Liberation Theology: Nothing New Under the Sun

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun. This is certainly true of the contemporary version of liberation theology, for the Medieval Church frequently engaged in its own version of the practice. To be sure, the jargon has changed, but the game remains the same — a quest for secular political power, a quest that is inevitably corrupting.

Today’s theology of liberation is an attempt to fuse Christianity with Marxist dogma. Christ is portrayed as the radical from Nazareth who is a political and revolutionary figure. Liberation theologians, such as Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez in A Theology of Liberation, urge Christians to actively engage in the overthrow of corrupt “reactionary” political systems through the use of Marxist-Leninist categories and practice. The ultimate result will be, they assure us, a millennial age on earth. Liberation theology has many adherents and sympathizers among the literati of Western Europe and the United States; however, the center for the practice of liberation theology is Latin America, where even priests occasionally discard their Roman collars and join guerrilla bands. And after the revolution the guer¬rilla-clerics also claim their share of the spoils in the form of government posts, as in Nicaragua where several Jesuits participate in the Sandinista regime.

John Paul II, in a 1979 speech to a conference of Latin American bishops, warned that “The Church wishes to stay free with regard to the competing systems in order to opt only for man. Whatever the miseries or sufferings that afflict man, it is not through violence, the interplay of power and political systems but through the truth concerning man that he journeys toward a better future …” and that the human condition can be ameliorated. During the Pope’s most recent journey to Central America, he strongly criticized the involvement of priests and nuns in the leftist revolutionary activity that is roiling the region.

John Paul has good reason to be concerned; Church history contains many examples of the corrupting influence of a drive for secular power. Moliere, in his classic 17th century satire, Tartuffe, effectively attacks the confusion of spiritual with worldly political authority:

These charlatans, I say, whose pilgrim souls
Proceed, by way of Heaven, toward earthly goals,
Who weep and pray and swindle and extort,
Who preach the monkish life, but haunt the court,
Who make their zeal the partner of their vice
Such men are vengeful, sly, and cold as ice,
And when there is an enemy to defame
They cloak their spite in fair religion’s name,
Their private spleen and malice being made
To seem a high and virtuous crusade,
Until, to mankind’s reverent applause,
They crucify their foe in Heaven’s cause.

A brief examination of the Medieval Church further illuminates the implications of liberation theology — the theology of the modern Tartuffes.

Prior to the eleventh century the attitude of the pious Christian towards a corrupt environment was to withdraw as much as possible from the world in order to avoid contamination. When, in the eleventh century, a spiritual revival began in Europe, the new goal, pioneered by a reform Papacy, became conversion rather than withdrawal. There were two approaches to implementing conversion, which might be characterized as “reform from the bottom” and “reform from the top.” Reform from the bottom was personified by St. Francis of Assisi, who, while traveling among the people of the towns and countryside, worked towards the moral and spiritual regeneration of society through personal example and preaching.

The alternative, reform from the top, is the medieval equivalent of liberation theology, mutatis mutandis. Reform from the top involved an independent Papacy actively engaging in the politics of empires and kingdoms. In the mid-eleventh century, beginning with Leo IX, the Church waged a war against simony and unrestraint. Then in 1075 Gregory VII insisted that the Papacy was the final authority in all temporal, as well as spiritual, affairs, and eventually the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, went to Canossa. But Canossa symbolized the start of two centuries of struggle between the Papacy and secular authorities over temporal power.

The end sought by the Popes was idealistic: the creation of a genuine Christian society throughout Europe. However, this worthy objective gradually led the Church leaders to employ the tactics of secular political struggle and diplomacy. Whereas most of the Popes of the High Middle Ages were personally pious, their public wheeling and dealing could not be distinguished from the behavior of a Frederick Barbarossa.

Undoubtedly, the advocates of liberation theology enter the political arena with good intentions, but soon one cannot distinguish them (save for the Roman collars when donned) from the rest of the politicians, terrorists and guerrillas. Just as the spiritual credibility of the Medieval Papacy was gradually eroded, the moral authority of the modern liberation theologians evaporates and mingles with the rest of the turgid revolutionary steam billowing out over the world.

The most profound dilemmas of the human condition are not solved by governments. This insight is evoked by Robert Frost’s plea from “Build Soil”:

“I bid you to a one –man

revolution —

The only revolution that is


The path to healing the spirit lies through the inspiration of a St. Francis. In a materialistic and debauched age, the advocates of liberation theology — the Tartuffes of the Twentieth century — only make our time a little darker.

  • John T. Fennell

    John T. Fennell has an advanced degree in political science from UCLA and at the time this article was written, he had been published in periodicals, newspapers, and academic journals.

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