The Tragic Christian

Father James Carney left St. Louis to work with the poor in Honduras, putting him at odds with both church and state. Fifteen years after his mysterious death, a new CIA report raises more questions than answers.

For example, AIFLD formed the National Association of Honduran Campesinos (ANACH), which Carney joined. The AIFLD-controlled union acted as a surrogate for a more radical labor organization that had already been forcibly eliminated by the Honduran military. The CIA's strategy was to stave off revolution with minimal reforms. Cast innocently into the middle of these machinations, Carney became a proponent of a newly enacted Honduran land-reform law, one of the liberalizations mandated under the Alliance for Progress. The Honduran government's National Agrarian Institute (INA) implemented the plan to satisfy the terms of the U.S. foreign-aid program. No one in the ruling oligarchy, however, took the measure seriously until ANACH members -- with Carney's blessing -- tried to take advantage of the law by squatting on vacant lands, originally ceded over to the Tela Railroad, in the fertile Sula Valley of northern Honduras.

The railroad and other large landowners, mainly cattle ranchers, resisted these incursions, and violence erupted. In the summer of 1970, for example, 600 campesino families invaded the fallow fields held by the Tela Railroad. They built their champas, rented three tractors to plow the ground, planted corn. "Finally, the military government ordered the eviction of all these families, and hundreds of soldiers arrived to capture all the leaders," wrote Carney. "Many resisted and were cruelly beat and arrested, including some women."

Over the years, Carney's many labor-organizing campaigns on behalf of the poor, landless peasants would continue to place him at odds with the combined agendas of the CIA, AIFLD, INA, the Honduran oligarchy and its servile military. More than once, his life was threatened and a bounty was placed on his head, but the threats failed to deter him.

"Little by little the Spirit of Jesus was showing me that these campesino brothers and sisters of mine needed more than the Word of God," wrote Carney. "I had to put into practice the Word of God, which clearly explains that love of neighbor means to give food to the hungry, clothes to the naked."

The Liberated Theologian
Like Carney, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, had been a soldier. The Spaniard formed the religious order in 1540 A.D., and he is credited with the Catholic reformation, which ended corruptive practices in the church such as the sale of indulgences to pardon temporal sins.

Carney entered the priesthood in another time of great change. Between 1962 and 1965, the Second Ecumenical Council met at the Vatican in Rome. Vatican II, as the council came to be known, allowed for more lay participation in the church. After this decision, the bishops of Latin America decided in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968 to formally endorse the concept of liberation theology, which recognizes the need to support the struggles of the poor for social and economic justice. Carney belonged to a vanguard that espoused this theology, but he would later reject it as an implicitly flaccid compromise, a shield for the status quo, rather than a movement that would bring about radical change. Nevertheless, in the early years of his priesthood, the theory gave credence to the role of the church, particularly in Latin America.

The biblical scripture most often associated with liberation theology is Luke 4:18 -- "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised."

Carney believed these words. Moreover, the verse, attributed to Jesus Christ, provided a clear path for him to follow. He saw these instructions as overriding all individual sins and other moral and social conflicts in which the church often finds itself mired. In essence, he rejected the "pie in the sky" school of theology. Instead, he viewed Christianity as an agent of social change -- the leaven in the bread.

For inspiration, Carney repeatedly turned to Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean-Pierre de Caussade; In the Heart of the Masses by Charles de Foucauld; and My Experiments in Truth by Mahatma Gandhi, the leader who employed passive resistance to defeat British colonialism in India.

"The gospel of Christ, instead of being a motive for getting involved in the political struggle to change this world, is interpreted in the 'bourgeois theology' ... as dealing with the 'supernatural,'" wrote Carney. "This whole trend of false spirituality says that to change the unjust structures of society you have to first change people. If individuals are just and loving, society will be just. The ... great fact of reality (is) that a selfish, unjust society inevitably produces and forms selfish, exploiting, violent men and women. We must change at the same time the person and the society."

Accordingly, Carney defined his mission as twofold. He tended to the campesinos' spiritual needs, administering the sacraments and helping form basic Christian communities in the villages his parish comprised. At the same time, he remained active in ANACH, organizing the peasants into a union that would fight for their economic rights. Carney traveled this dual circuit first in a red Toyota jeep and then on a Honda 125 dirt bike. In the mountainous interior of the country, he walked or rode horseback.

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