Catholic Cold War threatens hellfire

Under siege: Pope Francis. Photo: Nacho Arteaga @nachoarteaga/

If the Vatican were a democracy, then Pope Francis would be the leader of a minority social-democratic administration – in government, but perhaps not in power – struggling to contain a rightwing populist rebellion not unlike those that have swept Europe and the US.

However, it is not Rome but Latin America that will be the arena in which that struggle will be won or lost, threatening to turn a new Catholic Cold War playing out between traditionalists and progressives as hot as Hades in a region where the latter have been targets of brutal violence by congregationalists of the former.

The insurgent populist – a veritable Steve Bannon of the Catholic Church – is the arch-conservative American cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as a hellfire and damnation critic of a pontiff he regards as dangerously liberal or, worse, even socialist.

Indeed Bannon, a founder of the alt-right website Breitbart – who considers himself a Catholic – aligned himself explicitly with Vatican hardliners such as Burke, whom he met in 2014 in order to compare notes. Burke, Bannon and their ilk bemoan what they see a failure to confront the threat posed by Islam to a West prostrated by the erosion of Christian values.

To make matters worse, in 2014 Francis removed Burke from his powerful job in the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s internal court system, for opposing his reforms and complaining that the Church was like “a ship without a rudder”.

Self-evidently, senior Church figures within the United States are at the heart of this monumental effor to undermine the Pontiff – a clue to why the outcome of this ideological assault on an Argentine Pope will have significant implications for Latin America’s future.

Unlike the people of North America and Europe, the lives of ordinary Latin Americans are discernibly affected by decisions that are taken in the Vatican. The region comprises 40% of the world’s Catholics, explaining why its high levels of poverty, inequality and the abuse of power by oligarchic elites made it a crucible of liberation theology.

The US government’s paranoia about communism south of the border during the Cold War and its own ignominious record propping up oligarchic authoritarians wedded to protecting American interests explain both why it saw priests who aligned with the poor as a threat and, as a result, why it tried to use the Vatican as an instrument of foreign policy in Latin America. It found a willing ally in the Polish pope, John Paul II – as virulent an opponent of communism as he was of the Devil himself.

An extensive investigation by Mother Jones in 1983 cast light upon the CIA’s efforts to influence the Church in regions such as Latin America, by handing over large sums of money to priests and bishops and even establishing a special team to influence the Vatican. Where these efforts failed, Washington tolerated and even tried to cover up violence against priests by Latin American security forces that it had trained and equipped.

Burke is an ultra-conservative whose vision of the Church echoes in the same rightwing circles that nurtured the belief that liberation theology was a subversive threat to the US, particularly under Ronald Reagan.

The irony of this cannot be lost on anyone with knowledge of Catholicism: Reagan literally surrounded himself with powerful Catholics, such as his CIA director William Casey, speechwriter Tony Dolan, Secretary of State, Al Haig, and national security adviser William Clark.

Described in 1983 by Time magazine as “the second most powerful man in the White House”, Clark was a hardline anti-communist instrumental in pursuing Reagan’s risky endgame with the Soviet Union. A rightwing Catholic who had once been Augustinian novice, he was on record as stating that he believed the US should rely upon “divine guidance”. Indeed, so close was he to Reagan that the pair shared a private code for the conservative policies they cherished which they called DP – for “divine plan”.

The presdiential campaign of 1980 was a pivotal year for the US “religious right”, and its victor Reagan eventually became utterly convinced that God was on his side in the Cold War, a belief strengthened in audiences he had with senior figures in the US Catholic church, such as New York’s Cardinal Terence Cooke, and even with Pope John Paul II.

Leading figures on the evangelical right in this period such as Francis Schaeffer, who is associated with the influential notion of “co-belligerency”, believed that in the battle to save western Christian heritage “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. By extension, such an all’s-fair-in-love-and-war doctrine enabled a blind eye to be turned to the very un-Christian acts of terror that were being carried out in Central America by America’s proxy armies.

