Lernoux was born into a comfortable Roman Catholic family in California and excelled in school. She enrolled in the University of Southern California in the late 1950s and, after being nominated to Phi Beta Kappa, qualified as a journalist for the United States Information Agency (USIA), a government arm devoted to promoting U.S. policy overseas.
Lernoux began working in Latin America in 1961, just before the Second Vatican Council. She worked in Rio de Janeiro and Bogotá for the USIA until 1964 and then moved to Caracas to write for Copley News Service, to which she remained bound by contract until 1967.
By this time, Lernoux had grown aware of extreme contrasts between the wealth of Latin American politicians, businessmen and landlords, on the one hand, and the poverty of the region's masses, on the other. She adopted a radical view of Jesus Christ and tried to relate his teachings to Latin American struggles against economic exploitation and military dictatorship. As she become a freelance writer, Lernoux gravitated toward new Latin American expressions of Catholicism, notably base communities and liberation theology.
Lernoux attracted major attention from her first book Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America, published in 1977. The book outlined her discoveries about Latin American history and extreme social inequality. Cry of the People won a Sidney Hillman Foundation Book Award in its third (1982) edition. At that time, Lernoux joined the National Catholic Reporter as a Latin American correspondent. And she continued freelance reporting, most notably for The Nation.
In the early 1980s Lernoux broadened her horizons to focus on international banking corruption. The topic was the theme of articles such as "The Miami Connection" (The Nation, February 18, 1984). Her second book, also published in 1984, In Banks We Trust: Bankers and Their Close Associates: The CIA, the Mafia, Drug Traders, Dictators, Politicians and the Vatican. The book exposed links from international banks to governments, the Catholic Church and organized crime, and how their corruption fueled the Third World debt crisis. The book won less acclaim than Cry of the People.
For the rest of her life, Lernoux focused largely on the clamping down on dissent by John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI). This was the topic of her third book, People of God: The Struggle for World Catholicism, published in 1989 after years of research in Latin America and the United States. Unlike most of John Paul II's critics, Lernoux described his attempt to fortify an authoritarian model of the church as an effort to restore preconciliar (e.g. pre-Vatican II) Roman Catholicism. The book documented the church's dismissal of scholars who questioned John Paul II's papacy. It also dissected various groups struggling for control of the church and examined the popularity of Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation, the Knights of Malta and Tradition, Family and Property.
After the publication of People of God, Lernoux left Bogotá to work on a fourth book. This one focused on the Maryknoll Sisters. Later that year she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Lernoux died on October 9, 1989, aged 49, a month after being hospitalized, leaving behind her husband Denis Nahum (later killed in a traffic accident) and their daughter Angela. Her book was finished by Arthur Jones and Robert Ellsberg and published in 1993 as Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters.
Lernoux was memorialized by the Penny Lernoux Memorial Library in Minneapolis until its parent organization closed in August 2007. Her papers, including correspondence concerning articles, books, and speaking engagements, are in the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at Marquette University.
- "Illusions of agrarian reform", The Nation (October 15, 1973)
- "Blood money", Penthouse (April 1984)
- "When republics go bananas", Massachusetts Review, pp. 27, 3-4 (Fall/Winter 1986, pp. 473–84)
- "Vatican silences Brazilian bishop", National Catholic Reporter (September 30, 1988), page 7
- "Casaldáliga case begs question: who in Rome muzzles bishops?", National Catholic Reporter (October 7, 1988, pp. 1,4.
- "The papal spiderweb: Opus Dei & the 'perfect society'", Nation (April 10, 1989), pp. 469, 482-87
- "Who knows? The Knights of Malta know", National Catholic Reporter (May 5, 1989).
- “A society torn apart by violence”, The Nation (November 7, 1997), pp. 512–14
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