Whither Liberation Theology? A Historical Evaluation

What is liberation theology? Why has a relatively new theological current in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America become front page news in the world press? One reason for the attention liberation theology is receiving is the polarization of opinion, pro-and-con, as to its implications. For Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in a private memorandum published in the Italian press in 1984, it is a “fundamental threat to the Faith of the Church.” For the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Office) in its 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation, it “uses concepts uncritically borrowed from Marxist ideology . . . .” To Catholic novelist Walker Percy, it is a “perversion of Christianity . . . . They justify killing (and) joining Marxist- Leninist revolutions.” In September 1984 the Vatican ordered a leading liberation theologian, the Brazilian Franciscan, Leonardo Boff, to observe a period of “penitential silence” beginning in April 1985.

In the United States, the Wall Street Journal frequently has published articles on the subject, and the Departments of State and Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the United States Information Agency have asked theologians to analyze and interpret the implications of liberation theology, especially its revolutionary potential for Latin America and the Philippines. In the last twelve months four major academic conferences have been held at various universities in the United States and Canada, and the founder of the movement, Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, is currently a Visiting Professor at the University of Michigan.

By no means all of the evaluations of liberation theology are hostile. Fidel Castro in 23 hours of interviews with a Brazilian liberation theologian, Frei Betto, published as Fidel and Religion, expressed his enthusiasm for the movement and called for a “strategic and lasting alliance” between Marxists and Christians “to transform the world.” In the United States, leading American theologians such as Robert McAfee Brown and John Coleman, S.J. have described it in enthusiastic terms. Its influence is clear in Social Analysis, an American textbook on religion and social justice by Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S.J. This book sold 50,000 copies in its 1980 edition and in its second edition continues to be widely used by religious study groups, workshops, and seminars. At the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome in December 1985, the Colombian General Secretary of the Latin American Bishops Conference, Bishop Dario Castrillon Hoyos, attacked liberation theology for using “instruments that are not specific to the Gospel” and for promoting “hate as a system of change.” The president of the Brazilian Bishops Conference replied, “Liberation theology is not a theology that assumes or justifies Marxist ideology. (It) presupposes a new consciousness of the context of oppression . . . a conversion to the poor and a commitment to their liberation. Liberation theology is indispensable to the church’s activity and to the social commitment of Christians.”

In March 1986, the Vatican published a second Instruction on the subject in which, while warning against reducing “the salvific dimension of liberation . . . to the socio-ethical dimension which is a consequence of it,” it supported “the special option for the poor” favored by the liberation theologians, and described the Basic Christian Communities which they had promoted as “a source of great hope for the church.” A few weeks later, the pope himself seemed to endorse the movement when he wrote to the Brazilian bishops that as long as it is in harmony with the teaching of the Church, “we are convinced, we and you, that the theology of liberation is not only timely but useful and necessary. It should constitute a new state — in close connection with the former ones — of theological reflection.”

What is it about liberation theology that elicits such strong opposing responses? To answer this question it is necessary to examine its history and sort out the various elements in what is a complex and evolving current of theological reflection. The term itself is taken from A Theology of Liberation, the title of a book by Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian priest, which was published in Spanish in 1971 and in English two years later. But its essential elements first appeared in the 1960s. The sixties were a period of ferment and revolution both in Latin America and in the Roman Catholic Church. Early in the decade Pope John XXIII had called for an aggiornamento (updating) of the Catholic Church, and had published several socially oriented encyclicals, the best known of which is Pacem in Terris (1963). This encyclical had finally committed the Church to democracy, human rights, and religious freedom.

The commitment was formalized by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which ended the self-imposed insulation of the Catholic Church from modernity, opened the church to other religious and philosophical currents, and formally endorsed democratic government and religious pluralism. (See especially two of the Council’s final documents, “The Church in the Modern World,” Gaudium et Spes; and “The Declaration on Religious Freedom,” Dignitatis Humanae.) In a way those documents only recognized changes that had already taken place in contemporary Catholicism. In Europe and Latin America large Christian Democratic parties had emerged which were committed to democracy, freedom, and the welfare state; in Italy, Germany, and Belgium as well as in Venezuela and Chile, they were major contenders for power. These parties had developed as representatives of Catholic social teachings, articulated in papal encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931) which criticized both the egoism of “liberal capitalism” and the collectivism of “atheistic socialism.” However, while the earlier papal writings had proposed a quasi-corporatist political structure which might be either democratic or authoritarian, the Christian Democrats strongly supported pluralistic democracy, human rights, and a mixed economy.

