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.

The congressional mandate, however, only led to the more elaborate clandestine activities, which later came to be known as the Iran-contra affair. Among the ways the Reagan administration skirted the law was by privatizing the arms-supply operations and shifting more of the contras' logistical support to right-wing organizations such as the World Anti-Communist League, an international network of Reaganites, anti-Castro Cubans, old-guard Nazis and neo-fascists from Asia and Latin America.

Within this repressive atmosphere, the ruling oligarchies of the region, who controlled the death squads, defined a communist as anyone who spoke out in defense of the poor. The Catholic Church, or at least the liberation theologists within it, had become the unarmed enemy of the state -- an ideological threat to the status quo.

Given the dominant U.S. military presence in Honduras, and its traditional hegemony over the entire isthmus, Carney's efforts at social justice were akin to walking on water. Despite some attempts, neither the Vatican nor Washington appeared willing or able to bring an end to the mounting violence. In March 1980, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador acted as a harbinger of the horrors to come in a country where disappearances had already become a daily occurrence.

After Romero's murder, three American nuns and a laywoman were raped and killed by a Salvadoran death squad. The writing was literally on the wall in nearby San Salvador. Death squads often abducted civilians in broad daylight. Romero had warned Pope John Paul II of the right-wing terror campaign being inflicted on the members of his archdiocese. It is evident that the Holy See accepted secular advice on the issue, too. Before the papal visit to Central America in early 1983, the year Carney disappeared, Pope John Paul II granted a private audience to Reagan ambassador-at-large Vernon Walters, a former assistant director of the CIA, according to a chronology compiled by the National Security Archive. The exact nature of their tete-a-tete remains as enigmatic as Carney's disappearance. By no small coincidence, the Vatican established formal diplomatic relations with the United States the next year. With the pope's 1998 visit to Cuba, there are signs of change, signs that the ideological differences between socialism and Christianity have lessened. That change did not come without sacrifice.

"The national-security policy that justifies everything that is done in terms of U.S. security is an evil policy," says Joseph Connolly, Carney's brother-in-law. "Father Carney got in trouble because he fell in love with poor people. Other people get in trouble because they fall in love with riches and power and glory and pomposity."

How Carney died remains an unanswered question. But the creed that he lived by is as simple as it is profound: "To be a Christian is to be a revolutionary."

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