e-mail us

Cover story

These paths lead to Rome

Six cardinals who got to the curia by supporting right-wing governments in Latin America, opposing liberation theology

NCR Staff

At the peak of the recent furor over possible extradition of former Chilean president and senator-for-life Augusto Pinochet, many observers were shocked to learn that high-ranking Vatican officials had urged Pinochet’s release.

“There have been discussions at every level on this affair, and we’re hoping that they will have a positive outcome,” Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, head of the Vatican’s liturgy office, told a newspaper in January 1999. “I’ve prayed and prayed for Senator Pinochet as I pray for all people who have suffered.”

Pinochet is allegedly responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances during his 17 years in power, and in light of John Paul II’s strong stands on human rights this expression of solidarity with one of Latin America’s most infamous dictators seemed to the world at large bizarre.

No one who follows Vatican affairs should have been surprised.

Like the other three Latin Americans who occupy top-rung positions in the Roman curia, as well as Italians with extensive experience of Latin America in the papal diplomatic corps, Medina rose through the ranks as a friend of right-wing governments and a staunch opponent of liberation theology, which seeks to align the Catholic church with movements for social justice. Sympathy for Pinochet was of a piece with the values and policy decisions, on both secular and ecclesiastical matters, that have propelled these men to the peak of the Vatican’s power structure.

Along with Medina, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the other Latin American cardinals who head curial agencies are: Brazilian Lucas Moreira Neves, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Colombian Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy; and Colombian Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Two Italian cardinals with backgrounds in Latin America are Angelo Sodano, secretary of state, and Pio Laghi, former prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education.

It was Sodano, papal nuncio in Chile from 1977 to 1988, who joined Medina in pleading for Pinochet’s release.

A review of the backgrounds of these officials provides key insight in at least three areas.

First, because curial appointments are rarely based on specific professional competencies -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for example, is the first well-regarded theologian to head the Vatican’s doctrinal office since St. Robert Bellarmine in the 17th century -- the background of these six men illustrates what sort of conduct and which theological instincts have been rewarded during this papacy.

Second, their track records are of interest because each man is taken seriously as papabile,a candidate to be the next pope.

Third, such a survey offers a reminder of the enormously high stakes at play in the last quarter-century in Latin America -- where, given the overwhelming Catholic majority, a possible reversal of the church’s traditional alliance with the power elites posed vast social consequences.

Defenders of liberation theology, pondering the globalization and economic expansion of the 1990s that managed to leave most of the continent in poverty, can only wonder what might have been if promoting the new vision, rather than impeding it, had been the preferred path to ecclesiastical advancement.

Angelo Sodano

Sodano’s service in Chile began four years after Pinochet had toppled the elected government of socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. Sodano, now 72, represented a rival center of power to Santiago’s Cardinal Raul Silva Enríquez, a John XXIII appointee who had cautiously supported Allende and was critical of Pinochet. The nunciature in Santiago came to be seen as the headquarters of the conservative, pro-Pinochet wing of the Catholic church.

Chile’s post-Pinochet civilian government concluded that 3,191 people were either killed or disappeared under his regime, though unofficial estimates put the total at several times that number. When the general stepped down in 1990, he did so after securing the status of head of the armed forces and immunity from prosecution.

Sodano was publicly critical of the Sebastiano Acevedo Movement, composed of religious and laity who staged demonstrations outside secret prisons and police stations during the Pinochet years to protest the torture they believed was going on inside. In the run-up to a key plebiscite in 1988, Sodano appeared at a televised gathering of Pinochet supporters. One year later he was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit by Pinochet for his “skill and brilliance” in diplomacy.

In 1987, Sodano choreographed John Paul II’s visit to Chile, and although the pope had described the regime as “transitory by definition” on the papal plane, a different message was communicated on the ground. The pope administered Communion to Pinochet and then appeared with him on the balcony of Moneda Palace to the cheers of Pinochet supporters.

