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.

The books I picked & why

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Whose Heaven, Whose Earth?

By Thomas Melville, Marjorie Melville,

Book cover of Whose Heaven, Whose Earth?

Why 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.

Faith & Joy

By Fernando Cardenal,

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

Why 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.

The Country Under My Skin

By Gioconda Belli,

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

Why 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.

Priest Under Fire

By Peter M. Sánchez,

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

Why 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.

I, Rigoberta Menchú

By Rigoberta Menchú,

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

Why 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.

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