Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

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Liberation Theology: A Catalyst for Social Change in Ireland and Latin America

By Séamus  O´Fógartaigh

Séamus O´Fógartaigh, Ph.D has twenty-five years of missionary experience in Latin America. He is a member of SILAS and is the author of Liberation and Development: A Latin-American Perspective (London: Minerva Press,1998), and of numerous articles on the Irish Diaspora in Mexico and throughout Latin America. He has been a staff member at The National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS) in Mexico City for fifteen years and is a retired member of the Salt Lake City diocesan clergy.

The liberation movements throughout Latin America evoked a unique and generous response in Ireland during the latter half of the last century. No other European country experienced the same enthusiastic response to the Latin American phenomenon.  This was due in part to the special affinity which exists between the two peoples, separated by geography, but united by a shared colonial experience and centuries of struggle to liberate themselves from their colonial and neo-colonial conquistadors. Indeed, the Irish struggle to put an end to British colonial rule in Northern Ireland during the latter half of the last century evoked the sympathy and solidarity of political activists throughout Latin America.

This special affinity is also highlighted by the fact that the Catholic Hierarchy have played an important role in the political and socioeconomic lives of both peoples, and have not always responded as adequately as they should to the needs and aspirations of the poor and oppressed members of their flocks. However, it must be noted that in Ireland and Latin America there were always some members of the Catholic clergy who did take a stand on the side of the oppressed and suffered the consequences of their commitment. We shall see in the following observations concerning the impact of the Theology of Liberation on those who challenged the unjust status quo, and who struggled to establish a more just and equitable social order.

The 1960s ushered in a new era of social unrest and political turmoil in the sub-continent due to the spread of revolutionary ideas and guerrilla warfare aimed at putting an end to the military dictatorships, and to establishing a more just and egalitarian society. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and their guerrillas had ousted the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1959, and were establishing a Marxist-oriented regime in that country. Several other Latin American countries were experiencing similar conflicts, and the leadership of the Catholic Church sought the appropriate response to this new reality. The Latin American bishops, meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1956, organized the Latin American Bishops Council (CELAM) which would provide new leadership and new approaches to the church´s mission in the region. The basic challenge to the institutional church was to abandon its collaboration with the status quo, and become identified as a catalyst for change by applying Catholic Social Teaching, as defined by several Papal Encyclicals, to the socioeconomic problems which beset the Latin American people, especially the poor. Due to the impact of the Second Vatican Council, popes and other church leaders began to make pronouncements on the controversial issues of peace, justice, poverty and human development.

Following the lead of the Council, Pope Paul VI issued his Encyclical On The Development of Peoples (Populorum Progressio ) in 1967 in which he called for the building of a new society where all individuals, regardless of their race, religion or nationality, could live a fully human life, freed from the servitude imposed on them by others. He denounced the international imperialism of money’, and the growing gap between rich and poor nations, and demanded that the less-developed nations be given the opportunity to become the protagonists of their own development.

As a result of such pronouncements, theological reflection on social issues became more widespread, and many theologians began to abandon the purely spiritual approach in favor of a new theological reflection which addressed itself to the controversial issues of peace, justice, poverty and integral human development. The Theology of Liberation was formulated by a Peruvian priest, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, of indigenous extraction, in the late 1960s. This innovative and revolutionary theological reflection has had a significant impact on the Catholic Church´s mission in Latin America and elsewhere. It has also posed a challenge for foreign missionaries working in the region.

Gutiérrez understood the need for a theological reflection based on a sociological analysis of the human situation, rather than the traditional European spiritualistic approach. He spoke about the new awareness of those who were traditionally excluded from the historical process this way: Our times bear the imprint of the new presence of those who used to be absent from church and society. By absent I mean of little or no importance in church and society’ (Gutiérrez 1988: page xx). He has in mind ethnic minorities, and the poor in general, who had no role in society other than that of serving the needs of the ruling elite. It was a new type of theological reflection, based on personal experience by a man who lived and worked among the poor and indigenous people of his native land, and realized the need to provide a theological framework that would help them liberate themselves from their condition of servitude.

