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reg.elsalvador: 60.0
Topic: Proceso 696: 7 feb 96/2
Written 3:19 AM Feb 14, 1996 by in cdp:reg.elsalvador
From: UCA-CIDAI El Salvador <>

The Salvadorian Church in the 20th century

From Proceso, No.696, February 1996

In Latin America, the Salvadoran state was one of the first to constitutionally proclaim its lay character, with which it formally separated from the Church. During the first several decades of this century, this separation was virtually a dead letter, since the power alliance among the oligarchy, the state and the Church continued as a legacy of the 19th century. These powers not only occupied their own special place -the oligarchy had the economy, the state had the monopoly on coercion, and the Church owned the spiritual space- but they also mutually reinforced each other. The first offered wealth to those who unconditionally supported it; the second used the military to protect that wealth; and the third blessed economic and military power in exchange for material benefits and official recognition.

The 1932 campesino uprising tested the strength of that triple alliance, which in effect marshaled all its resources to contain the social groups in revolt. Once hundreds of campesinos had fallen into the most absolute poverty after the paralysis of the coffee harvest, the oligarchy locked itself up in its plantations to protect its goods, while demanding state intervention to put down the protesters. The state, in turn, heeded the oligarchy's call and unleashed a pogrom against campesinos and indigenous people which left about 30,000 dead. And the Church, vaunting its loyalties, condemned the uprising because it was inspired in a concept (socialism) which "abhors the ideas of family property, state, religion and the notion of a fatherland" (Mons. Belloso y Funes).

As a model for harmonious social coexistence, the Church offered reconciliation understood as a rejection of any attempt at reforming the established socio-economic and political model. Since that model was based on control over the land by a small group of coffee growers, their worst fear was the transformation of property relations in the countryside. With the 1932 uprising, such a transformation was perceived as a real threat by the nation's power groups; although it was brought under control, the threat remained present as an ongoing specter.

In this way, all attempts at land reform or campesino organizing became taboo for the nation's economic and political elite. The Church, for its part, took up this demand by power groups throughout much of the 20th century. Thus, while in pastoral work many extensive zones of the countryside were left unattended, in doctrinaire terms a very conservative interpretation (piety and personal reflection) of the scriptures was promoted. In this framework, believers were to be concerned first and foremost about the salvation of their souls; second, they had to accept and respect the prevailing political, economic and social order as part of a divine design. In the political realm, this design received religious sanction from a Te Deum organized by the Church hierarchy to bless the inauguration of each new government. In economic terms, the ties between the Church authorities and the nation's power groups were close, and were felt not only in the economic perquisites the latter offered the former, but also in pressure to support or detract from one or another Church guideline.

Changes in the Church

Towards the end of the 1950's, the traditional Church doctrine began to change slowly, due not only to the influence of the discussions and preparations for the Vatican II Council (which involved important sectors of the Salvadoran clergy, most notably the Jesuits) or to the influence of the commitment of many Latin American Christians who sympathized with the Cuban revolution, but also to endogenous, socio-economic, political and religious factors which demanded that the Church rethink its social doctrine and practice. These factors were the following: a) the political exclusion of important sectors of civil society, incompatible with the development-oriented economic model being promoted by the industrial bourgeoisie; b) campesino marginalization and backwardness which, if left unattended, heralded a conflict of incalculable consequences; and c) the Church's almost nonexistent attention to the majority who thought of themselves as Catholic, which threatened to provoke an exodus to Protestant sects.

During the 1960's, the Church sought to do effective work in the countryside, and it did so by promoting cooperatives. The key figure behind this effort to become involved in the countryside was Mons. Luis Chavez y Gonzalez. Until around the end of the decade, this pastoral trend was usually characterized by paternalism and charity. However, in the following decade, the Church's way of framing the campesino problem began to change, until it became far removed from traditional models. This turnaround was deeply affected by -and somewhat responded to- the challenge posed to the Salvadoran Church by the 1968 Latin American bishops' conference in Medellin, Colombia.

The challenge of Medellin

Between the 1960's and 1970's, the commitment of the Salvadoran Church -fundamentally the Archdiocese of San Salvador- moved from paternalistic and charity support for campesino organizing (expressed in the promotion of cooperative associations) toward a decisive commitment by priests, nuns, lay workers and the Archbishop himself, for the autonomous demands (social, economic and political) of campesino organizations. The pastoral and doctrinal expression of this support from the Archdiocese of San Salvador was embodied in the Third Pastoral Letter of Mons. Romero, entitled "The Church and the Popular Organizations". In this church document, Mons. Romero not only defended, in doctrinal and pastoral terms -using the arguments of Vatican II and Medellin- the constitutional right for campesinos to organize, he also claimed that supporting them was a paramount task of the Church.