The Second Vatican Council legitimized philosophical and religious pluralism, endorsing dialogue not only with other Christians, Jews, and Moslems but also with agnostics, atheists, and Marxists. Christian-Marxist dialogues had already been taking place in Europe; in Latin America, however, the Church strongly opposed Communism — especially in its Castroite form, which in the wake of the Cuban revolution had acquired a new appeal to intellectuals and youth. Church-inspired labor, youth, and student groups joined with the Christian Democratic Parties to promote democratic reform as a viable alternative to the Cuban model of revolution. In the same period the United States government established the Alliance for Progress to demonstrate that with U.S. financial support democratic governments could promote reforms in land tenure, taxation, education, and social welfare, thereby proving that revolution is not necessary to secure social progress. U.S. and Latin American social scientists wrote about solving the problems of modernization in the Third World by promoting development — especially economic development — which responds to a perceived “revolution of rising expectations.” As millions flocked to Latin America’s already overcrowded major cities, economists argued that the promotion of industrialization through import-substitution and economic integration, as well as agricultural development through agrarian reform, would provide the basis for a democratic response to the underdevelopment of the continent.

Gustavo Gutierrez and the Critique of Developmentalism

By the last half of the sixties it was apparent that the millennium was not about to arrive in Latin America. Military coups in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and Bolivia, and continuing military domination in Central America, demonstrated that a democratic future for Latin America was not inevitable. The agrarian reform programs bogged down or were emasculated. Latin America’s economic integration fell afoul of nationalist economic pressure groups. Latin America did not seem to be approaching the “takeoff– which had been promised by the theories contained in Walt Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth early in the decade.

Why not? Some Latin American social scientists argued that Latin America had been kept in a state of underdevelopment because of its dependencia on the developed countries in the capitalist world, especially the United States. Students and intellectuals became disillusioned with the possibilities of reformism, and argued that a more revolutionary approach along Cuban lines was necessary.

In Catholic-influenced groups, such as the Catholic universities in Lima and Santiago and the International Movement of Catholic Students (MIEC), this led to a rethinking of the developmentalist models of the earlier part of the decade. Much of this rethinking was related to the meeting of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM) held at Medellin, Colombia in 1968. In a preparatory seminar at Chimbote, Peru, Father Gutierrez first set out the themes that were to be developed in later papers and books. He was also present at, and influenced the content of the final documents of, the Medellin meeting. These documents spoke of the need of the transformation of man in the light of the Gospel as “an action of integral development and liberation” and denounced poverty in Latin America. They referred to “a deafening cry from the throats of millions asking for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else” and calling for the church to “give effective preference to the poorest and most needy sectors.” In the most controversial sections of the Medellin documents, the bishops asserted that “the principal guilt for the economic dependence of our countries rests with powers inspired by uncontrolled desire for gain,” and declared that “in many instances, Latin America finds itself faced with a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence.”

As Latin America (along with, one might note, the United States, France, and many other countries) became more radicalized at the end of the 1960s, the Medellin documents appeared to legitimize a corresponding radicalization of the Catholic intelligentsia. In Chile, for example, the rebelde left of the Christian Democratic Party split off in 1969 to form part of the Allende Popular Unity coalition in the 1970 elections, which was followed by another split by the Christian Left in 1971. Because of the expansion of air travel, like-minded Catholic and Protestant theologians were able to meet in many parts of the continent; Gutierrez took the lead in forming a theologically-based Catholic radicalism which he called liberation theology.

As articulated in English first in an article in the Jesuit journal Theological Studies (“Notes for a Theology of Liberation,” June 1970), Gutierrez argued that for

poor countries, oppressed and dominated, the word, liberation, is appropriate: rather than development. Latin America will never get out of its plight except by a profound transformation, a social revolution that will radically change the conditions it lives in at present. Today a more or less Marxist inspiration prevails among those groups and individuals who are raising the banner of the continent’s liberation. And for many in our continent, this liberation will have to pass, sooner or later, through paths of violence . . . .

Gutierrez quoted the Medellin bishops on the “institutionalized violence” in Latin America and related it to the “situation of dependence” and “condition of neocolonialism” in Latin America. He called for the Latin American Church “to break her ties with the present order,” to “denounce the fundamental injustices on which it is based,” and to commit itself to the poor as the bishops at Medellin had done.

In the book that followed the article, Gutierrez criticized the developmentalism that provides only palliatives that “in the long run actually consolidate an exploitative system.” He attacked Christian Democracy for its “naive reformism,” describing it as “only a justifying ideology . . . for the few to keep living off the poverty of the many.” Referring to Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach (“Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is, to change it”), Gutierrez defined liberation theology as “critical reflection on Christian praxis in the light of the Word.” Theology needed “a scientific and structural knowledge of socio-economic mechanisms and historical dynamics,” and this would come from a recognition of dependence, “the domination exercised by the great capitalist countries and especially, by the most powerful, the United States of America.” That domination was a result of the “worldwide class struggle between the oppressed countries and dominant peoples.” New solutions, “most frequently of socialist inspiration” were emerging involving a variety of different approaches, “a broad rich and intense revolutionary praxis” which sought a “qualitatively different society” and “the building of a new man.” Among those approaches, Gutierrez cited one that was to be central to the future development of liberation theology — the literacy programs of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. (See Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed [1970].) Freire recommended a process of concientizacao, by which the oppressed person becomes aware of his situation and is encouraged to find a language which makes him “less dependent and more free as he commits himself to the transformation and building up of society.”

