Who’s afraid of Liberation Theology?

By Barry Healy

[This is the text of a talk presented at the Marxism Summer School conducted by the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective in January 2005. The pope referred to is the then-reigning Pope John-Paul II. The current Pope Benedict XVI is mentioned, being Cardinal Ratzinger at the time this talk was presented. See the appendices for more on Ratzinger and his background.]

I have an acquaintance who is a staunch supporter of the Liberal Party and a fundamentalist Christian, she occasionally gives me a lift to the railway station in the morning, which I appreciate. I didn’t know her religious bent until one morning she started regaling me with her opinion of Marxism, which was entirely based on the one sentence written by Marx that she knew: “Religion is the opium of the people.”

I don’t think she could even give a coherent explanation of the sentence, let alone an understanding of its context. She just knew that it was godless communism and that was enough for her.

I was a prisoner in her car, of course, and in the position of not wanting to enter into a polemic with a genuinely kind-hearted neighbour in whose debt I was. So, I listened in wonder to the worldview of fundamentalism, or this particular strand of it.

Man’s heart is evil, I was told. Only turning to Christ and accepting Jesus into one’s heart can cure the evil. No amount of reading the Bible can help because it’s only when Jesus is in your heart that the scriptures become illuminated and true understanding appears. And Jesus must literally enter one’s heart I was told emphatically, which, with my Catholic upbringing, immediately conjured visions of tiny Jesus statuettes bobbing around in my ventricles.

Everything was centred on the heart; the mind was untrustworthy. There certainly was the inference that Jesus had lived so that we could safely switch off our minds.

All of this was connected with the constantly reiterated word “saved” and congealed together with a welter of lotto numbers that related to chapters and verses in the Bible.

What started this avalanche of rapid-fire religiosity? I’d mentioned blandly that I was preparing a talk on Liberation Theology and that it would be delivered to the Marxism Summer School.

And so, that morning’s trip to the station became a research experience: the two political extremes of Christian politics, liberationist collectivist and neoliberal individualist sitting in one vehicle.

All it would have taken was one bolt of lightening and we could have settled the question of which trend God really supports (note well, comrades: I am still here!).

She spoke so fast and furiously that I didn’t have the opportunity to ask her if she thought that religion is “the heart of a heartless world” or “the spirit of an unspiritual situation”. I’m sure that she would have agreed with those sentiments and, of course they are the very words immediately before those that she quoted from Marx.

The point being, of course, that Marx, even though an atheist, was protesting against the same lack of spirit in the world, the same heartlessness that religion struggles with. But he was counterposing his materialism as the better response than religion to that heartlessness.

Commonalities against bourgeois cynicism

I would argue that a sincere Christian would have more in common with Karl Marx than, say, with Napoleon Bonaparte.

Hear what Napoleon, the great representative of the bourgeoisie had to say on religion and oppression:

As far as I am concerned, I do not see in religion the mystery of incarnation, but the mystery of the social order: it refers the idea of equality back to the heavens, thereby preventing the rich from being massacred by the poor. Religion is a sort of vaccine which, satisfying our love of the marvelous, protects us from charlatans and witch doctors; priests are far more valuable that Kant and all the dreamers of Germany. How could order exist in a state without religion? Society cannot exist without inequality of fortunes and inequality of fortunes cannot exist without religion. When a man is dying of hunger alongside another one living in lavishness, he cannot accept this difference unless there is an authority to tell him: ‘God willed it thus, there must be poor and rich in the world, but later and forever after, things shall be shared.

If ever the heartlessness of a heartless world was articulated that statement is it. It is savage, cynical and pitilessly godless. It is the voice of capitalism and it is the antithesis of Marxism and, I say, in common with all liberation theologians, it is the antithesis of what Jesus was on about.

Another way of putting this is communicated in this exchange that the Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto recalled in his memoir. It is a conversation the Dominican priest had with his torturer when the military captured him in the 1960s:

- How can a Christian collaborate with a communist?

- For me, men are not divided into believers and atheists, but between oppressors and oppressed, between those who want to keep this unjust society and those who want to struggle for justice.

- Have you forgotten that Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people?

- It is the bourgeoisie which has turned religion into an opium of the people by preaching a God, lord of the heavens only, while taking possession of the earth for itself.

So, an argument that I am raising here is that Marxists and at least some sections of Christians have a great deal more in common than some Christians have with each other.

The Christian trends that I will look at are Liberation Theology and its opponents. Its enemies are the Vatican, Protestant fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, which I say are reflections of neo-liberalism and more specifically US foreign policy.

Within Australia the largest trend within Christianity is simply middle-class mediocrity. The vast majority of churchgoers don’t think about these high-falutin’ arguments. Their faith reflects a comfortable lifestyle that involves a modicum of charitable good works to salve the conscience. Some will give lip service to social justice but few will take it on as a vocation.

Liberationist gospel reading: theory and practice

In speaking of Liberation Theology I will follow the line of Michael Lowy in referring to Liberationist Christianity, that is: the broad social trend that incorporates the theologians.

The theologians like Leonardo Boff and Gustavo Gutierrez synthesised the movement’s experience into texts. But the theologians themselves are not ivory tower intellectuals, they are right there in the slums living the life and doing the work of the movement.

The movement is that of the masses of the poor in combination with nuns, priests and students working together. Catechists, or spiritual leaders, come from within the communities, not from the priests or other religious.

Liberationist Christianity identifies the main task of Christians as combating structural sin, that is: the unjust structures of society. Christian compassion expresses itself in solidarity with the struggling masses.

In many contexts Liberationist Christians have made far more significant contributions to revolutionary movements than Marxists.

I want to illustrate some of the historical threads of these developments in Christianity before trying to draw out contemporary considerations.

But before I begin those explorations I need to refer once more to Frei Betto. In an article on Christianity and Marxism he once wrote:

When we speak of Christianity, we must – before considering its historical manifestations – start from its     Biblical foundations.

So, I want to start with something that was once heard as a shatteringly radical statement:

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In the first century Roman-occupied Middle East that opening sentence of Mark’s gospel was indeed a shatteringly radical statement.

For a start, every person hearing it knew how Jesus of Nazareth had died because his name was widely known. He had been crucified. Crucifixion was strictly reserved for one category of prisoner: rebels.

And just to set the social context of crucifixion, there is a historical account of a crucifixion around the time of Jesus where the victim’s aged mother cried visibly nearby. She was immediately crucified herself for the crime of expressing sympathy for a rebel.

