In 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua in response to word that a growing alliance between priests and Marxists revolutionaries was emerging in Latin America. Historically, the Catholic Church in Europe had taken a strong anti-communist stance. And so the emerging alliance troubled Pope John Paul II despite the fact that priests claimed they were simply doing what Christ would do in championing the interests of the poor. When news began spreading throughout Nicaragua that Pope John Paul II would be visiting, the reform minded Catholics of the country became hopeful that the pope would somehow lend his support to the revolutionary cause.
The people understood that Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church disfavored the Marxist principles underscoring Liberation Theology. But they were hopeful that he would at least offer some words of encouragement by voicing his support and compassion for the thousands of Nicaraguans who had suffered and died at the hands of the oppressive regime (Hoyt, 1996). By doing so, perhaps the rift between the church and the people could be mended. And then the revolution could take root and much needed social and economic change could finally be realized.
As became painfully evident to the people of Nicaragua, Pope John Paul II was not about to provide any encouragement for their revolutionary cause. During his visit to the country, his vehement opposition to liberation Theology was expressed as he told the people you must abandon your “unacceptable ideological commitments” (Hoyt, 1996). The pope was, of course, referring to what he considered the unholy wedding of Marxist principles with Christianity. And as far as the pope was concerned, there was no ground for compromise on the subject.
Marxism in the mind of Pope John Paul II was an ungodly doctrine that placed human solutions, not God, at the center of all things. According to some, the Marxist underpinnings of Liberation Theology is “an interpretation of Christian faith out of the experience of the poor [that is] an attempt to read the Bible and key Christian doctrines with the eyes of the poor” (Berryman, 1987, p. 6). But liberation theology, according to conservative critics, is a type of socialist Christianity. Its philosophical underpinnings suggest that change comes through political activism and even war and revolution if peaceful means have failed.
In addition, liberation theologians view sin as the root of poverty and capitalism as the most ruinous form of sin on earth. Thus, Liberation Theologists argue that capitalism should be confronted as pure evil and replaced by a more just and equitable socialist system. The Pope unequivocally denounced these ideas as ideologically misguided. Many Nicaraguan Catholics were disappointed with the Pope’s position on political action because they felt like he missed a chance to bolster the revolution and support much needed change for the people. They had lived under years of tyranny and oppression at the hands of the conservative regime.
And thousands of innocent Nicaraguan citizens had suffered gross social injustices and even death at the hands of their oppressors. If the Pope had supported their revolutionary cause, the people would have enjoyed the backing of the Catholic Church. And if that had occurred, it would have provided the people with a sense of spiritual support in their fight for freedom and equality. But the Pope’s denouncement of Liberation Theology and the revolutionary cause did just the opposite. It undermined the will of the people and encouraged the conservative opposition.
In the final analysis, the people correctly feared that following the Pope’s visit the status quo would gain momentum. Throughout the 1980s, the Sandinistas slowly lost ground to the ruling conservatives. The United States, in particular, supported aggressive neo-liberal economic policies that helped undermine the socialist intentions of the revolutionaries. And by 1990, the revolution was all but dead as the Sandinistas were defeated in the national elections (Roche). For the people of Nicaragua, there hopes of a nation of social justice in the name of Liberation Theology have all but been crushed.