Freire’s methods were already being applied in a new movement of renewal within the Brazilian church — the Basic Christian Communities (CEB’s). These small face-to- face groups, usually located in rural or marginal areas, discussed the application of selected passages of the Bible to their daily lives, in ways that the liberation theologians saw as an example of the praxis that they were promoting. Along with the structuralist critique of capitalism, the Basic Christian Communities rapidly became a central element of the liberationist social program.

In a section of A Theology of Liberation which was to be quoted often by his opponents, Gutierrez called for the abolition of the private ownership of capital because it leads to “the exploitation of man by man,” and insisted that “the class struggle is a fact and neutrality in this question is not possible.” “To love one’s enemies presupposes recognizing and accepting that one has class enemies and that it is necessary to combat them . . . .”

What his critics do not quote is Gutierrez’s discussion of “a spirituality of liberation,” which he was to develop further in the 1980s. This involves a recognition that “conversion to God implies conversion to neighbor in an act of gratuitousness which allows one to encounter others fully, the universal encounter which is the foundation of communion of men among themselves and of men with God” producing a joy and celebration which is “the feast of the Christian Community.” However, rather than develop what could have been a fruitful theological exploration, Gutierrez returns to themes of the relation of the church to ideology and the class struggle. Biblical references begin for the first time (there are none in the first eight chapters), but only in the last chapter is there a meditation on the biblical meaning of poverty.

Structuralist Anti-Capitalism, Grass-roots Communities, and the Hermeneutic of Praxis

Gutierrez’s discussion of Christian community suggests a problem that was to dog the liberation theologians as their thinking developed — the relation between a conflictual and a cooperative model of society. The liberationists borrowed from the left a belief in conflicting interests and structural oppression as an explanation for poverty and oppression. Yet they also share the Christian belief in community and charity. The conflict is partially but not fully resolved through their support of Basic Christian Communities, made up primarily of the poor and underprivileged who are to apply the Bible to the solution of their day-to-day problems through a process of grass-roots democracy and participation. From the outset, liberation theology thus has contained both elements: a structuralist anti-capitalism, and a populist grass-roots communitarianism. The relation, interaction, and occasional tension between the two continues as it develops over time. The: different implications of the two elements also help to explain the varying reactions to the movement. The Brazilian bishops who see it primarily as the theoretical support for the Basic Christian Communities, of which there are now upwards of 100,000 in Brazil, take a different attitude from the members of the Colombian hierarchy, who view it as a justification for Christian participation in the guerrilla movements that have plagued that country for the last three decades.

For the academic theologian, however, what was exciting about liberation theology was its claim to have developed a new way of reading the Gospels — a “hermeneutic of praxis” arising out of the experience of the poor as related to the Bible and to historical experience. The rejection of the abstract intellectualism of the earlier social teachings of the church in favor of direct social involvement by committed Christians came at a time when new alternative approaches were being opened by the assimilation of the changes of the Second Vatican Council, and help to account for the rapid development of the movement.

Christians for Socialism in Chile

Another reason for the spread of liberation theology’s influence and the increase in its controversial character in the early 1970s was the emergence in Chile of what appeared to be an example of the kind of social analysis and transformation described by Gutierrez and other liberation theologians. In September 1970 Salvador Allende, the candidate of a coalition of Marxist, lay, and Christian leftist groups, Popular Unity, was elected president of Chile with 36 percent of the popular vote, and subsequently confirmed by the Chilean congress. Allende was a Marxist Socialist committed to assisting the poor and oppressed and to opposing dependence and American imperialism. A major partner in his coalition was the Chilean Communist Party, the largest such party in Latin America outside of Cuba. However, Allende took pains to maintain good relations with the Catholic Church, and to appoint to important positions members of the Catholic-inspired parties in his coalition. A year-and-a-half after he came to power, a group of pro-Allende Christians organized a meeting of Christians for Socialism with representation from various Christian left groups throughout Latin America. The meeting adopted resolutions characterized by heavily Marxist rhetoric, and the Chilean bishops finally forbade Chilean Catholics to participate in it. Gutierrez participated in the meeting, as did others now identified with what had become an emerging theological school in Latin America, and its extremism led other Latin Americans, especially in Colombia, to attack the movement and to take measures to counteract its influence. (See the documents in John Eagleson, ed., Christians and Socialism [1975], and criticisms in Teresa Panoso Loero, Los Cristianos por el Socialismo [1975], and Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, Liberacion Marxista y Liberacion Cristiana [1974].)

