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.

Eventually he realized that the cooperative-farming goals being implemented by INA were merely an indirect means for North American corporations to continue exploiting Honduran workers. It mattered not whether the peasants harvested timber, bananas or African palm oil, their lot remained the same. Although some campesinos may have by then collectively owned their own land, foreign interests still controlled all the wealth. Through "land reform," the private corporations had cunningly insulated themselves from labor problems by simply allowing INA to manage the property in their stead.

"The INA became an instrument, then, not for changing the unjust agrarian structures, but for controlling the campesino organization," wrote Carney. "From 1976 to the present date (1981) more than half of all the promoters, accountants and agronomists of INA have been secret agents of DIN (the secret police) or G-2 (the army secret intelligence service)," Carney wrote.

When co-opting didn't work, the large landowners didn't hesitate to resort to more direct means.

In a prelude to Carney's disappearance, two priests were brutally tortured to death, and 12 other people were murdered in the Honduran province of Olancho in 1975. Honduran military personnel carried out the wave of terror at the behest of a wealthy timber baron, Jose Manuel Zelaya. The massacre began when troops opened fire on hunger protesters in the town of Juticalpa. Five peasants died, and two were injured by the gunfire. The armed forces then arrested five other campesinos, along with Father Jerome Cypher. Their captors later transferred them to Zelaya's ranch, where they were held with Father Ivan Betancur and two women companions. During a long night of torture, the peasants were given the choice of being castrated or being burned to death in a bread oven. They chose the latter fate. The torturers reserved their most sadistic treatment for the priests. They castrated and shot Cypher, and gouged out Betancur's eyes and slashed off his testicles. The perpetrators then disposed of all the corpses by tossing them in a well. As a final gesture they threw the two women, who were still alive, into the well, too, then dropped two sticks of dynamite down the shaft. The pogrom in Olancho resulted in the banishment of more than 30 other priests or nuns from the province.

Four years later, Carney himself would be arrested, stripped of his cherished Honduran citizenship and deported from the country for his political activities. Before leaving, he expressed a desire to die for his beliefs. He wanted to be a martyr.

Separation from Church and State
In exile, Carney returned to St. Louis, where he went on an eight-day retreat at Jesuit Hall on the SLU campus. Kavanaugh acted as Carney's spiritual advisor during this time. "I'd say he was the most focused man I ever met," Kavanaugh says. Carney confessed to Kavanaugh that he longed to be a chaplain for the Honduran revolutionaries. "I remember when we were discussing this," Kavanaugh says. "He said, 'Look, if I were applying to be a chaplain in the U.S. Army, people would honor me and I'd get a great salary. Here I want to help a poor army and just do the same thing, and it's not supposed to be good.'

"I didn't know how to challenge that," says Kavanaugh.
After being issued a U.S. passport, Carney left for Nicaragua, where he observed the progress achieved in health care and literacy by the revolutionary Sandinista government. He also visited Cuba. Finally, he would form a tragic association with members of the Revolutionary Workers Party of Central America-Honduras, accompanying these armed insurgents across the Nicaragua-Honduras border. In the interim, he began to reflect through his writings about his own life, the fallibility of the pope, the reprehensible conduct of the United States in Central America and the conditions in Honduras that warranted the taking up of arms.

"After having sworn during World War II that I would never kill a person, and after being a disciple of Gandhi and his non-violent methods of combating injustices, it still took me a couple of years to clarify my ideas about a Christian and his or her place in an armed revolution," wrote Carney. "During 1975, with its violent repression, my ideas on the Christian use of arms became clearer. I was gradually and finally acknowledging to myself the truth that love sometimes demands fighting back."

Carney had already severed ties to the United States. In a 1971 letter to friends, he wrote: "I love all of you, and I think you're wonderful loving persons, but I can't stand living with any of you. I was raised like you, as a middle-class Catholic, white American. But right from high school on, I've had a deep conviction that most middle-class Catholics are phony Christians, just as materialistic and self-seeking, and as liable to go along with others as any non-Christian and often more so."

He expanded on this thinking in his autobiography: "The truth is that the capitalist idea of using the selfish tendency in human beings as a basis of the economic system was not born among atheists and agnostics, but Christians, mostly Protestants, in England, Germany and France."

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