How Not to Debate Liberation Theology: Avoid the Real Argument


June 1, 1987

I have worked with Michael Novak on five books and countless articles, speeches, and columns. Like my predecessors, I occasionally wonder whether reviewers are reading different versions of Novak’s books than mine. Criticizing his, or anyone else’s views is usually helpful; such debate is the essence of civilization. But little is served by ignoring or distorting an author’s views, especially if it obscures the actual points of agreement and disagreement in a controversy.

Two reviews of Novak’s latest book, Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology (Paulist Press), provide typical examples. Harvey Cox, writing in the April 5 Washington Post Book World, gives a greatly oversimplified summary of the book. First, Latin Americans could have prospered like Japan or Singapore, but their cultural traits have worked against that so far. Second, Chile, for example, could benefit from labor leaders, journalists, scholars, and other Americans to try to shed light on how democracy can be rebuilt and a wounded economy brought back to growth. Cox has no comment on the first point but scoffs at the second and describes it as “intervention from Uncle Sam” (as in deposing Marcos?). Then he complains that Novak does not discuss liberation theologians’ biblical scholarship, Christology, liturgy, and so on. “One suspects at times that these crucial pillars of liberation theology do not really interest him much.” But Novak asserts that, on these points, he agrees with liberation theologians. Their spirituality “is classic. It rings true.”

Cox concludes with a call for the raising of “serious questions” about liberation theology, yet nowhere in his review; does Cox mention the question raised in the book’s title: Will it liberate? One suspects at times this question does not really interest Cox much. But what question is more important, especially for a theology that insists on the importance of praxis? Cox strongly implies that Novak cares little about the poor but never mentions that Novak argues “for the merits of capitalism” precisely in the name of the poor.

The current debate over liberation theology, in fact, is about how to help the poor be poor no longer. No one thinks they ought to remain poor. Novak, no less than the liberation theologians, calls for radical changes of political economy to liberate the poor. The crucial points of the debate, ignored by Cox, arise over the question of which institutions will in practice liberate the poor. It is here that Novak both prods liberation theology and offers clear, practical alternatives (such as those of Hernando de Soto). For Cox to remain silent on these criticisms is to display little confidence in the ability of liberation theologians to respond to serious challenge.

Similarly, in another review of Will It Liberate? (Christianity and Crisis, April 6), Robert McAfee Brown ignores Novak’s main argument, and his description of Novak’s views is not at all faithful to the text. Brown’s major criticism is that Novak gives support to the status quo in Latin America and opposes change. Brown’s concluding passage asserts that “The Good News is that God wills liberation from bondage, not acceptance of it. Here, in other words, is the crucial difference between Novak and the liberation theologians.” But this is by no means the point of difference; on this point, there is unanimity. Novak repeatedly calls for revolutionary change in Latin America; his book’s cover (drawn by his wife, Karen Laub-Novak) depicts Latin America in chains. As early as the fourth paragraph of the introduction, Novak writes:

There is much in Latin American liberation theology to admire. There can be no question that great revolutions in political economy are necessary, in Latin America, if that great and much-blessed continent is to fulfill its full human destiny. That in so many places the human rights of its citizens are abused, and that so many of its peoples live in wretched poverty, are conditions undoubtedly in need of change.

Nearly all quotations Brown cites to buttress his criticisms are falsely torn from context. Consider them one by one:

(1) Brown says that Novak basically wants to prove that the liberation theologians are Marxist. This is false. (Harvey Cox praised Novak for showing it is false.) It is also irrelevant. Most liberation theologians, Novak often points out, are not Marxist, even when some occasionally use bits of “Marxist analysis.” As the years have gone on, most have explicitly criticized Marxism. Nevertheless, Brown writes that Novak has an “overwhelming penchant for finding Marxist ideology lurking behind every liberation utterance,” as for example in the very opening of Novak’s first chapter which, Brown says, raises “Marx as a spectre.” In fact, it is not exactly Novak who raises that spectre. The first chapter begins: ” ‘Christ led me to Marx,’ bluntly declares Ernesto Cardenal… ‘I’m a Marxist who believes in God, follows Christ and is a revolutionary for the sake of his kingdom.'” A little later, Novak writes: “it would be a great mistake…to think that all liberation theology is Marxist.”

(2) Brown quotes a small portion of a passage from Novak (the third of three points) — “Once their first self-defining act is to declare themselves ‘oppressed,’ they have sided with Marx and Lenin” — in order to rejoin: “For an outsider to say, in effect, ‘You only talk about oppression in order to score points for Marx and Lenin,’ betrays an insensitivity to the daily ugly realities that dominate the lives of millions of Latin Americans.” But Novak agrees, and in that context he writes:

It is easy to understand why liberation theologians take this step. As Dussel says, many were educated in Europe and, on their return, found that they had been educated away from the common world of the poor of Latin America, and the condition of the Latin American poor shocked them.

In the same context, Novak also describes those “daily ugly realities”:

For vast majorities in the social pyramid the social texture of life is thin, hardly more than family-centered, and bereft of social power. A few activist elites — often locked in bitter rivalries — represent almost the entire substance of social potency. The masses slumber.

In such a context, each one of us might be tempted to proceed exactly as the liberation theologians have proceeded.