In 1993, Sodano sent a telegram to Pinochet to mark his 50th wedding anniversary. It read: “Your Excellency, The Holy Father has been informed of the forthcoming family celebration to mark your 50th wedding anniversary,and has asked me to send you and your distinguished spouse the pontifical autograph enclosed herewith as an expression of his particular benevolence. His Holiness cherishes moving memories of the meeting he had with members of your family on the occasion of his extraordinary pastoral visit to Chile in 1987. He entrusts to the Lord your home and family where mutual love and trust in God’s grace reign. I would like to take this opportunity of expressing once again the highest esteem in which I hold your Excellency.”

Under Sodano’s influence, a string of steadily conservative bishops were appointed in Chile. They included Antonio Moreno of Concepción, who forbade priests and nuns to take part in public protests against Pinochet, even if their role was simply to lead prayers. Moreno also led an investigation into a seminary accused of allowing its students to take part in protests.

Another Sodano bishop was Pablo Lizama of Melipilla, a former police chaplain, who said his pastoral concern was for military personnel alienated from the church because of its criticism of human rights abuses. Sodano also engineered the appointment of Juan Francisco Fresno as archbishop of Santiago when Silva resigned in 1983. One of the new archbishop’s first acts was to attend a tea sponsored by Pinochet.

In 1985, Sodano helped make Medina the auxiliary bishop of Rancagua, and Medina took over the diocese two years later. Chilean media reports suggest that in 1990, when Francisco stepped down, Sodano tried to help Medina become the archbishop of Santiago, but local opposition blocked the nomination.

Sodano’s most prominent moment as an opponent of liberation theology came in 1992, when John Paul sent Sodano to preside over a meeting of the Latin American bishops’ conference, called CELAM, in Santo Domingo. It was considered unusual for the secretary of state to play this role.

Conflicts between Sodano and some of the progressive bishops within CELAM became so fierce that at one point Sodano locked himself into his hotel room and declared his intention of returning to Rome immediately. He was persuaded to stay only by notes pushed under his door.

In the end, Santo Domingo did not disavow liberation theology, but neither did it give new life to the movement in the way the two previous CELAM gatherings in Medellín, Colombia, and Puebla, Mexico, had. In an interview with the Italian magazine 30 Giorni, Sodano claimed that the Latin American bishops had abandoned “the method they had been using for so many years,” and declared: “Santo Domingo made the option for Christ the only one.”

Lucas Moreira Neves

The frontline for the struggle over liberation theology has always been Brazil, which has the largest Catholic population in the world at 115 million. A brutal military coup in 1964 catalyzed the formation of a progressive consensus among the country’s bishops, identified with figures such as Dom Helder Câmara, Evaristo Arns, Alósio Lorscheider and Ivo Lorscheiter.

Moreira Neves, 74, in the 1980s and 1990s was the lynchpin in the Vatican effort to bring the Brazilian church under control. Neves served as secretary for the powerful Congregation for Bishops in the 1980s, where he was able to influence Brazilian appointments. In 1988, the pope sent Moreira Neves back to Brazil as archbishop of São Salvador da Bahia; in 1995, he was elected president of the bishops’ conference, a moment that marked the end of the progressive majority. In 1998, he returned to Rome as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops.

As secretary to the bishops’ congregation, Neves helped steer papal appointments in Brazil to the right. A leading example is Boaventura Kloppenborg, a conservative Franciscan and fierce critic of Leonardo Boff, Brazil’s star liberation theologian.

In his 1974 book Temptations for the Theology of Liberation, Kloppenburg accuses liberationists of “contempt for the ontological dimensions of theology.” He warns against Marxism and says: “A kingdom of God that would claim to be fully real on earth before Christ comes again would be only a snare and a delusion.” During Neves’ term, Kloppenburg became an auxiliary in Rio de Janeiro in 1982, and got his own diocese, Novo Hamburgo, in 1985.

When the Vatican began investigating Boff, it had the cooperation of a group of conservative Brazilians. According to Brazilian theologian José Oscar Beozzo, Neves was part of that group, which worked with Ratzinger to ensure Boff’s silencing in 1985. That penalty was lifted in 1986, but the harassment continued, and Boff left the priesthood in 1992.

