“Viva Camilo Torres! ” read the graffiti on the white-washed wall of a house in a dusty Venezuelan town. I was exploring northern South America on the bike I had brought across by boat from Trinidad where I was living at the time. As my trusty little Yamaha two-stroke carried me further from the coast I spotted another revolutionary slogan “Solidaridad con las Guerrillas de Llanos!” (“Solidarity with the guerrillas of the plains!”). It was difficult at the time to find out just who this Torres was or what the guerrillas were up to. I didn’t speak Spanish and no-one back in Trinidad knew anything about South American politics. Eventually, back in England, I got an English language version of his writings, and was amazed at what I found.
“The catholic who is not a revolutionary is living in mortal sin.” gives a flavour of his writings, and “Revolution is charity which works.” Although an academic from a wealthy background Torres was no armchair activist.
Camilo Torres had already been dead for 3 years when I saw his name painted on that wall. He had been shot dead by government forces in neighbouring Colombia as he participated in an ambush led by Marxist guerrillas. The 60-strong ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or National Liberation Army) were hoping to take over the country just like Castro and Guevara’s guerrilla forces had done in Cuba a few years earlier. What struck me as amazing at the time was that Marxists were well known to be atheists – their philosophy of dialectical materialism left no room for God- and yet here was a man who was not only a Christian but a catholic priest taking their side and going into the jungle to fight with them!! Later developments in Latin America such as the leadership role played by Jesuit priests in the Marxist Sandinista forces in Nicaragua, and the influence of marxist analyses in Liberation theology in the seventies showed that Torres was just ahead of his time – a portent of the tide that was to flow (and ebb) throughout the “third world”, (since rechristened the “global south”).
Torres was born into a middle class family in Colombia in 1929. He was ordained an RC priest in the capital, Bogota, in 1954. After obtaining a degree in Sociology in Belgium, he became the catholic chaplain in the National University of Colombia. Here he was the first priest to implement the Vatican’s liturgical reforms, using the Spanish language instead of Latin at Mass, and facing the congregation. In the sprawling slums of the city he was active in left-wing working class organisations. This got up the nose of the Archbishop who accused him of “excessive activism” and sent him to minister in a parish where he wouldn’t be able to influence any university students. “According to Marx the exploited masses must be roused to emancipate themselves, but the initiative is taken by representatives of the middle class who associate themselves with the masses. For Guevara the initiative is taken by the guerilla; for Torres it is taken by the priest.” (i)
However, a few years later (1964) he was appointed to be Professor of Sociology back at the University and was soon urging students to take up arms against the security forces of the ruling oligarchy! In 1965 he paid a clandestine visit to the revolutionaries in the jungle. On his return he wrote in the communist magazine “United Front” calling for
- “….a revolution as an expression of Christian love, a means to get a government that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and teaches the ignorant.”
- “Revolution is not only permissible it is obligatory for Christians who see in it the only effective way to express their love for all.”
- “The communist approaches to combating poverty, hunger, illiteracy, homelessness,and lack of services for the people are scientific and effective.”
- “I am willing to fight with them (the communists) for common goals: against the oligarchy, against the domination of the US and for the seizure of power by the working class.”
- “The people do not believe any more,
The people do not believe in elections,
The people know that legal channels are exhausted,
The people know that there is but the force of arms.”
- However he made it clear that “I am not nor will I ever be a communist.”
- Referring to Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc he wrote “The example of Poland shows that socialism can be built without destroying Christian essentials. As a Polish priest said ‘Christians have an obligation to contribute to the construction of the socialist state as long as we are allowed to worship God as we want.’
“Three slogans attributed to Camilo Torres are
- ”The duty of every Christian is to be a revolutionary
and the duty of every revolutionary is to make revolution.”
- “Marxists fight for a new society and we Christians should be fighting at their side.”
- “Let’s not discuss whether the soul is mortal or immortal, but if you think that hunger is mortal and you defeat it, then afterwards you can discuss the mortality of the soul.”
The slogan of the ELN was (and still is) “Ni un paso atras. Liberación o Muerte” (“No retreat. Freedom or Death”).
Torres was killed in his first armed engagement – an ambush of government forces in the Andes by a 30-strong group of ELN fighters. He was subsequently built up into an exemplar to ELN’s followers. They accepted more priests who became its leaders, developing a composite communist ideology of Marxism and Liberation Theology. By 2010 the ELN had 5000 members, one fifth of them armed. They have earned the hostility of many Colombians by their kidnappings.
Torres was excommunicated by the Vatican. I don’t think they will be making him a saint anytime soon. He once said “I took off my cassock to be more truly a priest.”
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(i) Kee, Alistair, “Marx and the failure of Liberation theology” SCM (1990) p. 140