“I think the theology of liberation is a praxis.”

-Rev. Gustavo Pérez Ramírez, director general of the Colombian Institute for Social Development.

“A theology of liberation can be written only with blood.”

James W. Douglass, professor of theology at the University of Hawaii and author of The Non-Violent Cross.

“Chicanos need to develop their own, authentic theology of liberation—not accept one worked out by (you will pardon the expression) gringos.”

Rev. Ralph Ruiz, national chairman of PADRES.


During the seven years in which the Catholic Inter-American Cooperation Program has been holding its annual meetings, the context of these discussions has changed drastically. Che Guevara and Camilo Torres have become heroes to a significant segment of Catholicism. The urban guerrilla has entered the scene, from Argentina to Quebec; kidnapping, bombing, the temporary takeover of a radio station to broadcast a revolutionary manifesto, bank robberies to finance guerrilla war—all these have become part of the political patterns of Latin America and some of them have moved north. A Christian Democrat President in Chile—hailed not long ago as the maker of a pattern for Latin America’s future—has been succeeded by a Marxist. Small wonder that the 500 participants in this year’s meeting departed more frequently from the CICOP blend of sociology, politics, economics and theology to engage in some wry self-analysis.

The mood was expressed most accurately and eloquently, perhaps, by the man responsible for CICOP, the Rev. Louis M. Colonnese, director of the Division for Latin America, U.S. Catholic Conference. In an impromptu statement from the floor during a panel discussion, he hurled the name of “armchair revolutionaries” at his assembled guests. Too many of them, he said, attend a conference on revolution, get excited and then go home, inactive but glowing, “while others are drawing blood.”

With or without the help of North Americans, said Colonnese, “the flame is raging; the revolution is in progress. I don’t believe anything is going to reverse it.”

In Spanish, the same attitude was reflected by Rev. Gustavo Pérez Ramírez, currently embroiled in controversy with the Colombian government because of his charges that genocide is being practiced upon the Guahibo Indians of Eastern Colombia. We must follow our principles, said the Bogotá sociologist, to “las ultimas consequencias” but not to “las ultimas conferencias.”

There was excitement at this meeting, as there always is at CICOP meetings. Some of it came from the knowledge that there were shakers and movers in the crowd—men who cannot return to their countries because of their dedication to freedom and others for whom silence in public or statements not for attribution must be the price of being able to go home again. There was talk, in the corridors and over hasty lunches, of underground movements and torture in police stations. The charge was whispered, though never with an accuser’s name for publication, that some American aid is going into programs which include the torture of prisoners. A sense of conspiracy flavored the somewhat academic atmosphere of the public sessions.

But amid the busy rushing from session to session, the discussions of dependency and liberation, the thematic liturgy and rambling panels, there was an undercurrent of uneasiness among the North Americans who formed the bulk of the meeting.

“Students are being tortured in Brazil, the Berrigans are in prison, Southeast Asia is burning, minorities are being suppressed in the United States—and we sit here listening to lectures.” A consensus along these lines is reflected in the “statement of solidarity” signed by many participants on the last day of the conference.

The statement talks of “a shared commitment to actively implement the theology of liberation” and a “responsibility to dedicate ourselves to share in the struggle of our sisters and brothers to reclaim their full human dignity.”

“We express our solidarity with all those suffering repression and join with them to kindle hope based on reality, not rhetoric,” the statement says. But in the third year of the Nixon era, rhetoric sometimes seems to be the only tool left—rhetoric or a molotov cocktail; and if the CICOP participants were ready to join the guerrillas, they weren’t letting the press in on their plans. Instead, they signed a statement denouncing the charges against the East Coast Conspiracy, the Indochina war and the intimidation of Black, Spanish-American and Indian activist groups. Two of the resolutions dealt specifically with Latin America and deserve to be quoted in full:

“We denounce:…

“The complicity of the U.S. government in the systematic exploitation of Latin American nations seeking political and economic self-determination through whatever methodology best expresses the people’s will...

“The complicity of the U.S. government in the systematic torture of political prisoners in Latin America whose only crime is dissent.”

As a gesture, it was less dramatic than kidnapping Henry Kissinger would have been. It is doubtful that it gave permanent consolation to those participants who must return to suburban campuses, rectories and convents across the nation.

Why go to a CICOP meeting, then? The information conveyed could be distributed in print and the key documents are, in fact, made available beforehand to participants. The group dynamics are stimulating at times but, in long-range terms, either transitory or frustrating.

Circulating at and between the or sessions, I picked up two answers to this question—one tightly focused, practical and personal; the other pieced together from a variety of remarks by many participants.

Fr. Ralph Ruiz, national chairman of PADRES, a special apostolate to the Spanish-speaking Catholics who are one-quarter of the church in the United States, was at his first CICOP meeting. The sessions, he said, had “fantastic value for me and for all Mexican Americans.” His only reservation was that the message conveyed by CICOP should be reaching a much wider audience.

“I am not alone—Chicanos are not alone,” was the first impression he had from meeting with South American participants. At the same time, the South Americans “became aware at this meeting that Latin America does not stop at Mexico’s northern border.”

He remarked on the diversity of people at the meeting and thought that there might be “too many levels of thinking—some are scholars, very theoretical; others are fascinated, at a distance, by a subject, and then there are some who are actually participants in the agonizing situation that the others observe and study.”

“Much of what happens at CICOP will be misunderstood,” he said. So much for one man’s reaction. A consensus of middle-class Americans at the meeting is somewhat simpler to express. This consensus, based largely on evidence provided through the whole series of annual CICOP meetings, holds that the next “Vietnam” facing the United States will almost certainly be located in Latin America. In a sense, this new Vietnam is already in its early stages.

Because Latin America is traditionally Catholic, the church in the United States should have a special interest in preventing a repetition of the mistakes the United States made the last time. And because CICOP has been reaching Americans with information and promoting free dialogue between North and South Americans, it is just barely possible that some future U.S. President may be better informed—or subjected to enough counter-pressure—to avoid disaster the next time.

It’s less dramatic than tossing a molotov cocktail or kidnapping a government official. But it’s a good reason for packing 500 people in one room to hear a panel talk.

(Joseph McLellan was editor of A.D. 70 and is presently on the staff of NC News Service.)


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