The nomination as cardinal of the Most Rev. Pedro Barreto Jimeno, Archbishop of Huancayo, Peru, in May 2018, was a capital surprise. Some compared it to a small atomic bomb. Indeed, Peru has always had only one cardinal, that of the primatial see of Lima, the country’s capital, which thus became a point of reference for the Church at the national level. Other seats such as Arequipa, Trujillo and Cusco could have aspired to this honor, given their historical and cultural importance. With all due respect to its citizens, certainly not Huancayo.
At the time, the move was seen as one of those ecclesiastical tsunamis so dear to the current Pontiff. Someone went further by pointing out that Barreto is a fellow Jesuit and follower of Liberation Theology, which, after being condemned by the two previous pontiffs, had a great return right under Francis. The more informed also recalled that the two have been friends since Barreto took part in a retreat in Buenos Aires in the 1980s preached by Father Jorge María Bergoglio, then Jesuit provincial in Argentina. The fact that Barreto’s mother was born in Flores, the same neighborhood as Bergoglio’s, made the friendship easier.
Today, in hindsight, it seems that Archbishop Barreto’s appointment was part of a rather well-structured strategic plan.
Indeed, Cardinal Barreto is emerging as one of the main spokesmen of the Pan-Amazon Synod. His recent statements responding to the criticisms of Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller have catapulted him from the Amazonian forests to the center of world attention as a sort of counterpoint to conservative voices: cardinal versus cardinal, with the advantage of being a Peruvian and therefore able to present himself as close to the problems the Synod will deal with.
The first to welcome Most Rev. Barreto’s appointment was Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, founder of Liberation Theology. Precisely the one who declared that Latin America had to move towards socialism in the footsteps of Marxism. “Msgr. Barreto’s appointment as cardinal is great news for the Peruvian Church,” declared Gutiérrez. “He is a person firmly committed to the main problems of our country. We must thank Pope Francis.” For those familiar with liberationist jargon, the sense of this “commitment” is all too clear.
Archbishop Barreto returned the compliment by celebrating Holy Mass to honor Father Gutiérrez’s ninetieth birthday in the Basilica of the Most Holy Rosary of the Dominican convent in Lima. The homily was given by Father Jorge Álvarez Calderón, another historical figure in Liberation Theology, founder of ONIS (National Office of Social Information) who supported the communist dictatorship of General Juan Velasco Alvarado.
Of the old socialism, Cardinal Barreto kept a social and political commitment that translates into support for the claims of the Peruvian left. He has created a special Pastoral of Human Dignity linked to Red Muqui, an “anti-mining” conglomerate that opposes mining in Peru. By denying the right to private property and free initiative, the “anti-miners” function in practice as a subversive left, opposing even with violence every effort to extract mineral wealth in Peru. “Right and left in Peru now define themselves by their respective positions regarding the mining problem,” declared then president Pedro Pablo Kuschinsky.
Even the old communist left, with links to Shining Path terrorism, has found a gold mine in the “anti-mining” struggle (forgive the pun). “Anti-miners” have perpetrated numerous acts of violence and even had armed clashes with law enforcement, causing deaths and injuries.
This movement has received an indirect but all too clear support from Pope Francis, who in his speech at Madre de Dios in Peru, condemned “neo-extractivism” in no uncertain terms as one of the main evils of our time, especially in the Amazon area.
Cardinal Barreto’s support of the left adds to his frequent statements condemning center-right political parties. In Peru, he is considered a politically-minded prelate.
Like many liberation theologians and activists, Cardinal Barreto has added the color green to the color red, the flag of radical ecology in its indigenist form.
His indigenist militancy, rooted in his experiences in indigenous areas while studying with the Jesuits in Lima, began in 2001 when he was appointed bishop of Jaen, in the Peruvian Amazon. In contact with the Indians, he had – in his own words – “a true conversion” to the point that he became known as “the bishop converted by the natives.” What struck him so deeply to the point of “conversion”? He explains:
“I saw in the Indians a great care for water and animals. I was struck by their sense of community, without the need for police. I was also struck by their sobriety. The Indians live for the day and make no plans even for the next week. Another point is their egalitarian treatment. There are no differences. I learned a lot from them and continue to learn. Their culture, their wisdom showed a transcendence that for me was God.” He concludes by saying that the Church should not evangelize the Indians but rather learn from them: “It is the Indians who must teach us so many things.” The lessons learned from Amazon Indians will then trigger a drive for a profound reform in the Church: “We must definitely support the reform of the Church. Now or never!”
While it is always risky to raise conspiracy theories, we must ask ourselves whether a voice covered with a cardinal’s authority was precisely what the Amazon Synod and the indigenist agenda needed.