By Zac Johnson, Class of ‘22

The Juan E. Méndez Award for Human Rights in Latin America welcomed its twelfth annual winner in March. Professor Theresa Keeley accepted the award on Tuesday, March 16, for Reagan’s Gun Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

Keeley began her event by asking a question: what do intrafaith squabbles have to do with U.S. politics? 

Intra-Catholic debates in particular have been pivotal to shaping the United States’ policy toward Central American policy. Keeley focused on the administration of President Ronald Reagan, which contained many conservative Catholics despite Reagan himself being Protestant. These Catholics, she points out, held positions such as secretary of state, CIA director, national security advisor, and communications director, maintaining a strong grip over the administration’s foreign policy. 

For Keeley, the 1980 murder of Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan in El Salvador served as a striking example of the political power of these debates. The Maryknoll Sisters are the first group of Catholic Sisters in the United States founded for overseas mission. Their nuns in El Salvador faced increasing violence for their support of the poor, and some US conservatives accused them of being a Communists. Some of Reagan officials suggested that the murdered churchwomen brought the violence upon themselves by engaging in unchristian work and by not behaving like nuns. 

Opposition to U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador grew after the churchwomen’s brutal murder, and yet Reagan continued to authorize increased military aid. Thanks to the platform provided to conservative Catholics in Reagan’s administration, even non-Catholic Americans were touting conservative Catholic agendas in response to the murders. Why was this unique compared to other presidential administrations? Keeley argues that Reagan, unlike presidents such as George Bush, was surrounded by conservative Catholics who were anti-communist and influenced U.S. foreign policy, was faced with an opposition movement regarding U.S.-Central America policy largely led by Catholics, and was eager to have the support of key conservative Catholic activists outside of the administration.

Before fielding questions, Keeley closed her talk by describing her research methods. She used Catholic and secular newspapers from the United States and abroad, government archives, and she also conducted extensive interviews, including with nuns and those who knew the murdered churchwomen. From her research, Keeley believes that faith has inspired human rights advocacy time and time again, even citing, in addition to the rest of her talk, a Maryknoll Sister’s participation in the Selma March over 55 years ago.

Answering a question from Director of the Human Rights Center, Robin Kirk, Keeley traces her path into such a historical study. After initially avoiding graduate school for history and spending years as a public interest attorney, Keeley came to the realization that she had been reading history and teaching others all along. She harnessed her passion for history to dive right into the world of academia, with Reagan’s Gun Toting Nuns as her first book. Since 2015, Theresa Keeley has been an Assistant Professor of U.S. and the World for the History Department at the University of Louisville. 

To read more about Professor Keeley’s thought process behind her book, read the interview with her here.