Martha Owen on Communist Threats Against Catholic Catechists

The following clip can be aligned to the following Ohio Department of Education Social Studies Standards:

American History #24: The United States followed a policy of containment during the Cold War in response to the spread of communism.

American History #25 The Second Red Scare and McCarthyism reflected Cold War fears in American society.

Modern World History #18 The United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers and competed for global influence.

In this clip, Sister Martha Owen illuminates the great danger catechists were in during the El Salvador Civil War. Similar to what Father Rob Reidy describes in his interview, members of the Catholic Church – specifically those in positions of influence such as professed religious persons, priests, and catechists – were under intense scrutiny and watch by anti-communist forces. Much of these forces’ surveillance of Catholics stemmed from the intersection between liberation theology and communism.

Liberation theology was an interpretation of the Bible and the role of the Catholic Church as a means of rectifying economic, political, and social injustices through the preaching and actions of the Catholic Church. This viewpoint was a blatant divergence from the opinion that difficult circumstances were God’s will and that they must be endured with patience and faith because it involved Catholics actively trying to change people’s circumstances. In a sense, it was a shift from an emphasis on faith to works for the poor and vulnerable. Such an interpretation could not have been possible without the restructuring of the Church’s role following Vatican II and Medellin Conference (1). Both instances cemented the Catholic Church as a more active participant in the parishioners’ lives, and these also were responsible for the influence Catholics had in the Vietnam protests as well as civil rights demonstrations.

The goal of liberation theology was often misconstrued with communism because of the tendency of bishops and religious communities to send missionaries and priests to aid the religious formation and protect the human rights of those in El Salvador’s rural sectors. Those rural sectors were the primary battle zones during the El Salvador Civil War.

Potential Classroom Uses:

  1. This is another great piece for background context on the El Salvador Civil War when used in conjunction with any other El Salvador clips on this site.
  2. This clip can provide discussion for a comparative analysis of the communist fears across the globe (think countries swallowed up in the Iron Curtain), and a discussion on how different countries reacted to communism during the Cold War.


(1) Svenja Blanke. “Civic Foreign Policy: Human Rights, Faith-Based Groups and U.S.-Salvadoran Relations in the 1970s.” The Americas 61, no. 2 (2004): 220; Latin American Bishops, “Medellin Document: Poverty of the Church,” Medellin, Colombia, September 6, 1968.

Photo Credit: Martha Owen