Liberation theology is a Christian school of theology that developed in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on liberation of the oppressed. It was initially expressed in the Medellín documents issued at the second conference of the CELAM (Conselho Episcopal Latino Americano—Latin American Episcopal Council) in 1968. Expressed there was grass-roots activity of Catholic priests working with the poor in "base communities," using the pedagogical methods of the Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire. Liberation theology was initially developed in the works of Gustavo Gutiérrez (considered the father of liberation theology), Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, Rubem Alves, and others. Using Marxism as a way of social analysis and as a program for social change, liberation theology stressed "orthopraxis" over "orthodoxy," or action over belief. It was particularly controversial in the Vatican because it viewed the Catholic Church's alignment with the ruling class in Latin America as part of the problem of structural injustice. As the guardian of orthodoxy, the former Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005, was a fierce opponent of liberation theology.
Liberation theology has had an impact. It helped many of the poor in Latin America to create their own self-reliant communities, although it did not really mean socio-political revolution. Liberation theology bequeathed Marxist elements to black theology in the United States of America. It helped minjung theology (theology of people) in Korea and Dalit theology (theology of the untouchable) in India to emerge. It built a considerable base, when it was connected with the Marxist-led Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. More recently, some prominent political leaders in Latin America such as President Rafaek Correa of Ecuador are said to be sympathetic to liberation theology, presenting some challenge to the establishment. But the basically secular orientation of liberation theology is considered not to have appealed as much to the poor in Latin America, most of whom are rather religious and pious in nature. Especially after the decline of communism, liberation theology is readjusting itself to the changing situation of the world.
Liberation theology in Latin America is rooted in both the far and the recent past. Many liberation theologians (especially Gustavo Gutiérrez) have referred back to Bartolomé de Las Casas, a sixteenth-century Spanish priest in Central and South America, who defended Native Americans from the cruel Spanish Conquistadors. Liberation theology is also rooted in at least three more things that were more recent: 1) the development of "political theology" by German theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, Johann Metz, and Dorothee Sölle in the 1960s which, under the influence of Marxism, made political praxis the starting point of theological reflection; 2) the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which opened the doors to Catholic involvement in social issues; and 3) the continuous poverty in Latin America, which was perceived by many to have been caused by two elements: economic dependence imposed by European and North American capitalism; and suppression by oligarchies and harsh military regimes that cooperated with that capitalism. To address the situation of poverty in Latin America, Paulo Freire (1921-1997), a Brazilian educator, suggested the program of "conscientization" (conscientização in Portuguese) or "consciousness raising" in his 1968 work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, teaching that the oppressed and the oppressor must liberate themselves from their "dominated-conditioned" and "dominating-conditioned" mentalities, respectively.
Liberation theology is usually considered to have begun with CELAM II or the Medellín Conference in 1968. The CELAM (Conselho Episcopal Latino Americano—Latin American Episcopal Council), a council of the Roman Catholic bishops of Latin America, was originally created in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1968, the CELAM had its second conference in Medellín, Colombia for the purpose of applying Vatican II's program of pastoral reform and renewal specifically to the Latin American situation. The program was based on Vatican II's "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World." The bishops at the conference were also apparently inspired with the pedagogical approach of Freire. CELAM II condemned extreme inequality among the social classes, unjust use of power, what it called "institutionalized violence," exploitive trade policies, and the Church's alliance with the ruling class. It also decided that the call to "liberation" is integral to the mission of the Church. Gustavo Gutiérrez (1928- ), a Peruvian Dominican priest and theology professor, served as a member of the theological advisory team at CELAM II to play a key role in drafting its most radical documents, one entitled "Peace," another "Justice." Three years later, in 1971, Gutiérrez' perspective at CELAM II appeared in the form of a book entitled Teología de la liberacíon (A Theology of Liberation). He is considered the father of liberation theology in Latin America, and the book the Magna Carta of liberation theology.
