El Salvador's Jesuit Massacre: A Reminder Why Fewer Latin Americans Are Catholic?

Nov 14, 2014

Garden memorial to the six Jesuits murdered in El Salvador on November 16, 1989.
Credit Universidad de Centroamerica

This Sunday marks one of the sadder remembrances on both the Latin American and Roman Catholic calendars: The 25th anniversary of the brutal military massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter during El Salvador’s civil war.

And yet it's an apt coincidence that on the eve of the massacre memorial, the Pew Research Center in Washington D.C. has released a new survey that shows Latin Americans continue to bolt the Catholic church. Only 69 percent call themselves Catholic today, compared to more than 80 percent a couple decades ago.

What links the 1989 El Salvador atrocity and this week’s Pew report is the ongoing debate over liberation theology – the idea that the church should focus its efforts on social justice and aiding the poor. The utter lack of social justice in El Salvador was the cause of the civil war; the Jesuit priests’ promotion of liberation theology, and its reputation as veiled Marxism, prompted the army to murder them.

And since then, I believe, the Catholic church’s failure to prioritize at least the basic tenets of what those Jesuits were championing seems a big reason so many Latin Americans are no longer Catholics.

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I arrived as a correspondent in Central America just weeks after the Jesuits massacre. Across the region, the Catholic hierarchy’s paranoia about liberation theology was palpable – in no small part because Pope John Paul II, the pontiff who helped bring down communism in Eastern Europe, was determined to keep the church from looking socialist.

To a large extent that was understandable. A lot of naïve liberation theologians in those Cold War days did subscribe to Marxism, which is no more an antidote to the sufferings of the poor than unfettered capitalism is.

But in its zeal to rein in liberation theology, the Vatican of those days also made it harder for priests in Latin America – a region whose inequality was the world’s worst – to engage their most marginalized flocks.

The Catholic church's failure to prioritize at least the basic tenets of what those Jesuits were championing seems a big reason so many Latin Americans are no longer Catholics

I remember the frustration of Catholic clerics in impoverished Nicaragua when, shortly after the disastrously Marxist Sandinista regime was toppled in 1990, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo built a new $3 million cathedral. Obando y Bravo was one of John Paul II’s favorite Latin American prelates, and his show of cold-war triumphalism made it clear that schools and clinics for los pobres didn’t exactly top the agenda.

So it’s no surprise that at the same time, we started noticing the exodus of Catholics to Protestant churches, especially evangelical sects. The globally popular John Paul II visited Latin America more than any other pope; but even so, at one point in the 1990s some 8,000 of the continent’s Catholics were exiting their faith each day.

The migration hasn’t stopped a generation later. According to the Pew survey, in fact, a full fifth of Latin Americans now call themselves Protestants. That’s a big reason the College of Cardinals last year elected the first Latin American pontiff, Pope Francis – who as Buenos Aires’ archbishop made a point of ministering up close to all the unfortunates Jesus just happens to mention in the Beatitudes.

EARTHLY SUPPORT

If Francis’ agenda seems liberation theology-esque to many church conservatives, it’s because he’s aware of what so many ex-Latin American Catholics told the folks at the Pew Center this week.

For example: The Protestant communities tend to look out for their stomachs as well as their souls. Whenever I visit evangelical congregations in places like Guatemala, I’m struck by the social infrastructure that usually surpasses what most local Catholic parishes provide. Funds for micro-businesses. Alcohol rehab for abusive husbands. Scholarship programs for kids.

In other words, the sort of heavenly-inspired earthly support for the poor that the six Jesuits in El Salvador called for. They also called for a peaceful solution to the war. Instead, the Salvadoran military brass branded them as auxiliary guerrillas and sent an elite army unit to the UCA campus to gun them down.

The crime was so brazen that the United States slashed the counter-insurgency aid it had been lavishing on El Salvador. That actually hastened peace efforts, and the war ended a couple years later.

Most Catholics consider those Jesuits martyrs today. Perhaps if the church had regarded them and their mission more highly 25 years ago, it might not be staring at such an unsettling Pew Center report this weekend.