Documentation: Liberation Theology

The theology of liberation is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon. Any concept of liberation theology has to be able to span positions ranging from the radically Marxist to those that stress necessary Christian responsibility towards the poor and the oppressed in the context of a sound ecclesiology, as did the documents of CELAM from Medellin to Puebla. Here, I am using the concept of “liberation theology” in a more restricted sense, a sense which includes only those theologians who in some way have espoused a Marxist fundamental option. Even here, there are many differences that are impossible to describe in detail in a general reflection such as this. In this context I can only try to consider some fundamental lines which, without ignoring the different points of origin, are very widespread and exercise a certain influence even where a theology of liberation does not exist in the strict sense.

With the analysis of the phenomenon of liberation theology we are clearly facing a fundamental danger for the faith of the Church. Undoubtedly one must realize that an error cannot exist unless it contains a nucleus of truth. In fact, an error is much more dangerous to the extent that it contains a greater proportion of truth. Moreover, the error could never appropriate that portion of the truth if this truth were sufficiently lived and witnessed where it is in its place, that is, in the faith of the Church. For this reason, alongside the demonstration of error, and the danger of liberation theology, we have to also consider the question, what truth is hidden in the error, and how do we recover it completely.

The theology of liberation is a universal phenomenon for three reasons.

This theology does not pretend to construct a new treatise alongside the others that already exist, for example, to develop some new aspects of the social teaching of the Church. It is conceived, rather, as a new hermeneutic of the Christian faith, which means it is a new form of understanding and a realization of Christianity in its totality. For this reason, it changes all the aspects of ecclesial life, ecclesiastical structures, liturgy, catechesis, and moral options.

Liberation theology certainly has its center of gravity in South America, but it is not exclusively restricted to Latin and South America. It is unthinkable without the important influence of European and North American theologians, but it also exists in India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines,  Taiwan and Africa, even though there the research for an “African theology” is foremost. The association of theologians of the third world is strongly characterized by the amount of attention they give to themes that belong to the theology of liberation.

The theology of liberation goes beyond confessional boundaries. One of the most well known representatives of the theology of liberation, Hugo Assman, was a Catholic priest who today teaches as a Protestant in a Protestant department of theology, but continues to present himself with the claim of being above and beyond confessional boundaries. Liberation theology seeks to create from its premises, a new universality by which the classical separations of the Churches should lose their importance.



These preliminary observations have introduced us to the heart of the question. They have left open the question, what exactly is liberation theology? In a first effort to reply, we can say that liberation theology claims to give a new global interpretation of Christianity. It explains Christianity as a praxis of liberation and claims to be itself a guide to such a praxis. As according to this theology all reality is political, so liberation is a political concept and the guide to liberation must be a guide to political action.

Gutierrez says: “Nothing remains outside political commitment. All exists with a political coloration.” A theology that would not be “practical,” that is to say, essentially political, is considered “idealistic” and condemned as unreal or as a vehicle to maintain the oppressors in power. For a theologian who has learned his theology in the classical tradition and who accepts his spiritual vocation, it is difficult to imagine how we can seriously empty the global reality of Christianity into a scheme or study of the socio-political practice of liberation. This is even more difficult, however, as many theologians of liberation continue, in great measure, to use the ascetical and dogmatic language of the Church in a new key in such a way that the person from another background who reads and listens, can have the impression of finding the traditional patrimony with the addition of a few affirmations that seem somewhat strange, but which, however, joined to such religious fervor, cannot be dangerous. It is exactly the radical nature of the theology of liberation that makes one very often miss its gravity, its seriousness, because it does not enter into any existing treatment of heresy. Its starting point is found outside of what is usually accepted as a starting point for traditional methods of discussion. For this purpose, I would like to try to determine the fundamental direction of liberation theology in two steps. First, it will be necessary to say something about the presuppositions that have made it possible. Next, I would like to explain some of the basic concepts that allow us to know something of the structure of liberation theology. How did we reach such a completely new direction in theological thought as expressed in liberation theology? I see principally three factors which made it possible.

First, after the Council there was a new theological situation. The opinion was created that the existing theological tradition was no longer acceptable and, as a con-sequence, one must attempt, starting from Scripture and the signs of the times, to develop totally new theological and spiritual directions.