With Alfonso López Trujillo's 1972 election as general secretary of the CELAM, official opposition to liberation theology started to increase. In 1979, under his leadership, the CELAM had its third conference in Puebla, Mexico for the purpose of repudiating the position of CELAM II. So, Pope John Paul II opened the conference, and Gutiérrez was excluded from the conference. The pope actually tried to steer a conciliatory middle course during his opening speech, expressing his concern not only about the radicalism of liberation theology but also about the unjust condition of the poor. For while saying, "this conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechisms," he also referred to "the ever increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the ever increasing poverty of the poor," stating that the principle of private property "must lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods." But, a group of liberation theologians operated out of a nearby seminary with the help of liberal bishops and managed to influence the outcome. Within four hours after the pope's speech, Gutiérrez and his colleagues produced a 20-page refutation which was circulated on the floor of the conference. According to critics, 25 percent of the final Puebla documents were written by those theologians who had not even been invited to the conference. It must be true, because in the end the conference endorsed the idea of God's "preferential option for the poor" as part of the quest for justice and criticized the military dictatorships of Latin America as "institutionalized violence."
In his A Theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutiérrez observed that the "development" approach, which may initially have sounded good, failed to solve the root causes of exploitation because it left intact the structures of exploitation. He opted for the "liberation" approach, therefore, calling for radical structural and social change. This undoubtedly reflected a use of Marxism not only as a tool of social analysis but also as a program for changing society. Praxis as commitment to this liberation should precede any theoretical reflection in theology. Even the use of violence by the oppressed should be permitted for the purpose of liberation, and it should not be equated with the unjust violence of the oppressor. The conventional double standard on violence which assumes that the violence of the oppressor to maintain order is good, but that that of the oppressed to change the order is bad, should be rejected.
Regardless of this Marxist orientation, however, Gutiérrez did not believe that Jesus reduced religion to politics entirely. The political dimension of his gospel as the liberator of the oppressed "goes to the very root of human existence: the relation with God in solidarity with other persons." Jesus was not a Zealot, as his proclamation of the Kingdom of God transcended the more limited and political orientation of the Zealots. Sin is, therefore, defined as the loss of the basic relationship of solidarity of God and human beings; it is "a social, historical fact, the absence of fellowship and love in relationships among persons, the breach of friendship with God and with other persons, and, therefore, an interior, personal fracture." Salvation, then, means to be freed from that sin; it means "the communion of human beings with God and among themselves." Salvation in this sense is not personal nor otherworldly beyond this life but rather collective and thisworldly. The Kingdom of God is where this salvation is realized as the reestablishment of justice in this world. Interestingly, Gutiérrez' approach involves a profound sense of spirituality where you experience such a "conversion" to the oppressed that you are willing to give unconditional love to them. He refers to it as the source of Christian joy.
Other than Gutiérrez, there are several notable liberation theologians with their distinctive theological points. Juan Luis Segundo (1925-1997), a Jesuit from Uruguay, was famous for his hermeneutical treatment of the Bible from the perspective of liberation and yet with an emphasis on the primacy of the Bible. His main work was The Liberation of Theology. Leonardo Boff (1938- ), a Franciscan from Brazil, has challenged the Church by asserting that it should be open for change because of the possibility for the further action of the Holy Spirit in the "base communities," the reason being that the Church originally emerged from the post-Easter Pentecostal experience of the early Christians anyway and not from Jesus as an unchanging institution. This, expressed in his Ecclesiogenesis, reflects a result of the historical-critical biblical scholarship. A prolific writer, he has written more than 100 books including Church: Charism and Power, a book on ecclesiology, which was perceived to be defiant and militant in the eyes of the Vatican. Jon Sobrino (1938- ), a Salvadorian Jesuit originally from Spain, has argued in his Jesus in Latin America that just as Jesus was crucified and rose again in glory, the oppressed masses of Latin America would arise. Such images did not always directly endorse violent revolution, but neither did they reject it.
There are also some liberation theologians with Protestant background. José Míguez Bonino (1924- ), a Methodist from Argentina, in his Christians and Marxists has strongly defended the Christian use of Marxist as the best instrument available for social revolution in spite of its uneasy tension with the religious nature of the Christian faith. Rubem Alves (1933- ), a Brazilian Presbyterian, has argued in his A Theology of Human Hope, published from his 1968 Ph.D. dissertation ("A Theology of Liberation") at Princeton Theological Seminary, that unless the oppressed are willing to resist this world of injustice in favor of a future world of hope, God will suffer.