(3) Brown writes that Novak’s charge that “Latin American liberation theology exists at present much more powerfully in books than in reality” is the claim of “an academic. It has little or nothing to do with the reality of 100,000 base communities, in which peasants, often unlettered, are living out a dynamic liberation faith….” But the sentence Brown quotes comes after Novak faults North American thinkers for having failed to develop an adequate theory about their own daily practices, whereas, “By contrast, Latin American liberation theology exists at present much more powerfully in books than in reality. In reality, it has entered the lives of only a few million of Latin America’s 406 million inhabitants.”

(4) Brown describes as a “cheap shot” Novak’s comment that some liberation theologians “plainly do not wish to be too clear” about what they mean by socialism. “The notion,” Brown writes, “that committed Christian theologians like Leonardo Boff, Gus¬tavo Gutierrez, and Jose Miguez Bonino … are devising clever traps to ensnare the Michael Novaks of this world is absurd.” Brown then quotes a passage that occurs two paragraphs later, under another heading, about Marxists who “mask their true aims….” From this conjoining of quotations, one would think Novak characterizes all liberation theologians as duplicitous Marxists. In fact, Novak cites Popes John Paul II and Paul VI on this possibility among some. Further, the chapter in question, “What Do They Mean by Socialism?” is explicitly divided into five distinct types: I. The Cuban Model; II. The Traditional Socialism of the Intellectuals; III. Juan Luis Segundo; IV. Gustavo Gutierrez; V. Democratic Socialism. The first passage Brown quotes is from the chapter’s general introduction; the second is under “The Cuban Model.”

Incidentally, though Brown thinks it is a “cheap shot” to ask whether some liberation theologians are hiding their true opinions on Marxism, Ernesto Cardenal does not. In an interview with the Christian Peace Conference [December 5, 1986; see the Documentation section in this issue] he said: “Some liberation theologians maintain that they are not influenced by Marxist philosophy at all. In this case it is necessary to discern whether they say this for tactical reasons, so as not to be compromised politically or whether they are really convinced that Marxism doesn’t influence them in any way. I personally think that it is not possible to evade the influence of Marxism….”

(5) Finally, Brown quotes a passage from Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982): “The Incarnation obliges us to reduce our noblest expectations.” Brown rejoins: “Surely the Christian faith proclaims the opposite: The Incarnation obliges us to enlarge our noblest expectations….” Though Brown does not indicate it, he has abridged the sentence he quoted. The original reads: “The Incarnation obliges us to reduce our noblest expectations, so to love the world as to fit a political economy to it, nourishing all that is best in it” This sentence concludes a four-page section in Spirit devoted to the Incarnation wherein Novak writes:

The world is not going to become — ever — a kingdom of justice and love. This is not a counsel against hope. It is a moderate and realistic response to the questions of Kant: “who are we? What ought we to do? What may we hope?”

…We may hope that great deeds may be done through us, even though we in person never live to see their fruits. We may hope that time is God’s narrative and that through its fullness yet more of His justice and mercy will be revealed. We may hope His kingdom will unfold in our midst partially and gradually, as yeast unfolds in dough or as seeds do in the ground. We may hope in modest progress but not in final victory over irrationality and sin. We may hope in revolutions if they are rooted in realism, but not in utopia. We may hope in the capacities of human decency, but not without vigilance. We may hope in common sense and in practical wisdom, in plain love and heroic virtue, but we must be ready for betrayals.

These hopes are modest hopes….They are conservative by comparison with every form of utopia. They are progressive by comparison with every form of cynicism.

This last quotation shows once again that the distance between Novak and the liberation theologians is not as great as Brown’s review suggests. Though Brown apparently wishes to conceal it, Novak’s respect for the liberation theologians lies above all in agreeing that radical change should come in Latin America so that the poor will be liberated. But the first step in their liberation necessarily involves the question of means: How can the poor be liberated?

Brown accuses Novak of ignoring liberation theologians’ answers in order to propound his “own economic stance.” Admittedly, part of Will It Liberate? is devoted to discussions of how Novak thinks Latin America’s poor can, in practice, be liberated. But his “stance” is not solely his own; it is the vision of liberation offered by Smith and Mill, Madison and Jefferson, Tocqueville, Lincoln, Acton, and others. This vision has been taken up in Latin America by, among others, Hernando de Soto in Peru, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Rangel, and (in politics, if not economics) Octavio Paz. (Novak’s book is dedicated to such persons.)

Liberals were the first to raise the question, How can humans be liberated? They did so long before the liberation theologians, and their answers to that crucial question remain the principal practical alternative to liberation theology. Their answers have long been submitted for judgment in the harsh light of praxis. For two hundred years liberal democracies have, despite their shortcomings, assisted in the liberation of millions of the poor, who continue to flock to them.

Dialogue requires the simultaneous consideration of alternatives. Robert McAfee Brown seems to prefer that liberal alternatives not surface when the liberation of the poor is discussed. He seems not to want the debate Novak calls for: a debate not over whether the poor shall be liberated, but how, practically, they can be. In short, a debate about praxis.


  • Scott Walter

    Scott Walter is executive vice president of the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C. He also heads Campion Consulting, which provides philanthropic consulting for donors in the fields of education, civic literacy, and aid to the underprivileged; and customized writing for nonprofits and businesses. A graduate of Georgetown University, Scott lives with his wife, Erica, and their four children in Maryland.

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