Is liberation theology a KGB creation?

In a recent piece at National Review, retired Romanian Lieutenant General Ion Mihai Pacepa makes the stunning allegation that liberation theology is a creation of the KGB. In addition, he asserts that Kyrill, the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, was as a younger priest a KGB operative instrumental in exporting liberation theology from the Kremlin to various Christian churches. Pacepa’s article, “The Secret Roots of Liberation Theology“, certainly boasts the authority of a prominent Eastern-bloc insider. But can we be sure of his claims? Does his expertise in Warsaw Pact espionage necessarily translate to insight on matters theological?

General Pacepa was a former head of his nation’s Securitate (secret police, Romania’s KGB equivalent) during the Communist era and, later, the highest-ranking Warsaw Pact defector to the United States. He details much of his defection story in his book Disinformation: former spy chief reveals secret strategies for undermining freedom, attacking religion, and promoting terrorism, co-written with Ole Miss legal scholar Ron Rychlak. The book, however, goes beyond mere autobiography; Pacepa, who defected to the United States in 1978, obviously has an axe to grind with his former Red masters, and drawing on his experience as a former Communist spy chief, he details the numerous ways in which the Soviet-led Eastern bloc engaged in large-scale systematic deception operations with the intent of smearing prominent political opponents within Eastern Europe, expanding Soviet influence abroad, and sabotaging traditional Western institutions. Notably, the general expends much effort in detailing the USSR’s campaign to undermine the Catholic Church, including the two attempts (one failed, the other successful) to smear Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” (an appellation coined by the Soviets themselves).

In the National Review article, Pacepa states his central point:

Liberation theology, of which not much has been heard for two decades, is back in the news. But what is not being mentioned is its origins. It was not invented by Latin American Catholics. It was developed by the KGB. The man who is now the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, secretly worked for the KGB under the code name “Mikhailov” and spent four decades promoting liberation theology, which we at the top of the Eastern European intelligence community nicknamed Christianized Marxism.

Liberation theology has been generally understood to be a marriage of Marxism and Christianity. What has not been understood is that it was not the product of Christians who pursued Communism, but of Communists who pursued Christians. I described the birth of liberation theology in my book Disinformation, co-authored with Professor Ronald Rychlak. Its genesis was part of a highly classified Party/State Disinformation Program, formally approved in 1960 by KGB chairman Aleksandr Shelepin and Politburo member Aleksei Kirichenko, then the second in the party hierarchy after Nikita Khrushchev.

While Pacepa’s narrative of the smear campaign against Pius XII in Disinformation enjoys the ample support of reliable, well-documented sources, his very short chapter on liberation theology leaves much to be desired. It contains footnotes to Wikipedia articles which are themselves weakly sourced– a reason for failure by any reputable academic standard.

In any case, Pacepa’s theory runs as such:

In 1971, the KGB sent Kirill — who had just been elevated to the rank of archimandrite — to Geneva as emissary of the Russian Orthodox Church to the World Council of Churches. The WCC was, and still is, the largest international religious organization after the Vatican, representing some 550 million Christians of various denominations in 120 countries. Kirill/Mikhailov’s main task was to involve the WCC in spreading the new liberation theology throughout Latin America. In 1975, the KGB was able to infiltrate Kirill into the Central Committee of the WCC — a position he held until he was “elected” patriarch of Russia, in 2009. Not long after he joined the Central Committee, Kirill reported to the KGB: “Now the agenda of the WCC is also our agenda.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that the alleged involvement of Kyrill with the KGB, including that last quote, is completely unsourced, and is as good as hearsay. The general, unfortunately, suffers from an inflated sense of the WCC’s importance. The WCC is an ecumenical organization focused primarily on Christian ecumenism, that is, the unity of Christians. It is not a “super-church” nor a representative “pan-Christian” phenomenon. Many denominations are members, and representatives of those denominations meet every few years to discuss the progress of Christian unity. What Pacepa failed to mention is that the Catholic Church, the world’s largest Church, is not a member of the WCC. It has observer status, but is not a voting member. This is consistent with the Church’s consistent refusal of potentially entangling arrangements in order that the Church’s freedom might be guaranteed.

One of the landmark conferences of the WCC took place in Toronto in 1950. Here, the WCC adopted the idea of “confessional diversity”, that is, an acknowledgement of each denomination’s “sovereignty”, and a refusal by the WCC to adopt any common doctrinal statement binding on any member. In 1973, the WCC met at New Delhi, where a new model of “organic union” was adopted. This was, in effect, a repudiation of the Toronto statement, for it began to acknowledge concrete theological and ecclesial standards by which true unity might be achieved. However, thanks to the objections of many smaller non-traditional denominations (and of a Catholic theologian who taught me as an undergrad), the WCC has recently retreated from the path set at New Delhi, calling for a return to the principles of Toronto. Nothing remains binding on the member churches, and thus they remain entrenched in denominational difference. In short, little gets done at the WCC. We will return to the WCC at the end of this article.

The reader might question Pacepa: if the program was approved in 1960, what happened between then and 1971, when Kyrill (today’s Russian Orthodox Patriarch) was sent to the WCC? Pacepa has nothing much to say of this period, other than raising the poorly-sourced claim that the KGB had put leftist clerics into the Conferencia Episcopal Latinoamericana (CELAM, the Catholic bishops’ conference of Latin America) by the time of the 1968 conference at Medellin. Was the Soviet disinformation machine so deft and competent that we simply don’t know what it did or how it was done? It’s possible– but argumentum ex silentio is not proof.