In 1968, A CELAM Conference was held in Medellín, Colombia, and issued what came to be known as The Medellín Documents which were intended to signal a radical change in the traditional Church alliance with the status quo. The Documents denounced institutionalized violence in the region, and challenged church leaders to identify themselves with the struggles of the poor. The bishops spoke about a new epoch in Latin American history, and the struggle for liberation from servitude which was interpreted as official CELAM approval for the Theology of Liberation. CELAM also emphasized thePreferential Option for the Poor, and the promotion of the Ecclesial Base Communities (CEBs) as a means to unite, educate and evangelize the local people. In Brazil, the sociologist and educator Paulo Freire wrote The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) and invented a new term for promoting self-awareness called `conscientizationas a liberating educational activity, linking theory with praxis, that would help the poor and oppressed find solutions to their problems. It reminds one of the famous dictum of the Irish poet and patriot, Thomas Davis: Educate that you may be free.

Irish missionaries, conscious of their own history as a colonized and oppressed people, had little difficulty resonating with the liberationist movements in Latin America. And the Latin American people, for their part, had little difficulty in accepting and welcoming Irish missionaries due to this shared colonial experience. They tend to resent foreigners who try to impose their own solutions without understanding or taking into account the aspirations of the local people. They welcome foreigners who come to accompany them in their struggles and strive to adjust to their cultural ambience. This involves first learning from the people before one can begin to help the people. It also involves a good deal of humility and perseverance. It is said that St. Patrick was the greatest missionary of all time, because he already understood the language and the religious beliefs of the Irish people. He did not set out to reject or condemn their beliefs, but rather to enrich and Christianize those pagan beliefs and practices. Patrick recognized that the ´Seed of the Word´ is present in all ancient cultures, as the Vatican II document Ad Gentes also recognized.

The 1970s saw the beginning of a neo-conservative `backlash´ against the liberationist movements in Latin America. President Salvador Allende was implementing a people-oriented, socialist regime in Chile which provoked the anger of the local oligarchy, and led to the US-backed coup d´état which resulted in the death of Allende, and the installation of a military dictatorship led by General Pinochet. Thousands were arrested, tortured and disappeared under Pinochet´s neo-fascist regime, and some Columbian missionaries were arrested and deported because they took a stand on the side of justice in solidarity with the victims. Notwithstanding the atrocities committed by his regime, the dictator enjoyed the support of some prominent Vatican officials, including the Papal Nuncio (Ambassador) to Chile, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.  While the Archbishop of Santiago was criticizing the regime for its gross violation of human rights, the Nuncio was giving Pinochet his tacit approval. The General was able to curry favor with the Vatican presenting himself as the Defender of the Faith and the sworn enemy of Communism. When Pinochet was arrested in London in October, 1998 for crimes against humanity, his old friend Sodano, now Secretary of State in the Vatican, used his diplomatic influence to plead with the British government on the general´s behalf for humanitarian reasons’.

This neo-conservative backlash against the liberation movements in Latin America was supported by some ultraconservative Catholic religious organizations like Opus Dei, Legionaries of Christ, et al. Due to their wealth and political influence, they could unduly influence Vatican policies, and give aid and comfort to fascist-oriented Catholic dictators in Latin America.

In 1976, a military dictatorship was installed in Argentina and all those who opposed the regime were branded as communists and subversives. The generals unleashed their infamous dirty war and thousands were kidnapped, tortured and `disappeared`. One of the victims was Patricio Rice, a Divine Word missionary from Cork who was arrested, tortured and accused of subversive activities. He was later released due to the intervention of the Irish government, and went on to become one of the most outstanding defenders of the victims of the dictatorship as co-founder of FEDEFAM, a NGO Federation dedicated to the protection of victims of illegal arrest, torture and forced `disappearance´. He received a doctorate Honoris Causa from University College Cork shortly before his untimely death in 2010.

Not unlike the situation in Chile, the Papal Nuncio and the local hierarchy cooperated with the repressive regime, and the only bishop to speak out against the reign of terror was killed in what was made to look like a road accident, according to human rights activists. In 1976, a military death squad gunned down three priests and two seminarians of the Pallottine Order at St. Patrick´s Church rectory, and the tragic event is remembered in Argentina as La Masacre de San Patricio (The Massacre at St. Patrick´s). The victims were accused of being against the military dictatorship. Irish Pallottines have a long history of service to the Irish community in Argentina. The Mothers of the Disappeared (Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo) later appealed to the Italian judicial system to bring the former Nuncio, Cardinal Pio Laghi to justice for complicity in the crimes of the dictatorship, but the cardinal enjoys diplomatic immunity as an official of the Vatican State (The Holy See). The Spanish theologian and author, Fr. Juan José Tamayo Acosta in an article published in the Spanish newspaper, El País, (2. 3.99) denounced this type of cohabitation between the Institutional church and military dictators in Latin America as anti-democratic, anti-evangelical, anti-human and anti-divine. (Translated by Remember Chile. http://www.remember-chile.org.uk/comment/vatican.htm) 