The idea of openness to the world and of commitment to the world was often transformed into a naive faith in science, a faith, which accepted human sciences as a new gospel without trying to recognize their limits and their own particular problems. Psychology, sociology and the Marxist interpretation of history were considered as scientifically certain and as instances of Christian thought that are no longer debatable.

The criticism of the tradition starting with the modern New Testament exegesis, especially that of Bultmann and of his school, became an indispensable theological method that closed the door on forms that up to now were valid in theology, and encouraged totally new constructions.

In the second place, this changed theological situation coincided with a changed situation of spiritual history. At the end of the reconstruction after World War II, a phase which coincided with the beginning of the Council, there was produced in the western world an obvious void of meaning to which existential philosophy, then in vogue, was not able to give any reply. In this situation, the different forms of neo – Marxism supplied a moral impulse and, at the same time, a promise of achieving meaning that appeared almost irresistible to university youth. Marxism with the religious accents of Bloch and the totally unscientific philosophies of Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas and Marcuse offered a model of action which one believed to offer a way to res-pond to the challenge of misery and poverty in the world and, at the same time, to realize the correct meaning of the biblical message.

Finally, the moral challenge of poverty and oppression was not able to be ignored after Europe and North America reached an opulence until then unknown. This challenge evidently demanded new replies that until then could not be found in the existing tradition. The changed theological and philosophical situation expressly invited seeking the reply in a Christianity that would be guided by models of hope taken from Marxist philosophies and seemingly scientifically established.



We can find quite a different reply in the different forms of liberation theology, in the theology of revolution, political theology, etc. Liberation theology cannot be presented globally. However, some fundamental concepts are constantly repeated in the different variations that ex-press common fundamental intentions. Before we pass to fundamental concepts of content, it is necessary to make an observation on the structural elements that hold liberation theology together. For this purpose, we can go to what we have already said about the changed theological situation after the Council. As was said, the exegesis of Bultmann and of his school was read as a proclamation of a “science” about Jesus; a science which must obviously be considered valid. The “Jesus of history” of Bultmann is presented, however, as separated by an abyss (Bultmann speaks of a grave) from the Christ of faith. According to Bultmann, Jesus belongs to the presuppositions of the New Testament, remaining, however, contained in the world of Judaism The final result of this exegesis consists in shaking the historical credibility of the gospels. The Christ of ecclesial tradition and the historical Jesus presented by science belong, apparently, to two different worlds. The figure of Jesus was uprooted from its position in the tradition by means of science, considered as the supreme method. In this way, on the one hand, the tradition was considered as something unreal in a void, and on the other, one was obliged to seek a new interpretation and a new meaning for the figure of Jesus. Moreover, Bultmann was important not so much for his positive affirmations as for the negative results of his critique; the nucleus of faith, Christology, remained open to new interpretations because those which had been used up until then disappeared as historically unsustainable. In the meantime, the Magisterium of the Church was abolished because it was bound to an unsustainable scientific theory, therefore, deprived of all value as a source of knowledge about Jesus. Its pronouncements can only be considered as the frustrated pronouncements of a previous scientific position.

Moreover, Bultmann was important for the further development of a second key concept. He brought back the ancient concept of hermeneutics, giving it a new dynamic. The word “hermeneutic” contains the idea that a real understanding of historical texts is not given only by means of an historic interpretation, but that every historic interpretation includes certain preliminary decisions. This was included in his use of the word hermeneutic. Hermeneutic has the task of “realizing,” in connection with the determination of the historical data. In it, according to the classical terminology, one deals with a “fusion of horizons” between the “then” and the “now.” As a consequence, it raises the question, what does the “then” mean for today? Bultmann himself replies to this question using the philosophy of Heidegger and interpreting the Bible in an existentialist sense. This reply does not have any interest any longer. In this way present day exegesis has gone beyond Bultmann. There has remained the separation between the figure of Jesus in the classical tradition and the idea that one can and should transfer this figure into the present by means of a new hermeneutics.

At this point we meet a second element of our situation, the new philosophical climate of the late sixties. The Marxist analysis of history and of society was considered as the only one with a scientific character. This meant that the world was interpreted in the light of a structure of class struggle and that the only possible choice was between capitalism and Marxism. It also meant that all reality is political and must be justified politically.

