4/05/2005

Reuters AlertNet - Pope battled radical priests in Latin America

MANAGUA, April 2 (Reuters) - Pope John Paul II was a voice for freedom in Eastern Europe, but in Latin America he played a very different political role by silencing priests who sided with the poor against repressive governments at the height of the Cold War.

When he was elected Pope in 1978, Latin America, home to almost half the world's Roman Catholics, was in turmoil. The Catholic Church in the region was bitterly divided, with some top clerics standing by military rulers while radical priests adopted the cause of rebellion.

Some disciples of "liberation theology," which called on the church to defend the poor, joined left-wing guerrilla movements to fight dictatorships then rampant in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

The Polish Pope, a fierce critic of Marxism, opposed such activism, and his clash with Latin America's radicals was dramatically illustrated on a trip to Nicaragua in March 1983.

Angered by the presence of two priests in the left-wing Sandinista government that took power in a 1979 revolution, the Pope publicly wagged his finger at one of them, and he was later loudly heckled by thousands of Sandinista supporters during a Mass in the capital Managua.

Shaking his pastoral staff, he ordered the Sandinistas to be quiet, but he was ignored by many in the crowd, upset that he had not condemned attacks by U.S.-backed rebels.

Both sides accused the other of planning the humiliations.

"It was obvious the Pope hated the Sandinista revolution and that he had come to fight," said Ernesto Cardenal, the priest who served as the Sandinistas' culture minister and was the target of the pontiff's public reprimand.

Cardenal claims the pontiff was scared of the impact that a popular revolution might have in the rest of Latin America, which is overwhelmingly Catholic.

"He would have prefered a regime like that in Poland, which was anti-Catholic in a Catholic country and so was unpopular," he wrote in his memoirs.

SIDELINED RADICAL PRIESTS

Liberation theology, which flirted with Marxism, was a powerful force from the poor neighborhoods of Brazilian cities to isolated villages across Central America.

The Pope's experiences in Poland made him a natural enemy of Marxism, and he is widely credited with a major role in the collapse of communism in 1989.

In Latin America, he sidelined radical priests and replaced them with more conservative figures.

Supporters said the Pope was always committed to the poor and simply wanted to keep the church out of politics at a time of great conflict.

Reuters AlertNet - Pope battled radical priests in Latin America

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