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The Theology of Liberation is a school of Christian theology in which the salvation or liberation wrought by Christ is examined not only in terms of liberation from individual sin, but also in terms of liberation in other spheres: the aspirations of oppressed peoples and social classes; an understanding of history in which the human being is seen as assuming conscious responsibility for human destiny; and Christ the Saviour liberating the human race from sin, which is the root of all disruption of friendship and of all injustice and oppression. The theology of liberation began (under that name) in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, and many theologians of liberation are Roman Catholics.

Theology of Liberation emphasizes the Christian mission to bring justice to the poor and oppressed. Its theologians consider sin to be a root of poverty and oppression, the sin in question being exploitative capitalism and class war by the rich against the poor. In the mass media, 'Liberation Theology' may refer to any politically-activist Christian thought. It is sometimes regarded as a form of Christian socialism & liberation theologians often use Marxist political theory in seeking to eliminate poverty. Theology of Liberation has had widespread influence in Latin America and in the Society of Jesus, although its influence diminished after liberation theologians using Marxist concepts were admonished by the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI is known as an opponent of certain types of liberation theology, and issued several condemnations of tendencies within it while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).


Liberation Theology posits fighting poverty by suppressing what proponents claim is its source: sin. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology — especially Roman Catholic theology — and political activism, especially about social justice, poverty, and human rights. The Theology's principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed (socially, politically, etc.); per Jon Sobrino, S.J., the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace. According to Phillip Berryman, liberation theology is "an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor".

Liberation theologians base their social action upon the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus Christ, as but bringing a sword (social unrest), e.g. , , — and not as bringing peace (social order). This Biblical interpretation is a call to action against poverty, and the sin engendering it, and as a call to arms, to effect Jesus Christ's mission of justice in this world. In practice, the Theology includes the Marxist concept of perpetual class struggle, thus emphasizing the person's individual self-actualization as part of God's divine purpose for mankind.

Besides teaching at (some) Roman Catholic universities and seminaries, liberation theologians often may be found working in Protestant schools, often working directly with the poor. In this context, sacred text interpretation is Christian theological praxis.

The issue is seriously confused by the problem of terminology. "Liberation theology" is used in a technical sense to describe a particular theology which uses specific Marxist concepts. It is also used, especially by non-specialists and the media, to refer to any approach which sees Christianity as requiring political activism on behalf of the poor. It is in the first sense that the Roman Catholic hierarchy has condemned "liberation theology", rejecting especially the idea that a violent class struggle is fundamental to history, and the reinterpretation of religious phenomena such as the Exodus and the Eucharist as essentially political. The broader sense is not condemned: "The mistake here is not in bringing attention to a political dimension of the readings of Scripture, but in making of this one dimension the principal or exclusive component."The Instruction explicitly endorsed a "preferential option for the poor", stated that no one could be neutral in the face of injustice, and referred to the "crimes" of colonialism and the "scandal" of the arms race. However, media reports tended to assume that the condemnation of "liberation theology" meant a rejection of such attitudes and an endorsement of conservative politics.

These tensions have probably been worsened by the fact that many liberation theologians regard their concepts of political liberation as the only meaningful ones, and thus see little advance in the official attitudes described.


Created in 1955 in Rio de Janeiromarker (Brazil), the CELAM (Conselho Episcopal Latino Americano - Latin American Episcopal Conference) pushed the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) toward a more socially oriented stance. During the next four years, CELAM prepared for the 1968 Medellínmarker Conference in Colombia. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, who was a central figure in Medellín and who was later at the Vatican, said that the gathering of Roman Catholic bishops officially supported a version of liberation theology similar to that of the Vatican's CDF in 1984. This began in the X Meeting of CELAM in Mar del Platamarker and the message Pope Paul VI issued to the Latin American Bishops, Church and Problems. Cardinal López Trujillo, in his account of those historical events, also said that the origin of liberation theology was simultaneously created by the CELAM's Reflection Task Force, of which he was president, and a Brazilian theologian from Princeton, Rubem Alves, who in 1968 wrote Towards a Theology of Liberation.

Among the several essays published on liberation theology in the 1970s, one of the most famous is by the Peruvian Catholic priest, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P. In his 1972 book, A Theology of Liberation, he theorized a combination of Marxism and the social-Catholic teachings contributing to a socialist current in the Church that was influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the French Christian youth worker organization, "Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne." It was also influenced by Paul Gauthier's "The Poor, Jesus and the Church" (1965).

CELAM as such never supported liberation theology, which was frowned on by the Vatican, with Pope Paul VI trying to slow the movement after the 1962-1965 Council. Cardinal Samore, in charge of relations between the Roman Curia and the CELAM as the leader of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, was ordered to put a stop to this orientation, which was judged antithetical to the Catholic Church's global teachings.