One of the more active participants in the meeting in Chile was Hugo Assmann, a Brazilian of German extraction, who wrote a book, later translated as A Theology for a Nomad Church (1976), at the time he was living in Chile. Marking the high (or low) point of the lyrical leftism of the liberation theologians, it was characterized by over statements such as “The concept of development has been shown up for the lie that it is,” and a quotation from a Brazilian Protestant, Rubem Alves, “Truth is the name given by an historical community to the historical actions which were, are, and will be efficacious in the liberation of man.” For Assmann, “Commitment to liberation means introducing the class struggle into the church itself,” although “a truly historical reading of the Bible, particularly of the message of Christ, leads to a whole series of radical questions to which Marxism has not paid sufficient attention, of which perhaps the most significant is the Christian affirmation of victory over death, that final alienation to which Marxism can find no satisfactory answer.”

Another influential liberation theologian, and the only one to have two studies of his theology written about him in English, is Juan Luis Segundo, a Uruguayan Jesuit. While his most important contribution is the analysis of the ideological conditioning of theological discourse in The Liberation of Theology (1976), the most frequently cited (and attacked) passage in his writings is his definition of socialism as “the political regime in which the ownership of the means of production is removed from individuals and handed over to higher institutions whose concern is the common good.” (See “Capitalism and Socialism the Theological Crux” in Claude Geffre and Gustavo Gutierrez, eds., The Mystical and Political Dimension of the Christian Faith, [19741.) To requests for more details concerning a future socialist society, Segundo replied lamely that to demand that “Latin America put forward a project for a socialist society which will guarantee in advance that the evident defects of known socialist societies will be avoided” was like asking Christ before he cured the sick man to “guarantee that the cure will not be followed by even graver illnesses.”

Critics of the liberation theologians often note such vagueness in their discussions of the future socialist society, and the absence of explicit criticisms of Marxist states. Yet there is one liberation theologian, Joseph Comblin, a Belgian who has been teaching and writing in Latin America for thirty years, who is quite specific both in his differences from Marxism and his proposals for a future liberated society. In his best-known work in English, The Church and the National Security State (1979), he criticizes the identification of the Gospel with any specific party or group, including — and he names them — the Christians for Socialism. Comblin argues for a new society based on human needs and Christian charity, and distinct from the exploitative models of both the Marxists and the theorists of capitalism and modernization. The Gospel message is one of liberation from sin.

Sin is present in everything — in all personal behavior and all social structures. The very organization of life in society is based on sin and domination . . . . Liberty is a new kind of common life, a mutual relationship based on equality and cooperation. There is no liberty without the institutions of liberty being established as the structures of national life. There is no liberty without . . . a parliament, congress, or some form of popular representation, constitutions, courts of justice independent from repressive or military power.

Although his Belgian background may account for his concern for constitutional restraints, here is at least one well-known liberation theologian who is aware of the connection between the Christian belief in sin and the need for constitutional guarantees, an independent judiciary, and an elected legislature.

Comblin is also highly suspicious of Marxism. “Marxist science,” he says, “is only the ideology of the party, the result of the reduction of any rationality to the voluntarism of the party, a collection of arguments to justify the pragmatic decisions of the party. . . . In practice the party finds the problem more important than the problem of freedom . . . The party is supposed to be sufficient to create a new world, but it ends by creating a new power . . . .”

One of the best known of the liberation theologians — largely because of his troubles with the Vatican in recent years — is Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian Franciscan. He studied theology in Germany and wrote a thesis later published in German as The Church as Sacrament (1972). His interests in church organization were continued with the publication in 1977 of Ecclesiogenesis (English translation, 1986), which analyzed what he called “the reinvention of the church” in the form of the Basic Christian Communities in Brazil. He sees these groups as marking a return to the sense of community and the presence of the Holy Spirit that characterized the early church. However, he is careful to emphasize that the Communities do not function in opposition to the institutional church but in “permanent coexistence” with it. He argues against a “pyramidal,” or hierarchical, model of the church, but he accepts the papacy, the bishops, and the priesthood as necessary responses of the Christian community to the need for “union, universality, and bonding with the great witnesses of the apostolic past.” However, they must exercise their functions within the community rather than over it, “integrating duties instead of accumulating them, respecting the various charisms, and leading them to the oneness of one and the same body.” In the early 1980s Boff made a similar argument in his Church: Charism and Power (1985), but couched in such extreme language — e.g., “. . . there has been a gradual expropriation of the means of religious production from the Christian people by the clergy” — that it brought down on him the wrath of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The best-known writer applying liberation theology to the life of Christ is Jon Sobrino, a Spanish Jesuit who has been teaching for many years at the Jesuit University in El Salvador. Sobrino’s Christology at the Crossroads (1978) speaks of “Christian transforming practice” and “political hermeneutics” as applied to “the concrete manifestations of politics, bodily life, and the cosmos.” For Sobrino, an understanding of Jesus’ resurrection presupposes an historical consciousness which sees history both as promise and mission. And one must engage in a specific praxis that is nothing else but discipleship carried out through “service to the community performed out of love.” Sobrino’s work represents a more specifically biblical attempt to relate Christianity to the problems of Latin America than the writings earlier in the decade which borrowed so heavily from Marxism and dependency theory. He also attempts to develop the historical approach which the earlier liberation theologians had preached but not practiced. Like Boff, Sobrino also was criticized in the early 1980s by the Vatican for “rereading” the Gospel in ways that made it seem a product of historical conditions, subject to constant reinterpretation.

