Introduction: A Brief Background – Philip E. Wheaton (Christians for Socialism: Highlights from Chile’s Religious Revolution, 1973)

Auditorium where the plenary sessions of the First Encounter of the Christians for Socialism were held between April 23-30, 1972, in Santiago, Chile. 417 Christians from all over Latin America took part, plus a number of North Americans.

[The introduction for Christians for Socialism: Highlights from Chile’s Religious Revolution (1973) published by EPICA.]

From the call of Pope John XXIII for the Church to become aware of the “signs of the times” to the final message of the Latin American bishops at Medellin, marks a giant step forward for Christians in this hemisphere. The Second Vatican Council, among the millions of words which it issued between 1962 and 1965, said:

The excessive economic and social differences between individuals and nations of the same human family are scandalous and prevent social justice, equality and the dignity of human beings, to say nothing of social and international peace.

Among the final words of the bishops at Medellin, Colombia issued on September 6, 1968, we excerpt the following

We remind the other nations who have already overcome the obstacles (of underdevelopment) which we face today, that there will be no peace without respect for international justice. Justice, that is, that has its basis and expression in the recognition of the political, economic and cultural autonomy of our nations.

The link between these two statements is obvious, but the intention is miles apart. Like all good pastorals, the Vatican analysis reflects a sincere concern for justice while the untypical episcopal demand from Medellin is a warning that Latin America will not wait upon some future providence.

As increased religious militancy became linked with Medellin, doubts and opposition to the Conference arose in the minds of lay persons as well as the hierarchy about the long-range value of that meeting. But to interpret Medellin as a cause is to misunderstand the dynamic of history. As Edgar Beltran wrote in June of 1969:

The pastoral guidelines chosen there flowed from a vision of Latin American reality and a theological judgement of the same. They lose their value and their scope if they are not considered from this point of view … they do not bind with the force of law, but they express the commitment of the Latin American Church to the continent and to the world.


Thus, Medellin was much less a provocation than an outpouring of present reality.

The same can be said of the Christians for Socialism. If Medellin could point to priests and lay persons from all over the continent who were the driving force behind its radical reflections, so too, the Christians of the left in Chile would be the first to admit their indebtedness to the Third World Priest Movement in Argentina, the Golconda movement in Colombia, and the priests in Peru. That is, an acknowledgement of collective stirrings at the grass roots level in a number of countries which impacked upon Chilean Christians. And it is closer to reality to emphasize groups and movements or to recognize the quiet witness of unknown Christians in the smallest towns in Chile than to believe that all this creativity came from certain well-known leaders such as Fr. Gonzalo Arroyo. To be sure, well-known prophets like Camilo Torres, Nestor Paz, Mendez Arceo, Helder Camara and Ernesto Cardenal are read and highly respected by Chileans, but less as movement heroes and more as individual members of an interwoven tapestry. Over the years, each has contributed to the loom that is gradually taking shape as each compañero and each country draws its uniquely colored strand into a fantastic new cloth.

Still Chile is also unique. Unique in that many years ago, the Chilean hierarchy was the first to openly admit that Chile was not a Catholic country, and being thus freed from that religious myth was able to make a stronger Christian witness. And also unique in its first public protest by the “Iglesia Joven” (Young Church) when it took over the Cathedral in 1968, interestingly, just before Medellin. But the uniqueness of Chile in terms of the appearance of the Christians for Socialism is not mainly because of ecclesiastical reasons, but for political ones. Obviously, Chile has had a long and serious experience with liberal democracy, but what was unique about that process was not felt principally through alternatives at the polls but through protests from the working masses in the nitrate and copper mines. Thus to trace the origins of the Christians for Socialism in Chile, one would first have to review the history of the labor leader, Luis Recabarren and the growth of the Socialist Party under Salvador Allende.

More recently, the occasion that made these Chilean Christians openly socialist is ironically those situations or conditions that were supposed to prevent the “infiltration” of anti-capitalist models. Thus it was the incredibly huge gifts from the West German bishops funneled through the Centro Bellarmino, supposedly for “development” purposes, but actually aimed at stopping Allende in 1964, that must certainly mark the first watershed for those liberal Jesuits who began to wonder which side the Church was really on. More specifically, it was the political murder of workers in Puerto Montt (in 1967) ordered by a liberal president, the Christian Democrat, Eduardo Frei, that turned a number of clerics and laity into solidarity with the poor and then, politically, to the left. It was out of such a historical milieu that Christians came to support Salvador Allende in 1970, and in turn, converted them into active socialists.

It is just such historical details that North Americans have bee n seeking in relation to the Christians for Socialism movement. A number of North Americans have read the “Conclusions” from the First Encounter (April, 1972) but are uncertain about the causes and the occasions for such radical ideas.

It is just such historical details that North Americans have been seeking in relation to the Christians for Socialism movement. A number of North Americans have read the “Conclusions” from the First Encounter (April, 1972) but are uncertain about the causes and the occasions for such radical ideas.

Nor is their . interest academic. Both biblically and personally, all our reality comes initially from existential experiences and without such a historical base, even the most brilliant reflection remains confusing or unhelpful. For this reason, EPICA presents this very brief overview of those particular events which Christians of the left in Chile recognize as highlights in their development.

We trust t hat many Christians in North America will want to read further. For those of you who are able, the two main Spanish sources for this mini-dossier are Cristianos por el Socialismo [2]and Los Cristianos Y La Revolucion [3] In English, besides this dossier, three other publications that we know of) are due out shortly [4] and we encourage people to examine them as well. Our hope is that these will be only the beginning of a North and South American dialogue between those committed to societal alternatives in this continent.

One final note. If some North Americans are thinking of journeying to Santiago in order to find radical cadres plotting Christian revolution or some highly developed and sophisticated organization feeding ideas into the present Allende government, they will be disappointed. The Christians for Socialism office in Santiago isn’t much ( just adequate) nor basically (thank God!) an organization, but rather, a group of individuals working quietly in factories or in small towns with the poor and working classes convinced that capitalism is bankrupt as an instrument of true development and that hemispheric justice and liberation demand a new social order and a new economic system, socialism.

So, on the following pages, dear compañeros (not “readers” as my old hero, Soren Kierkegaard, would say) you will find a few of those events chronologued whereby love and commitment to the people of Chile fashioned themselves into a process, and only then, into a reflection. We share these experiences not as models to be copied, for that would be impossible, but rather as good, hard lessons about what committing oneself to a new social order implies. Hope fully, they will suggest to us Christians in North America the kind of political changes that must take place and the kind of liberating commitment we need to be engaged in if we are to build a new society … in our time, in our way and most importantly, with our people.

– Philip E. Wheaton

[1] From “Pastoral Guidelines for Latin America Set by the Medellin Documents,” quoted in Conscientization for Liberation, Division for Latin America, U.S. Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C., 1971, pp. 295-6 .
[2] Editorial “Mundo Nuevo” Ltda., Secre tariado de Cristianos Por El Socialismo, Santiago, Chile, 1972.
[3] Empresa Editora Nacional Quimantu, Ltda., Santiago, Chile 1972 with an “Introduction” by Pablo Richard.
[4] An Organizing Packet on the “Christians for Socialism” (title not yet avail able), Latin American Working Group, Toronto, Canada, October, 1973

Analysis of Church complicity with oppressive structures in the American continent, (title not available), to be printed by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), New York, Fall 1973.

Documents by and about Christians for Socialism (title not available), Orbis Books, New York, hopefully early in 1974. [No longer true, can be found here.]