MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- The Rev. Ernesto Cardenal still gets huffy when he's asked about that famous image: Pope John Paul II wagging a finger at Cardenal as the priest knelt before him.
"Meaningless," Cardenal snapped, though that scene from 16 years ago came to symbolize the bitter fight between the pontiff and Roman Catholic theologians who advocated "a preferential option for the poor."
"I am still a revolutionary who defends the poor. And liberation theology is in crisis. Capitalism won. Period. What more can be said?" Cardenal said.
Liberation theology, the doctrine that dominated the Latin American church in the 1970s and 1980s, has indeed lost most of its punch. Its ranks have been thinned or silenced by the pope, its popularity sapped by political reverses.
Radical priests such as Cardenal have been forced out of the religious fold, while moderates such as his brother Fernando, once suspended by the Jesuit order, have seen their tenets absorbed into the mainstream of church dogma.
Pope John Paul II might have given liberation theology a boost during his recent trip to Mexico when he unveiled a newly sharpened vision of the church's duty to the poor in the face of what he has called "savage capitalism."
But the doctrine is certainly not the force it was, especially in Nicaragua, where it gained a powerful foothold during the 1980s rule of the Marxist Sandinista Front and the war against U.S.-backed contra guerrillas.
The Cardenal brothers and Miguel D'Escoto, a Maryknoll priest, served as Cabinet ministers under the Sandinistas. Three other priests left Nicaragua to serve as chaplains with Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador and Honduras.
Radical theologians portrayed Jesus as a bearded revolutionary, guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara as his acolyte and Marxism as the way for the poor to end oppression -- by armed struggle if necessary.
It is difficult to find evidence that liberation theology thrived in Nicaragua before the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990.
At the Valdivieso Center, a church-run Managua think tank that was a caldron of radical publications but now works on ecumenical issues with Protestant churches, a secretary smirked when asked where one could find a liberation theologian. "All that's past," she said. "It ended when the Sandinistas ended."
Most telling is what happened at Santa Maria de los Angeles, a 200-seat church in central Managua that served as a virtual cathedral for the "peoples' church," with openly pro-Sandinista Masses celebrated by the Rev. Uriel Molina.
Revolutionary murals still cover the inner walls: They show a guerrilla in olive-green fatigues helping to carry a cross, the Sandinistas' red-and-black flag and a greedy-looking Yankee reaching to exploit Nicaragua's forests. But that's about all that remains of the 1980s.
Molina was ordered to leave the parish in 1990 and was dismissed from the Franciscan order in 1996 for "rebellion." Only Nicaraguans attend Mass, not the foreign Sandinista supporters who gathered to hear Molina.
Only a Sandinista-era law declaring the church murals a national treasure has protected the artwork, said Molina's more conservative successor, the Rev. Gilberto Quintero.
"Even though it may be seen as political, I can't just throw paint over them," Quintero said. "But there's been some talk of turning this into a theater of some kind, and moving the church elsewhere."
Many liberation theologians have toned down their public comments or stopped writing altogether since 1990, while others are no longer seen in public, according to church officials in Managua.
Ernesto Cardenal remains suspended from the priesthood but leads "an almost monastic life" and writes poetry. Miguel D'Escoto remains suspended from the priesthood and active in the Sandinista Front, and Uriel Molina runs a preschool for poor children.
Fernando Cardenal, who broke with the Sandinistas in 1995 and returned to the Jesuits the next year, runs religious retreats. He declined a request for an interview, saying he wanted to think about the current status of liberation theology before commenting.
"All that is heard is their silence," wrote the Rev. Jose Maria Vigil, a Nicaraguan priest who has authored several essays on liberation theology.
The doctrine dates back to the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965 with a call to expand the church's social doctrine beyond traditional acts of charity.
But by the time John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, it had grown into an aggressive attack on "oppressive structures," tinged around the edges with the kind of Marxism that the Polish-born pontiff strongly rejected.
John Paul began his crackdown on liberation theology 20 years ago, when he made his first trip to Mexico in early 1979 to address a summit of Latin American bishops in the city of Puebla. "The problem in Puebla was that people were choosing between Marxism or capitalism. The pope told them the solution was neither capitalism nor communism, but communion," said Mexican Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragan.
But the pope did more than talk: He ordered politically active priests such as the Cardenals, D'Escoto and the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti to quit politics or stop administering priestly sacraments. He promoted conservative Managua Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo to cardinal, gave orders to assign liberal priests to less visible jobs and muzzled some of the most outspoken radical theologians.
The most public moments of the confrontation came during a papal visit to Nicaragua in 1983, when John Paul II scolded Ernesto Cardenal at the Managua airport and angrily shook his pastoral staff at Sandinistas who chanted political slogans during a Mass.
John Paul had the Vatican issue two documents condemning Marxist aspects of liberation theology as overemphasizing the materialistic side of church doctrine and denying the human soul.
Ironically, the pope these days is condemning capitalism with the same vigor with which he once censured godless communism, and in the process is sounding a bit like a liberation theologian.
Too many governments focused purely on economic productivity are abandoning the poor to their own devices and widening the gap between the rich, industrialized north and the poor, agrarian south, the pope has said.
"Latin America faces unjust conditions imposed by the First World, including the United States, that cannot be accepted," said Lozano, who works in the Vatican. "The pope may regard market economies as a better option, but only if they benefit humanity and not just make large profits."
This article was distributed by Knight-Ridder News Service.
Pub Date: 01/31/99