The Romans weren’t mucking around with crucifixion. It was the ultimate terror and having a crucified revolutionary spoken of in the way Mark’s narrative does would have been astonishing at the time.

All the gospels should be read in this light. They are like modern thriller novels in which, from the beginning, you know the hero’s sticky end but the story takes you through the background so that you understand why the protagonist died.

The gospels and their audience

Each of the gospels was a product of a different community of believers and each gives a different theological slant on the story, reflecting the different outlooks of these communities as Christianity evolved over time. The theology is communicated through the stories that they selected to tell and in the embellishments that they added. The people depicted in them represent archetypes that were easily recognisable at the time and the events are metaphors for social struggle.

In the same way, you recognised social archetypes and aspects of social discourse in the story that I began this talk with. That discussion in the car really happened, but how do you know that I didn’t embellish it to sharpen the point or make myself appear better? Does it really matter? The story is a metaphorical account of a genuine clash of ideologies in Australia today.

The gospel stories are exactly the same. There was a historical starting point but by the time they came to be written generations later sharpening the point with embellishments was more important than getting the facts straight. And in every one Jesus beats his opponents, even when they kill him.

If you can’t picture Jesus just think that he looked somewhat like Yassar Arafat and talked something like Malcolm X.

The gospels were written to inspire their audience of poverty stricken farmers, urban proletarians and slaves in their resistance. If you can’t picture what those people looked like, just think of the Aboriginal people who fought the police in Redfern after T.J. Hickey’s murder in February 2004. [A young Aboriginal boy killed by cops.]

The stories were constructed for them to identify with.

For example, when the angels announce the birth of the messiah to the shepherds in the fields, the imagery communicates a total reversal in power relations, as they were then known. The shepherds represent the anawim, which is a Hebrew word meaning those who are bent over in their oppression, crushed physically and spiritually by their burdens.

Through the Greek translation that word has come down to us as “the poor” or, even more weakly, as “the poor in spirit”, which is akin to saying that someone dying of cancer is feeling slightly under the weather. It would be closer to the original meaning of anawim to say “the poorest of the poor” or “the wretched of the earth”.

The photo on the front cover of the Resistance edition of Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism conveys the meaning on the word anawim. That Haitan man dragging that impossibly huge barrow through the dirt, he represents the anawim, les miserables.

Those of you who have seen The Motorcycle Diaries remember that it was these people who Che Guevara met on his travels. Listening to them converted him from a middle-class kid to the revolutionary that he became.

And it is precisely for them and for no one but them that the heavenly choir sings and announces liberation.

Liberationist method

What I am presenting here is a glimpse of the method of Liberation Theology, which is to listen, reflect and act. The method involves creating a space where the oppressed can speak of their lives, then reflect upon it in light of Biblical stories and then take appropriate action. The oppressed move from being the objects to being the subjects of their own history.

Hear how Ernesto Cardenal, the famous revolutionary Nicaraguan priest applied this method. Cardenal condemned those who read into the gospel writer Matthew’s line “How happy are the poor in spirit” the meaning that it referred to “good” rich people.

“It’s as if Jesus had said ‘Happy are the rich’”, says Cardenal. But for Cardenal an accurate modern rendering would be “Happy are the people of the Third World” as they await their liberation.

Cardenal explains that in Hebrew literature what is called “parallelism” is often used. That is: the same point is reinforced by being made twice using a slight variation in words. In Jesus’ famous beatitudes there are multiple parallelisms to ram home the importance of the message.

Cardenal says:

All the happy ones are the same people with different names. And all the rewards are the same with different names.
The happy ones are: the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst for what is right, the merciful, those who are pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for the cause of right.
And they are happy because: theirs is the kingdom of heaven; they shall have the earth for their heritage; they shall be comforted; they shall be satisfied; they shall have mercy shown them; they shall see God; they shall be called [children] of God ….

The gospel writer Luke has similar beatitudes but he follows them with curses on the rich.

Cardenal says: “The rich are cursed because they have had their happiness, because they are satisfied, because they laugh now, because everyone worldly speaks well of them. They are not condemned because they are bad rich but because they are rich.” [Emphasis added].

In Australia you’d have to look hard to find a Christian who would speak as powerfully about injustice as the Jesus of those gospels.

But who stands on the street corners every week campaigning on behalf of the anawim? Who curses the rich and powerful? Who demands liberation for the oppressed?

Comrades it’s you, you are the inheritors of that Jesus tradition. Not the Christian tradition, but never mind, Jesus wasn’t a Christian either.

The Jesus movement was a class struggle movement and the writings express it.

A revolutionary Jesus

So, back to Mark: the poor and suffering people who heard that opening line of Mark’s story knew that they were hearing about a revolutionary. The whole book explains why Jesus was a revolutionary.

That opening line makes another couple of shattering statements. Firstly, it appropriates the word “gospel”. The word “gospel” literally means good news. But people of the time didn’t use it in the sense of: “Hey, here’s some gospel, you’ve won the lotto.”

When the Roman emperor won military victories official orators went out to the towns of the empire, called people together and read to them news reports entitled “gospel”. That was the only use of the term until the Christians revolutionised it.

You should hear the term “gospel” in a similar way to that in which people in the early 1970s heard the way in which homosexuals appropriated and used the word “gay”, it was a shock to the system. Except that people who shocked the power of the Roman Empire ran the risk of literally being fed to lions.

And after taking over the use of the word “gospel” the sentence identifies Jesus as the Messiah, which confronted the power of the Jewish religious authorities. And then the sentence names him as the Son of God, which was the title used by the Roman Emperor.

Not all versions of Mark’s gospel contain that phrase about Jesus being the Son of God. Maybe some of the congregations stuck it in just as another way of offending the authorities, because confronting the authorities was what they were doing.

Certainly that single sentence establishes that this document was meant to be as radical a rejection of the established order as could be mustered within the mindset of the period. Every strand of authority is disestablished and all of their claims are appropriated, and the rest of the book makes clear that they are appropriated in the name of the poorest of the poor, the anawim.

The development of classes -- metaphor and inspiration

What are we to make of these stories of angels and walking on water and such? It is easy to mock such nonsense, and many atheists don’t progress past that level of analysis.

The Bible stories, both Old and New Testaments, are a rich repository of the history of human social development. Marxists who disregard them are the poorer for it. In fact, such Marxists are disinheriting themselves. These stories, these revolutionary struggles are part of the heritage of which Marxism is the fruit.