Liberation theology has had an impact much wider than an ecclesiastical dispute within the Catholic Church itself. It promoted awareness that the poor and impoverished can struggle for change instead of continuing to live in poverty. That awareness led to three general types of action or praxis, aimed at changing the situation. These were: 1) social revolution, 2) peaceful social transformation, and 3) parallel societies. Liberationists stood for social revolution, and the Catholic Church and dominant political powers feared revolution and preached peaceful transformation. By contrast, many Latin Americans in base communities, simply created parallel societies, their own communities, instead of necessarily following the option of social revolution. They learned self-reliance, hygiene, and various skills from priests and social workers, and then from one another. In The Other Path (as opposed to the Maoist guerrilla movement Sendero Luminoso, "Shining Path," in Peru), Hernando de Soto documented the growth of the informal economy around Lima, in which entire communities were built, roads were paved, and people prospered outside the formal economy. Officially squatters, some of Peru's impoverished had created middle-class and upper middle-class lives by "pulling up their own bootstraps." The idea was to overcome impoverishment through education and hard work apart from the structural oppression which existed.
Protestant theologians watching the internecine Catholic disputes tended to champion their brothers who were repeating some of Martin Luther's criticisms four centuries earlier. So, liberation theology has been recognized within liberal Protestant circles as an important school of thought, enjoying equal standing with other contemporary schools of theology such as black theology and feminist theology. But, another Protestant response to the perceived Catholic complicity with the established order in Latin America was massive conversions to Protestantism in the 1970s and 1980s. The Protestantism being taught in Latin America emphasized an ethic of self-reliance and greater equality between men and women. Many women became Protestants, seeking a life in which the "machismo" mentality common in males was not endorsed. Protestantism was another path to possible social advancement.
Black theology emerged in response to the problem of racism in the United States of America around the same time as liberation theology in Latin America. James Cone published his major work A Black Theology of Liberation in 1970, while Gutiérrez published Teología de la liberacíon in 1971. Although the two different schools emerged independently of each other because their roots were different, they had something in common: liberation from the discriminatory structures of racism or classism. Therefore, there started dialogue, communication, and cooperation between them. One example was a symposium on black theology and Latin American liberation theology, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland in 1973. It was under the influence of Latin American liberation theology that black theology started to adopt Marxism, which otherwise had been negatively treated by black theologians as merely atheist, sectarian, and even racist because of its connection with white Russians. James Cone admits that his interest in Marxism for social and economic change was renewed in the late 1970s through contact with Latin American liberation theology. Needless to say, minjung theology (theology of people) in Korea in the 1970s and of Dalit theology (theology of the untouchable) in India in the 1980s emerged under the influence of Latin American liberation theology.
Liberation theology built a considerable base, when it was connected with the Marxist-led Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. More recently, the influence of liberation theology still exists in Latin America, still posing a challenge to the Vatican and the existing establishment. The presence of liberation theology especially in poorer areas of Brazil such as the Amazon is unquestionable. Political leaders such as President Evo Morales of Bolivia and President Rafaek Correa of Ecuador are said to be sympathetic to liberation theology. In 2008, the former Bishop Fernando Lugo, a liberation theologian, was elected as President of Paraguay.
Pope Paul VI, who reigned the Vatican from 1963 to 1978, tried to slow the progressivism initiated by the Second Vatican Council. So, Cardinal Samore, in charge of the relations between the Roman Curia and the CELAM as the leader of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America from 1967 to 1983, was naturally ordered to put a stop to the orientation of liberation theology judged antithetical to the Catholic Church's teachings.
