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To Be a Revolutionary AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY by Padre J. Guadalupe Carney (Harper & Row: $15.95; 473 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Cynthia Brown | Brown is editor and co-author of "With Friends Like These," an examination of the Reagan Administration's human-rights policy in Latin America (Pantheon). and

This is the story of an odyssey, step by step, decision by decision. Jesuit priest James Carney--Padre Guadalupe to his friends and enemies in Honduras, where he "disappeared" and very likely was executed in 1983--takes us from his Catholic boyhood in various Midwestern cities through his 13 rebellious, searching years of Jesuit training and 18 years of missionary life with the peasants of central Honduras, to his expulsion from that country in 1979. Along the way these memoirs also become a history of Honduran poverty, corruption, military repression and rural movements for change since the 1950s, as well as a look at a church increasingly called upon to define its social role.

Through the travails of his campesino parishioners, Carney illustrates the obstacles to land reform and democratic participation in Honduras. After a dozen years of building agricultural cooperatives and other reformist organizations there, only to see them immobilized by repression and internal divisions, he came to believe that, beyond love for the poor, commitment to radical change for the benefit of the poor was the essence of Christ's example; that "Love sometimes means fighting back." Hence the book's title, taken from one of its concluding statements: "To be a Christian is to be a revolutionary."

Carney was by no means unique in this perspective. The Latin American bishops' conference of 1968 confirmed social change as part of the church's agenda. Particularly in the embattled, desperately poor countries of Central America, Christian "base communities" guided by the theology of liberation have, for two decades, been a backbone of human rights and protest movements. For supporting such movements, dozens of priests and nuns, and hundreds of lay workers have been exiled, detained or murdered. The four American church women killed in El Salvador, and San Salvador's Archbishop Romero, only begin this list.

As a voice from inside the maelstrom, Carney is at pains to show that, at least for him, radicalization was simply logical. In a declarative, intentionally simple style and with sometimes overwhelming detail, he explains how hands-on experience, combined with his private search for the true doctrine, finally convinced him that socialism and Christianity not only can coexist but are complementary.

He went further than most, however, finally embracing guerrilla struggle in a country where it does not, as in El Salvador or Somoza's Nicaragua, have either a mass following or a meaningful military organization. As an epilogue by family members explains, Carney returned from exile to Honduras in July, 1983, secretly accompanying a guerrilla column that was immediately wiped out. Carney himself was taken prisoner and never seen again.

Padre Guadalupe's odyssey will be of most interest to students of Central America and to those who wish to understand the activist church there. For the uninitiated, the book's length alone may be a challenge. At the same time, its power derives from Carney's insistence that we follow him all the way down his long and arduous road. His conclusions may be controversial, but his book is a fine introduction to the controversy.

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