In this regard I think that it’s a tragedy that the great Marxist anthropological writer Evelyn Reed never succeeded in her life’s ambition to write an analysis of Old Testament stories along the lines of the concluding chapter of Woman’s Evolution, where she looks at the Greek play Medea. Had she done so she would have provided a roadmap for Marxists to read and appreciate the Bible.

It is easy for modern readers to mock and satirise the extraordinary biblical stories such as Jesus walking on water or the fierce prophet Elijah ascending into heaven in a fiery chariot. Understanding stops dead at the metaphors, unfortunately.

Yet what do we gain from Reed’s evaluation of Medea?

Medea moved from a matriarchal clan society to Corinth to be with her husband, the trader/pirate Jason. Medea represents all women at the cusp of the evolution of society from the egalitarian matriarchal clan to patriarchal class society.

How did women feel about that change? Did they go gently into that good night?

Medea raged! She did a bit more than express some upset wounded feelings. Not for her putting up with insulting jibes about PMT!

She attacked patriarchy at the roots: she murdered her own sons so that Jason couldn’t pass on the wealth that he had stolen and waved the blood in his face. And at the end she flies off in a fiery chariot driven by a god.

She was a spitfire hellcat and every metaphor propels the narrative.

Every woman feeling aggrieved under our sexist society should read Medea and listen to Maria Callas singing the role in Verde’s operatic version of it. You can feel the heat of the anger through the centuries and you can hear it fill Callas and transport her to heights of artistic grandeur.

Callas herself was terribly mistreated by a capitalist pirate called Aristotle Onassis. In her performance she is inspired to express all women’s righteous anger.

The Bible stories are precisely the same. They tell the story of how humanity felt and acted through all the traumatic developments of the evolution of early class society.

How did people feel and act about it? They felt angry and they spoke it and through the Jesus movement they took revolutionary action and we can be inspired by their stories.

Jesus and revolutionary violence

It is unclear from the gospels what Jesus’ exact teaching was on revolutionary violence. But listed among his followers is Simon the Zealot.

The Zealots were the Hamas of their day, they specialised in suicide assassinations of Roman officials. They were the most extreme of the Hebrew revolutionaries.

The other Apostles are just identified as fishermen or whatever, only Simon’s political affiliation is named. He isn’t identified as an “ex-Zealot” or as a Zealot who has chosen to become a pacifist. His identification is explicit in order to spell out that the Jesus movement included armed revolutionaries.

So, what became of this revolutionary religious group that survived Jesus’ assassination?

Certainly we know that it grew quickly and that many different churches arose because so many different gospels were written.

Interestingly, there are no archaeological relics existing from the first 160 years of Christianity. That is because the early Christians operated as a Jewish sect within the synagogues.

The earliest relics of Christian communities don’t feature images of Jesus on the cross. They feature images of fishing boats and fish. They also feature depictions of Noah’s ark.

The story of Noah would appeal to a small, beleaguered community. But often, where a picture of Noah could be expected there is a depiction of a woman shown in the posture of prophesying.

Later, when pictures of Jesus did appear, he was shown as a soft-faced, clean-shaven young man tending sheep.

The earliest known picture of Jesus on the cross is actually a piece of anti-Christian graffiti scratched onto the wall of a Roman boarding school. Above words saying “Anthony prays to his god”, it shows a young man praying to a crucified figure -- except that the figure has the head of an ass!

Early Christianity’s primitive communism and its overthrow

But while the early Christians didn’t leave much archaeological evidence they showed up on the historical record. They scandalised Roman society with their refusal to worship the official gods and for sharing among themselves.

The Greek philosopher Aristides wrote to the Emperor Hadrian, saying:

They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give it freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers through the Spirit, in God.

By the second century the Christians were feeding 20,000 of the poor in Rome. This plebeian, primitively communistic movement was repeatedly subjected to the fiercest repression and gained respect for withstanding it.

But in the fourth century the Emperor Constantine decided to use the church for his own ends, to unify the Roman empire. He offered the Christian bishops a deal that they found irresistible. From being repressed by the Roman police, they could command them. He would give them a cut of the power of the empire but first they had to calm the squabbles between the various Christian churches.

Constantine got the bishops to attend a conference at Nicene, in one of his villas. He walled them into the villa until they came out with the basis of Christianity that he approved of. Included in his list of demands was an authorised list of Christian documents that all churches would recognise. This list is now called the New Testament.

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Money and power was the bishops’ reward. Quickly violence came to be a part of how bishops got elected into important sees.

And suddenly images of Jesus dressed in the purple robes of the emperor appeared, reigning triumphant in heaven. Images of Jesus writhing on the cross appeared to remind the plebs of their lot on earth.

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said of all this:

When the Western World accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered; and the received text of Western theology was edited by his lawyers. The brief Galilean vision of humility flickered throughout the ages, uncertainly. The deep idolatry of the fashioning of God in the image of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman imperial rulers was retained. The church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar.

The most important institutional effect of the adoption of Christianity, according to Perry Anderson, was the social promotion of a large number of what he calls “service Christians”, who opportunistically adopted the new faith.

Moreover, Anderson says:

[T]he establishment of Christianity as the official Church of the Empire was henceforward to add a huge clerical bureaucracy -- where none had previously existed – to the already ominous weight of the secular Roman state.

So, the adoption of Christianity by Rome actually contributed to the crisis of the empire as much as anything else.

Christianity adapts to feudalism

As Roman slavery died its long, drawn-out death and feudalism began its rise, the church positioned itself as the social force that floated slightly above the aristocratic power structure, authorising kings and benefiting from their largesse.

Just as Hinduism in India created an ideological justification for the caste system so Christianity justified the solid chains that tied the peasants to their place in society.

In this structure everyone was allocated a role: peasants at the bottom, aristocrats above (protecting the peasants and supported by them) and tradespeople in the towns in their guilds.

The church was the intellectual repository, the advisory service and the moral guardian of it all. It was very comfortable with the role and hopelessly corrupt.

Of course, the whole construction was predicated not on stability but stasis, change was dangerous. Once the economy began to expand through trade and the rise of capitalism contradictions arose that eventually exploded everything into air.

Yet it is precisely this static society that the Vatican still aspires to recreate in the world. The ideology is called “integralism”: the state will rule the people and the Church will rule the state. All people will be in their place.

Marxists like to pride themselves on their long view of history, so does the Vatican. Integralism sees all of the world’s problems as starting with the Renaissance and passing through the Enlightenment, the Reformation and the various bourgeois revolutions -- all leading up to satanic communism.