With Cardinal López Trujillo's election in 1972 as general secretary of the CELAM, another liberationist current began to take force in Latin America. This one was an orthodox point of view which became predominant in CELAM as well as in the Roman Curia after the General Meeting of Latin American Bishops in Pueblamarker in 1979.

At the 1979 CELAM's Conference of Puebla, the more ecclesiastical reorientation was met by strong opposition from the liberal part of the clergy, which assumed the concept of a "preferential option for the poor," that had been stamped by Bishop Ricard Durand, who acted as president of the Commission about Poverty in Medellin.

Sebastian Kappen, an Indian theologian, published Jesus and Freedom in 1977, with an introduction by the French activist François Houtart. In 1980, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked the General of the Society of Jesus (of which Kappen was a member) to disavow this book. Kappen responded with a pamphlet entitled "Censorship and the Future of Asian Theology". No further action was taken by the Vatican on this matter.

A new trend blossomed from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI)'s and Pope John Paul II's condemnations of the Marxist current of liberation theology, which is called Reconciliation Theology and has had a great influence among clergy and laity in Latin America.Nonetheless, The New York Times reported on the eve of Pope Benedict's 2007 visit to Brazil that liberation theology remains popular in Latin America, with Brazil alone the home to over one million Biblical study circles reading and interpreting the Bible from this perspective.

Reaction within the Catholic Church

Official Vatican pronouncements, including the Pope's, have concluded that - while the Church concurs in condemning the injustices condemned by the Liberation theologians - Liberation Theology in the technical (Marxist) sense is incompatible with official Catholic social teaching, and that much of it must be rejected. The orthodox Catholic criticism is the integration of Marxism to Catholic theology, specifically dialectical materialism, and aligning with revolutionaries (Camilo Torres, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Ernesto Cardenal) and revolutionary socio-political movements.

Despite the orthodox bishops' predominance in CELAM, from the 1972 Sucremarker conference onwards, Liberation Theology remains much supported in South America, thus, by 1979, the Puebla Conference was an opportunity for orthodox bishops to reassert control of the radical elements of liberation theology; they failed.

As liberation theology strengthened in Latin America, Pope John Paul II was conciliatory in his opening speech at the CELAM conference in Pueblamarker in January 1979. He criticized radical liberation theology, saying, "this conception of Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechisms"; however, he did speak of "the ever increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the ever increasing poverty of the poor", and affirmed that the principle of private property "must lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods . . . and, if the common good demands it, there is no need to hesitate at expropriation, itself, done in the right way"; on balance, the Pope offered neither praise nor condemnation.

Barred from attending the conference, some liberation theologians, working from a seminary and with aid from sympathetic, liberal bishops, partially obstructed the orthodox clergy's efforts to ensure that the Puebla Conference documents satisfy their conservative concerns. Within four hours of the Pope's speech, Gutiérrez and the other priests wrote a twenty-page refutation, circulated among the present. According to a socio-political study of liberation theology in Latin America, twenty-five per cent of the final Puebla documents were written by theologians who were not invited to the conference. Cardinal López Trujillo said that affirmation is "an incredible exaggeration" (Ben Zabel 2002:139), nevertheless, he concedes that there was strong pressure from a group of eighty Marxist liberation theologists external to the Bishop's Conference. Despite the Roman Catholic Church's official disavowal of Liberation Theology, and disavowal by many lay folk in Latin America, despite the Puebla Conference, Liberation Theology continues in Latin America and other poor parts of the world.

Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), strongly opposed certain elements of Liberation Theology, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed by him), the Vatican twice (1984, 1986) officially condemned its acceptance of Marxism and armed violence. For example, Leonardo Boff was suspended and others silenced, however, Cardinal Ratzinger did praise the theology's intellectual underpinnings that reject violence, and, instead, "[stress] the responsibility which Christians necessarily bear for the poor and oppressed".

In March 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger made ten observations of Gutiérrez's theology, accusing him (Gutiérrez) of politically interpreting the Bible in supporting temporal messianism, and that the predominance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy proves Marxist influence. Finally, Ratzinger's attack says that these conceptions necessarily uphold class conflict in the Roman Catholic Church, which, logically, leads to rejecting hierarchy. During the 1980s and the 1990s, Ratzinger continued condemning these intellectual elements in Liberation Theology, prohibiting dissident priests from teaching the doctrines in the Catholic Church's name and excommunicated Tissa Balasuriya, in Sri Lankamarker, for so doing. Under Cardinal Ratzinger's influence, theological formation schools were forbidden from using the Catholic Church's organization and grounds to teach Liberation Theology (in the sense of theology using unacceptable Marxist ideas, not in the broader sense).

In Managuamarker, Nicaraguamarker, Pope John Paul II criticized (what he labelled) the "popular Church" movement by means of "ecclesial base communities" (CEBs) in effecting class struggle, the replacement of the Catholic dominance hierarchy with a locally-selected system in the magisterium, and the Nicaraguan Catholic clergy's supporting the Sandinista National Liberation Front. To that, the Pope re-stated and insisted upon his authority as Universal Pastor of the Roman Catholic Church in conformity with canon law and catechism.

