Ion Pacepa, a former member of the Romanian secret service who fled to the West in the seventies, recently gave an interview to the Catholic News Agency narrating how the KGB (Soviet secret service and political police) created liberation theology.
“The movement was born in the KGB and had a KGB-invented name: liberation theology,” Pacepa says. And he tells how Khrushchev and a Russian general had agents infiltrate the World Council of Churches and maneuvered with the same means a group of South American bishops gathered in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968.
Reality is More Complex
Although one cannot rule out Moscow’s hand in spreading this revolutionary movement, reality is much more complex: liberation theology was the fruit of a long process that took place inside Church sectors worked over by Modernism and immanentist modern philosophies, as well as by the influence of liberal Protestantism.
Its origins – not to go further back – can be traced to the pontificates of Popes Leo XIII (1878-1903) and Saint Pius X (1903-1914).
Through various documents and disciplinary measures, Pope Saint Pius X condemned a whole set of philosophical, theological, moral and social errors that were brewing for some time in Church educational institutions. This ensemble ─ which he calls “the synthesis of all heresies” ─ he named Modernism. It is the Modernist heresy.
Modernism ─ particularly described in the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Greges, of 1907 ─ is a more radical version of Catholic liberalism which strives to inject the spirit and mentality of the world into the Church. Modernism is fundamentally naturalist and immanentist, denying the supernatural and divine transcendence and reducing religion to a mere feeling without dogmatic truths or immutable moral precepts.
Unfortunately, although Saint Pius X condemned Modernism, its spirit and many of its doctrines and goals continued to meander in ecclesiastical and lay circles. In 1910, the holy Pontiff issued the Motu Proprio Sacrorum Antistitum, which stated: “Modernists, even after the Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis unmasked them, did not give up their designs to disturb the peace of the Church. Indeed, they continued to recruit and gather new adherents in a secret society … [They] are injecting the virus of their doctrine into the veins of Christian society.”1
Later, in 1950, the theological and philosophical errors disseminated by this modernist secret society were condemned by Pope Pius XII with the Encyclical Humani Generis. Among the condemned errors are naturalism and Teilhard de Chardin’s “mystical evolutionism,” which identified Jesus Christ with evolution, making any dogmatic truth or morality taught by the Church meaningless. Thanks to its mentors (mostly French), this current became known as Nouvelle Théologie.
Socio-political and Economic Modernism
In the early twentieth century the socio-economic aspect of modernist theological fermentation was represented by Marc Sangnier’s Le Sillon (“the furrow”). This lay movement preached a radical socio-economic egalitarianism and was also condemned by Saint Pius X in 1910 with his Apostolic Letter Notre Charge Apostolique.
This trend was later systematized in philosophical terms by Jacques Maritain, a French philosopher and convert to Catholicism, in his book Integral Humanism (1936) – which Fr. Antonio Messineo, S.J., qualified as “integral naturalism” in an article in the Civiltá Cattolica.2
In his book, although Maritain criticizes Communist atheism and totalitarianism, he praises the “profound intuition” of Marx – intuition that Maritain believes “to be the great flash of truth running trough his work.” This “flash of truth,” he explains, is Marx’s thesis of the “alienation imposed in the ‘capitalist’ world on the work-force, and of the dehumanization with which the owners and the proletariat are thereby simultaneously stricken.” And he believes that the role of Catholics is to rescue this Marxist intuition from his atheistic philosophy. Because, he says, “whatever aversion Marx may personally have nourished against Christianity, this intuition itself is pregnant with Judaeo-Christian values.”3
With his book, Maritain opened the way for collaboration between Catholics and Communists, since he accepted not only as true, but even as Christian, the essence of Marxist’s social and economic theory. Most of all, he destroyed the foundations of the Catholic anticommunism and suggested a “third way” or “third position.”
Above all, Maritain’s book destroyed the vigor of Catholic anticommunists, increasingly leading Catholic Action and Christian Democrats toward the left.
Incidentally, during his stay in the United States, Maritain became a close friend and ally of the notorious communist agitator Saul Alinsky.4
Especially in Latin America, this work became the “handbook” of the Catholic Action movement and its political arm, the Christian Democratic parties.