The Critics of Liberation Theology

By the late 1970s, because of translations into other languages, the most important liberation theologians were beginning to get an international audience. (In the case of the United States, liberation theology is identified with Orbis Press, the publication house of the Maryknoll missionary order, which has published over 100 titles in the field, most of them translations from Spanish or Portugese.) In 1975 a Theology in the Americas:project, co-sponsored by the U.S. Catholic Conference and the World Council of Churches, brought the Latin American liberation theologians together with their American and Canadian counterparts. The meeting was the occasion for some harsh criticism by feminist and black theologians of the writings of the Latin American liberation theologians for their lack of concern with racial and sexual oppression in a continent which was built on the exploitation of the Indian, and in which machismo was the dominant sexual ethic. (See Sergio Torres and John Eagleson, eds., Theology in the Americas. [1976].)

The critics in Latin America were mainly on the right. Colombia was the principal center of the counter-attack, the first step of which was the election in 1972 of the Archbishop (later Cardinal) of Medellin, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, as general secretary of the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM). Aided by Roger Vekemans, a Belgian Jesuit who had left Chile at the time of the election of Allende, Lopez Trujillo eliminated adherents of liberation theology from positions of influence in the CELAM structure, and both he and Vekemans wrote books and articles against liberation theology. Aside from occasional articles in religious journals in Europe and the United States — the two most notable being Thomas Sanders’ attack on liberation theology as “utopian moralism” (Christianity and Crisis, September 17, 1973) and the German theologian Juergen Moltmann’s “Open Letter to a Liberation Theologian,” arguing that it was nothing more than “seminary Marxism,” — liberation theology was still not widely discussed outside of Latin America. Two events changed this: the Third General Conference of Latin American Bishops at Puebla, Mexico, in January-February 1979; and the triumph of the Sandinista-led revolt against Nicaragua’s Somoza dictatorship in July of the same year.

The Battle of Puebla

The meeting at Puebla had originally been scheduled for October 1978, the tenth anniversary of the last CELAM General Conference at Medellin. However, the deaths of Pope Paul VI and of his successor, John Paul I, and the election of John Paul II led to its postponement. The CELAM staff sent out preliminary papers that were attacked by Gutierrez and others as insufficiently concerned with the problems of the poor. When none of the well-known liberation theologians were invited as expert advisors (periti) to the meeting, they secured invitations from individual bishops and held their own meetings and press conferences outside the meeting place of the bishops.

The Puebla Conference was covered extensively by the world press, which was especially interested in how the new pope would define his position. His opening address was an indication of how seriously he took the challenge of liberation theology, as well as of the influence of Vekeman’s journal Tierra Nueva, which he had been receiving as cardinal before his election. The pope criticized the politicization of the Gospel message, decried the effort to promote a “people’s church” in opposition to the institutional church, and called for a “Christian concept of liberation that cannot be reduced simply to the restricted domain of economics, society and culture.” During the meeting a leftist newspaper in Mexico published the contents of a cassette dictaphone tape that had been inadvertently given to a journalist by the secretary of Archbishop Lopez Trujillo. It complained of the leftism of the Jesuits and other religious orders in Latin America and urged its recipient to “prepare your bombers for Puebla and get into training before entering the ring for the world match.”

The liberation theologians outside the meeting worked tirelessly, criticizing speeches and draft resolutions and replying to attacks on their views. The result was a final document which could only be described as a draw. It condemned the politicization of theology and “a praxis that has recourse to Marxist analysis” but it also was critical of “liberal capitalism” and of the doctrine of the national security state used by current military regimes to justify their rule. Most important, Puebla made a decisive commitment to “the preferential option for the poor,” which was to be almost as controversial in future discussions as Medellin’s reference to “institutionalized violence.” That commitment was described by the conference as “nonexclusive” in order to defuse criticisms of its possibly partisan or even Marxist (the poor vs. the rich) character; but it committed the Latin American church more clearly than in the past to work with the poor, as the liberation theologians urged.

The press covered the battle between the pro- and anti-liberation bishops as if it were in fact the prize fight alluded to by Lopez Trujillo. The reporters were disappointed that the final outcome was not a decisive victory for one side or the other, but they should have known from past meetings that an effort would be made to fashion a consensus document with something for everyone.