Neves is widely believed to be close to Opus Dei. His signature appears on one of the most important documents in that organization’s history, a 1982 decision from the Congregation for Bishops granting Opus Dei the status of a “personal prelature.” In effect this means that Opus Dei clergy are under the jurisdiction of the prelature, not the local bishop. The letter signed by Neves said the decision was made with a view to the “proven guarantees of apostolic vigor, discipline and faithfulness to the teaching of the church” shown by Opus Dei.

In Latin America, clergy and lay members of Opus Dei have often been seen as a conservative counterweight to liberation theology.

In 1988, when John Paul sent Neves back to Brazil and made him a cardinal, he also carved four new dioceses out of Arns’ São Paulo archdiocese. The pope left Arns with the wealthy city center, while the impoverished outlying areas, which had been the heart of his ministry, were entrusted to new bishops.

By May 1995, the conservatives were strong enough in the Brazilian bishops’ conference to elect Neves as their president by a vote of 149 to 134. Neves wasted no time in announcing that the conference was under new management: “There will be some changes,” he said. “The church’s principal mission is a religious one.” Neves said that from now on the bishops would concentrate on “proclamation” rather than “denunciation.”

In practical terms, that meant the bishops would muzzle their criticism of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had swept into office the previous October promising economic miracles. Just before the May 15 meeting that elected Neves, a committee of bishops released a draft statement that criticized Cardoso for “betraying the public” and pursuing policies that “resulted in the increase of poverty.” After Neves took over, the statement was shelved. He also gave an interview warning against a renewal of the “Marxist interpretations” of the liberation theologians.

Jorge Medina Estévez

Medina, 73, has led the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments since 1996. In recent months he has been much in the news due to his attempt to take control of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and similar translation bodies in other languages (NCR, May 12).

In 1985, Medina was made auxiliary bishop of Chile’s Rancagua diocese and named head of the diocese two years later. In 1993, he became the archbishop of Valaparaiso, Chile’s chief port city and, ironically, the birthplace of both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet.

Medina joined conservative prelates who met in Los Andes, Chile, in 1985 under the leadership of Colombian Archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo to produce a document known as the “Andes Statement.” It denounced liberation theology as a Marxist perversion of the faith, claiming that it advocated a conflict between the “popular church” and the “hierarchical church.”

In late 1988, Medina joined Sodano in trying to help Pinochet. In an interview with La Cuarta de Santiago, the cardinal called Pinochet’s Oct. 16, 1998, arrest in England a “humiliation” to Chilean sovereignty that the church “deplored.”

Medina had earlier intervened for Pinochet in late 1997, when the Chilean government was considering revoking the former president’s status as senator-for-life. Medina said the constitution granting him that status should be respected; the Chilean foreign minister said he didn’t think a member of the hierarchy should issue political opinions.

In 1990, when Chile was struggling to make the transition from Pinochet’s rule to modern democracy, Medina voiced doubts about the project: “The fact that democracy exists does not automatically mean that God would want it to be put into practice,” he said Aug. 3, 1990.

In 1992, John Paul II designated Medina secretary general for the Santo Domingo session of Latin American bishops’ conferences, where Medina worked alongside Sodano. Under Medina, the meeting’s preparatory documents were jettisoned; by the end of the session, the bishops had formally denounced any identification of God’s reign with socio-political arrangements “as some modern theologies have claimed.” They also asserted that God’s reign can be glimpsed only in a “mysterious connection” of Christians with Jesus, not in any visible social order.

Though the Vatican’s top liturgy office may seem an odd assignment for a veteran of the anti-liberation theology crusades, there is a connection. Progressives in Latin America tend to advocate liturgical inculturation, expressing support for the rights of indigenous populations by celebrating liturgies in their languages and drawing on their customs.

Vatican concern about such practices cropped up in the early 1990s, when the Congregation for Divine Worship banned several liturgical initiatives in Brazil, including a popular liturgical directory, an African-American “Mass of Land without Evil,” and Zn indigenous “Quilombus Mass” Ñ all of which had been approved by the Brazilian bishops.

