Statement on Central America, November 19, 1981

Year Published
  • 2011
  • English
United States Bishops, November 19, 1981

Central America has become a focal point of concern and attention in the United States. In every country of Central America the Catholic Church plays a significant role. In word and deed, in the actions of bishops, priests, religious and lay people, the church daily influences the flow of events precisely because it is so intimately identified with the people of those countries in their pilgrimage of faith and their pursuit of justice. In the 1979 Puebla meeting, the Latin American bishops provided a description of the fundamental force they see lying just below the surface of the sometimes confusing ebb and flow of events in their continent:

"From the depths of the countries which make up Latin America a cry is rising to heaven, growing louder and more alarming all the time. It is the cry of a suffering people who demand justice, freedom and respect for the basic rights of human beings and peoples" (Puebla Document, n. 87).

In responding to this cry the church in Central America has taken its direction from the Second Vatican Council, from Paul VI's "The Progress of Peoples" (1967), from the Medellin (1968) and Puebla (1979) conferences of the Latin American bishops and from Pope John Paul II's addresses at Puebla and in Brazil. These sources have shaped a pastoral witness in which the church has affirmed its own need for conversion and has tried to respond to cries of the poor by seeking to identify with its people in their struggle for true justice. The decisions have produced a new and challenging style of ministry. In turn many have paid a heavy price: a number of priests and missionaries killed in El Salvador, including Archbishop Romero and the four U.S. women missionaries; an additional number killed in Guatemala, including Father Stanley Rother, murdered July 28, 1981. To these and other missionaries who have given their lives, we pay tribute.

The killing of these missionaries from the United States vividly reminds us of our relationship to the drama of Central America, but this is not our only bond. Those who go from the United States to serve in Central America, as well as local leadership of the church in these countries, have often described the multiple ways in which the United States daily influences the destiny of people in these neighboring nations. The bonds between the United States and Central America are complex and diverse; they are political, cultural, economic and religious. They are shaped by more than two centuries of history and they differ in each country. This statement cannot possibly examine these relationships in a detailed manner, but as bishops in the United States we feel a special tie to our brother bishops and to the church in Central America. The witness of the church there calls forth our own witness, one which seeks to address decisions taken in the United States whose consequences directly affect our sisters and brothers in the faith.

There are many voices, both governmental and non-governmental, which seek to shape our vision of Central America today. Even a cursory knowledge of the region impresses an observer with the complexity of events within each country. But some have argued that the dominant reality which must concern us is the place of Central America in the U.S.-Soviet global competition.

In preparing this statement we have reviewed again the major arguments in the U.S. public debate on Central America. We have compared and evaluated them in light of the information we have from the church in Central America. Church leaders there speak primarily and most frequently about the internal reality of their countries: about the daily struggle for existence of the majority of their people, about the need for just social structures internally and the right to self-determination, even as small nations, in their relationships with other countries.

There is no question here of the ecclesiastical leadership in Central America being naïve or confused about the threat which Soviet-dominated forces could play in their societies. The Catholic Church in Latin America as elsewhere has hardly been complacent about communism. The Latin American church has repeatedly stated in the last decade that external subversion is not the primary threat or principal cause of conflict in these countries. The dominant challenge is the internal conditions of poverty and the denial of basic human rights which characterize many of these societies. These conditions, if unattended, become an invitation for intervention.

These conditions must be assessed country by country, but our general purpose here is to say again that the U.S. approach to Central America should be based upon an understanding of these internal realities and the way in which our policies and practices affect them. We do, of course, join our brother bishops in Central America opposing as well any military assistance that Cuba or the Soviet Union may provide directly or indirectly to the contending forces in that region.

Any conception of the problems in Central America which is cast principally in terms of global security issues, military responses, arms transfers and preservation of a situation which fails to promote meaningful participation of the majority of the population in their societies is, in our view, profoundly mistaken. It is to provide a different emphasis that we offer the following reflections.

El Salvador

In congressional testimony and previous statements of the U.S. Catholic Conference we have addressed the problem of El Salvador on a regular basis since February 1980, when the late Archbishop Romero called for a change in U.S. policy. Our position has been and continues to be shaped by three themes.

First, following Archbishop Romero and now Bishop Rivera y Damas, we are convinced that outside military assistance from any source to any party is not a useful contribution, but simply intensifies the cycle of violence in El Salvador. For this reason we have opposed and continue to oppose military aid from all sources, while supporting monitored economic assistance by the United States. We support political measures to prevent the flow of arms from other nations to El Salvador, even as we continue to oppose U.S. military assistance to the government of El Salvador.

Second, we endorse and support Bishop Rivera y Damas' call for a broad-based political solution in El Salvador. At this time we wish to call attention to the crucial and creative role the United States can and should play in supporting a political rather than a military solution to the tragic conflict in El Salvador. If the United States is to play the significant role open to it, it must make efforts to persuade the major protagonists to halt the armed conflict and engage in constructive dialogue; it must assist them in healing the wounds with economic, educational and nutritional aid. If valid elections are to be the final product of a political solution, they will come about only after appropriate preconditions are fulfilled.

