Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo: Arch conservative in the Vatican and staunch ally of John Paul II

The conservative cause in the Vatican suffered two reverses this weekend. Both of them will encourage the followers of liberation theology who were especially hard hit during the papacy of John Paul II, the Polish predecessor of Benedict XVI.

On Sunday, Fernando Lugo, bishop of the dirt-poor Paraguayan diocese of San Pedro until his resignation in 2005, triumphantly put an end to 61 years of right-wing dictatorship by winning the country's presidency. In resigning and standing for his country's highest office on a reformist platform, he had gone against the specific and public instructions he received from Rome.

No less important was the death the previous day at the Vatican of Alfonso López Trujillo, one of three Colombian cardinals. López Trujillo was a prelate of brass-bound opposition to any modification to traditional church teaching on sexual matters and to liberation theology. The positions defended by such as the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador were greatly distasteful to him and he led the resistance to the canonisation of the Salvadorean from the moment of his murder by a US-trained assassin in 1980.

López Trujillo, who was ordained priest at 25, rose rapidly among his fellow Colombian prelates, being elected chairman of the council of the four score Colombian bishops. In 1979 he took full ecclesiastical control of the exceptionally violent diocese of Medellín, one of Colombia's principal centres for narcotics. In that year he also assumed the presidency of Celam, the Latin American Bishops Conference, and for the following three years cracked down on the liberation theologians whose playground he had considered Celam to have become. Before he was 50 he became the church's youngest cardinal.

After his move to the Vatican in the 1980s he became immersed in questions of church teaching on the family, close to the heart of John Paul II. The two men had met in the Vatican in 1978. López Trujillo had come to Rome in a vain attempt to see John Paul I and persuade him to devote more time and attention to sexual matters – contraception, cloning, divorce, homosexuality and the rest – and declare a world family conference. Caught by a sudden shower, the then Cardinal Wojtyla and he chatted as they sheltered from the rain. Soon after the Pole succeeded to the papacy after John Paul I's brief reign, he named López Trujillo to the Vatican department of the family which he created for him.

John Paul II came to rely on the Colombian greatly. López Trujillo naturally oversaw his visit to Bogotá in 1982 (where he ensured the pontiff's quarters were provided with a piano).

Speaking at the fourth World Congress of Families – of whose value he had once tried to convince the papacy – which was held in Manila in 2003 López Trujillo spoke forcefully against abortion and cloning. "It is a grave irresponsibility against human integrity and existence" he said, "for politicians and legislators to give in to the culture of death, and for doctors to become accomplices in assaults against the human person, instead of truly working against diseases and to alleviate pain! Seduced by science and technology, many presume that they are arbiters of life, in all kinds of dangerous manipulation that can even become nightmares to humanity. Parliaments that approve unjust and harmful laws violate the rights of families, their right to respect life, and their right to a wholesome education for their children."

On the question of the use of contraceptives in order to limit the spread of Aids, which he opposed, López Trujillo parted company with Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the Jesuit former archbishop of Milan, who was open to discussion of this question.

His application and his memory of the documents he had read was as legendary as his sense of humour was trenchant. Once when he was quizzed by a Colombian journalist about the number of cardinals who worked at the Vatican he replied, "As far as I can establish, there's me."

As a cardinal he participated in the conclave of 2005 which chose Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to succeed John Paul II. Though some electors felt it was time for a Latin American to be chosen as pope, López Trujillo himself was never viewed as papabile.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy

Alfonso López Trujillo, priest: born Villahermosa, Colombia 9 November 1935; ordained priest 1960; Auxiliary Bishop of Bogota and Titular Archbishop of Boseta 1971-78; Coadjutor Archbishop of Medellí*1978-79, Archbishop 1979-91 (Emeritus); named a cardinal 1983; President, Pontifical Council for the Family 1990-2008; died Rome 19 April 2008.