Medina is currently pursuing a similar investigation in the San Cristóbal de las Casas diocese in Chiapas, Mexico, where Mexican newspapers reported allegations that outgoing Bishop Samuel Ruiz García and his former coadjutor Raul Vera ordained female deacons and employed Mayan rites and texts such as the books of Chilam Bilam and the Popol Vuh in his liturgies.

Medina confirmed that his office was conducting a review. He told reporters that, if necessary, the Vatican would work to bring the diocese into line, but Ruiz and Vera would not be punished. “We do not intend to take punitive measures, but we do wish to fix the situation,” he said.

Darío Castrillón Hoyos

Castrillón, 70, was bishop of Pereria from 1976 to 1992, then archbishop of Bucaramanga from 1992 to 1996. A protégé of López Trujillo, Castrillón followed him as secretary general of CELAM from 1983 to 1991.

In his capacity as secretary general, Castrillón wrote to the liberal Swiss theologian Hans Küng after Küng published an account of a March 1984 meeting in Bogotá, Colombia, between Cardinal Ratzinger and the CELAM bishops. Küng reported a rift between Ratzinger and portions of the CELAM membership. Küng was not alone in drawing this conclusion; several newspapers quoted one Latin American archbishop at the meeting as complaining about the Vatican: “They cannot accept that anything new or inventive could come out of the Third World.”

Castrillón told Küng, however, in a letter that was later published in the CELAM bulletin, that the bishops of Latin America were “in complete accord” with Ratzinger’s views on liberation theology.

As a bishop, Castrillón reportedly would walk the streets at night to feed abandoned children. If he found one hurt, he would demand of the chief of police: “Answer me, where are my children?” He also is said to have once walked up to the home of Medellín drug lord Pablo Escobar dressed as a milkman, in order to demand that Escobar confess his sins.

As admirable as such courage is, some of the sheen must come off the Escobar story in light of Castrillón’s admission in 1984 that he had accepted money from Escobar’s drug cartel. He said he took it for charitable purposes, although most other Colombian bishops eschewed such funds. In a July 24, 1984, regional meeting of CELAM, Castrillón said he took the money to avoid it being used in illegal activities such as prostitution, and said he had warned the donors that giving money “would not save their souls.”

At the 1985 synod of bishops, Castrillón was put forward at the opening press conference as the voice of Latin America. A reporter asked him about liberation theology, and Castrillón replied: “When I see a church with a machine gun, I cannot see the crucified Christ in that church. … Some lines of liberation theology … are based on the use of instruments that are not specific to the gospel. We can never use hate as a system of change. The core of being a church is love.” It was a response that angered many liberation theologians, who felt the tendency to paint them all as revolutionary terrorists was a tactic to discredit the movement.

Castrillón joined a January 1986 meeting in Lima, Peru, where a group of conservative Latin American bishops came together to denounce liberation theology. At the time a reporter asked Castrillón his opinion of the Leonardo Boff case. “Boff will have to ask God to forgive him, and when God answers, then the pope and I will know whether to forgive him or not,” Castrillón said.

In February 1989, Castrillón denounced a catechetical program called Word for Life that had been developed by the Latin American Federation of Religious, CLAR. By this time the jousting between CELAM, under López Trujillo and Castrillón, and the more progressive CLAR had become quite open.

The Word for Life series was a way of reading the Bible from the point of view of the poor and mobilizing religious life toward evangelization. Castrillón said the series had “fundamental defects” and was guilty of an “ideological and reductive reading” of scripture in the direction of liberation theology.

Alfonso López Trujillo

López Trujillo, 64, is the figure most identified with the Latin American reactionagainst liberation theology. He has enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks; he was made a bishop in 1971, at the age of 35, and became the archbishop of Medellín in 1979. He entered the College of Cardinals in 1983, at 48.

At a November 1972 meeting of CELAM leadership in Sucre, Bolivia, López Trujillo was elected secretary-general, and he immediately purged the organization’s staff of anyone with ties to liberation theology, including such distinguished theologians as Enrique Dussel.

