The best books by or about Catholics who joined revolutionary movements in Central America

Who am I?

I am fascinated by the relationship between people’s religious and political identities. As a kindergartner, I heard about the hunger strikers at our local Irish Center, I was taught anti-communist songs at my Catholic Ukrainian school, and I listened as my dad explained Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers as we passed by the grapes while grocery shopping. Catholicism was not something I saw as just happening inside the walls of a church. It was about how one related to the world and was part of a global community. Those early experiences inspired me to become a human rights lawyer and activist, and later, a U.S. foreign relations historian.


I wrote...

Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

By Theresa Keeley,

Book cover of Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

What is my book about?

Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns argues that debates among Central American and U.S. Catholics over the church’s direction influenced Ronald Reagan’s policies toward Central America. The flashpoint for these intra-Catholic disputes was the December 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. missionaries in El Salvador: Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan. Once Reagan entered office, conservative, anticommunist Catholics played instrumental roles in crafting U.S. policy to fund the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras, while liberal Catholics protested against it.

Reagan’s Gun-Toting Nuns highlights religious actors as human rights advocates and decenters U.S. actors in international relations by showing the interplay between Central American and U.S. Catholics. The book won the 2020 Duke University Human Rights Center’s Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Whose Heaven, Whose Earth?

Theresa Keeley Why did I love this book?

How did a U.S. priest and nun who went to Guatemala to convert the poor to “proper” Catholicism and to fight communism join a revolutionary movement?

The married couple Thomas and Marjorie Melville explain how they shared the anti-communist views of the U.S. government and the Catholic Church but living among the poor led them to question both institutions’ roles in supporting inequality in Guatemala. At the time of the book’s publication, 1970, the two were in jail as part of the Catonsville Nine. They, along with other Catholics, broke into a Maryland draft board and poured homemade napalm on stolen files to protest U.S. imperialism, including in Vietnam, and the Catholic Church’s support for it.

Book cover of Faith & Joy: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest

Theresa Keeley Why did I love this book?

What led a priest to join the Sandinista revolution?

In sharing his story, Nicaraguan Jesuit Fernando Cardenal details how his views regarding what it means to serve the poor and his understanding of sin as societal placed him on a collision course with both the government and many in the church. For a time, Cardenal was expelled from the Jesuits because he refused to resign his post in the Nicaraguan government. He also recounts what led him to later break with the Sandinista party.

By Fernando Cardenal,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Faith & Joy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Fernando Cardenal, a Nicaraguan Jesuit priest, oversaw a national literacy campaign and served as minister of education in the revolutionary Sandinista government. The Sandinista revolution was unusual for the wide participation of Christians, including priests, in the struggle. However, the role of priests in the revolutionary government (including Ernesto Cardenal, Fernando's brother, a famous poet), was a source of bitter controversy with the Vatican. When he declined to resign his government post (judging that it would be ""a grave sin if I were to abandon my priestly option for the poor""), Cardenal was suspended from the priesthood and expelled from…


Book cover of The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War

Theresa Keeley Why did I love this book?

What prompted an upper-class, Catholic mother to become an armed revolutionary in Nicaragua?

The poet and writer Gioconda Belli shares her journey, including her time living in exile and her later break with the Sandinistas. She details how her experiences differed from her comrades because of her status as a woman and a mother and how they often underestimated and mistreated her because of her gender. Although Belli does not center faith as her primary motivation, she often references her Catholic upbringing and schooling.

By Gioconda Belli,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Country Under My Skin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lives don't get much more quixotic or passionately driven than that of the Nicaraguan revolutionary Gioconda Belli. She may have been educated by nuns and dazzled all as a well-heeled society girl, but Gioconda lifted her "guilt of privilege" by joining the Sandinistas in her twenties, to serve and then lead in their underground resistance. If part of her wanted to fulfil society's classic code of femininity and produce four children (which she did), there was also part which wanted the privileges of men - the freedom to carry out clandestine operations, to forge the Sandinista resistance effort even with…


Book cover of Priest Under Fire: Padre David Rodríguez, the Catholic Church, and El Salvador's Revolutionary Movement

Theresa Keeley Why did I love this book?

What persuaded a priest to join El Salvador’s largest guerilla organization, the FPL (Popular Liberation Forces)?

This biography explains the metamorphosis of “Padre David,” as he was known. The book also places his experience within the larger context of the role progressive priests and nuns played in helping the poor to realize their worth, which inspired many to then demand change in society. Because the state crushed all peaceful opposition, especially through violence, many Salvadorans concluded that the only way to work for change – and to simultaneously protect themselves – was to join an armed movement. Padre David was no different. He felt an added sense of responsibility because he trained catechists to work for change who were later killed because the state saw them as threats to the status quo.

By Peter M. Sánchez,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Priest Under Fire as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

David Rodriguez, or Padre David as he is known throughout El Salvador, is a diocesan priest who followed the Second Vatican Council's doctrinal mandate to advocate for the poor and oppressed. Along with other progressive clergy committed to liberation theology,Padre David helped drive forward the country's popular movement.

In the 1970s, Padre David joined the largest guerilla organization in El Salvador, the FPL (Popular Liberation Forces). At first, he supported the FPL clandestinely, helping to organize Christian Base Communities, autonomous religious groups dedicated to spreading liberationist ideas and to giving the Salvadoran poor a clear understanding of why their lives…


Book cover of I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

Theresa Keeley Why did I love this book?

What inspired a K’iche’ Mayan to demand rights for her people in Guatemala?

In this testimonio, Menchú describes Indian culture and how her family’s struggle to survive led them to demand human rights, including land rights, for peasants. Her father, mother, and one of her brothers were murdered for their activism, while Menchú was forced into exile. Throughout the book, Menchú often stresses her status as a Christian and her belief in just war, but she also critiques Christianity and points out that Catholicism complemented indigenous religious practices, rather than superseded them. The book was an international best-seller and Menchú received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her advocacy.

By Rigoberta Menchú,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked I, Rigoberta Menchú as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now a global bestseller, the remarkable life of Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan peasant woman, reflects on the experiences common to many Indian communities in Latin America. Menchu suffered gross injustice and hardship in her early life: her brother, father and mother were murdered by the Guatemalan military. She learned Spanish and turned to catechistic work as an expression of political revolt as well as religious commitment. Menchu vividly conveys the traditional beliefs of her community and her personal response to feminist and socialist ideas. Above all, these pages are illuminated by the enduring courage and passionate sense of justice of…


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By Laurie Woodford,

Book cover of Unsettled

Laurie Woodford

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What is my book about?

At the age of forty-nine, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and leaves her life in upstate New York to relocate to Seoul, South Korea. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English in Asia evolves into a nomadic adventure.

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After four years of traveling, Laurie’s return “home” becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, and then struggles to reconcile her need for freedom with her longing to feel settled.

Unsettled

By Laurie Woodford,

What is this book about?

At the age of forty-nine, driven by an urgent restlessness, Laurie Woodford rents out her house, packs her belongings into two suitcases, and relocates to Asia. What begins as an opportunity to teach college English overseas, evolves into a nomadic adventure as Laurie works and volunteers in South Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Spain, and Mexico. After four years of traveling, Laurie's return "home" to the U.S. becomes an unexpected adventure of its own when she ends up in Arkansas and meets Bruce, a bird-loving, bearded Quaker, who challenges her to reconcile her life of fierce independence with her longing to feel…


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