All this degeneration into sin is caused by humanity’s failure to abide by the MotherChurch. The Catholic hierarchy has accommodated itself to capitalism and sees communism as a greater threat but it really pines for the good old days of feudalism. Vatican statements attacking the excesses of capitalism should be read in this light. To put it mildly their criticisms are not progressive.

An example is Sydney Archbishop George Pell’s speech in November 2004 where he criticised secular democracy and called for “democratic personalism”. Pell said democratic personalism “…means nothing more than democracy founded on the transcendent dignity of the human person”.

That’s great, we’re all for human dignity. But in the best of all possible worlds a la George Pell who would control the definition of “transcendent”? Well, it means bringing into being what he calls “…a whole new form of democracy.”

Who would be included in this new form of democracy? Pell doesn’t say but there’s a hint of whom he thinks shouldn’t be included:

[T]he small but growing conversion of native Westerners within Western societies to Islam carries the suggestion that Islam may provide in the 21st century the attraction that communism provided in the 20th, both for those who are alienated or embittered on the one hand, and for those who seek order or justice on the other.

George Pell may aspire to live in the middle ages but, in fact, as feudalism segued into high feudalism and the absolutist state, contradictory currents arose within Catholicism that Pell would not have liked.

For instance: in the 1400s the bishops held two conferences in Constance and Basel where they tried to break from the power of the papacy. The papacy manoeuvred against the bishops through alliances with the absolutist rulers in the evolving secular power structure.

The kings helped the papacy in its battles with the bishops but the papacy paid a price: it lost control over the appointment of bishops in those realms. However, through the expansion of European colonialism the Church massively expanded its range.

These cosy concordats, as they were called, were the forerunners of the 20th century accommodations with Mussolini and Hitler. The Vatican saw the arrangements with fascism as just a continuation of its normal operating strategies.

This authoritarian tradition culminated in the Vatican Council of 1869, which declared the infallibility of the Pope.

Twentieth century Catholicism: forward to the past vs popular trends

The Catholic Church marched into the 20th century, the epoch of imperialist wars and revolutions, with its eyes firmly fixed on the past and aristocratic thugs at its helm who saw themselves as being at war with modernity and especially with its worst expression: communism.

Within France various countervailing trends arose, which led to Catholic socialist groups that joined the Popular Front government in the 1930s, operated in the anti-Nazi Resistance and developed labour federations.

After World War II a worker-priest movement sprang up where priests got jobs in factories. Pretty quickly these priests radicalised in the face of the conditions in the factories and mines. They became union leaders and activists and quickly the church hierarchy tried to pull them out of the factories.

These French influences had an effect in Brazil, which had the biggest Catholic population in the world. As early as 1960 leaders of the Brazilian Catholic Student Movement wrote:

We have to say, without ambiguity or hesitation, that capitalism, historically realised, deserves only the calm condemnation of Christian consciousness. Is it necessary to justify this? It will be enough to recall here some of the alienations of human nature characteristic of the concrete capitalist situation: reduction of human labour to the condition of a commodity; dictatorship of private property, not subordinated to the demands of the common good; abuses of economic power; unbridled competition on one side, and monopolistic practices of all kinds on the other; central motivation as the pursuit of profit. The humanity of the worker cannot remain, in Brazilian society, submissive to the tyranny of money and of cruel competition, in short to the mechanism of capitalism.

When Pope John XXIII announced his intention to convoke the Second Vatican Council a mere three months after assuming the papacy in 1958 the church bureaucracy, known as the Curia, was stunned. John XXIII was elderly and was elected as a transitional figurehead between papacies and wasn’t expected to make waves.

But make waves Vatican II did.

For a start John XXIII liked the ideas that the bishops had come up with at those conferences in Constance and Basel in the fifteenth century. He wanted less authoritarianism, he wanted the Catholic mass to be presented in the vernacular language, not Latin, and he wanted the Church to break out of what he called “holy isolation” and engage with the contemporary world.

Vatican II shook the Catholic Church like nothing before or since. Nuns and priests all over world went out of their cloisters and into the real world to work directly with the poor.

In Latin America the church began an education program on social issues that was designed to stop students being won to Marxism. It was called the Cursillo de Capacitacion Social.

It was meant to channel youth towards the Christian Democratic Party. But as one student put it: “There are two kinds of professors at this university: the Marxists and those who simply don’t give a damn.”

The students applied the radical education methods of Paulo Friere in what are called “base communities”. Friere’s method is to teach people literacy not through obscure textbooks but by assisting people to write about their own lives.

This conscientises people (makes people aware) of their social situation and then, through discussion and reflection upon Biblical texts, they develop the courage to begin shifting to being the agents of their own liberation.

So, this heady mixture of French radicalism filtered through Brazil, Vatican II, the example of the Cuban Revolution and the interaction of nuns, priests, students and the impoverished masses exploded into the continent-wide Liberationist Christian trend.

An American priest who was in Guatemala in this period, Blase Bonpane says:

By 1965 thousands of the best educated citizens of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala were being slaughtered in a vast institutional drive for political unconsciousness. It was in this atmosphere that the Cursillos de Capacitacion Social were operating in Central America where (except for Costa Rica) anything and anybody to the left of the Christian Democratic Party was under attack physically.

By 1966 the Central American students had moved so far as to write:

We cannot Christianise capitalism with paternalistic patches. We will lose many of our privileges for the greater general betterment. There will be opposition, and armed resistance will be called for if necessary.

That blunt statement ranks alongside Malcolm X’s famous saying as the most clear-cut explanation of the role of a revolutionary.

Thousands of these students and thousands of the peasants with whom they worked went into the various armed fronts in Central America and eventually formed the backbone of the FSLN in government, the FMLN, many other guerrilla fronts worker and peasant unions.

In Brazil the Movement of Landless Workers, the metalworkers unions and the Workers Party came out of this ferment.

Marxist responses

In 1971, Fidel Castro said of these developments:

We have now arrived at a point not simply of coexistence between religion and revolution but for the best possible relationship. A Christian who understands Christ’s words in their essence simply cannot be on the side of the exploiters, on the side of those who promote injustice, hunger and misery.
I always admired and deeply appreciated those Little Sisters who went to work with lepers at various institutions because they signified an enlightenment, a capacity for sacrifice for others. Persons doing this dangerous, selfless work are practicing ideal communist conduct.
In recent times within the very bosom of Christian movements, there have arisen revolutionary currents, progressive currents which are escalating into revolutionary positions and there are a great number of priests and religious who hold a firm position in favour of the process of liberation of
Latin America

It’s worth mentioning here that while this truly amazing ideological transformation was taking place, which was plain to Fidel’s eyes, the revolutionary current of which we were a part at the time, the Trotskyists, didn’t notice it at all.