Of course not all the Salvadoran Church responded to the challenge of Medellin, and important sectors of the Church hierarchy (including Mons. Romero, in his earlier stages of work as a priest and a bishop, in which he was closer to the traditional Church teachings than to the pastoral work being promoted by Mons. Chavez y Gonzalez), organized in the Bishops' Conference of El Salvador (CEDES) maintained strong opposition to the changes promoted by Medellin. But a large part of the Church -those closest to the Archdiocese of San Salvador, led until 1977 by Mons. Chavez and then by Mons. Romero until March 24, 1980- supported those changes, and did so in such a radical way as to alarm not only the government and economically powerful sectors, but also important sectors of the Church hierarchy.

Of all the different sectors of the Salvadoran Church, the Jesuits became the most committed to the new doctrine and practice, which promoted a strong Church presence in the countryside, as well as a preferential option for the poor. And that option, exercised under the particular circumstances of the Salvadoran countryside, took on a socio-religious and political cast which made it a unique experience in Latin American Christian life. In the context of that experience, large numbers of Salvadoran campesinos -encouraged by priests, nuns and lay workers- embraced the example of the historical Jesus, the one who was in solidarity with the oppressed and who brought them glad tidings of liberation.

Religious conversion, political conversion

Little by little, the new pastoral trends incited a religious transformation in the consciousness of those campesinos involved in the process. And this soon revealed its political implications: in the context of the structural violence suffered by Salvadoran campesinos, the announcement of the kingdom of heaven posed the need for concrete work directly related to the problem of consciousness-raising and political organization. The campesinos involved in this process understood it that way, and took their place as children of God by creating organizational structures which helped them in their struggle for dignity.

The most important achievement of the Christian Base Communities was to teach campesinos to live faith in a liberating way. This meant that campesinos came out of their passive stance and became protagonists of their own destinies, with the right and the duty to participate in building a more just society, in which they and their children could live with dignity. The campesino consciousness underwent a "religious conversion." Instead of being "the opiate of the people," religion became a factor of mobilization, and "subversive" as well. The foundations were laid for this religious conversion to become a "political conversion."

Thus, lay religious leaders (not without experiencing conflicts with members of Church pastoral teams) became political organizers and leaders. Of course, their political conversion did not mean abandoning religions conversion, nor did it mean that all religious experience became political. However, whenever the two coexisted, they were mutually reinforcing. What is more, they were not two separate phenomena: people who underwent the two conversions continued to be believers; in fact, it was by virtue of their faith that they became leaders and organizers in their communities.

The campesinos become organized

If religious conversion meant that campesinos were accepting a new type of religiosity, their specifically political conversion meant the acceptance of certain political creeds. The most important of those was, of course, the need to organize. In the belief of the campesinos who took up the challenge of Jesus committed to their liberation, that challenge did not stop at a religious commitment, but was also to be expressed through organized, revolutionary commitment. In other words, the commitment had to go from the religious to the political.

The fruits of this process of religious and political conversion were soon to be felt. The Christian Federation of Salvadoran Campesinos (FECCAS), founded in 1969 as an association of campesino leagues, was reborn in Aguilares in the mid-70's as "the nation's strongest campesino organization" (Cabarrus), while in Usulutan and Chalatenango the Farmworkers' Union (UTC) was founded, born of pastoral work which soon moved on to political work. Both organizations joined forces in 1975, forming the Federation of Rural Workers (FTC), the strongest campesino organization ever seen in El Salvador. In the next decade, these forces were to become the basis for the military consolidation of the FMLN.


The Archdiocese of San Salvador, and those closest to it, decisively promoted and supported the process of campesino organization. This placed the Church in a difficult situation vis-a-vis economic and political power structures: not only did it lose the perquisites formerly provided by the oligarchy, as well as official recognition, but it also ended up the target of oligarchic and military attacks. The 1970's and 1980's were marked by an intense persecution of the Church, in the form of attacks on priests, nuns and lay workers, delegates of the word and even the Archbishop of San Salvador, Mons. Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

However, to compensate for the loss of official recognition and for the new enmity of the oligarchy, the Church achieved spiritual strength and moral credibility with the grassroots majority and the international community as never before in its history. It was that spiritual strength and moral credibility which allowed the Archdiocese of San Salvador, under the leadership of Mons. Arturo Rivera Damas, to take on the fundamental pastoral task of creating a public space inside El Salvador to seek a negotiated solution to the civil war. An important milestone in this effort was the creation of the Permanent Committee for the National Debate for Peace in September 1988.

Today, the relationship between Church and State and with economic power groups is changing once again. In other words, we are witnessing the reappearance of official recognition and juicy economic contributions. But is the counterpart, perhaps, a spiritual weakening and a loss of moral credibility for the Church?