At this time López Trujillo began his collaboration with Belgian Jesuit Fr. Roger Vekemans, who had developed Eduardo Frei’s right-wing “revolution in liberty” campaign for the presidency of Chile in 1964. Vekemans acted as a conduit for CIA funds to support anti-communist forces in Chile and was later accused by the agency of misspending more than $400,000. A criminal investigation was halted on the recommendation of then-U.S. ambassador to Chile Edward Korry, who believed that giving Vekemans a negative image would strengthen the pro-communist side. Vekemans left the country when Allende came to power in 1973.

In Bogotá, López Trujillo and Vekemans established a research center called CEDAIL and a journal titled Tierra Nuevato counter the progressive trend. The two made contacts with the like-minded Bishop Franz Hengsbach of Essen, Germany, who helped secure funding for CEDAIL from Adveniat, a social services arm of the then-West German bishops’ conference.

López Trujillo published Liberation or Revolutionin 1975 (brought out in English by Our Sunday Visitorin 1977). He accused liberation theologians of surrendering to “ideologies of fashionable options” and practicing a “clericalism of Savonarola.” Liberation theology starts with good intentions but ends in terror, López Trujillo wrote, making it “comparable to the manner in which an octopus imprisons its victim with its tentacles softly and flexibly and finally in a viselike grip.”

In a working paper for the 1979 Puebla meeting of CELAM, López Trujillo came close to endorsing the Latin American national security state. “These military regimes came into existence as a response to social and economic chaos,” he wrote. “No society can admit a power vacuum. Faced with tensions and disorders, an appeal to force is inevitable.”

As Puebla unfolded, a bombshell hit the Latin American press in the form of a confidential letter from López Trujillo to the head of the social action department at CELAM. The letter became public because López Trujillo had dictated it on a tape, and it was still on the tape when López Trujillo offered it to a reporter whose own cassette had run out during an interview.

In the letter López Trujillo attacked Jesuit Fr. Pedro Arrupe, head of the Jesuits, and Cardinal Eduardo Pironio, former head of CELAM. Both were known for pro-liberation theology sentiments. “I am convinced that these persons … must be told to their faces that they must change their attitude,” López Trujillo said. In his letter, he told a colleague to “prepare your bombers for Puebla” and “get into training just like boxers before entering the ring for a world match.”

In 1985, López Trujillo was the driving force behind the “Andes Statement” denouncing liberation theology. “Whatever its subjective intentions were, this theoretical influence tends to betray the true option for the poor in Latin America and eventually becomes a fundamental danger for the faith of the people of God,” it said. “In the portrait of the ‘popular church’ presented by these theologies, we are unable to recognize the face of the true church of Christ.”

The statement received extensive coverage on Chile’s Pinochet-controlled state television. Chilean theologian Ronaldo Muñoz called it “a virtual incitement to repression, and of a criminal nature.” The charge proved prophetic when Pinochet’s security forces arrested Jesuit Fr. Renato Hevia, editor of the monthly magazine Mensaje, because of his criticism of the government. The army cited the “Andes Statement” in defense of the arrest, arguing that the church itself had disavowed Hevia’s position.

As archbishop of Medellín, López Trujillo put his anti-liberation theology position to work. He threatened to expel the Missionaries of Charity for “being in line with liberation theology” and took away a parish from the Missionaries of the Consolate, calling them “revolutionaries.”

He also began a long association with Pablo Escobar, a notorious drug lord, that included joint membership in a civic association called Medellín sin tugurios(Medellín without shantytowns), widely seen as a smokescreen for Escobar’s illegal activities. When a priest who wrote for a pro-Escobar newspaper was forced out of his job due to a personal scandal, López Trujillo appointed him to his ecclesiastical tribunal.

