Having a strong concern for issues of Justice, it was disconcerting for me to read the recent publication by the respected Catholic News Agency relating to the KGB involvement in Liberation Theology. The claims come from an interview with Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former general in Romania’s secret police who was one of the Eastern Bloc’s highest ranking defectors to the West in the 1970’s. The defection scared Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian Political leader at the time, so badly, that he reportedly tried to get Carlos the Jackal to assassinate him.
In the interview, Pacepa claims that the KGB created Liberation Theology, and then funded and moulded its development. He cites as one of his sources Aleksandr Sakharovsky, the Russian agent who set up Romania’s secret police agency, who later became head of the First Chief directorate of the KGB.
Quoting from the interview:
The birth of Liberation Theology was the intent of a 1960 super-secret ‘Party-State Dezinformatsiya Programme’ approved by Aleksandr Shelepin, the chairman of the KGB, and by Politburo member Aleksey Kirichenko, who coordinated the Communist Party’s international policies. This programme demanded that the KGB take secret control of the World Council of Churches (WCC), based in Geneva, Switzerland, and use it as cover for converting Liberation Theology into a South American revolutionary tool …
The KGB began by building an intermediate international religious organization called the Christian Peace Conference (CPC), which was headquartered in Prague. Its main task was to bring the KGB-created Liberation Theology into the real world.
The new Christian Peace Conference was managed by the KGB and was subordinated to the venerable World Peace Council, another KGB creation, founded in 1949 and by then also headquartered in Prague …
During my years at the top of the Soviet bloc intelligence community I managed the Romanian operations of the World Peace Council (WPC). It was as purely KGB as it gets. Most of the WPC’s employees were undercover Soviet bloc intelligence officers … Even the money for the WPC budget came from Moscow, delivered by the KGB in the form of laundered cash dollars to hide their Soviet origin. In 1989, when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, the WPC publicly admitted that 90 per cent of its money came from the KGB.
I was not involved in the creation of Liberation Theology per se. From Sakharovsky I learned, however, that in 1968 the KGB-created Christian Peace Conference, supported by the world-wide World Peace Council, was able to manoeuvre a group of leftist South American bishops into holding a Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin, Colombia. The Conference’s official task was to ameliorate poverty. Its undeclared goal was to recognise a new religious movement encouraging the poor to rebel against the ‘institutionalised violence of poverty’, and to recommend the new movement to the World Council of Churches for official approval.
The Medellin Conference achieved both goals. It also bought the KGB-born name ‘Liberation Theology’.
I am sure that to those of us in the Church who have a strong commitment to the Gospel call to peace and social justice, and have looked upon Liberation Theology as a leading directional guide in this area, this news comes as an uncomfortable challenge to re-examine the Gospel authenticity of this theological approach. It also suggests that Pope John Paul II may have had grounds to be suspicious of the movement and had good reason for silencing some of its theologians, other than a conservative agenda.
Clearly Pacepa’s interview deserves impartial critical scrutiny, as do the foundations of Liberation Theology.
In doing so, may I make some suggestions? First some important facts about Pacepa are needed to give context to our enquiry. He is now well to the right of the American political spectrum. He is also recognised as prone to exaggeration. While, given the historical-political situation of the world at the time of the Cold War, there is no doubt the KGB infiltrated and influenced the movement, it is hard to believe that the KGB ‘created’ a movement as complex as libration theology.
Secondly, we must never lose sight of those priests and people who worked heroically among the poor, trying to improve their lives and build a more just society, even giving up their lives to do so. Indeed, the ‘Option for the Poor,’ which came out of the Medellin
conference, was central to the thinking of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the Dominican theologian who has a far stronger claim to be the founder of liberation theology than the KGB. Attention to the poor was the point of departure for liberation theology, according to Gutierrez, who underscored that this came from what liberation theologians experienced in their own lives and lands.
Thirdly, while it is true that Gutierrez’s work inspired numerous theological writings that used Marxism as a hermeneutical tool for exploring social realities, Marxism has its roots in Christian ideals and vision. In Robert Service’s book, “Comrades!: Communism – A World History,” the author honestly explores these origins which are to be found at the very birth of Christianity:
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts: 4: 32-33)
These passages excited the imaginations of later Christians, inspiring real and theoretical applications. One of the most influential was the Catholic Saint, Thomas More’s ‘Utopia,’ published in the early 16th century describing a society free of private ownership and unemployment, where communal living is the norm, and worship of all forms is tolerated, except forms of non-worship like atheism. Other similar works by fellow Christian thinkers followed, including ‘The City of the Sun’ and ‘Descriptions of the Republic of Christianopolis.’ Christian sects such as the Plymouth colonists, Quakers and Mormons made attempts to put these principles into practice. Religious life too is based on living out this New Testament ideal.
While Christians today may strive to discredit communism as equated with atheism, they easily forget that Marx developed his manifesto in response to the severe side-effects of the industrial revolution, such as social dislocations and abysmal working conditions. Indeed, Christians were among the vanguard in the ‘social justice’ movements that emerged in the 19th century, both as leaders and ideologists. It was this movement that underpinned the development of the Catholic Church’s social teaching.
Fourth and finally, let us remind ourselves that Liberation Theology refers to forms of local or contextual theology that proposes that knowledge of God based on revelation leads necessarily to a Christian theological praxis that opposes unjust social and political structures. As put by Arch Bishop Helder Camara, “They call me a saint when I feed the poor. They call me a communist when I ask why the poor have no food.”