The biblical concept of “the poor” offered a starting point for the confusion between the biblical image of history and Marxist dialectic. This concept, interpreted according to the idea of the proletariat in a Marxist sense, justifies Marxism as a legitimate hermeneutic for an understanding of the Bible. According to this understanding, only two options exist or can exist. Moreover, to contradict this interpretation of the Bible means nothing less than an expression of the dominant class to preserve its power. Gutierrez affirms: “If class struggle is an actual fact then neutrality on this point is absolutely impossible.” From this point of view, any intervention of the ecclesial magisterium is impossible. In the case in which it is opposed to such an interpretation of Christianity, it would only show that it was on the side of the rich and the dominators against the poor and the suffering, that is, against Jesus himself, who in the dialectic of history would have been on the side of criticism.

This apparently “scientific” and “hermeneutically” unavoidable decision determines by itself the way for further interpretation of Christianity both for what concerns the interpretative work as well as for the contents that are interpreted. Concerning the methods of interpretation, the decisive concepts are people, community, experience and history. If up to now the Catholic Church was the fundamental hermeneutical instance, in its totality transcending time and space, embracing laity (sensus fidei) and hierarchy (Magisterium), today it has become the community. The lived reality and the experiences of the “community” determine now the understanding and the interpretation of Scripture. Again, one can say, apparently in a rigorously scientific way, that the figure of Jesus presented in the gospels constitutes a synthesis of events and interpretations of the experience of particular communities where, however, the interpretation is much more important than the event, which in itself is no longer determinable. This original synthesis of the event and of its interpretation can be dissolved and restructured over and over again. The community “interprets” with its “experience” the events and finds in this way its “praxis.”

We find this idea in a slightly different form in the concept of people, according to which one transforms the conciliar emphasis on the idea of the “people of God” into a Marxist myth. The experiences of the people explain the Scriptures. “People” become a concept opposed to that of “hierarchy,” and in antithesis to all the institutions that are indicated as forces of oppression. Finally, it is the people who participate in the “class struggle:” the popular Church (Iglesia popular) is in opposition to the hierarchical Church.

Finally, the concept of “history” becomes a decisive hermeneutical aspect. The opinion, considered scientifically sound and irrefutable that the Bible reasons exclusively in terms of the history of salvation and therefore in an anti-metaphysical way, allows the fusion of the biblical horizon with the Marxist idea of history which proceeds dialectically as authentic bearer of salvation. History is the authentic revelation and, therefore, the true hermeneutical instance of the interpretation of the Bible. Such a dialectic is sometimes supported by reference to pneumatology. In any case, it sees in the Magisterium that insists upon permanent truths an instance that is hostile to progress since it thinks “metaphysically” and, in this way, contradicts “history.” One can say that the concept of history absorbs the concept of God and revelation. The “historicity” of the Bible should justify its absolutely predominant role and must at the same time justify its passage to a Marxist, materialist philosophy in which history has assumed the role of God.



We have now reached the fundamental concepts of the content of the new interpretation of Christianity. Because the contexts in which the different concepts appear are diverse, I would like to quote some without any claims of a synthesis. We can begin with the new interpretation of faith, hope and charity. Concerning faith, for example, J. Sobrino affirms that the experience that Jesus had of God is radically historical. “His faith is converted into fidelity.” Sobrino, however, fundamentally substitutes “fidelity to history” for faith. “Jesus is faithful to the profound conviction that the mystery of the life of men … is really ultimate …” Here one sees the fusion between God and history which gives Sobrino the possibility of preserving for Jesus the formula of Chalcedon, even if it has a completely changed meaning. One sees how classical criteria of orthodoxy are not applicable to the analysis of this theology. Ignacio Ellacuria on the dust jacket of his book on the same topic affirms that Sobrino “says again … that Jesus is God, adding, however, immediately that the true God is only the one who is revealed historically and scandalously in Jesus and in the poor who continue his presence. Only one who maintains these two affirmations together is orthodox . . .”

Hope is interpreted as “confidence in the future” and as work for the future; in that way, it is subordinated again to the domination of the history of the classes.

Love consists in an “option for the poor,” that is, it coincides with an option for class struggle. Theologians of liberation underline very strongly, in opposition to “false universalism,” the partiality and partial character of the Christian option; to take sides is, according to them, a fundamental requisite for a correct hermeneutics of the biblical witness. In my opinion one can recognize very clearly here the mixture of the fundamental truth of Christianity and the fundamental non-Christian option which makes this thought so seductive. The Sermon on the Mount is, in reality, a choice on the part of God in favor of the poor. But the interpretation of the poor in the sense of Marxist, dialectical history and the interpretation of the choice of a party in terms of class struggle, is a move towards “other genres” (eis allo genos) in which the contrary is presented as identical.

