The Truth about Liberation Theology

Some claims are so outlandish, so absurdly counterfactual, that they ought to stagger belief.

But never underestimate human gullibility.

We're willing to swallow any story that tickles our fancy, especially when it comes to rumors of cloak-and-dagger conspiracies. Pope John Paul I murdered by Vatican malcontents, the Trilateral Commission's covert control of financial markets, the HIV virus as a CIA-funded biochemical weapon: these are just a handful of the scores of utterly bizarre falsehoods conspiracy buffs embrace as truths.

And now we can add a new one to the list: liberation theology as a covert scheme hatched by the Soviet Union during the Cold War to deflate U.S. influence in Central and South America.

So alleges 87-year-old Ion Mihai Pacepa, once a high-ranking officer in the Romanian Securitate, one of the Soviet bloc's most brutal secret police forces. Pacepa defected in 1978 and has been feeding conspiracy stories to the U.S. ever since, including the claim that the KGB, the Soviet intelligence apparatus, masterminded the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy.

Earlier this month, Pacepa announced that Soviet espionage chief Aleksandr Sakharovsky told him in 1959 that the KGB had launched a campaign to infiltrate communists disguised as Christians into Latin America. The plan was to seed the Roman Catholic Church there with leftist priests and bishops who would openly advocate liberation theology and communism. Once these clerical undercover agents succeeded in radicalizing their flocks, national elections in Latin America could be easily manipulated by Moscow.

Pacepa's bizarre and utterly undocumented allegation is being gobbled up by ultra-conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics who not only dislike Pope Francis's sympathy with liberation theology, but are still inexplicably tilting at communist windmills twenty-five years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Liberation theology arose in the mid-1950s--before the supposed KGB program began--when priests in rightwing Latin American countries began preaching that the Church had a holy obligation to work for social and economic justice. They pointed out that the Jesus of the gospels privileged the poor and the downtrodden, and argued that the Church should do likewise.

By 1968, Central and South American bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia, proclaimed that "the Christian quest for justice is a demand arising from biblical teaching," and adopted as their pastoral imperative a "preferential option for the poor," which in practical terms meant resisting state-sponsored violence and repression.

Pacepa claims that the Medellin Conference was orchestrated and infiltrated by the KGB.

In a groundbreaking book published three years later, Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, recognized as one of the founders of liberation theology, reiterated that both Testaments teach the importance of offering aid to the marginalized, oppressed, and poor. Practice of the works of charity was necessary in the short run, he argued, but systemic long-term reform required works of justice.

Pacepa says that he has "the feeling [Gutierrez's book] was written at the Lubyanka," the Moscow headquarters of the KGB.

But Pacepa's claims are rubbish. It's true that many liberation theologians recognized the value of interpreting poverty and oppression through the lens of Marxist economics, but it's going too far to call them communists, especially of the brutal Soviet kind. With only one exception--Colombian priest Camilo Torres--liberation theologians repudiated violent revolution as an agent of social change. They were faithful followers of the Prince of Peace trying to do something about widespread and unbearable injustice, and often paid with their lives for their nonviolent solidarity with the poor.

The most famous martyr is El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down in 1980 while celebrating Mass. But many other priests, nuns, and laypersons were tortured and murdered by government-sanctioned death squads.

Did the KGB hope to manipulate priests, prelates, and laypersons who already embraced liberation theology? Probably. But this is a far cry from Pacepa's claim that defenders of it were either willing pawns or unwitting dupes of a scheme cooked up in Moscow. Their embrace of the biblical values of love, compassion, nonviolence, and prayer were incompatible with Marx's call for class warfare, much less Soviet totalitarianism.

Reason dictates that Pacepa's conspiracy story should be tossed into the dustbin. But those who buy it are more interested in disregarding the biblical call for social and economic justice--not to mention discrediting Pope Francis--than in being reasonable. So it's not likely to go away any time soon.