Nicaragua and the Popular Church

If Puebla began to focus attention on liberation theology, Nicaragua made observers aware of the movement’s potential political force. After Vatican II and Medellin, the Central American church had undergone a decisive shift in the direction of involvement for social justice. In 1977 the Salvadoran right-wing death squads even threatened to kill all the members of the Jesuit order if they did not leave the country. In Nicaragua, leading chairmen and women, especially the members of the religious orders, cooperated actively with the Sandinistas in the overthrow of Somoza. Four priests joined the new government established in 1979. The Nicaraguan bishops wrote a pastoral letter justifying the revolution, and with certain important reservations they initially endorsed the government that followed. While the honeymoon between the Sandinistas and the church hierarchy was of short duration, there were many others, particularly the Jesuits and Maryknoll missionaries, who continued to support the Sandinistas and who justified their support in terms of the categories drawn from liberation theology. Church leaders were scandalized by the publication, by a government-supported research group, of a picture of a guerrilla fighter, gun in hand and arms upraised, superimposed on the crucified Christ. But others were ready to support a “popular church” committed to the Sandinistas. Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit, organized the Sandinista literacy campaign, headed the youth organization, and later became Minister of Education, while his brother, Ernesto, a well-known priest-poet, became Minister of Culture. As polarization increased in the Nicaraguan Church, anti-Sandinista Catholics blamed liberation theology for dividing the church and aiding the Marxists to expand their “totalitarian” control of Nicaragua. (See for example, Humberto Belli, Christians Under Fire, Crossway Books [1985].) When the professors at the Jesuit Central American University in El Salvador also seemed to favor the guerrillas there, and when some leading Christian Democrats joined the left in the civil war, liberation theology was blamed.

As early as June 1981 the priests in the Sandinista government were asked by their bishops to leave their posts — their positions having been judged incompatible with their priestly duties. When they refused to do so, two were forbidden to exercise their priestly functions, another was suspended from the Jesuit order, and a fourth requested laicization. The tension between the pro-Sandinista priests and the Vatican was dramatically illustrated during the Pope’s visit in March 1983, when he was seen on television shaking his finger reprovingly at Ernesto Cardenal, as he knelt to receive the pope’s blessing.

The new Reagan administration made the Central American struggle a central focus of U.S. foreign policy. By this time, explanations for the radicalization of Central America often cited the changes in the Central American church, including the expanding influence of liberation theology. Leading neo-conservatives such as Michael Novak attacked it, and Ernest Lefever’s Center for Ethics and Public Policy published a collection of critical articles. They quoted the early Gutierrez on the class struggle and dependency, and Segundo’s definition of socialism, and they criticized the liberation theologians for attributing all of Latin America’s ills to capitalism, while at the same time being willing to turn over political power to an undefined socialism — which from their enthusiasm for those governments seemed likely to bear a strong resemblance to Cuba or Nicaragua. Others in the U.S. such as Robert McAfee Brown, Rosemary Ruether, and the publishers of the National Catholic Reporter expressed strong support for liberation theology. They attributed the conservative criticisms to the latter’s opposition to the efforts of the poor in Latin America to end centuries of exploitation ad imperialism — when in fact, the arguments of the neo-conservatives were that the poor would be better served by a free market or mixed economic system, than by the statist socialism proposed, or implied by, the liberationists.

The Vatican Confronts Liberation Theology

More directly threatening to Latin American liberation theologians was a series of investigations and public statements (“Instructions”) by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Leonardo Boff had already been subject to two investigations of his orthodoxy, in 1976 and again in 1980; but during the 1970s the Vatican was usually content to leave the matter to the Latin Americans. When Joseph Ratzinger, former Archbishop of Munich and a widely-published theologian, took over as prefect of the Congregation, the Vatican began to take a greater interest in the subject.

Boff himself initiated action on his writings in 1982 when he sent the Congregation his reply to an investigation of his book Church: Charism and Power by the archdiocese of Rio de Janeiro, headed by the conservative Cardinal Eugenio Sales. Two years later (the Vatican moves slowly) Cardinal Ratzinger sent Boff a letter criticizing his “ecclesiological relativism” and his “sociological” analysis of the church as an institution engaged in production and consumption. When Ratzinger summoned Boff to Rome for a “conversation” on the subject, the Brazilian Basic Communities rallied to his defense and were reported to have sent 50,000 letters of support to Rome. Boff arrived in Rome in September 1984, accompanied by two fellow Franciscans, Cardinals Lorscheiter and Arns. In April 1985 it was announced that his religious superiors had been requested to impose “obsequious silence for a convenient time” on the friar — meaning that he could not publish, preach, or give interviews. But he did not retract his views. Less than a year later, the sentence was lifted. Boff continues to function as before: writing, teaching, and editing an important Brazilian theological journal.

In April 1983, Ratzinger also sent the Peruvian hierarchy a list of “observations” on the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez. The Peruvians were divided on whether to take action against Gutierrez. In response to the Vatican criticism, Gutierrez produced an article entitled “Theology and the Social Sciences,” in which he denied favoring a synthesis of Marxism and Christianity, cited church documents on the existence of class conflict in Latin America, and argued that liberation theology’s attempt to make use of the social sciences was only in its initial stages. Gutierrez also cited passages from his original writings critical of “historical socialism,” quoted his favorable reference to the Prague reforms of 1968, and argued that it was not up to theology to propose specific political solutions. Although the Vatican pressed on, when the 44 Peruvian bishops came to Rome as a group in October 1984, they issued a generally-worded statement which could not be interpreted as a condemnation of Gutierrez. (See the New York Times, October 10, 1984.)