Burke has heaped fulsome praise on Donald Trump, and in a highly unusual move has also met other controversial figures on the far right, such as the Italian nationalist Matteo Salvini, who is a fan of Benito Mussolini and also a trenchant critic of Francis. In short, Burke’s Vatican populists appear to have aligned themselves with the unstable Republican US president and his apologists around the world.

There are many doctrinal causes of the bitter resentment felt towards Francis that simmer among such Catholic hardliners such as Burke, not least the Argentine pope’s explicit efforts to reconcile official positions with some of the social aspirations of liberation theology. A Jesuit with refreshing humility, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013 and has since acted in ways that reflect a progressive tradition in Latin America’s deeply divided Church that is nurtured by priestly contact with the region’s impoverished masses. He is, as a result, highly popular among the laity within the region, and has openly condemned “unthinkably high” levels of poverty and inequality there.

But Burke’s main doctrinal beef, predictably, originates in the Church’s longstanding patriarchy: the role of women, sexual ethics, homosexuality and divorce. It is Pope Francis’s new guidance allowing priests to decide whether divorced and remarried believers can receive communion – and indications that the pope may be preparing to meet the demands of Brazilian bishops to end the celibacy of priests and even ordain women – that are proving to be potentially explosive.

Some members of the Brazilian hierarchy have high hopes that this will be agreed at a special synod for the Amazon region in 2019. Such a move even under restricted circumstances would represent a revolution in the Church as great as that following the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, which gave rise to liberation theology itself.

While this may exhilarate Catholic progressives, and has motives that are practical and not doctrinal – Brazil is suffering a severe shortage of priests, with just 18,000 clerics administering to 140 million Catholics – its consequences for Latin America are potentially explosive at a moment in which the region’s own democracies are struggling and populism there is also on the rise. Moreover, in some countries liberation theology has a strong connection with the political left. In Brazil, for example, the formation of Catholic base communities by liberationists was an important element of the momentum achieved by the Workers Party (PT) that eventually won power. In Nicaragua, the relationship between the Church and the Sandinista revolutionaries was complex and often contradictory, but some priests such as Father Gaspar García Laviana took up arms in the ranks of the FSLN, and the Cardenal brothers, both priests, served as ministers in the early Sandinista revolutionary regime. In El Salvador, liberation theologists informally supported some of the groups that made up the FMLN – something ominously identified in CIA intelligence.

Against this backdrop, the conservative backlash threatens to end the uneasy equilibrium – and peaceful coesxistence – that has prevailed in this region between traditionalism and liberation theology since the bloody 1980s, when Catholic priests and Jesuits were being murdered by death squads who interpreted the “option for the poor” as little more than Marxism. Some estimates put the number of priests, nuns and bishops who were murdered, imprisoned, tortured or expelled from Latin America from 1968–73 at 1,500.

In countries such as El Salvador – where by the late 1970s Catholic priests were becoming victims of rightwing reprisals for guerrilla atocities becaue of their work with the poor, even sections of the Catholic hierarchy were drawn into the fray. Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was only the most high-profile victim of violent persecution of Catholic clerics by the military high command with the complicity of their sponsors in the United States.

While the US itself paused for thought whenever one of its own citizens was killed by the local forces they had both armed and trained – the rape and murder by the National Guard of four American nuns in El Salvador in December 1980 forced Washington to act – other such cases such as the execution of six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers by soldiers at the University of Central America in 1989 laid bare efforts by the US to help cover up such crimes.

It is no coincidence that the present divisions within the Catholic Church – exemplified by the struggle between Pope Francis and his American critic – is the most serious since the liberal reforms under Vatican II during the 1960s. These encouraged efforts by some hardline conservatives to break away from the Church under the leadership of the French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre – and arguably also fuelled the hardline conservative reaction within the Church that fuelled, not doused, Latin America’s long, dark period of military rule.