The orthodox priests who disagree with liberationism consider Liberation Theology's world view as narrow; that it does not look at the entire meaning of God and the Bible's writers. The orthodox accuse liberation theologians of mining the Bible in supporting their specific political and social ideology. These criticisms, in turn, provoke counter-criticisms that the orthodox, by condemning the teachings and the organization of the liberationist movement, are in effect casting their lots with authoritarian regimes. In other words, some liberationists maintain that pure doctrine is not so much what the Vatican is trying to defend, as is established ecclesiastical and political order. This conflict could be compared to some aspects of the Protestant Reformation. Outside Latin America, some of Liberation Theology's most ardent advocates are Protestant thinkers (e.g., Jurgen Moltmann, Frederick Herzog).

Liberation theology in practice

One of the most radical parts of liberation theology was not the writing of highly educated priests and scholars, but the social organization, or re-organization, of church practice through the model of Christian base communities. Liberation theology, despite the doctrinal codification by Gutiérrez, Boff, and others, strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy. This type of church community resembles the Independent type of Protestantism, which is extremely common in the United States though they are associated with the right more than the left.

Among others, journalist and writer Penny Lernoux described this aspect of liberation theology in her numerous and committed writings intended to explain the movement's ideas in North America.

Furthermore, with its emphasis on the "preferential option for the poor," the practice (or, more technically, "praxis" to use a term from Gramsci and Paulo Freire) was as important as the belief, if not more so; the movement was said to emphasize "orthopraxis" over "orthodoxy." Base communities were small gatherings, usually outside of churches, in which the Bible could be discussed, and mass could be said. They were especially active in rural parts of Latin America where parish priests were not always available, as they placed a high value on lay participation. As of May 2007, it was estimated that 80,000 base communities were operating in Brazil alone.

Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, has suggested that the movement is in origin a creation of western intellectuals: "an attempt to test, in a concrete scenario, ideologies that have been invented in the laboratory by European theologians" and in a certain sense itself a form of "cultural imperialism". Ratzinger saw this as a reaction to the demise or near-demise of the "Marxist myth" in the west. He did, however, qualify this as referring especially to the origins of the movement and did not deny that it had popular support.

Roman Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley criticized liberation theology in his 2009 fictional book Irish Tweed. In Greeley's book, a Chicagomarker Catholic school is taken over by a principal and priest practicing liberation theology, and its ideas are applied in the school environment, as for instance with basketball team members being chosen on their family's economic status rather than on ability.

Future developments

There is a notion that Latin American Liberation Theology has had its day, a dream killed off by the “end of history” claims of the champions of capitalism. However, Ivan Petrella, in a recent study, contends this is an ill-conceived notion, and shows that this theology can be reinvented to bring its preferential option for the poor into the real world. The actualisation of historical projects is possible by adopting the methods developed by the Brazilian social theorist, Roberto Unger.

Doing so will entail the rejection of these theologians’ unitary concepts of a despised and rejected capitalism and a canonized and accepted socialism. Petrella argues for a reconstruction of these concepts and those of democracy and property too. He closely analyses the differences in democracy and capitalism as practised across the USA and Europe in support for the reconstruction of these concepts, bringing about far-reaching suggestions for the future of liberation theology.

At a time of the profound crisis of the world capitalist system, a group of social scientists and theologians in Andreas Mueller, Arno Tausch and Paul M. Zulehner took up anew the issue of liberation theology. Having arisen out of the struggle of the poor Churches in the world's South, its pros and cons dominated the discourse of the Churches throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s.

Then, dependency theory was considered to be the analytical tool at the basis of liberation theology. But the world economy - since the Fall of the Berlin Wallmarker - has dramatically changed to become a truly globalized capitalist system in the 1990s. Even in their wildest imaginations, social scientists from the dependency theory tradition and theologians alike would not have predicted for example the elementary force of the Asian and the Russian crisis.

The Walls have gone, but poverty and social polarization spread to the center countries. After having initially rejected Marxist ideology in many of the liberation theology documents, the Vatican and many other Christian Church institutions moved forward in the 1980s and 1990s to strongly declare their "preferential option for the poor". Now, the authors of this book, among them Samir Amin, one of the founders of the world systems theory approach, take up the issues of this preferential option anew and arrive at an ecumenical vision of the dialogue between theology and world systems theory.


Liberation theologians

Influence on others

See also


Related movements



Basic titles (all by Penny Lernoux)

  • Lernoux, Penny, Cry of the people: United States involvement in the rise of fascism, torture, and murder and the persecution of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980.
  • Lernoux, Penny, In banks we trust. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.
  • Lernoux, Penny, People of God : the struggle for world Catholicism. New York: Viking, 1989.

Further readings:

External links


Liberation theology and social science

Vatican responses

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