The Peruvian bishops announced their support of the Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation, published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in early September. The document had been prepared because of Cardinal Ratzinger’s concern with the danger to Catholicism posed by certain versions of the new theology. Ratzinger’s concerns on this score were already known. He had published in Chile and Italy a private memorandum that linked liberation theology with neo-Marxism, the politicization of Christianity, and the advocacy of an alternative vision of the structure of the church (“ecclesiology”) from that of Catholicism. (See The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, 1985.) The memorandum limited its criticisms to those (unspecified) theologians who had “made the Marxist analysis their own”; but as noted earlier, it described them as posing “a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.” The 1984 Instruction toned down this wording, speaking of the “risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology, which use in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought.” (Again neither the Marxist nor liberation writers are specified.) The Instruction attacked the liberationists for accepting Marxism’s “false claim to be scientific,” supporting violence, and politicizing the Gospel and the Church.

The 1984 Instruction promised a second statement on the broader theme of Christian freedom and liberation. Eighteen months later, after what were rumored to have been several revisions at the pope’s behest to give it a more positive tone, The Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation was published in April 1986. While it denounced those who propagate “the myth of revolution,” it admitted that armed struggle might be resorted to “as a last resort to put an end to an obvious and prolonged tyranny.” The Instruction generally took a much more positive approach to liberation theology, being particularly favorable to the Basic Christian Communities “if they really live in unity with the local Church and the universal Church,” and to theological reflection developed from particular experience “in the light of the experience of the Church itself.” Rather than the controversial term, “option,” it endorsed the “preferential love for the poor” by the Church, and called for a “Christian practice of liberation,” based on solidarity (against individualism) and subsidiarity, the initiative and responsibility of individuals, and intermediate communities (against collectivism).

The second Instruction was greeted very favorably by the liberation theologians. Gutierrez said. “It closes a chapter, a new more positive period is beginning.” But what really overjoyed the liberationists was a papal letter sent to the Brazilian hierarchy — who had consistently supported the liberation theologians — which was written following a two week visit by the Brazilian bishops to Rome in March 1986. In that letter, after reasserting the church’s identification with “the poor, the suffering, and those without influence, resources, or assistance . . . with a love that is neither exclusive nor excluding, but rather preferential,” the pope referred to the two Instructions published “with my explicit approval.” Further, he endorsed the Brazilian effort to find responses to the problems of poverty and oppression that are “consistent and coherent with the teachings of the Gospel, of the living tradition, and of the ongoing magisterium (teaching) of the church. As long as this is observed, we are convinced, we and you, that the theology of liberation is not only timely but useful and necessary . . . . May God help you to be unceasingly watchful that a correct and necessary theology of liberation can develop in Brazil and in Latin America.”

Cardinal Ratzinger is said to have described his efforts in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as a “restoration” in the church. His critics argue that this means turning the church back to the period of centralization and authoritarianism before the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger himself prefers to see his goal as curbing extremist tendencies which have emerged since the Council, and he points out that he attended the Council as an advisor to Cardinal Frings of Munich, who was one of those most active in promoting its reforms. However one interprets the Cardinal’s intentions, the result of the Vatican’s confrontation with the liberation theologians has not been a repudiation of their theology but its incorporation in modified form within the mainstream of theological discussion. The modifications include an abandonment in practice of its initial emphases on the class struggle, the near-inevitability of violence, and the rejection of “reformism” — all of which characterized the period of lyrical leftism from the later 1960s to the mid-1970s.

The more biblical and spiritual orientation of contemporary liberation theology is evident in the latest book by Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells (1984). The title itself is taken from the spiritual writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The book is filled with biblical references; the class struggle, dependency, and Marxism are not even mentioned. The main themes of the book are a criticism of “individualism” and “spiritualism,” and a call for social involvement and an awareness of the spiritual dimensions of bodily existence. Gutierrez quotes from St. Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink”) to argue for “a new approach to the human body” and for “concern for the material needs of the poor.” It is true that traces of the old revolutionism remain in his quotations from the writings of Christian guerrilla fighters, but the basic message of the book is the Christian duty to take action in community to help the poor. As Gutierrez notes, his thinking along these lines had already been anticipated in a section of A Theology of Liberation.

More striking is the transformation of the thinking of Hugo Assmann, often regarded as the most radical of the liberation theologians. In a paper delivered in 1985, Assmann seems now to equate revolution with democracy. Arguing that the Left is aware “that they must now reestablish their organic relation to the popular majorities which never understood their abstract revolutionism,” he asserts that “many of them have begun to understand that democratic values are revolutionary values.” (See “Democracy and the Debt Crisis,” This World, Spring/Summer 1986.) While Latin America is now dominated by “an absolutely savage and inhuman form of ‘capitalism’ . . . no socialism exists presently or around the corner.” “Real revolutionaries [Assmann writes] have learned to value democratic participation and the authentically popular movements (and) are no longer interested in chaotic social explosions . . .” Instead of the Manichaean dualism of “certain leftist circles” that engage in “divinization or demonization” it is time to develop “a spirit of openness to negotiate minimal consensus . . . .”