The “Third Position”: “No Enemies on the Left, No Friends on the Right”
The First Conference of Christian Democracy in America was held in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1947 with the aim of promoting Maritain’s “Third Position.” The gathering’s final statement said Christian Democracy was based on Church social doctrine and on Maritain’s “Integral Humanism.” The document criticized fascism, communism and capitalism. But it showed distaste for anticommunism, seen as a “sower of discord.” In short, consistent with the formula “Pas d’ennemis à gauche, pas d’amis à droite” (no enemies on the left, no friends on the right), the “Third Position” (neither capitalist nor communist) turned out to be especially anti-anticommunist.
From Catholic Action to Communist Guerrilla Warfare
With the death of Pope Pius XII (October 1958), the Christian Democrats in Italy and elsewhere began the so-called “opening to the left,” allying with socialist parties and speaking about “Christian socialism.”
In Brazil, for example, the youth of Catholic Action (who were also the grassroots of Christian Democracy) went even further and in 1960 allied themselves with communists in the student movement. This alliance went so far that in 1962 they broke away from the Church and formed a socialist political movement, the People’s Action. And by the end of that decade, this movement led formerly Catholic young people to join communist urban guerrillas.
Liberation Theology’s Culture Medium
Theories of Nouvelle Théologie and Maritain’s political philosophy also penetrated seminaries throughout the world, influencing young priests and religious. In Brazil in 1969, three Dominican novices, former members of the Youth of Catholic Action, were arrested by the police for links with communist guerrillas.
It was in this ambience of intensely modernist and leftist fermentation that theologians such as Uruguayan Juan Luis Segundo, S.J., Brazilians Hugo Assmann and Leonardo Boff, O.F.M., and Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez laid the foundation of the liberation theology. Because of Peronist (Juan Domingos Peron, 1895-1974) influence, in Argentina this “theology” had a more populist character and was led by Frs. Juan Carlos Scannone, S.J., and Lucio Gera.
A Latin American “Theology”?
Although liberation theology is said to be a Latin American “theology,” in fact it is grounded in Catholic and Protestant European authors and in the communist theoreticians, Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci.
Deification of the “poor,” as Marx did with the “proletariat,” which he presented as the “redeemer” of humanity, is the central point of this “theology.”
Liberation theology is not meant to help the poor, as the great saints of the Church have always done, but only to use them. Consistent with the Marxist theory of class struggle the poor are but a weapon used against the “rich.”
Nor is liberation theology intended to improve the economic situation in countries where it operates. Rather, it leads to misery, which these pseudo-theologians identify with “evangelical perfection.” Their model is Cuba, idolized as a kind of “earthly paradise,” where misery takes on, as it were, a “sacred” character. It is clear from testimony by Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff that they follow “miserabilist” heresies from the decadent Middle Ages: “Also inspirational to liberation theology are the singular evangelical experiences of so many hereticized prophets … without forgetting the precious contribution of medieval pauperist reform movements and the evangelical postulations of the great reformers.”5
From this quick historical overview one sees that, with or without the KGB, the internal crisis raging in the Church for so long would logically have led to liberation theology.
“Unperceived Ideological Transshipment”
The KGB has possibly contributed in spreading this political-religious ideology which is presented as Catholic theology because it is a very useful means of communist expansion, especially in Catholic circles, and for maintaining Communist regimes in the unfortunate countries that suffer under its rule.
However, the decisive factor in the emergence and proliferation of liberation theology, and its practical application in Latin America has been the real “unperceived ideological transshipment” ─ to use the famous expression coined by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira6 ─ suffered by young Catholic idealists who entered seminaries or joined Catholic Action and were gradually led away from religious fervor and Catholic orthodoxy toward affinity with the Marxist theories of egalitarianism and class struggle.
Therefore, communism and the KGB are not found in the beginning of the process that led to the emergence of liberation theology, but rather at its end, as a necessary consequence of adhering to egalitarian and evolutionary principles of heretical theoreticians from the early twentieth century.
- Antonio Messineo, S.J, “Umanesimo Integrale”, Civilta Cattolica, Sept. 1, 1956
- Jacques Maritain, Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1996, p. 181 and note 8.
- Cf. Sanford D. Horwitt, Let Them Call Me Rebel – Saul Alinsky His Life and Legacy, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989, pp. 167, 177, 191, 197, 369, and 484
- Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Como Fazer Teologia da Libertação, Vozes, Petrópolis, 1986, p. 57
- Cf. Unperceived Ideological Transshipment and Dialogue, at https://www.tfp.org/tfp-home/books/unperceived-ideological-transshipment-and-dialogue.html