By Ronald J. Rychlak
In 2007, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking Soviet bloc official ever to defect to the West, told the world that Soviet bloc intelligence agencies had cultivated and developed the pro-Communist union of Marxism and Christianity that the world came to know as liberation theology. Pacepa documented that disinformation operation six years later, in the book “Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism,” which I was privileged to co-author with him.
The KGB liked the term “liberation.” In 1964, it formed the National Liberation Army of Bolivia (with help from the Communist icon Che Guevara). That same year, the first Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Council, consisting of representatives handpicked by the KGB, approved the Palestinian National Charter. In 1965, the KGB created the National Liberation Army of Colombia (with help from Fidel Castro). Later, the KGB would create the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which carried out numerous bombing attacks, and the Secret Army for Liberation of Armenia, which organized numerous bombing attacks against U.S. airline offices in Western Europe.
Liberation theology was introduced to the world in 1965 by the Christian Peace Conference (CPC), a religious organization headquartered in the Soviet bloc (Prague), secretly financed by the KGB and staffed by the KGB community (including the Romanian intelligence organization headed by Pacepa). The CPC was eventually subordinated to the World Peace Council, which in 1989 admitted that 90 percent of its money had come from the KGB.
Peruvian priest Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote the book “A Theology of Liberation” (English edition, 1973), is generally considered the founder of liberation theology. Gutiérrez, who quoted Che Guevara for support, wrote that liberation theology “is a theological reflection born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human … to give reason for our hope from within a commitment that seeks to become more radical, total, and efficacious.”
Followers of liberation theology read the Gospels from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed and desire a church that is politically and culturally decentralized. They seek to fight poverty and social injustice through political activism, especially in relation to human rights. In the same way Marxists deify the proletariat, liberation theologians put the poor at the center of their theology. Adherents take inspiration from fallen martyrs like Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Dorothy Mae Stang, an American-born nun who was murdered in Brazil.
Unfortunately, liberation theology has not benefited the poor in the way it promised. Instead, consistent with the Marxist theory of class struggle, the poor have been used as weapons in class warfare. As Todd Swathwood Jr. of Liberty University wrote in his article “Gustavo Gutiérrez – Liberation Theology & Marxism”: “Liberation theology appears to be more Marxism in spiritual clothing than anything else. The covering does not even need to be Christian; Gutiérrez discusses other religions’ liberation theologies on just as high a level as his own nominally Christian one.”
In “Disinformation,” Pacepa explained that liberation theology was part of a highly classified Party/State disinformation program that was approved by KGB Chairman Aleksandr Shelepin and a high-ranking Politburo member in 1960. Soviet bloc intelligence agencies went into high gear, promoting liberation theology until it became widely recognized (if not fully embraced) by many religious communities.
Part of this campaign took place when, in 1971, the KGB sent an agent under the code name “Mikhailov” as emissary of the Russian Orthodox Church to the World Council of Churches. His task was to involve the WCC in spreading liberation theology throughout Latin America. By 1975, the KGB was able to infiltrate Mikhailov into the Central Committee of the WCC where he could fully advance this cause. Not long thereafter, he reported back to the KGB: “Now the agenda of the WCC is also our agenda.”
Mikhailov remained in his position with the Central Committee until 2009, when he took an even more important position: patriarch of Moscow and all Russia. In this new position, Mikhailov, now known as Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church, has continued to put leftist politics at the top of his agenda. He has described the Putin era as “a miracle of God.” When members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot were notoriously arrested, it was for protesting that the Russian Orthodox Church under Kirill was too supportive of the Russian leader (and former KGB officer) Vladimir Putin and his Soviet-era policies.
The Vatican took note as the Kremlin spread liberation theology’s influence in Latin America. In 1979, Pope John Paul II said: “The conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechism.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith admonished liberation theology followers in 1984, 1986 and 1999. It was called a “singular heresy” and a “fundamental threat” to the Church. As prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI, prohibited the teaching of certain elements of liberation theology in the name of the Catholic Church.
With the ascendance of a South American pope, the once-restricted doctrine has made something of a comeback. The names of liberation theory icons like Oscar Romero and Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, rarely mentioned since the 1980s, are again bandied about in religious circles. Some have even argued that Pope Francis embraces the doctrine, though as cardinal, he “fought liberation theology tooth and nail.”
When Pacepa repeated his assertion about the Soviet role in promoting liberation theology in a National Review Online column, it drew criticism from liberation theologians and their supporters who denied its link to Marxism and violent revolution. Pictures, however, do not lie.
In a recent piece written for the PanAm Post, José Azel, senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, pointed out that liberation theology is at odds with Church doctrine and democratic values. Proving Pacepa’s point that liberation theology is a branch of Soviet Marxism, Azel noted that “Liberation theology iconography often included the image of a guerrilla Jesus carrying a soviet weapon.” Upon seeing this, Pacepa said: “Fascinating: Jesus with a Kalashnikov!”
The promise of liberation theology, like the promise of Marxism, is attractive. Good people have been pulled into both doctrines. Unfortunately, Soviet leaders recognized this years ago, and they used it to advance their political policies. The hijacking of faith for political purposes is an enormous danger that impacts the poor every bit as much as the wealthy. The manipulation of the Islamic religion into today’s anti-Americanism and international terrorism is but one frightening illustration of that reality.
Professor Ronald Rychlak is the Jamie L. Whitten Chair of Law and Government at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The book Disinformation,” which he co-authored with Ion Mihai Pacepa, was published by WND and is currently being made into a Hollywood movie.