The hand of Opus Dei in El Salvador
by Marianne Johnson
The Tablet, UK
November 18, 2000
Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador, is revered in Latin America as a saint because of his support for the voiceless and the poor. But the civil war is over and times have changed. A lay volunteer and researcher in El Salvador assesses the policy of Romero’s successor.
STANDING in the rose garden of the University of Central America (UCA), where the torn and butchered bodies of the six Jesuits were found almost 11 years ago, it is hard to believe Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle of San Salvador’s declaration that “liberation theology no longer has any place” in his country.
Jon Sobrino, the only Jesuit theologian in the UCA not to be killed, tells me I am one of 20,000 people a year who come looking for inspiration from these martyrs, whose faces stare down from the walls. The centre itself, buzzing with activity, visitors, seminars and delegations is a far cry from the garishly restored Metropolitan Cathedral. Here, where Oscar Romero used to appeal for justice to be restored to the poor and suffering, Archbishop Sáenz’s sermons centre on individual salvation and morality. Much has changed in the eight years since the peace accords were signed; and the Salvadorean Church no longer merits the quasi-utopian haze through which outsiders still see it. The country itself is in a state of post-war flux. At one end of this city stands the UCA, at the other, the cathedral – and it is clear which is in charge.
Government repression and guerrilla sabotage are no longer the shadows hanging over this tiny nation, no bigger than Wales, of six million people. The new enemy is violence, and its victims are no longer political. More now die each week from unnatural causes than during the 12-year civil war – when 75,000 people lost their lives. As social violence has increased, divisions between the rich few and the poor majority have yawned wider. Houses in the richer parts of town resemble mini-fortresses, the urban slums have grown larger. Guns are everywhere. Youths in gangs, gun battles between kidnappers, hold-ups and muggings are the stuff of daily life now, and there are mounting calls for the Government of President Francisco Flores to bring back the death penalty. Ironically, the best-known member of Flores’s party, ARENA, was the death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, credited with ordering the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Nowadays, ARENA is seen as remote and detached, paying attention to people only when votes need to be courted. More than 200 officers of the National Civil Police (NCP) – formed in 1992 as part of the peace agreements – have been linked to organised crime. Queues stretch several times around the block of the United States embassy as people wait to escape to what they hope will be a better existence.
The decline of liberation theology in El Salvador is indisputable. Priests and activists are fewer, meet less and less often than at any time since the 1970s, while base communities are thin on the ground. The demise is partly self-inflicted. Liberation theology stripped away spiritual symbols and rituals that constituted such a fundamental part of the faith of Salvadoreans: it shunned rosary beads and scorned the adoration of statues. The politicisation of the personal and spiritual is no longer appealing to a nation exhausted by ideological conflict.
Yet the hostility to liberation theology on the part of the church hierarchy in the last six years has been out of all proportion to these limitations. Under Archbishop Sáenz Lacalle, an Opus Dei man, the strategy has not been to reform liberation theology, but to undo and remove all traces of it. There are frequent denunciations of it by church leaders in the national press; bishops have withdrawn funding and support from key programmes; priests have been strategically shifted, and nuns expelled. Drastic changes have been made to the seminary curriculum, with books containing liberationist teachings banned, conservative rectors put in charge, and seminarians pulled in from pastoral outposts in poor areas. For the visitor, who inevitably has in mind Archbishop Romero’s brave pronouncements from the pulpit in the Metropolitan Cathedral, it is the sermons that most register the change. When you hear them, it is hard to realise you are in El Salvador at all.
This purge of liberation theology and all its works has gone hand in hand with the Church repositioning itself in relation to social and political actors. In light of the recent Florida trial – when two former generals admitted the army’s systematic use of torture and massacre – Archbishop Sáenz’s 1997 acceptance from the military of the title of Brigadier General says much.
According to Jon Sobrino, this apparent rejection of the recent past should not come as too great a surprise. Liberation theology from the outset had the weight of the world against it, after all, and would inevitably provoke division and conflict between Church and state. A Church that is at war with a state is not in a position to suffuse all levels of society, instead of just the poor, with the Christian faith – an objective that has taken on a new force under Pope John Paul II; while a state that is at war with the Church is hard pushed to find moral justification for its existence and policies. An end to the rift offers mutually beneficial outcomes.
The Church in El Salvador, in short, has been re-romanised. Archbishop Sáenz’s efforts to centralise and control, to create a uniformity of outlook and action amongst clergy, is part of a larger, Opus Dei-led strategy in Latin America as a whole. But this lurch away from the prophetic Church of Archbishop Romero has been so extreme that its effect has been far from unifying. Around 20 per cent of clergy favour a pro-liberationist approach, while another 20 per cent oppose it, with the remainder falling somewhere between the two camps. Despite clear attempts to relegate them, liberationists still remain active within Salvadorean religious life, implementing programmes and classes faithful to the structures and viewpoints of the Christian base communities of the 1970s. Some are more conciliatory than before; others are opting for what comes across as more covert or almost undercover behaviour.
Contrary to the popular belief that Catholics are defecting to evangelical sects, UCA surveys suggest that in the last 12 years the biggest loss from Catholic ranks (around 7 per cent) has been of people who now describe themselves as of no fixed religious affiliation: lack of time in the face of the struggle for economic survival is cited as the biggest reason for not going to Mass. The same surveys indicate that of practising Catholics around ten per cent identify with new movements, especially Charismatic Renewal, which appeal to the emotions, offering a quick-fix of high-intensity spirituality and hand-clapping in place of the politico-religious compromises demanded by the Christian base communities (CEBs) of the past.
BY contrast, fewer than three per cent of Catholics attend CEBs. Shopping around between different evangelical sects or Catholic lay movements is now the norm. Some want escapism, some want social engagement, many a carefully-balanced mixture of both. Whatever it is they seek, it is clear that neither the hierarchy of the institutional Catholic Church nor the liberation theologians in El Salvador are offering the brands they used to; yet both have failed to find an alternative that sells. Charismatic Renewal, meanwhile, has done much to recreate a sense of belonging and community, in a society where social structures have collapsed through war, migration, and neo-liberal policies.
As one ex-guerrilla and CEB member told me, nothing is clear-cut in El Salvador any more. “In many ways wartime life was easier”, he recalled. “Everybody knew which side they were on and who was their enemy, it was clear what needed to be done.” Liberation theology, which demanded that the Church be on the side of the poor when the poor were persecuted, is less coherent in the post-war period. But it has not disappeared. Although greatly reduced in number, there still exist groups faithful to the see-judge- act practices of the past. No longer so damagingly linked to the left-wing guerrillas, these CEBs apply the Gospel to their local environment, to the culture of sexual inequality, and to the struggle for economic survival.
This last year in particular has revealed the deeper presence or legacy of the Romero years and the golden age of Christian base communities, showing that the Salvadorean popular Church and people have been imbued with a sense of values, a language of liberation even, that cannot so easily be separated from their spiritual beliefs. For while the key words of liberation and social engagement are less frequently heard from the people themselves, they want to hear them from the lips of their bishops. The fact that bishops spurn those words has generated a feeling of resignation in the face of yet another institutional body taking on an existence far removed from the realities of daily life. The candle-lit processions for Romero that flowed through the streets of the capital in March, the yearly village celebrations of local martyrs, and the nucleus of those who are a “minority working for the majority” all point to a source of energy and faith that has been dampened but not drowned, and which only awaits effective leadership in order to be channelled once more.