Central America took center stage during the 1980s, and Irish missionaries and lay volunteers began working in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. The region was convulsed by social unrest due to guerrilla activity, and the struggles to put an end to the unjust political and socioeconomic status quo in the region. In 1979, the Sandinista rebels in Nicaragua ousted the dictator Somoza, and began to install a socialist regime which was supported by several Catholic priests who occupied ministerial posts in the new government. Guerrillas in Guatemala and El Salvador were also attempting to bring about a similar transformation in their own countries.

The Reagan administration decided to make war on the liberation movements by organizing and financing the ‘Contra war against the Sandinista regime, and by shipping military hardware to the repressive government in El Salvador. The red herring of Marxist infiltration served as a pretext to justify this policy, and all those in any way associated with the liberation movements became soft targets of government-sponsored paramilitaries and death squads. In 1980, Archbishop Romero of San Salvador was gunned down by a hired assassin in broad daylight as he celebrated Mass. At his funeral service, the military opened fire on the crowds of worshippers, killing forty-four innocent people and wounding hundreds. The archbishop had become a target of the military establishment when he denounced their gross violations of basic human rights. He did not get any support from the Papal Nuncio in El Salvador, so he became a `soft target´ for the military dictatorship. Both the Vatican and the local hierarchy have been accused of abandoning the Archbishop to his tragic fate.

One year later in El Salvador, three American nuns and their lay volunteer were arrested, kidnapped, raped and brutally murdered by National Guards in broad daylight on an open highway. These horrific murders of innocent people provoked shock and outrage in Ireland, and Irish missionaries and lay volunteers returning from Central America launched a vigorous campaign against US military intervention in the region. Solidarity groups were organized around the country, and pressure was brought to bear on government officials to take a stand at the UN and in the European Parliament against US military intervention in Central America in favor of a peaceful political resolution of the conflicts. Michael D. Higgins,T.D. and Niall Andrews, MEP, conducted a fact-finding tour of the region, and were instrumental in getting the Irish government actively involved. The Irish government did sponsor the Franco-Mexican resolution at the UN which eventually brought about a peaceful political resolution of the conflict in El Salvador.

When President Reagan visited Ireland in 1984 he was met with huge crowds of protesters, headed by priests and nuns, denouncing his war-mongering policies in Central America. Some protesters carried banners and coffins reminiscent of Archbishop Romero and the US nuns and their lay volunteer. The lay volunteer was Irish-American Jean Donovan who had studied at University College Cork, and her brutal murder had provoked much outrage in Cork City and beyond. Several priests and religious kept a Fast and prayer vigil at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin for the duration of Reagan´s visit. This extraordinary outpouring of sympathy and solidarity with the Central American people was a unique and historic event, and served to remind the world at large of the injustice and wrongheadedness of President Reagan´s bellicose policies in Central America.

Historians are still puzzled as to why the Vatican and Pope John Paul II decided to counteract the liberation movements in Latin America during the 1980s. Some Latin American analysts claimed that the Vatican had entered into a secret alliance, which they called the Holy Alliancewith the Reagan White House to counteract the liberation movements in exchange for US support for the Solidarity movement in Poland, with which the Polish Pope was closely associated. US government officials believed that the liberationist movements were a serious threat to US hegemony in the region. Vatican officials used the same pretext as US officials about the Marxist influence behind those movements, despite the fact that the Latin American bishops had repeatedly rejected that theory. They pointed out that the social unrest in the region was due to poverty and injustice, and not to communist infiltration.

