U.S. Catholics and El Salvador

by Terrence Halloran, Orange County Register, March 14, 1981

The newspaper of the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles has begun to criticize the Reagan administration for sending military aid to El Salvador. The Tidings said in a recent editorial that the U.S. is "supplying arms and gunships to a regime that has been criticized for violating human rights and conducting terrorism." The Tidings urges mediation, saying that so far the U.S. is offering "instruments of death and violence."

Father Bryan Hehir of the U.S. Catholic Conference testified in February before a congressional subcommittee. There is a very high possibility, he said, that American military equipment will we used "against whole communities of Christians, and very likely against officially designated church personnel." He urged both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to stop the sale and supply of arms to El Salvador, and he spoke of the need for "profound and courageous reforms throughout the country." Father Hehir said the bishops know there is risk in change, but "they are convinced the greater risk is not to change, for that condemns another generation to poverty and misery."

Some may ask why Catholic bishops and priests are speaking out against the views and actions of our elected officials in Washington. Perhaps it is because they feel better informed on the issue of El Salvador than those in government circles. They certainly have a large network of contacts among the Catholic clergy there and in neighboring countries. Many of them have attended funerals of church leaders killed by forces armed with U.S. weapons. As the editors of the National Catholic Reporter said in their March 6 editorial, "President Johnson told Americans they did not understand Vietnam and that, if they did, they would support the war effort there. President Reagan cannot claim such exclusive knowledge. Many Catholics . . . are familiar with El Salvador and have access to good information from that Central American country. Few others do."

El Salvador, the smallest mainland country in Latin America, is also the most densely populated. More than half the people are farmers. From 1931 to 1978, nine of the country's ten presidents were army officers. Only 60 percent of the people can read and write. Well-to-do landowners make up only three percent of the population, but they earn about half the nation's income. Most farmers own two acres of land or less. Only about a third of the students who start primary school graduate. With or without Cuban or Russian patrons, the poor people of El Salvador would be rebelling. At least 10,000 have died in the current conflict, including four American women, religious and lay, who lived there as Catholic missionaries, and two U.S. land reform experts.

President Reagan's advisors see El Salvador as a place of confrontation between U.S. democratic ideals and communist revolutionary aims. Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco provides a different point of view in his recent statement: "The oligarchy as a group has never accepted the social teachings of the church and resists any effort at improving the situation of the poor of the country. . . . All of this, in turn, only plays into the hands of the leftist groups who, with some legitimate grounds, can claim that they have no other course and that that they are the only opposition to the shocking and widespread violation of human dignity and human civil rights."

Catholic bishops and priests do not often make public statements critical of U.S. foreign policy, and members of local parishes do not always nod in agreement as they do. Church leaders cannot know all the problems of El Salvador and their causes, much less their solutions, but they are currently presenting a well informed case against continued military involvement there. U.S. Catholics and all persons of good will in this country can help the cause of world peace by saying "Amen" and making their voices heard in Washington.