In 1990, 200 Colombian Catholic lay professionals wrote the Vatican to say they were “scandalized” about the “orphaned state” of the Medellín church. “The absence of dialogue on the part of our pastor has caused malaise among the priests, religious, laity and apostolic groups, and has resulted in the exodus of many of our members to other dioceses.” They asked for a canonical visit to “clear up the anti-evangelical acts -- some of them questionable before canon law, others before criminal courts.”

Pio Laghi

Laghi, 77, was made a cardinal at the end of his career as papal nuncio in both Argentina and the United States. He was posted to Argentina from 1974 to 1980, in the middle of that country’s “dirty war,” a military dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983. Estimates are that almost 20,000 people were killed or disappeared during those years.

Laghi spent 1980 to 1990 in the United States, and then served as prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education from 1990 until his retirement in 1999.

Laghi encouraged a policy of nonconfrontation with the military regime, and was on friendly terms with several of its leaders. One, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera, was an especially close friend. Laghi and Massera played tennis almost every day, and Laghi officiated at the wedding of Massera’s son and baptized his grandson.

Massera was convicted in 1985 of flagrant human rights violations, though the verdict was later set aside by the Argentinean government. In October 1999 he was convicted again, this time for the disappearance of all but one member of an Argentine family during the rule of the military junta. He also faces charges of abducting babies born to women imprisoned during the dictatorship.

In a speech in Tucuman in northwestern Argentina in 1976, Laghi seemed to endorse the doctrine of national security. “The cause of the subversion is of ideological origin,” Laghi said, and Argentina has a traditional ideology that spontaneously develops “antibodies against the germs.” In such a situation, Laghi said, “rights must be respected as far as this is possible.”

Laghi made this statement (as reported in La Nación, June 27, 1976) in a speech to generals. In another address that day at the Tucuman airport, he returned to the theme. “Christian values are threatened by an ideology that the people reject. The church and the armed forces share responsibility. The former is an integral element in the process. It accompanies the latter, not only by its prayers but by its actions.”

In 1997, Laghi was charged with complicity in the regime’s crimes by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who petitioned the Italian government to prosecute Laghi. They claimed to have 20 witnesses, including two bishops, two priests and a mother superior ready to testify that Laghi silenced international protests, falsely stated to relatives that he knew nothing of the fate of victims and expelled from the country priests and religious who protested the “disappearances” and tortures.

To date, few of those witnesses have come forward, though an Argentinean priest named Federico Richards has publicly accused Laghi of having a list of the disappeared obtained from the military and keeping silent about it. During the 1970s Richards edited a newspaper for the English-speaking community in Buenos Aires in which he published accounts of military brutalities omitted by the state-controlled media

Laghi vehemently denied the accusations as being “defamatory and void of factual content.” The Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, said in an unsigned editorial that the charges were unjust, dishonest and historically wrong.

Because the request for prosecution was rejected, the charges against Laghi have never been adjudicated. Some observers have stoutly defended Laghi, citing cases where he intervened on behalf of people who were arrested. Laghi himself summed up his role this way: “Perhaps I was not a hero, but I was certainly not an accomplice.”

Laghi’s deep animosity to leftist social movements made him an implacable foe of liberation theology, a stance he carried to his later career.

In 1995, Rome’s Gregorian University invited Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Peruvian theologian who coined the phrase “liberation theology,” to a conversation with students. Laghi exercised his right as chancellor of the Gregorian to block the invitation. Gutiérrez came to Rome anyway and spoke at the Brazilian college, where hundreds of students from the Gregorian came to hear him.

In 1997, Laghi ordered two teaching centers operated by the Conference of Mexican Religious Institutes suspended and decreed that two similar centers run by the Jesuits could henceforth be open to Jesuits only.

Some of the teaching centers, Laghi said, had “a highly radicalized and socialist-tinged orientation of liberation theology” and also “at times a strong adversarial character and theological progressivism in dogmatic and moral matters.” Moreover, his letter added, “they had abandoned the ‘magisterial’ style of teaching, substituting one that is known as ‘active’ or ‘seminar-style.’ ”

Laghi also declared that certain writings of Bishop Samuel Ruiz García of Chiapas were unacceptable for use in seminary formation in Mexico.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000