Does this mean that liberation theology has become deradicalized, in a way that is parallel to the deradicalization of social democracy in Western Europe? In a way it has, since the emphasis has shifted from conflict to negotiation, from the class struggle to solidarity with the poor. Yet the change is also a recognition that theologians seriously interested in the empowerment of the poor and oppressed should look for ways other than revolution to do so. While the revolutionary fervor of the early seventies has died down, there is still a strong strain of anti-capitalism in the liberationist writings. However, the main emphasis is upon the second theme in liberation theology, learning from and promoting the self-learning of the poor.

Once their revolutionism was tempered, liberation theologians found it easier to become part of the mainstream of Catholicism, which had always had an anti-capitalist strain and from early Christian times had thought of itself — in theory, if not in practice — as a church of the poor. This left only the problem of the liberationist theories of church organization. But even here, due to the organizational reforms associated with the Second Vatican Council, the liberation theologians were not that far out of line with the mainstream. They had never in fact rejected the hierarchy; they tended rather to accept it in theory, but de-emphasized its importance in relation to the communitarian aspects of Christian tradition. Now they have discovered that the bishops of Brazil (the world’s largest Catholic country) are increasingly favorable to their work. They have initiated, with the approval of a number of Brazilian bishops and religious. superiors, a fifty-volume series of theological expositions which will attempt to develop their theology in greater detail. If past experience and public statements are any indication, the volumes devoted to the structure of the Church will argue for the necessity of both hierarchy and people, rather than for conflictual “popular” vs. “institutional” church models.

If an outside observer who is not a theologian, but is a social scientist, could be permitted to make some suggestions as to ‘topics to be discussed in the new series — topics which might respond more adequately to the criticisms which have been made of the earlier writings — the following are some questions to be explored:

(1) Does theological reflection on the experience of the poor and oppressed always lead to the conclusion that capitalism must be replaced by a socialist system? If not, are there alternatives which combine the efficiency of the market with the equity of the “preferential love for the poor”? If socialism is the alternative, what would an ideal socialist state look like?

(2) What is the relation of private property and liberation? Must the former always be viewed as an obstacle to liberation? Or are there important ways, for instance, in which the small family farm or innovative new business can free man from oppression, whether by private interests or public authorities?’

(3) How can human:tights — especially but not only the rights of the poor — be best promoted in the modern state? What is the place of courts, or private groups, and of the media in guaranteeing those rights? Does the dialectical approach that many liberation theologians employ make a theory of rights conceptually difficult to develop? Does the preference for the poor imply a kind of “affirmative action” that may undermine the ideal of equal treatment under law?

(4) What is liberation theology’s settled attitude toward the re-democratization of Latin America? Is it to be rejected as “fraudulent,” as was the case in the early 1970s? Can the fragile new democracies of Latin America promote participation and greater opportunity for the poor and oppressed, or is total socialist transformation — all or nothing — the only possibility? If the latter, what lessons in revolutionary praxis, in terms of its impact on the well-being of the poor, are to be drawn from the failure of the revolutionism of Latin America in the 1960s?

(5) What is the “prophetic” role of the theologian? Is it only to remind the people of their moral duties to others, especially to the poor and oppressed? Or are there more specific criticisms, denunciations, and proposals that theologians can offer? Does the Bible in fact offer a blueprint for the good society? Do not those liberation theologians who believe that it does, run the same risk of identifying a particular ideology with God’s purpose in history, similar to that run by the right-wing Catholic integralists and reformist Christian Democrats whom they denounce?

(6) Finally, if the cure for the weaknesses and failures of democracy is more democracy, should not the liberation theologians devote their primary energies to developing a spirituality of socially-concerned democracy (whether capitalist or socialist in its economic form), rather than to denouncing dependency, imperialism, and capitalist exploitation? If those theories are inadequate explanations of poverty and underdevelopment (“the rich are not rich because the poor are poor”), should not the very considerable abilities of the liberation theologians now be devoted to promoting democratic participation, protecting human rights, and satisfying basic needs — rather than to the sterile revolutionism that characterized their earlier writings?

It took the official Roman Catholic church a century and a half to recognize that democracy and freedom were central elements in the Christian message. As I hope this essay has shown, it has taken only two decades for it to relate that message to human liberation. The secular left earlier defined liberation either as the overthrow of capitalism and the abolition of private ownership of the means of production (Marx) or as the extension of democracy and equality to all human beings, regardless of sex, race, or social class (Rousseau). Liberation theology will have to choose which it is to represent — democracy or revolution.

  • Paul E. Sigmund

    Paul E. Sigmund is Professor Emeritus of Politics at Princeton University.

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