Camilo Torres: Prayer Can’t Solve Poverty Alone

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By: Carolina Farías, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

There is always someone who is trying to improve society and seek better living standards by challenging the status quo, promoting freedom, and believing that social conditions can really be changed. Camilo Torres Restrepo, dubbed the “revolutionary priest” by his followers, struggled throughout his life to translate the canons of Liberation Theology into action. The second Vatican Council established the germs of Liberation Theology’s ideas in 1962. Through this framework, Camilo Torres proposed a political, social and economic paradigm shift, which in 1965 served to inspire the emergence of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian left-wing guerrilla group. Soon after the ELN was founded, Torres joined it and became its political face.

Born in 1929 in Bogotá, Torres’ extraordinary intelligence and academic preparation were catalyzed in part by his prominent family’s origins and access to education. He lived with his parents Calixto Torres Umaña and Isabel Restrepo Gaviria in Europe between 1931 and 1934. After they divorced, he returned to Colombia with his mother and finished his studies. Soon after graduating, Torres took his vows and joined the Roman Catholic Church as a priest in 1954.

Once he was ordained, Torres was sent to Belgium’s Pontifical Catholic University of Leuven, where he wrote his thesis, “The proletarian Tendencies in Bogotá”, which was published posthumously in Colombia in 1987. Afterwards, Torres started on his intensive academic research and produced studies about Colombia’s complex social situation, including surveys of urbanization, living standards, land reform, political violence and democracy. Torres’ emphasis on social development in Bogotá led him to become engaged in a number of academic projects in the Tunjuelito neighborhood, one of the poorest in the capital city.

By 1959, Torres had joined the National University of Colombia, where he co-founded the sociology faculty with Orlando Fals Borda, a notable researcher, academic, and sociologist, who at this time was very popular in the social sciences. Besides his intelligence, Torres’ charming personality as a professor as well as in his relations with students, transformed him into an instant leader committed to creating a good society, whether it was at the National University of Colombia, in the Catholic Church, or among the greater community.

The “revolutionary priest”, as he came to be known, was unique for his time, because he encouraged poor people to reflect on the origins of poverty and then refuse to accept their condition as God-given. As Torres was to preach, “People don’t happen to be poor; their poverty is largely a product of the way society is organized.” Subsequently, Torres started to promulgate political activism among students, peasants, and slum dwellers.

As a predecessor of the blooming of Liberation Theology, Torres tirelessly spread its tenets. The preferential “Option for the poor” projected the church as a social and political institution and proposed that bishops become analysts concerning social issues. Within Colombia, the prominence of Liberation Theology became widespread, as numerous religious organizations began examining the social, economic and political structures sustaining poverty. The movement, however, prompted opposition from some of the more powerful divisions of the Catholic Church, particularly among the upper hierarchies.

Liberation Theology was strongly criticized at the time by Cardinal Luis Concha of Bogotá, premiere of the Colombian Church, who argued that the “new spring time”, as he called the reform, would cause the erosion of Catholic values and the loss of influence of the Church in the western world. In this debate, Cardinal Concha and Camilo Torres were always antagonists. This was most noticeable in September of 1964, when Torres returned to Leuven to attend the Episcopal Theology Congress. During the meeting, he declared that Christians should cooperate with Marxists because they were both seeking change within social structures, not exclusively by praying, but also as a result of providing support to poor and laboring people.

Consequently, Camilo Torres gradually moved from academic studies within the pale of the Catholic Church, into political activism. He employed his previous intellectual investigations to address the violence found in Colombia’s rural territories, and then helped in the founding of the country’s trade union and various socialist movements. While Torres traveled around the city of Santander teaching and spreading his vision through political speeches, he was surrounded by peasants, workers and students. At the same time, he was developing contacts with the leftist guerilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). In July 1965, he traveled to Santander for a meeting with Fabio Vasquez Castaño, ELN’s commander-in-chief.

After this meeting, Torres became linked to the ELN as a political figure spreading a combination of his own revolutionary beliefs and those of the liberation army. He created a weekly newspaper, which sold 45,000 copies on its first day of publication. He expressed his ideals through his writings and his speeches, which fostered a growing social and political following. In fact, the occasion of his speeches routinely filled public squares throughout the country. He attracted the passionate interest not only of average Colombians but also of various politicians from different backgrounds, who, on more than one occasion, attempted to use his performances to gain votes for themselves.

Eventually, the Colombian Army determined that Torres was tied to the ELN, and he was ordered by the group’s leaders to end his above ground political work and to join in the guerrilla struggle. On February 16, 1966, he was killed in his first encounter with the security forces. After his death, Torres was accorded many titles, such as “hero,” “revolutionary priest,” and “martyr.” Thus, it is not easy to define an exclusive perspective for Camilo Torres in the pages of Latin America’s history. Rather, his many roles make the matter more complex. There is a possibility that any attempted biography would miss something about this amazing character due to the scores of interpretations that can be made of his actions.

Camilo Torres’ story remains vibrant inspiration for Colombian youth to join progressive social movements today. Unfortunately, while the ELN initially followed Torres’ principles, it since has deteriorated to at times senselessly killing innocent people and has engaged in the same kind of extortion and kidnapping as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has intermittently wrought upon the country throughout the last 30 years. Even though Torres brought theory into practice by developing powerful social analysis, and involved citizens of all backgrounds behind his cause, a peaceful creed of this canon has not yet been realized. Today, the ELN and the FARC, let alone the particularly brutal vigilante force, the AUC, as well as the country’s abusive security forces, all have denigrated Torres’ principles by killing the very Colombians they mechanically profess to protect.

By: Carolina Farías, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs