Ernesto Cardenal, the ex-priest, poet and liberation theologian from Nicaragua, was featured on the News Hour last night and I have been thinking about him all morning.
This tends to happen when the subject of liberation theology comes up. It has always fascinated me how much these folks get under the skin of those who run the official Catholic Church. Even the hierarchy’s most adamant defenders must have trouble explaining what’s wrong with liberation theology and its assertion that the poor really ought to be the starting point for Christian theology. Even if you don’t agree with it, I mean. Even if you think the Resurrection is the starting point, or the Eucharist, or some other “mystery” as these leaps of imagination are called. But for me, the real mystery is how successful Christians are at ignoring Christ’s focus on the poor.
I remember a conversation with a priest years ago. I asked him if he wasn’t embarrassed by the Crusades and the Inquisition. “No,” he said. “What embarrasses me is not the mistakes of the past. It’s the lack of humility in the church in the present. We think we’ve made all the mistakes we’re going to make and everything we do today is right. It’s the infallibility doctrine that embarrasses me.”
I liked this guy. Father John, his name was. I was sixteen, and in the hospital in Nova Scotia for a month alone and away from my family. He used to come over from the college where he worked and visit “the boy from ConneKticut,” as he pronounced it. I was still a Christian at the time, and interested in god talk, and I must have seemed ripe for conversion. He knew his visits were the highlight of my day. The only thing I had to look forward to, actually.
I was pretty strongly grounded in a religious tradition that might have been better labeled protesting than protestant, very much an active verb, not a descriptive adjective, however, and not all that convertible, actually. We were still actively angry at what the Catholic Church had done to Christianity, and to me it was as if the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg had happened just a few weeks or months before. Still, if anything would have cut through that resistance, it would have been this man’s natural humility. His focus on the love and compassion of Christianity, not the doctrine.
Father John still pops into mind from time to time. Being able to discuss great ideas at that stage in my life is a memory I still treasure. I would love to know if he’s still around, and what he thinks about the exoneration of Galileo, the child abuse scandal, the hardline stance on women and gays. And I’d love to ask him about liberation theology. Something tells me I know where his heart would be.
Why do so many children live in pain and die in agony? Why does God make the lame walk again but never make an amputated limb grow back? Why does God have some people born in Saudi Arabia where they grow up Muslim and others in Tibet where they grow up Buddhist? Why do priests have no shame wearing jewelry and dressing in fancy vestments when the man they say they follow allegedly said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God? I had lots of questions.
For reasons I can no longer remember, I got interested a few years ago in Hans Küng. It may be that I read somewhere the Vatican had taken away his right to teach because he had questioned papal infallibility, and I remembered Father John. In any case, for several months I wrapped myself up in his two volume autobiography – then read his book on infallibility and several others of his as well.
That brought me into the world of dissident theologians in the Church, and I went off on what some of them were up to, as well. Leonardo Boff, in particular, the Brazilian theologian who, like Küng, was silenced by Ratzinger for his criticism of the hierarchy. Ernesto Cardenal is only the latest of many to feel the sting of the official church for their protesting ways.
Cardenal differs from Küng and Boff, though, in that he has achieved considerable fame as a poet, and I’m developing an interest in his ability to combine art and poetry with history and politics.
I’m also fascinated with how men like these take defeat. Küng, I note, remains inside the Catholic Church despite all efforts to kick him out, and has dedicated his life to ecumenism, to bringing all Christians back under one roof. Boff has written over sixty books and his awards continue to pile up. Cardenal is compared to Ezra Pound and Pablo Neruda. None are worse off for their expulsions. In fact, they seem to wear their expulsions with pride. (In Boff's case, he withdrew after he was "condemned to 'obsequious silence'," taken back after protest, and then threatened with expulsion again.)
Cardenal is not the only Latin American priest I have devoted some time to. The one who captured my attention the most would have to be Christian von Wernich. [See past bloggings from 2007 here and here. The second of these is about Garino Olaso Zabala, a priest beatified under the watch of Ratzinger, despite the fact he had participated in the torture of a fellow priest. ]
I had made a close friend with an Argentine back in the 70s, during the time of “El Proceso” as the dictatorship in Argentina was called, the one that lasted from 1976 until the junta was booted out after they lost the Falklands War. Today I consider him and his family part of my chosen family, and in 2007 I went to live with them in Buenos Aires for several months. While I was there Christian von Wernich was put on trial. von Wernich, like Zabala, was accused of participating in torture, and for the same reason – an alleged greater good. (You gotta love that Christian ethical system, utilitarianism.) In von Wernich’s case, it was fighting communism.
Argentina had evolved sufficiently to be able to deal with its fascist past. I was reading Página 12, Argentina’s leading leftist press every day, and had followed through on the writing of one of its founders, Horacio Verbitsky, who has documented the story of the dictatorship, including von Wernich’s participation, so when von Wernich’s case came up I was primed, and, because the trial was televised, I followed it from start to finish.
As detail after detail came out, I felt sicker and sicker at the revelations of the church’s participation in this period of Argentine history. Just as priests in more recent times were found guilty of child abuse and then shunted from parish to parish by church officials, when the dictatorship ended, von Wernich was given a new identity and hidden by the church in a parish in Chile. To the very end, the church defended its position. It and it alone had the authority to decide the fate of any of its members. Civil notions of justice be damned.
All this got churned up yesterday when I listened to Cardenas tell of his expulsion from the church, and watched him shrug. No matter, he said. I was meant for the contemplative life, not for saying mass and baptizing children.
Maybe so. But that’s a wise old man’s take on the situation. He’s letting the church off the hook by embracing his fate. The church might have said to him, “Why don’t you sit over here, where you’ll be more comfortable.” Instead, they said to him, “There’s no room in here for you. Get out and don’t come back.”
Contrast that with the fact that Christian von Wernich still celebrates mass to this day in Marcos Paz prison, near Buenos Aires.
He was convicted as an accomplice in the murders of seven members of the Peronist guerrilla organisation Montoneros, of 31 cases of torture, and 42 cases of deprivation of freedom during Argentina's war on its own citizens. Two years later, the court of appeals upheld the verdict of genocide. von Wernich was the first Roman Catholic priest ever to be charged with such a crime, to my knowledge.
Jorge Bergoglio, Buenos Aires Archbishop from that time to today, has declared this to be “a case of political manipulation by the court in La Plata,” and continues to defend von Wernich. The dictatorship’s state terrorism, he says, was needed to combat "Marxist" guerrillas. Bergoglio was made a cardinal in 2001, and is known to be “papabile” – eligible for election to pope. And, as cardinal, he was among those choosing the pope when Ratzinger was elected, and could have a say in the next papal election as well.
Bergoglio’s not alone in this school of thought. He had good company in Marcel Lefebvre, for example, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X. Lefebvre too supported the Argentine junta, and the Pinochet regime as well. Lefebvre was sanctioned for his work with the society and when directed by the pope to stop consecrating bishops, he ignored the order, stating the pope didn’t have the authority to give it. One of those bishops was Richard Williamson, who later became infamous as a holocaust denier. Check out their stories if you have time. (Williamson later went to Argentina, but was kicked out for continuing to deny the holocaust.) The point is these men were later received by the current pope back into the church. Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany, but not in the Vatican, after all. There’s room for everybody.
Well, almost. Not Küng. Not the liberation theologists. Not priests like Boff and Cardenas. They no longer have the authority to give you the body and blood of Christ, to baptize your children, to forgive your sins.
For that you’ll have to go to somebody like Christian von Wernich.