In fact, when you recall that the two great contributions that the Trotskyist movement made to the Nicaraguan Revolution were Fausto Amador and the Simon Bolivar Brigade you start to recognise the need for humility among Marxists.

Michael Lowy, in The War of Gods, which was published in English in 1996, says:

In fact, something new has happened on the Latin American religious scene during the last few decades, the importance of which is world historical. A significant sector of the Church – both believers and clergy – in Latin America has changed its position in the field of social struggle, going over with its material and spiritual resources to the side of the poor and their fight for a new society. Can Marxism help us to explain this unexpected event?

Lowy’s book is easily the most perceptive and useful Marxist account of Liberation Theology and when he describes these developments as world historical he knows the gravity of what he is saying.

The answer to his question (“Can Marxism help us to explain this unexpected event?”) is in this straightforward statement from Commandante Luis Carrion of the FSLN in 1985:

I see no obstacle which should prevent Christians, without renouncing their faith, from making their own all the Marxist conceptual tools which are required for a scientific understanding of the social processes and a revolutionary orientation in political practice. In other words, a Christian can be at once a Christian and a perfectly consistent Marxist... In this sense, our experience can teach many lessons. Many Christians have been and are active in the Sandinista Front and some of them are priests. And I am not speaking here only of rank-and-file militants: some of them are members of the Sandinista Assembly and hold high political responsibilities… I think that certain Marxist vanguards have had a tendency to perceive progressive and revolutionary Christian sectors as an opponent force competing for a fraction of the political following of these parties. I think this a mistake. Avoiding that mistake is one of the great achievements of the FSLN. We have linked up with the grass roots structures of the Church, not to pull people out of them, but to integrate them into the Sandinista Front as a stage in its political development, without this meaning in any way that we oppose their participation in Christian institutions. On the contrary, we leave people in these structures so that their higher commitment will be transformed into political action in this environment. We never told them that in joining the FSLN they had to face the dilemma of the Christian faith or their activity in the Front. If we had posed things in that way, we would have remained a tiny group of activists.

At this point I’d like to make a simple observation: Liberationist Christians have no difficulty in synthesising Marxism with their Christianity but First World Marxists, when confronted with Christian faith, often seem blankly uncomprehending.

Liberationist understanding of capitalism and the `paupertariat’

So, from the 1960s through to the 1990s Liberationist Christianity was a mass phenomenon across the Latin American continent with offshoots popping up in other places.

One of the places it popped up in was St Vincent’s Catholic Church in Redfern [an inner-city suburb of Sydney], which was the most advanced grouping of Liberation Theology practitioners in Australia. From within that community arose the Aboriginal Medical Service, the Aboriginal Legal Service and innumerable campaigns in defence of Indigenous people’s rights.

Archbishop Pell has been working very hard to destroy that community in recent times.

The theology was not imposed from outside the reality of the oppressed people but grew from their experiences and reflections. This theology is vastly removed from the reversed world-consciousness that Marx famously criticised.

Liberationist Christianity directly criticises the “vale of woe” that Marx referred to and it refuses to be the “halo around suffering”, which Marx said was the role of religion in his Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law in 1844.

I want to quote from Blase Bonpane’s book called Guerrillas of Peace, which is about the Central American revolution. He starts with quoting the words of Mary the Mother of Jesus, from Luke’s gospel:

He has shown the power of his arm, he has routed the proud of heart. He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent away empty.

Then Blase writes:

Taking the words direct from the Mother of Jesus, we can conclude that God has a bias for the poor and that he does show might in his arm… So the mighty are being pulled down from their thrones and the lowly exalted. This is surely the work of God. The lowly are exalted by becoming the subject of society instead of the object. The fetishisation of labour, that is, the consideration of people as “cheap labour”, labour as a commodity, is surely the sin identified here.
The creative power of God is reflected in workers. To oppress workers is to oppress the power of God. We see here in these words of the Mother of Jesus the identification of oppression as
the sin and liberation as the virtue. Applying this to modern economic theory, this relates to the surplus value of labour. This theory explains how workers manufacture much more wealth than they earn in salary each day. The difference between the wealth created by an individual worker and what is taken home as salary is precisely what is stolen from the worker, taken away by the owners of the means of production.

The poor people of Latin America, stuck in the grip of the so-called “informal economy” are situated somewhere along the edge of the proletariat and the lumpen proletariat. Modern production techniques, using community networking have tendrils extending right through the slums. Using outsourcing and Quality Assurance techniques Wal-Mart in Latin America and Coles Myer and Bunnings in South East Asia and China suck the life directly out these people.

Salvadoran Liberationists coined the term “paupertariat” to describe their situation.

In Brazil, the majority of the bishops were won to supporting this liberationist movement and in Central America it linked directly to the revolution; in other countries things were not so clear-cut.

And it wasn’t just a Catholic movement; it was ecumenical. This was based on the view that orthodoxy – that is: believing the right thing – is less important than orthopraxis – doing the right thing. For liberationists orthodoxy can only follow orthopraxis.

You can immediately see the connection with Marx’s 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”

So, while the Trotskyists missed the boat and the Stalinised official communist parties were too mired in their class collaborationist, developmentalist line to link up with the Liberationist Christian phenomenon, who was paying attention?

Reagan and Pope: united front from Hell

Well, US President Ronald Reagan was paying attention. In 1980 the gang that organised Reagan for the presidency met in Santa Fe for a conference. Their conference statement said in part:

US foreign policy should begin to confront Liberation Theology (and not just react to it after the fact)… In Latin America, the role of the Church is vital to the concept of political freedom. Unfortunately Marxist-Leninist forces have used the Church as a political weapon against private ownership and the capitalism system of production, infiltrating the religious community with ideas that are more communist than Christian.

Reagan, as president, quickly moved to form a united front with Pope John Paul II against Liberation Theology. The Pope fought the theology while Reagan murdered the Liberationists.

Cardinal Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Holy Office for the Doctrine of the Faith, provided the intellectual weapons. While admitting that Liberation Theology possesses what he called “almost flawless logic” it didn’t make it any less of a threat. “Indeed,” he said, “an error is all the more dangerous, the greater the grain of truth it contains.”

