened by the rebuke implicit in the decrees of the Council. Many of their pupils in San Salvador, when they graduated, became leading figures in the community--landowners, lawyers, doctors, businessmen and politicians. They always took their families to Mass on a Sunday and made sure that their daughters married lavishly in a church. But did they practise what they preached? Were they Christians in spirit as well as in form? 'Even though incorporated into the body of the Church,' the Council had warned, 'one who does not persevere in charity is not saved. He remains in the bosom of the Church, but in body, not in heart.'

Eager to mend their ways, and respond to the call of the Council, many Jesuits now espoused a new 'theology of Liberation' which not only justified but insisted upon a radical political expression of Christian faith. It had been born at a meeting of young theologians at Petropolis in Brazil in 1964, and claimed its most notable triumph four years later when the Catholic Bishops of South America, meeting at Medellin in Colombia, declared their 'preferential option for the poor'. Traditionalists claim that this merely reminded Catholics of an age-old commitment, but the members of what came to be called the 'progressive' or 'popular' Church saw it as episcopal approval of their collective, political and usually Marxist and revolutionary concept of salvation.

While the application of this theology was directed principally to the impoverished nations of the Third World, many of its leading theorists were in fact European, and many of their theories evolved in institutions like the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. A leading Liberation theologian among the Jesuits, Jon Sobrino, was a Basque who taught at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador. All the students of the Society in Central America, in their training for the priesthood, learned their philosophy and theology at UCA, and many became zealous advocates of the theology of Liberation.

No country seemed more appropriate to put their theories into practice than El Salvador. A small, densely populated country, it was almost a caricature of a Central American banana republic. Of its five million inhabitants, most were mestizos (of mixed Spanish and Indian descent). The land could hardly sustain them, and what land there was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, had been enclosed to form plantations not of bananas but of coffee. Huge fortunes had been made by a few energetic and unscrupulous entrepreneurs. By the 1960s, more than half of the rural peasantry had no land. Sixty per cent of the land was owned by 2 per cent of the population. Nor was this disparity merely a matter of statistics. In the capital, San Salvador, huge mansions surrounded by fortified walls stood side by side with makeshift shacks with no drains, no water, no light and often no food.

The country was ruled in the interests of the landowning oligarchy, the famous 'fourteen families', who, though they may have had the mentality of the Spanish conquistadores, were often more recent arrivals with names like Schwartz, Schmidt, Dalton and Hill. There was both an army and a national guard to protect the 'security' of the nation from external enemies as well as from 'enemies' within--in particular those who dared protest against political oppression or low rates of pay who were called Communists or subversives.

It was armed and financed by the United States in the interests of its own security. However, the officers were not drawn from the landowning families themselves, but from impecunious members of the middle and lower-middle class. These soon learned, like Mao-tse-Tung, that power comes out of a barrel of a gun. There began a succession of coups and counter-coups which, together with frequently fraudulent elections, provided El Salvador with its assembly and a head of state.

It was in this classic case of an unjust society that the progressive priests and their catechists went to work in the late 1960s, organising workers and peasants into unions, staging protests and inculcating in students their duty as Christians to work for a better world. In this they were opposed not just by the army and the police, but at times by their fellow clergy in what came to be known as the 'traditional Church'. These included not just prelates who preferred the company of landowners to that of the unwashed poor, but also conscientious pastors who felt that their flocks were being led astray. Many of the diocesan priests had had grave misgivings about Liberation Theology. They may not have had doctorates from European universities, nor have been able to argue with erudite Jesuits like Jon Sobrino or Ignacio Ellacuria, but they resisted the progressives all the same because of their temporal and material concept of salvation.

To circumvent this opposition from within the Church, there arose the 'base communities', small groups of Christians who met together to study the Bible and decide for themselves, without the guidance of a priest, how to apply its teaching to their daily lives. The conclusions they reached invariably coincided with those reached by the Liberation theologians--to support, as the Council had commanded, organisations working for the common good--not bourgeois reformist parties like Duarte's Christian Democrats, but radical left-wing parties, and later the revolutionaries who had taken to the hills. For after the election of 1972, when power was denied to Duarte's Christian Democrats at the head of a united opposition, a guerilla group was formed, 'the Popular Liberation Force--Farabundo Marti', named after the Mexican revolutionary who had led a peasants' revolt in the 1930s. The FPL-FM, which was to evolve into the FMLN, had a specifically Marxist-Leninist ideology and set about assassinating politicians, landowners and army officers, and kidnapping or murdering the children of the landowning oligarchs.

The reaction of the army was a repression whose horrors continue to this day. The soldiers, often press-ganged from the peasantry, and originally trained by German advisers in the Prussian tradition, dispatched suspected guerillas, sometimes with no interrogation and invariably without due process of law.

To the Jesuits committed to the progressive Church, it was a case of the imperialist leopard showing its true spots. The greater the repression, the more zealous became their commitment to the people's cause. However, they still faced the opposition of the bishops, among them the then Archbishop of San Salvador, Luis Chavez y Gonzalez.

The priest who at the time was secretary to the Bishops' Conference of El Salvador, Mgr Freddy Delgado, describes the crisis which arose when the Archbishop dismissed a French priest, Father Bernardo Boulang, for engaging in political, not pastoral work. The progressive priests rallied to his defence. The Jesuit Father Ellacuria said that to expel Father Boulang was to stop the kind of authentic pastoral work that the church should have been doing in the past. A group of twenty-seven progressive priests protested to the Archbishop but Monsignor Chavez y Gonzalez stood firm and Father Boulang was expelled.

