Only a minority of Roman Catholic priests are actively allied with the extreme left in key Central American countries. But the numbers of "progressive" or "left-leaning" priests who stop just short of such collaboration may be growing.
This is the picture of the clergy painted by priests who are sympathetic to the Marxist-led guerrillas fighting in El Salvador and Guatemala.
In San Salvador, Arturo Rivera y Damas, administrator of the San Salvador archdiocese and the leading Salvadoran church figure, has disagreed with the trend toward sympathy with the left that had been set to a great extent by Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was slain a year ago in a hospital chapel while delivering a sermon.
Msgr. Rivera y Damas appears to be less conservative than the several other bishops in El Salvador. But he also seems to be largely supportive of the ruling junta.
[Reuters reported this week that the Monseigneur, who is on a European tour, has called for international efforts to arrange talks between the opposing sides in El Salvador's civil war.]
A number of younger priests, meanwhile, are critical of Rivera y Damas. They talk of a split between the bishops and the lower ranks.
In Guatemala, one priest described the bishops as largely "moderate." But he said that among the priests working with the poor, the number who are "radicalized" has been growing.
In Nicaragua, another Central American nation that has suffered the trauma of war, three Roman Catholic priests hold posts as government ministers under the Sandinista revolutionaries. But the archbishop, Miguel Obando y Bravo, has been critical of many of the Marxist-oriented policies of the new Nicaraguan leadership. In conformity with guidance from the Vatican, he is opposed to priests holding government positions.
But Ernesto Cardenal Martinez, Miguel d'Escoto Brockman, and Edgar Parrales have refused to give up their posts as ministers of culture, foreign affairs, and social welfare, respectively. Parrales told the Mexican magazine Proceso that 85 percent of Nicaragua's priests were "with the revolution." But Archbishop Obando y Bravo would no doubt dispute that figure.
Whatever the figures may be in any of the Central American countries, it appears that the days when the Roman Catholic priests sided for the most part with the wealthy and established classes are long gone. The church began to focus intensively on the poor in the early 1970s, in part because of the a conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, which stated that the church should indentify with the poor. The rationale for activism came from radical young Latin American priests, some of them influenced by the German theologian Karl Rahner, who has pioneered what became widely known as the "theology of liberation."
In some cases, the "radicalization" of a given priest seems to occur largely because of experience in the field, particularly when that experience includes witnessing brutality perpetuated by the government security forces.
One priest in El Salvador explained the shift in his views as largely attributable to his conviction that the Salvadoran government security forces, and not out-of-control extreme rightist forces, were responsible for most of the assassinations that have occurred in that nation. He is highly critical of the Reagan administration decision to send additional military aid and advisers to El Salvador.
Priests such as this one calculate that if the Salvadoran rate of more than 10,000 noncombat killings a year were occurring in the United States, with its population of more than 200 million, it would come to 650,000 such American deaths in one year alone.
"The question which I would like to ask Senor Reagan is this," said the priest. "What would happen if within one year is the United States, there were 650,000 assassinations? Fidel Castro never killed 10,000 people in one year.
"I was fairly pro-government until six months ago," said the priest, who asked not to be identified."I was one of those people who was happy when the American Marines went into the Dominican Republic in 1965.
"But it seems to me that a takeover by the left would be preferable to what exists now.
"We don't have freedom of expression, or freedom of the press, now. . . . The church is being persecuted. . . . We have to be careful about what we teach. . . . Our people have lost whatever faith they had in free elections.
"The few bourgeois freedoms that we do have affect only 8 to 10 percent of the population. . . Hall of our people still don't know how to read or write."
In guatemala, meanwhile a priest justified his conversion to Marxism in this way: "Marxism can provide the most useful description of an economic system. It is a valid tool of economic analysis.But it is not to be equated with atheistic communism, which we reject."
This priest said he knew of only one priest, an Irishman, who had joined the guerrilla fighting forces in Guatemala. In El Salvador, it appears that several may have joined. One priest, Ernesto Barrera Motto, was reported to have fallen in combat in November 1978.
More than 30 left-leaning priests have been forced to leave El Salvador in recent years. At least one suffered torture before his expulsion, according to left-leaning churches sources. In addition to Archbishop Romero, eight priests, three American nuns , and an American lay worker have been assassinated.