However, Ratzinger said: “The defence of orthodoxy [is] really the defence of the poor, saving them pain and illusions which contain no realistic prospect even of material gain.”

Do you hear something faintly Napoleonic in that statement?

Ratzinger tried to discipline the Brazilian bishops unsuccessfully and the Peruvians as well. He compelled the theologian Leonardo Boff to remain silent for a year but couldn’t turn back the tide.

So, the papacy simply started replacing progressive bishops with reactionaries as the opportunity arose. They have stacked out the Brazilian church with Opus Dei bishops and did the same in El Salvador and other places.

Opus Dei is an ultra-right wing Catholic secret society that practices such weirdnesses as self-flagellation. But the Pope found them a useful ally in his task of turning back the clock on Vatican II.

The Americans, through various front groups, started flooding Central and Latin America with fundamentalist, happy-clappy church missionaries at the same time as waging the contra war against Nicaragua and the death-squad war in El Salvador.

In Guatemala, in particular, where the insane, born-again Christian General Rios Montt was president, the army treated all Catholic peasants as enemies. For instance: in the region of El Quiche the army found a Bible hidden under the dirt floor of a hut in a village. That was taken as proof that the family contained a liberationist people’s catechist. In response they burned children alive; they bayoneted pregnant women and murdered whole families.

All in all they destroyed at least 440 villages in similar fashion. As a way of surviving, the peasants learned very quickly to convert to the new American churches, which recruited with their fists full of dollars.

But how can the Vatican tolerate this violent Protestant intrusion into its domain? Essentially, through extreme cynicism. The Vatican, mired in it’s ideology of integralism, believes that, when the danger of Liberation Theology and the popular church have passed, the masses will tire of their new enthusiasms and return to the Mother Church.

Reactionary Christian politics in Australia: consumerism at prayer

And speaking of cynicism we should mention the rise of Family First and other reactionary trends in Australia. In Sydney, the Liberal Party has a flourishing relationship with a massive fundamentalist church called Hillsong.

Since becoming prime minister, John Howard has made it a priority to channel government welfare money through religious charities like the Salvation Army and MissionAustralia. Those groups have in turn adapted to mainstream neoliberal economics.

The Salvos, Mission Australia, Anglicare and the other big charities still publish great research on poverty in Australia but when you get up close to them you discover that their solutions are all about boot-strap capitalism. The homeless can build themselves up by selling The Big Issue on the streets; the impoverished can use micro-loans to establish their own businesses.

It’s the Amway model of petty bourgeois self-advancement.

Family First, a product of the Assemblies of God, seemed to pop up like a mushroom in the 2004 elections. But, we should remember, not just through the patronage of the Liberals but also through cutting a preference deal with the ALP. It isn’t just the Liberals who keep their eyes on US political trends.

What these fundamentalists will amount to in Australia over time we can’t say. There is a deep strain of hostility towards “God botherers” in Australian culture. But these God botherers have arisen on the back of the mass consumerist credit card debt that is fuelling the economy.

There is a widespread need for people to literally close their eyes and pray because there is a huge wave of immiserisation hanging over them and they know it. A simple spike in interest rates will shatter many people’s lives.

So, what do the fundamentalists give people? They teach people how to dress nicely, live the Amway lifestyle and consume without guilt.

They also give profound emotional experiences. The references to Jesus entering you heart indicate an intense distrust of feelings and the emotional life. Obviously, deep insecurities and fears need to get stabilised by the simple faith.

A short history of fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is a very recent development in Christianity. The term itself was first coined in a series of 12 cheap, paperback books of Bible commentary that were published in the US between 1910 and 1915, which were entitled The Fundamentals.

The five fundamentals they propounded are:

  • what is called “Bible inerrancy” (that is: nothing written in the Bible is wrong);

  • the divinity of Jesus;

  • the Virgin Birth;

  • that Jesus died to redeem humanity; and,

  • the Second Coming, meaning the physical return of Jesus to initiate a one thousand year rule on Earth.

Fundamentalists are associated with creationism and they are certain that only they are the true Christians, all others are heretics.

In the US there are many different fundamentalist groups, not all of which have been drawn into the Christian rightist political current.

Within the Christian rightist political constituency, however there is an interesting demographic uniformity:

  • 97% are white,

  • 72% are in the 35- to 65-year-old age bracket,

  • 70% have university education or better,

  • 53% are either professionals or business managers and

  • 18% are small business owners.

These are not the ignorant southern Baptist crackers that Malcolm X used to joke about. They are sophisticated people whose wealth relies on the so-called “new economy” of IT, outsourcing and consultancy. They know how to build political clout.

Fifty per cent earn between $50,000 and $150,000 and 15% earn over $150,000. They are not the haute bourgeoisie, the big bourgeoisie; the ruling class believes in no God but profit. The political fundamentalists are the upper levels of those with petty bourgeois consciousness.

They have bought the American dream of hard work and achievement. Where others might merely “consume, be silent and die”, that great summation of bourgeois culture, they consume, pray and die.

It will be interesting to see how these aspects of US culture succeed in getting welded onto Australian society. The fundamentalists and their Christian rightist offshoots are growing well in the artificial economic stability of John Howard with its contrived low-interest rates and subsidised housing boom.

But will these churches survive an economic shock? Will they survive an upsurge of trade union militancy that teaches people where power really lies?

Was it the fundamentalists who forced James Hardie to cough up the compensation money for asbestos victims or the unions? When push comes to shove where will people look for their interests to be protected?

Liberationist Christianity today

So where do things stand today with Liberationist Christianity?

With the defeat of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the ending of the Salvadoran insurgency, coupled with the combination of Vatican repression and US intervention, the liberationist trend has been put onto the back foot in some areas.

But during the 1990s there were two clear examples of liberationist upsurge in Haiti and Chiapas. In 1990 a radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was swept to power in an unprecedented wave of popular radicalisation. He won 67% of the vote while the US-backed candidate got 14%.

President George Bush senior immediately organised a military coup and Aristide was overthrown in 1991 and went into exile. The military and Tonton Macoutes death squads targeted Liberationist activists for torture and assassination.

After three years the US was forced to allow Aristide to return but the Clinton administration used the soft-cop approach and influenced the Haitians to implement IMF policies, which undermined the masses’ radicalism.

Of course, President George Bush Jr. isn’t interested in soft-cop methods. He simply sent in the marines, kidnapped Aristide and deposited him in central Africa.