Liberation theology has roots which outdate the alleged 1960 Soviet program. Its philosophical foundations lie in Hegelian dialectics (which, of course, later influenced Marx’s philosophy). Already in the 1940’s, Paulo Friere in Brazil had already helped create what would later become called “base ecclesial communities” and developed the foundations of the “preferential option for the poor”, ideas which the both the Latin American bishops and the Holy See have received with great enthusiasm, although some of their particular incarnations later adopted radical Marxist principles. Furthermore, the accepted “father” of liberation theology, Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, was never censured by Rome; in fact, he is one of the mentors of Gerhard Cardinal Muller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The very fact that liberation theology has some aspects compatible with authentic Catholic faith suggests that its roots are older than what Pacepa proposes.

One of Cardinal Muller’s predecessors in his office, Joseph Ratzinger, wrote two documents: the first was a personal assessment of liberation theology; the second was the famous (or infamous) 1984 CDF instruction on liberation theology. Both documents are classic Ratzinger– a thorough survey of the issues, meticulous distinctions, and honest discernment of defects. To adapt the phrase of an apostle, he “tested everything, retaining what was good,” and consequently, identified that which is lacking.

In the very beginning of his personal assessment, Cardinal Ratzinger writes:

Liberation theology is a phenomenon with an extraordinary number of layers. There is a whole spectrum from radically Marxist positions, on the one hand, to the efforts which are being made within the framework of a correct and ecclesial theology, on the other hand, a theology which stresses the responsibility which Christians necessarily hear for the poor and oppressed, such as we see in the documents of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) from Medellin to Puebla. In what follows, the concept of liberation theology will be understood in a narrower sense: it will refer only to those theologies which, in one way or another, have embraced the Marxist fundamental option.

There was never a wholesale rejection of liberation theology on the Church’s part, a rejection which Pacepa seems to hold. One could even imagine that the general, as authoritative as he may be on matters of espionage, has not read any of the CELAM texts from Medellin to Puebla. In fact, his source for most of this information comes from an incoherent and sub-par Wikipedia article on liberation theology.

Later in the National Review article, Pacepa surmises that the dramatic increase in Russian militancy throughout the world is somehow linked to the “rehabilitation” of certain exponents of liberation theology.

Now names — like Oscar Romero and Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann – not heard since the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was still en vogue, are again making international news. And here we are. The promoters of a KGB-inspired religious ideology, which once embraced violent Marxist revolution, are now denying its link to Marxism and to the KGB.

The general suggests a laughably facile link between Romero and Brockmann. There is, in fact, little correspondence between the two. Brockmann was indeed a liberationist in the Marxist mold. He had joined the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and became foreign minister in the postwar administration, earning for himself the canonical penalty suspensio a divinis, which he dutifully obliged. In any case, the Brockmann of today is not the Brockmann of the ’80s– he has left the Sandinistas and adopted a far more conciliatory tone in Nicaragua. With his advanced age has also come waning influence in politics. His “rehabilitation” by Pope Francis raised the eyebrows of both traditional Catholics and right-wingers like Pacepa, who take it as a sign of renewed Marxist revolution in the Church. Instead, it was simply a restoration of the faculty to say Mass, which Brockmann ardently desired as he approaches the end of his life.

Romero, on the other hand, was not a liberation theologian in the strict sense; he was a bishop, not a career academic (unlike Boff, Sobrino, Ellacuria, Gutierrez, Cardenal, etc.). Romero also harshly rebuked his priests who took up arms for the leftisits in the Salvadoran Civil War. Yes, he was shot by a right-wing assassin, but this hardly makes him a Bolshevik. Romero’s red is the purpura martyrum, not the color of the Communists.

Back to the discussion of the WCC: Pacepa suggests that Kyrill was instrumental in exporting liberation theology to Latin America through his role on the WCC Central Committee. One problem– liberation theology is a largely Catholic phenomenon, and the Catholic Church is not a WCC member church. If Kyrill indeed was able to breathe Marxist Christianity into the largely-liberal Protestant WCC, it would speak little to how those ideas penetrated so deeply into the Catholic consciousness of Latin America. Furthermore, the theologians who are widely regarded as liberation theology’s first exponents have little connection to the WCC. The received their intellectual formation not through ecumenical conferences at the WCC, but in the European universities where they breathed the air of the Hegelian tradition. The language and hermenutics of liberation theology, in fact, drip with the jargon of 19th and 20th century Continental philosophy– the same intellectual environment which yielded Marxism.

Perhaps a more interesting investigation would center on the extent to which the Soviet intelligence infiltrated the faculties of the European universities where those Latin American theologians honed their craft. The left-wing student uprisings across Europe in 1968 indeed indicate pre-existing, deep-seated Marxist sympathies in Continental faculties. Turning the accusatory finger there, instead of pointing at the WCC, seems the more sensible option.

All these indicate that General Pacepa has a weak grasp on the complex phenomenon of liberation theology. He ends his article by ripping on Patriarch Kyrill’s personal choices and controversies, which, while interesting, do nothing to prove the KGB’s role in “the secret roots of liberation theology”. It seems as if, as in most of his works since his defection, Pacepa will miss no opportunity to take swipes at the Russian political establishment. Whatever merits such an effort might have, they ultimately have little to do with the claim that liberation theology is a KGB creation. Nevertheless, Pacepa’s theory of KGB involvement in liberation theology is certainly scintillating and, in some sense, plausible. But the general is a long way off from proving that liberation theology is a KGB creation.

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