Third, we wish to reaffirm the position of the Administrative Board of the USCC regarding Salvadoran exiles now in the United States. Many have been and are being deported, and others face the threat of deportation. We believe that as long as the present state of violence and turmoil exists in El Salvador, the citizens of that country, regardless of political philosophy, should not be forced to return home. Hence we urge that a moratorium be placed on all deportations to El Salvador, at least until such time as the government in power can guarantee the safety of its citizens. We are also mindful of the suffering of large numbers of Salvadoran refugees and displaced persons in other countries; we pledge our material assistance and ask other nations also to respond to their needs.


The agony of war which presently ravages El Salvador is now a memory for Nicaraguans. But they presently face major political and social questions about the future direction of their society. Two central questions confronting Nicaragua are its internal direction and its external relations.

Internally, Nicaragua is experiencing great difficulty in pursuing political and economic reconstruction from the devastation of war. Although stripped of essential resources, the government and people have tried to guarantee basic necessities for the population. While acknowledging these facts we also share the concerns expressed recently by our brother bishops in Nicaragua about increasing restrictions on human rights. It is crucially important that the religious character of the society be faithfully preserved and that the rights of free association, speech, press and freedom of education be protected, even as the social and economic needs of the people continue to be met.

The immediate question facing us as bishops in the United States is the policy of our government toward Nicaragua. We believe that a policy designed to isolate Nicaragua and prevent its access to resources crucially needed for reconstruction is neither justified by our history with Nicaragua nor useful for the Nicaraguan people. Hence we continue to support, as we have in the past, economic assistance on a bilateral and multilateral basis for Nicaragua. Such assistance should be monitored, for Nicaragua as for other countries, in terms of human rights criteria. In our view a mature, cooperative diplomatic relationship between the United States and Nicaragua could be a force for human rights and stability in Central America.


We deplore the escalating violence in Guatemala as described in the statement of the Guatemalan bishops June 13, 1980: "The acts of violence among us have taken on unimaginable forms: there are murders, kidnappings, torture and even vicious desecrations of the victims' bodies."

The death toll from politically motivated murders is estimated by the U.S. Department of State to be 75-100 per month. In a statement issued only two weeks prior to Father Rother's murder, the bishops of Guatemala asserted that they saw in the assassination of priests and religious a pattern of violence designed to silence the voice of the church.

The bishops spoke again to the violence in their land Aug 6, 1981:

"The Catholic Church…is today perhaps as never before in its history the victim of unjust attacks and of violent aggression.. In addition to the assassination or disappearance of 12 priests…and the violent deaths of numerous catechists and members of our Christian communities, it is known by everyone that in recent days there has been unleashed a publicity campaign which tends to discredit the church" (Communique of the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala, August 6, 1981).

Numerous reports, governmental and non-governmental, have documented the deteriorating human right situation in Guatemala. Pope John Paul II in a 1980 letter to the bishops of Guatemala described the situation in the following way:

"I well know the anxieties you have communicated to me on more than one occasion, even publicly, in the last few months, for the many, far too many acts of violence that have racked your country, and your repeated calls for an end to what you have rightly called ‘the road to self-destruction' that violates all human rights – first among them the sacred right to life – and that does not help to solve the social problems of the nation."

It is not our contention that the government of Guatemala is responsible for all that occurs, but we do find significant the recent human rights report of the State Department: "The government has not taken effective steps to halt abuses or carry out serious investigations" (U.S. Department of State: "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices" 1981, p.441.)

At this moment in Guatemalan history, U.S. diplomacy should be directed toward enhancing the protection of human rights and assisting the meting of basic human needs, especially the need for food and for capital investment for food production. Such a policy will require a creative political vision; such vision is not manifested by the provision of military hardware in a situation already ridden with violence. We believe military assistance should not be provided from any source or in any form.

We offer these reflections as bishops and citizens. As bishops we are called to teach the full dimensions of the gospel message, including, as Paul VI said in 1975, questions involving justice, liberation, development and world peace (Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization, n.31). As citizens of the most powerful nation in the Western hemisphere, we take seriously Pope John Paul II's injunction to us at Yanee Stadium "to seek out the structural reasons which foster or cause the different forms of poverty in the world and in your own country, so you can apply the proper remedies."

Both of these directives impel our present statement on Central America. We offer it in the hope that our continuing prayer for the church and the people of that region may be complemented by our public support in this country of their human rights and needs. We renew our special bonds with the church in Central America and we reaffirm our fraternal support to our brother bishops who serve that church.

Our intention, in prayer and action, is to respond to the Lord's command heard in the prophet Isaiah: "This rather, is the fasting I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and homeless; clothing the naked when you see them and not turning your back on your own" (Is. 58:6-9).

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