At CELAM III in 1979, however, Pope John Paul II steered a conciliatory middle course, showing his concern not only about liberation theology itself but also about the miserable condition of the poor in Latin America, perhaps because he saw the exposure of that miserable condition through CELAM II in 1968. In fact, the idea of God's "preferential option for the poor" endorsed by liberation theology is not new; rooted in the biblical notion of justice for the voiceless and powerless among us such as widows and orphans, it has a long tradition within Christianity. The question is: How broad and inclusive is the notion of liberation? While liberation theology understands the notion to be social and political, the Bible would include in it not only this external sense but also the spiritual sense in which people are supposed to be liberated from the bondage of sin. Hence, at CELAM III John Paul II proclaimed "liberation in its deeper, fuller sense," namely, "liberation from everything that oppresses human beings, but especially liberation from sin and the evil one, in the joy of knowing God and being known by him." John Paul II later experienced some moments of direct tension with liberationist clergy. In 1980, San Salvador's prelate, Archbishop Óscar Romero, clashed with the pope during his visit to Europe. In 1983, the Nicaraguan clergy involvement with base communities in class struggle by working with the Sandinistas led the pope during his visit to Nicaragua to harshly condemn what he dubbed the "popular church" vis-à-vis the existing Church.
The former Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who headed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1983) from 1981 to 2005, strongly opposed liberation theology. In March 1983, he published an article entitled "Ten Observations on the Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez," accusing Gutiérrez of politically interpreting the Bible and of supporting a temporal messianism. Ratzinger declared that the influence of Marxism was proven by the predominance accorded to orthopraxis over orthodoxy. Finally, he stated that these ideas would support similar class conflict inside the Church, and the rejection of its hierarchy.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger officially condemned liberation theology twice (in 1984 and 1986), issuing "Instruction on Certain Aspects of the 'Theology of Liberation'" (1984) and "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation" (1986). The 1984 instruction criticized especially the social analysis which liberation theology adopted from Marx's notions of "labor value," "surplus value," and "exploitation," as in Bonino’s explicit use of Marx in his Christians and Marxists and Gutiérrez’s specific reference to the appropriation by capitalists of "the value of the work of others," for example. The 1986 instruction showed a bit more sympathy to liberation theologians.
In 1985, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith silenced Leonard Boff for a year for his book Church: Charism and Power, which was perceived to have presented a very radical ecclesiology. He was almost silenced again in 1992, in an attempt to prevent him from attending the Eco-92 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but this led him to leave the Franciscan order and the priesthood. Also, some other dissident priests were prohibited from teaching their doctrines in the name of the Catholic Church.
Liberation theology, in spite of its strong theological/ideological stance on praxis for social revolution, has hardly been able to accomplish that kind of revolution. It has been found out that most of the poor in Latin America are by nature too religious and pious to accept liberation theology's radical program for social revolution, and that they have been interested mainly in pursuing their own parallel societies. So, liberationists have had to "shake" them instead of listening to them: "After having tried to lose themselves within the people, to identify with the people, [liberationists] come to understand that they must shake the people." Ironically, therefore, liberationists have quite often been critiqued of not carefully listening to the poor whom they are supposed to love by having a "conversion" to them.
After the rapid decline of communism since the end of 1980s, liberation theology seems to have been in retreat. In spite of the continuous presence of the movement, it seems to have become more skeptical of Marxism, now redirecting its "central concerns away from politics in the narrow sense to issues of popular religion, spirituality, and long-term social and cultural change." Even Gutiérrez has more recently recognized the importance of knowing and accommodating the spirituality of common Latin American people to the cause of liberation.
Liberation theology, of course, still stirs controversies today. For example, Jon Sobrino received worldwide attention in 2007, when his humanistic view of Jesus based on what he called the "Church of the poor" elicited from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a notification that stated that it is erroneous and dangerous. Other things that are still challenging the Vatican include: liberation theology's continuous presence in poorer areas of Brazil such as the Amazon; the election of the former Bishop Fernando Lugo, a liberation theologian, as President of Paraguay in 2008; and some sympathy with liberation theology among political leaders such as President Rafaek Correa of Ecuador. Nevertheless, the movement's struggle with the Vatican has definitely decreased, and its original program for radical revolution may have waned. During the Ash Wednesday Mass in the Basilica of Santa Sabina on February 21, 2007, Gutiérrez was among those who received ashes from Pope Benedict XVI. Gutiérrez said that his problems with the Church's magisterium (teaching authority) were "completely over" and had been settled some time ago.
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