Documentation: Is Liberation Theology Marxist? An Interview With Ernesto Cardenal

Question: In what do you see the main task of Christians’ struggle for a more just world in general and in Latin American countries in particular, and how does the liberation theology contribute to this effort?

Ernesto Cardenal: First of all I should like to say that your movement, Christian Peace Conference, help us Christians in Latin America to follow the path of revolutionary struggle for justice in the understanding that peace cannot be attained in our region without complete liberation. In this endeavor liberation also plays an important role, which strictly speaking means a practical application of the message of the Gospel to the concrete situation of the people of our countries. This theology differs from traditional theology above all in the fact that it is not laid down by certain professional theologians for others, but grows up out of everyday practice, where it develops and addresses first of all the simple, oppressed Christian. Its representatives are persecuted, imprisoned, and sometimes murdered.

This theology, like traditional theology, was inspired by the classical philosophy of Aristotle, whose work, although he was not a Christian, clearly influenced the thinking of the whole Christian church. Liberation theology also draws inspiration from the philosophy of Karl Marx who, despite the fact that he didn’t confess to the Christian faith, was certainly nearer the Christian tradition than Aristotle. There is however further difference between the theology of liberation and traditional theology, the latter being based primarily On the Word of God made incarnate in the Holy Scripture Liberation theology is of course also inspired by the Word, but its representatives are convinced that God also speaks to us in everyday events and that, for example, information obtained through the mass media can be a special way in which God speaks to us.

Question: What does liberation theology take from Marxist thinking in concrete terms?

Cardenal: There are differences of opinion about this. Some liberation theologians maintain that they are not influenced by Marxist philosophy at all. In this case it is necessary to discern whether they say this for tactical reasons, so as not to be compromised politically or whether they are really convinced that Marxism doesn’t influence them in any way. I personally think that it is not possible to evade the influence of Marxism, as we cannot commit ourselves to the revolutionary struggle without drawing support from the conclusions of scientific socialism.

Another group of theologians claims that they only take the method of analysis from Marxism. Others maintain that it is possible to accept the philosophy of dialectical materialism in its entirety and that it can greatly enrich liberation theology. The problem of atheism is closely connected with this question. According to some liberation theologians atheism is not the cause of the conflict between Christianity and Marxism, but is rather the link between them. What Marxism calls atheism is basically the negation of an idol, which sometimes bears the name of God. I think that the proclamation of the Gospel is sometimes nearer to an atheistic point of view than to traditional religious attitudes, for when God calls us to judgment, as Jesus Christ told us, it will not be faith in God or lack of it which will decide, but whether we loved our neighbor or hated him during our lifetime. According to St. John the Apostle, he who loves his neighbor shall know God, and for that reason he who calls himself a believer and yet doesn’t love his neighbor cannot know God.

Question: In comparing the relationship between Christianity and revolution in Nicaragua and in our own environment we see that revolutions took place without the participation of Christians, and often even against them. The understanding of the real meaning of revolutionary activity was prevented by its atheistic character.

Cardenal: I fully appreciate this difference. You find yourselves in a different situation, because the anti-religious character of the revolutions in your environment was created by, among other things, the fundamentally anti-revolutionary and conservative attitude of the churches. If the revolutions in our sphere are different in this respect it is because they are supported by most of our believers. The revolution in Nicaragua was the first of its kind to be accomplished with the mass support of Christians, a fact that cannot fail to influence the further development of revolutionary movements in the whole of Latin America, whose inhabitants are predominantly Christian. Radical revolutionary changes can’t, therefore, be brought about without the active presence of Christians, or against their will, for this would be revolution without the people’s support and as such would have no chance of victory. You in the CPC [Christian Peace Conference] took, in your time, a bold and progressive step which substantially helped Christians in other countries and continents to find their place in the revolutionary process.

Question: How do representatives of official churches accept liberation theology?

Cardenal: Liberation theology was accepted positively not only by the Catholics but also in Protestant circles. I should mention that it affects our ecumenical life too: representatives of different churches and denominations meet round the table and their confessional differences are no longer as important as before. It is possible to say that in Latin America today there are basically two types of Christianity: first, the popular theology which has developed from the ritual traditions of each country. This is a rather superficial belief, although on the other hand it is also a deeply emotionally [sic] matter for our people. And for these people there is no contradiction between their faith and their participation in the revolution. The second type of Christianity is represented by the liberation theologians, who are in the minority and for whom revolutionary commitment stemming from Christian faith and theological reflection is a matter of course. It is possible to say in the case of Nicaragua that liberation theology is “the ruling power” because our people are the ruling power, although at the same time it retains the subversive character so typical of it. It is subversive towards imperialism and the traditional church hierarchy, even if, in rare cases, some bishops or even cardinals — a Brazilian cardinal for instance — are on the side of the people. Sanctions were imposed against some of them by the Vatican, as in my own case, that of several of my countrymen and those of the Brazilian theologian Boff and the Mexican bishop Mendez Arcea.