Whatever the real motivation, the Vatican launched an aggressive campaign against all clergy and theologians associated with liberationist ideologies in the early 1980s. The priests serving in the Sandinista government were ordered to resign their posts, some theologians were `silenced´ (forbidden to write or teach) and progressive bishops were replaced by more conservative successors. This Vatican procedure created a polarized situation as well as confrontation between the conservative and the more progressive elements in the church. This confrontation came to a head at the CELAM Conference in Santo Domingo in 1992, when the conservative Roman delegates tried to dictate the agenda, and were challenged by the more progressive Latin American delegates. It was a clash between those who wished to impose a Eurocentric model of Church, and those who claimed that the European, neo-colonial model was too authoritarian and patriarchal, and out of touch with the modern Latin American reality. After much heated debate, a compromise was reached, whereby the Latin American model, inspired by the Theology of Liberation, the CEBs and the Option for the Poor, was maintained and approved. Irish journalist and author of several books on Latin America, Gary MacEoin, reporting on the Conference to The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) stated that Rome is afraid of the South, the world of the poor, the marginalized, people of `color´ and non-European cultures. It would also endanger the coveted relationship is it had built up with Washington as an ally in the Cold War, as well as its economic power base in the North. He believed that the Vatican prefers to concentrate on the upper and middle classes, e.g. Opus Dei et al., thereby harboring the notion that those classes would, in turn, evangelize the poor vía a spiritual version of the economic `trickle-down´ theory, long since discredited (MacEoin, NCR, 1992).

MacEoin’s sentiments are echoed by Dr. Michael Hogan, an Irish-American educator and author who has lived and worked in Latin America for many years. In his recent book, Savage Capitalism and the Myth of Democracy (2009), he upbraids the Institutional Church for its failure to meet the needs and aspirations of the poor and marginalized in Latin America. He criticizes the present Pope´s call for a New Evangelization program which seems to avoid any real commitment to work for social justice, and concentrates on a purely spiritualistic approach to evangelization. He states: the genuine irony, is, of course, that liberation theology and the option for the poor, which Cardinal Ratzinger denigrated as Marxist, was a clear and powerful alternative to Marxism, and … continues to be the best hope for empowering people to change their lives, to create grass roots democratic movements, and to form safe, self-sufficient prosperous communities.

Irish missionaries, and lay volunteers supported by Irish NGOs, continue their good work throughout the region. They continue to bring a message of Hope and Irish solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised, who struggle to liberate themselves from the neo-colonial servitude imposed on them by others.

Conclusion: The Search For Utopia

In the ongoing search for a more just and qualitatively different society in Latin America, the Theology of Liberation still has a vital role to play as it strives to challenge and transform the religious, cultural, economic and social models which have failed to meet Christian standards for the development of a just society. It also provides an invaluable analytical tool for a more in-depth understanding of the Latin American sociological reality.

Liberation Theologians point out that the term Utopia needs to be rescued from the illusory misconceptions of the past. They claim that when Thomas More wrote Utopia he was criticizing the status quo in which he lived, and dreaming of a new society in which the common good would take precedence over power and privilege. In this context, Utopian thought and the Theology of Liberation tend to be subversive and revolutionary. Indeed, Gustavo Gutiérrez claims that Utopia must necessarily lead to a commitment to support the emergence of a new social consciousness, and new relationships among persons (Gutiérrez, 1988: 136).



-Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1990).

-Fogarty, James, Liberation and Development: A Latin American Perspective (London: Minerva Press 1998).

-Gutiérrez, Gustavo,  A Theology of Liberation, (New York: Maryknoll Orbis Books, 1988).

-Hogan, Michael, Savage Capitalism and the Myth of Democracy (Booklocker.com 2009).

-Kirby, Peadar, Ireland and Latin America: Links and Lessons (Trócaire and Gill and Macmillan, I992).

-MacEoin, Gary Unlikely Allies: The Christian-Socialist Convergence (New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1990).

-MacEoin, Gary, National Catholic Reporter (NCR), 1993.

O´Brien, Leonard, Children of the Sun: The Cork Mission to South America (Veritas Publications, 2009).

-Pope Paul V1, On the Development of Peoples, US Catholic Conference, Washington, D. C. 1967.

Populorum Progressio http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum_en.html


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 20 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Séamus O'Fógartaigh "A Historical Review of Irish Missionary Activity in Latin America  " 7:4 (November 2011), pp. XXX-XXX. Available online  (whttp://ww.irlandeses.org/lmsla2011_07_04_Seamus_-OFagartaigh2.htm),, accessed


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