Throughout Latin American, the 1960s brought tremendous changes within the church. For centuries the Catholic Church had sided with the wealthy against the poor. The church blessed the theft of lands and perpetuated the miserable conditions of the indigenous, saying that God meant them to be poor but they would get their reward in heaven.
There were, of course, some notable exceptions to this trend, including Bartolome de Las Casas and Bishop Antonio Valdivieso, both of whom defended the indigenous and Father Miguel Hidalgo, who was a leader in the Mexican independence movement. But for the most part, the institutional church was one of the main forms of cultural invasion in Latin America that stripped the native population of their gods, their dignity, and their very lives.
In 1963, after the second Vatican Council met, Pope John XXIII wrote an encyclical entitled Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) that led the way for priests, nuns, and lay leaders to see organizing for justice as a fundamental tenet of the Christian fait. The 1968 conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, further confirmed this direction, and the movement known as liberation theology began.
One of the great decisions of the conference was that the church would “make a preferential option for the poor”: the church would actively take the side of the poor and begin to view the world from their perspective.
In Latin America, priests and nuns left the safe confines of rectories and convents to actually live with the poor. They realized the daily injustices and indignities suffered by the poor at the hands of the rich. They read the Bible as a group and discovered together that God did not intend people to live in humiliating poverty.
All God’s children deserved basic human rights of food, clothing, shelter, and access to the land. The church began organizing cooperatives so that small farmers could get higher prices for their goods, helped organize land take-overs because the children of the campesinos were dying while the rich were growing weeds on their vacant land, and supported unions demanding better wages and working conditions.
All these actions were so threatening to those in power that the church itself became the target of repression. Catechists, priests, and nuns were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. The powerful considered the Bible a “subversive document.”