But the issue in Haiti isn’t yet settled. If ever there was a place where people have nothing to lose but their chains, it is Haiti. The masses have not been cowed and the great tradition of Toussaint L’Ouverture may yet come back to haunt the USA.

In Chiapas, the bishop, Samuel Ruiz, is a liberationist who worked patiently from 1975 to create a network of 7800 indigenous catechists and 2600 base communities. How many Marxist movements could boast of a cadre force like that?

He supported the indigenous people in their conflicts with the rich cattle ranchers and he also gave shelter to many Guatemalan refugees fleeing the Rios Montt holocaust.

This all surfaced in the Zapatista rebellion of January 1994. Michael Lowy says of this:

From the available data, it appears obvious that neither Monsignor Ruiz nor his Jesuit and religious agents were ‘promoters’ of the uprising. As in El Salvador, consciousness-raising and the impulsion for self-organisation created a new political-religious culture among a significant part of the indigenous population. In a second stage, revolutionary cadres, probably of Marxist background, built on this new social and political consciousness and helped to organise several thousand Indians, with the support of their communities, into an armed force. The ideology of the EZLN is not religious and draws its main symbolic references from Mayan culture. It is true, however, that the patient work in education and empowerment of the indigenous communities by Monsignor Ruiz and his catechists created a favourable environment for the rise of the Zapatista movement.

What future for Liberationist Christianity?

But what of the future? It is impossible to predict but there are some strange and disturbing trends emerging in the new world that was formed in 2004.

You may not have noticed but something epoch-making happened during 2004. According to the United Nations, at some point in 2004 the balance shifted within the majority of the world’s population. Now the majority live in cities for the first time in human history and in the Third World the majority of those living in cities live in slums.

The United Nations report says:

[I]nstead of being a focus of growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trades.

Mike Davis, writing in the March 2004 New Left Review says that this urbanisation “…has been radically decoupled from industrialisation, even from development per se.”

We now live in what Davis calls The Planet of Slums. Liberationist Christianity might call it Anawim World.

What role does Marxism have in Anawim World? Well, according to Mike Davis: “…for the moment at least, Marx has yielded the historical stage to Mohammed and the Holy Ghost.”

In the global mega-slum, Islam, Pentecostal Christianity and in India the cult of Shiva, occupy the social space once occupied by socialism in the early 20th century industrial slums of Europe and America.

As an Islamist leader explained to Le Monde Diplomatique: “…confronted with the neglect of the state, and faced with the brutality of daily life, people discover, thanks to us, solidarity, self-help, fraternity. They understand that Islam is humanism.”

In Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa Pentecostalist Christianity is the counterpart of Islam. Nobody can accurately count the number of Pentecostalists in the world. It’s somewhere around 533 million people. At least 10% of Latin America is Pentecostal protestant and the Catholic Church is hitting back with its own version of speaking in tongues.

While it is not true that Protestant Pentecostalism is exported to the Third World as a part of a dark US State Department conspiracy it certainly converges with US foreign policy. As William Murray put it: “You can make a strong case for saying the American way is synonymous with Christianity.”

Murray is an evangelical fundamentalist who raised money to fund the Contra death squads that ravaged Nicaragua and the helicopters that Rios Montt used in his Guatemalan holocaust.

The basic creed of Pentecostalism is that the world is corrupt and unreformable. Where orthodox Catholicism teaches passivity through worship of the saints, the Pentecostals transfer all that to the all-powerful Jesus.

The Pentecostalist sects organise self-help networks for poor women in the slums, offer faith healing as paramedicine, encourage recovery from alcoholism and addiction and try to keep children from descending down into the abyss of life as street waifs.

As with the Catholics who worked in base communities in the ‘60s there has been a certain level of radicalisation among some Pentecostalists, especially in Brazil, but not to the same extent as with the upsurge of Liberationist Christianity.

Despite all these developments, Michael Lowy states that: “…as a cultural movement and as a body of committed thinkers, Liberation Theology is alive and well.”

None of the major thinkers have recanted, he says, though some have mellowed their language. He emphasises the terrible blow that the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas was, given the inspirational role that Nicaragua played for progressive Christians.

But what of Latin America today, where Hugo Chavez is reawakening the giant?

Liberation Theology was an outgrowth of a revolution within the Catholic Church and the example of the Cuban Revolution. A new model of revolution, the Bolivarian model could spark a new growth in Liberation Theology. The Bolivarian Circles are essentially base communities where the Venezuelan constitution is the basic reading.

As for the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul is engaged in an orgy of mystification in order to undo Vatican II. He has canonised more saints than any previous Pope. He wants every nation to have its own saint in order to rebuild the old Catholic faith of rosary beads and incense.

He has also stacked out the College of Cardinals with right-wing appointees. He wants to make sure that whoever succeeds him won’t deviate from his obscurantist path.

Can Marxism learn?

So, where does that leave Marxists?

Well, for a start we should learn from the lessons of the past and learn to read the signs of the times, to borrow a phrase from Vatican II. Never let us be blind to developments within the masses as we were to the rise of Liberation Theology.

My friend who gives me a lift believes that by accepting Jesus into your heart the truth is magically illuminated. Never let it be said that we think that by holding Marx in our hearts that reality will be magically illuminated.

Let me quote to you again from Blase Bonpane, the American now ex-priest who toiled alongside the Guatemalan revolutionaries:

Personally, my understanding of liberation has a biblical orientation… I do not believe that liberation is understood through the New Testament exclusively…

Some have learned liberation through atheistic humanism and as such have formed the basis for an international vanguard of liberation. Because of my background as a priest and Christian missionary, I think that for some the New Testament will be the road to personal and collective liberation.

It is not a matter of getting one’s head on straight first and then getting into the struggle. It is a matter of getting into the struggle and thereby getting one’s head finally straightened out.

Liberation Theology assimilated Marxism into itself without difficulty. It is not impossible for Marxists to understand Liberation Theology in a similar manner.


Ratzinger: the Rottweiler as Pope

April 27, 2005

By Barry Healy

The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI spells the end of the hope that the Catholic Church may become more liberal. Catholic progressives look back longingly on the era initiated by the 1965 Vatican II Council, when the church finally opened itself to the world; Ratzinger rejects Vatican II as “scandalous optimism”, propagating “misleading”, “disastrous” and “catastrophic” ideas.

Ratzinger is on record as believing that Vatican II was a mistake because the Church entered into a dialogue with society rather than holding itself apart from “a progressive process of decadence”.