Question: How do Catholic priests react to these sanctions?

Cardenal: Those of them who are deeply convinced of the need for revolutionary changes don’t allow themselves to be intimidated. And they are in the majority. It is, in fact, a matter of individual conscience and fidelity to the Gospel, for if I am convinced that the orders of the Vatican and even those of the Pope himself are in contradiction with my conscience and with the orders of the Gospel, then I cannot obey.

Question: What kind of relationship exists today between the official Catholic Church and the revolutionary Government of Nicaragua?

Cardenal: The Bishop’s Conference in our country is not united on this. Some are on the side of the revolution, others hesitate, while others take an open stand against it. One of the bishops even approached the Government of the USA during his visit there with a request for financial aid to the contras. He organized a press conference on his return to Nicaragua and on this occasion declared himself a firm follower of the counterrevolution and its armed resistance to the revolutionary government. This was evidently a piece of provocation with two possible aims: on the one hand to force our Government to imprison him and thus show its aggressivity, and on the other hand to compel it to do nothing and thus show its own weakness. Nevertheless the Government found a third solution: it expelled him from the country and in doing this the Government showed itself to be neither inhumanly hard nor politically weak. Bishop Vega, as this church dignitary is called, now lives in Honduras and his influence is slowly diminishing. Even the Pope himself, to whom such open support of counterrevolution was evidently not acceptable, didn’t stand by him.

Question: Nevertheless, Cardinal Obando, who is hostile towards your Government, is still in the country.

Cardenal: Cardinal Obando was a leading figure of the political opposition but he never resorted to such extreme language. After an example was made of Bishop Vega he fell silent, afraid of meeting a similar fate and became rather cautious. Then came the dialogue between our bishops and revolutionary Government, of which even the Pope approved, as he was no doubt aware of the evil effect of such aggressive attitudes on the state of the Roman Catholic Church in my country. The Nicaraguan Government respects the decision of the Vatican in the church sphere, but where the Church starts to have a direct influence on politics, this must be considered as a political matter and should be handled as such.

Question: President Reagan has recently issued a directive which makes possible direct intervention in your country. What would this mean for you?

Cardenal: We have always been aware of the fact that President Reagan would step up the pressure on our revolution. But we are convinced that he cannot destroy this revolution since it is defended by the vast majority of the people. For it is not merely an army or political party that supports the revolution, it is all the people. And therefore any intervention would come face to face with these people, and they would be armed with guns. Our tanks could be destroyed by the aggressor within several hours, the entire country could be occupied. But so many of the intervention forces would die that their position would become unbearable. Today there is a strong movement worldwide in solidarity with our country which has so far prevented President Reagan from sending his troops to Nicaragua4:2Not because he considers world public opinion so much as because the opinion of American voters is important to him: they wouldn’t support him in any direct military intervention. I do believe that our revolution will not be destroyed, for this would mean that our people would also have t o he annihilated. However, we must still be prepared for martyrdom, for this is really the only way to achieve the final victory of our revolution: we must be prepared to die.

Question: What role do women play in the revolutionary process in Nicaragua?

Cardenal: Women took part in the revolutionary struggle in all spheres: they stood by the men during the famine strikes, they were engaged in armed combat, we have women in our country with the rank of commandant (corresponding to the rank of general), and now they are active in all spheres of public life; not least I should mention the role of the woman and mother, who to a large extent shapes the revolutionary attitudes of her children of the new generation. Women are also gaining a new position within the Church, unknown in the past: a woman merely used to be a passive, obedient listener.

Question: What ought we in the Christian Peace Conference do to contribute to the victory of your people and to a better future for your country?

Cardenal: From all I know about your work — and this isn’t the first time I’ve come across it- – I can say that you are already doing it. I’d like to thank you for it, and I’d like to ask you to continue in it. And I’m convinced that you will.

This interview originally appeared in the Information Bulletin of the Christian Peace Conference, November 5, 1986.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please donate $25, $50, $100, $250, $500, or more today?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Share to...