There was a further fracas when the bishops of El Salvador, at the end of 1972, decided to wrest control from the Jesuits of the diocesan seminary in San Salvador of San Jose de la Montana. It had become so politicised that some of its students had been recruited into a Marxist-Leninist cell by the director of the National University, Dr Fabio Castillo. (Two of these, Octavio Ortiz and Ernesto Barrera, were among the priests later killed by the armed forces.) Protests were organised but to no avail. The Jesuits left the seminary of San Jose de la Montana and went to live either in private houses, base communities, or at UCA. There the most progressive Jesuits shared one house, the less progressive another, while the old traditionalists were banished to El Carmen in Santa Tecla.

What this taught the progressive Jesuits, according to Mgr Delgado, was the importance of having a bishop, or better still, an archbishop sympathetic to their point of view. Their opportunity came with the appointment of Mgr Oscar Arnulfo Romero to the see of San Salvador. He had hitherto been considered a conservative pastor but there were traits to his character which gave the progressives reason to believe that they might convert him to their cause. According to the Bishop of Santa Ana, Mgr Marco Rene Revello, on the very day his appointment was announced, a meeting was called of forty progressive priests, led by Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino (and including the diocesan priests Fabian Amaya and Ricardo Urioste), to 'analyse' the appointment of Mgr Romero. A list was drawn up on a blackboard of his strengths and weaknesses. In his favour it was agreed that he was an honest man, a man of the Church, a man of prayer and a charitable man. Against him, they wrote that he was ambitious for power (he was said to have admired both Mussolini and Pius XII while studying in Rome); that he was an insecure man who was afraid to stand alone; and that he was an inflexible man who, once he had made up his mind, would not change it.

They decided that their first step should be to stimulate his ambition by showing how, if he joined with them, he could become a great figure in the Church. Secondly, because he was so insecure, they would surround him and keep others away. Thirdly, if they could get a fixed idea into his head, then they would have him in their power.

They selected a committee of five diocesan priests to ask for 'a dialogue' with the newly appointed archbishop. They met with him the day after his appointment, and insisted that the officials of his episcopal curia should be sent away. Two nuns stood at the door to make sure they were not interrupted. Mgr Revello, the Bishop of Santa Ana, who had got wind of what was happening, came to warn Mgr Romero, but was not admitted. In his view, Romero decided that his diocese would be ungovernable if he did not throw in his lot with the progressives.

Thereafter, every Monday, the Jesuits Ignacio Ellacuria and Jon Sobrino, would meet with the diocesan priests Jesus Delgado, Fabian Amaya and Ricardo Urioste to decide which of them would contribute what to the Archbishop's sermon on the following Sunday. On the Thursday they would meet again to put the different sections together, and on the Friday the homily would be given to Mgr Romero. This was not only preached from the pulpit, but broadcast throughout the country on the Catholic radio. On 24 March Romero pronounced that 'no soldier is obliged to obey an order to kill if it runs contrary to his conscience'. The next day he was killed.


Today, ten years later, the division between the progressive and the traditional Church remains as pronounced as ever. To the progressives Mgr Romero is the archetypal martyr of the modern age, 'the greatest figure in the Latin American Church', a Jesuit told me, 'for half a century'. The Bishop of Santa Ana, however, sees Romero not as a Christian martyr but 'as a hero who died for a cause'. To the current Archbishop of San Salvador, Mgr Arturo Rivera Damas, and his coadjutor Bishop, Mgr Rosa Chavez, Romero was certainly a martyr and they continue to speak out against the abuse of human rights. Mgr Rosa Chavez warned me, however, that I should distinguish between the homilies of a pastor and the opinions of a theologian. Ellacuria had been killed for his opinions, Romero for performing his duties as a priest.

The same distinction was made by Fr Jesus Delgado, now parish priest of the church next to the seminary of St Jose de la Montana. A priest in the exercise of his pastoral duties must sometimes conceal his opinions. Though himself enraged at the disparity between rich and poor in his own parish, where hovels with no plumbing stand in the shadows of the satellite dishes on the rooves of the fortified villas of the rich, he expresses his opinions through example by encouraging the poor to dig their own drains, and the rich to pay for the free breakfasts which he gives to the hungry children of his parish every Sunday after the 7 a.m. Mass. One of the ladies who helped him said to me approvingly: 'We have a very fine priest. He helps the poor but keeps out of politics.'

Such discretion in El Salvador, I soon learned, showed not just modesty but common sense. Traditionalists as well as progressives were afraid to express their opinions. I was told that Francisco Peccorini, a professor of philosophy and former Jesuit, who had been the only man with the intelligence to counter the arguments of Ignacio Ellacuria on the televised debates about the state of the nation, had been assassinated by the FMLN. According to Mgr Barreiro, the current Secretary to the Bishops' Conference, all the apologists for the Right had either been killed or had fled abroad. Mgr Freddy Delgado, the brother of Father Jesus and a member of the Government's Human Rights Commission, lived in fear of his life. After writing a pamphlet exposing Communist manipulation of the Popular Church, fellow priests in the FMLN had sent a unit to assassinate him. It is not difficult, in El Salvador, to know where the sympathies of a priest lie. A portrait of the Pope betrays a traditionalist; a portrait of Romero a progressive. In the office of Father Rogelio Pedraz, the Jesuit in charge of the publishing press at UCA, there did not even seem to be a crucifix, only a portrait of Romero. He described very vividly his conversion to the cause of the Popular Church through his experience of oppression in Latin America. He defends the violence of the guerillas on the grounds that 'in this country, no one will give anything unless it is taken from them'. And if the Church is being used by the Left, 'Well, it was used by the Right in the past, so let the Left have a turn.'

Read Part Two of "Catechists and Commissars"