The fundamental concept of the preaching of Jesus is the “kingdom of God.” This concept is found again at the center of the theologies of liberation, read however, against the background of Marxist hermeneutics. According to Sobrino, the kingdom cannot be understood spiritually or universally in the sense of an abstract eschatological reserve. It must be understood in a party form and turned towards practice. Only if we start with the praxis of Jesus and not theoretically, is it possible to say what the kingdom means, i.e., to work in the historical reality that surrounds us, to transform it into the kingdom. Here one must mention also the fundamental idea of a certain kind of post-conciliar theology that has moved in this direction. Many have maintained that according to the Council one must overcome every form of dualism, dualism of body and soul, of natural and supernatural, of imminence and transcendence, of present and future. After the dismantling of these dualisms, there remains only the possibility of working for a kingdom which is realized in this history and in its political and economic reality.

But it is precisely here that one has stopped working for the man of today and one begins to destroy the present in favor of a hypothetical future. In this way one immediately produces a true dualism.

In this context I would like to mention a surprising and fearful interpretation that Sobrino has given of the death and resurrection. Above all, he establishes, against the universalist concepts, that the resurrection is first a hope for those who have been crucified, and they constitute the majority of mankind, those millions on whom structural justice is imposed like a slow crucifixion. The believer, however, participates in the Lordship of Jesus over history through the building of the kingdom, that is, in the struggle for justice’ and for integral liberation and the transformation of unjust structures into more human structures. This lordship over history is exercised, repeating in history the action of God who raised Jesus, that is, giving life again to the crucified over history. Man has assumed God’s role and here the total transformation of the biblical message is shown in an almost tragic way, if one thinks of how this attempt at imitating God is explicit and is also explained.

I would like to cite another concept: the exodus is transformed into a central image of the history of salvation; the Paschal mystery is understood as a revolutionary symbol and therefore the Eucharist is interpreted as a liberation feast in the sense of a political, messianic hope and of its practice. The word “redemption” is generally replaced by “liberation,” which in its turn is understood against the background of history and class struggle as a process of liberation that moves forward.

Finally, the emphasis placed on praxis is fundamental. The truth cannot be understood in a metaphysical way; this is “idealism.” The truth must be realized in history and in practice. Action is truth. Consequently, even the ideas that are used for action are, in the last analysis, interchangeable. The only decisive thing is praxis. Orthopraxis becomes the only true orthodoxy. An enormous distance from the biblical texts is thus justified; critical history liberates from traditional interpretation which appears as non-scientific. Concerning the tradition, the liberation theologian gives importance to the greatest scientific rigor, along the lines of Bultmann. But, in turn, the historically determined contents of the Bible cannot be binding in an absolute way. The instrument for interpretation is not, in the final analysis, historical research, but the hermeneutic of history experienced in the community, that is, in political groups above all, given the fact that the greater part of the same biblical contents are considered as a product of this community hermeneutic.

If one seeks to offer a global judgment, one must say that when we try to understand the fundamental options of liberation theology, one cannot deny that the whole theology contains an almost irrefutable logic. On the one hand, with the premises of biblical criticism and of hermeneutics founded upon experience, and on the other hand, with the Marxist analysis of history, one succeeds in creating a global vision of Christianity which seems to respond fully to the demands of science and of the moral challenges of our day. Moreover, people of today have the obligation to make of Christianity an instrument for the transformation of the world which seems united to all the progressive forces of our era. One can understand, then, how this new interpretation of Christianity attracts more and more theologians, priests and religious, especially in the light of the problems of the third world. To abstain from it must necessarily appear in their eyes to be an evasion of the real and a renunciation of reason and moral thought. On the other hand, if one thinks how radical this interpretation of Christianity that derives from it really is, the problem of what one can and must do about it becomes even more urgent.


  • Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

    Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Before his appointment to Rome, he was archbishop of Munich. He was a professor of theology at several German universities and the author of many books including ,Introduction to Christianity, Principles of Catholic Theology and God and the World.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...