In interviews, he has fumed about the laity that no longer allowed priests to run their lives, women ignoring their most important functions as virgins and mothers and the widespread failure to believe in the devil.

It was not always like this; there was a time when Ratzinger embraced a more sensitive Christianity. But like some of the US neo-conservatives he went through a mid-life conversion from progressive to arch-conservative.

The son of a Bavarian police officer, Ratzinger grew up under the Nazis and as a teenager was conscripted into the army of the Third Reich. He later said that his Catholicism protected him against the influence of fascism.

After the war he entered a seminary so as to contribute to the “Christian rebirth” of Germany. A brilliant intellectual, he quickly rose through the ranks to become theological advisor to Cologne’s Cardinal Frings at the age of 35.

Frings famously received a standing ovation at Vatican II by declaring that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the modern name for the Inquisition) in its methods and behaviour “do not conform to the modern era and are a source of scandal in the world”.

Ratzinger, as Pope John Paul II’s enforcer, reinvigorated the Congregation and used it to destroy not only the individual careers of theologians but also entire churches, as occurred in Holland. It is part of the irony of Ratzinger that one of the theologians he oppressed, the Brazilian liberationist Leonardo Boff, was one of his students during Ratzinger’s liberal period.

In the 1960s, Ratzinger wrote glowingly of “the prophetic protest against the self-righteousness of the institution, a self-righteousness which substitutes ritual for morality and the ceremonial for conversion….God, throughout history, has not been on the side of the institution but on that of the suffering and persecuted.”

His political turnaround came when rebellious students threw German universities into turmoil during the 1960s youth radicalisation. He has said that it was the “psycho-terror” inflicted on him by the students at the University of Tubingen that altered his opinion of Marxism (students had boycotted his classes and mocked his ideas).

A crucial turning point in Ratzinger’s career occurred in 1977, when he met Poland’s Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II. They shared common feelings about Marxism and the need to restore order to the church after the “excesses” of Vatican II. Upon becoming pope, John Paul appointed Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation where he won the nickname “the Pope’s Rottweiler”.

Although it no longer uses torture, the Congregation is feared within Catholicism. Over the centuries it has been tainted with excesses and scandal.

As prefect, Ratzinger showed no mercy while exhibiting two unusual characteristics. One was his enormous intellectual capacity. The other was his willingness to give background briefings to the press.

A significant feature of Ratzinger’s world outlook, as revealed in these interviews, is his preoccupation with European culture, to the exclusion of all others.

Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger played a soft cop/hard cop game within the Church. John Paul built his media image while using Ratzinger to deflect criticism of himself. As an Italian theologian commented to a journalist of the US National Catholic Reporter: “If Ratzinger didn’t exist, the pope would find someone just like him.”

A legacy of John Paul II’s, which Benedict is expected to build upon, has been the growing power of bizarre semi-secret organisations like Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way within the Church. Catholic laity can look forward to more intrusions from these weird cults into parish life.

Liberal Catholics, in their millions, pine for the days of hope opened by Vatican II. But they need to remember that it was the mass radicalisation sparked by the anti-Vietnam War movement that enabled them to drive back the stodgy cardinals.

If they want to repel this new reactionary wave, progressive Catholics should throw their energies into building another such radicalisation.

From Green Left Weekly, April 27, 2005.

Benedict: from Rottweiler to dog whistler

By Barry Healy

Pope Benedict XVI, when known as Cardinal Ratzinger, was notorious as “the Pope’s Rottweiler”, the theological enforcer who silenced progressives. On September 12, 2006, he began a new role -- “dog whistler” for Islamophobia.

Dog whistle politics uses coded inflammatory references embedded in careful language for deniability. The labyrinthine nature of Vatican statements lends itself perfectly to such layers of meaning. Benedict gave a presentation on “faith and reason” at Germany’s University of Regensburg, drawing on a 1391 dialogue between the obscure Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian Muslim. Manuel considered that Mohammed brought “only evil” to the world and, by extension, Islam is “inhuman”. Benedict said that Islam is not “bound up with ... rationality”, while Christianity is.

Within days, Middle Eastern Christian churches began going up in flames, and demonstrations erupted across the Muslim world. Criticism came not only from groups hostile to the West, but also from secular Muslim officials who are normally friendly with Western governments and the Vatican.

On September 17, Benedict clarified his statement. Avoiding an outright apology, he said the Byzantine quote didn’t express his own opinions and that he was “deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address ... which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims”. Three days later, Benedict said he had wanted to spark a “self-critical dialogue both among religions and between modern reason and Christian faith”.

George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard are working hard to fan Islamophobia to justify their “war on terror”. They are also trying to drive a wedge into the Muslim community between so-called “mainstream” and “reactionary” Islam.

Benedict, who is considered one of the great intellectuals of the Catholic Church, said he accidentally blundered into quoting a Christian emperor ticking off an Iranian about Islam’s deficiencies.

In fact, Benedict’s hostility to Islam goes back a long way. In 1997, in an interview in the Jesuit-published book Salt of the Earth, he said that Islam is organised in a way “that is opposed to our modern ideas about society”. “One has to have a clear understanding that it is not simply a denomination that can be included in the free realm of a pluralistic society”, he said.

In September 2005, at an annual meeting with former students, Benedict told them that Islam can adapt to democracy only if the Koran is radically reinterpreted. The Vatican denied the report, which a student had leaked to the media, and the informant withdrew his claims.

After that, Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, well known for his Vatican loyalty, began his attack on Islam, putting the line from which Benedict had officially distanced himself. In February, Pell launched a ferocious broadside against Islam.

The Koran is riddled with “invocations to violence”, he said, in a speech to US Catholic business people. Pell said he saw the light about the inner workings of Islam after the 9/11 terror attacks. “Considered strictly on its own terms, Islam is not a tolerant religion and its capacity for far-reaching renovation is severely limited”, he claimed.

After Benedict’s September 17 clarification, Pell again became the stalking horse, saying on September 18 that the violent reaction to the Pope’s words proved the validity of the insult that the Pope said he didn’t intend!

This soft cop, hard cop behaviour has sordid roots within the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s mentor, cooperated with the Reagan administration’s slaughter of Liberation Theology Catholics in central America. John Paul II slammed the theologians, while Reagan armed the death squads trying to bring down the Sandinista Nicaraguan government in the 1980s. Benedict XVI is now providing shifty theological cover for Bush’s imperial crusade in the Middle East.

Green Left Weekly issue #685 27 September 2006

[Barry Healy is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency within the Socialist Alliance.]