Liberation theology is a synthesis of Christian theology and socio-economic analyses, based in far-left politics, particularly Marxism, that emphasizes “social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples.” In the 1950s and the 1960s, liberation theology was the political praxis of Latin American theologians, such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino, who popularized the phrase “preferential option for the poor.”
The Latin American context also produced evangelical advocates of liberation theology, such as Rubem Alves, José Míguez Bonino, and C. René Padilla, who in the 1970s called for integral mission, emphasizing evangelism and social responsibility.
Theologies of liberation have developed in other parts of the world such as black theology in the United States and South Africa, Palestinian liberation theology, Dalit theology in India, and Minjung theology in South Korea.
Latin American liberation theology
The best-known form of liberation theology is that which developed within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s, arising principally as a moral reaction to the poverty and social injustice in the region. The term was coined in 1971 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote one of the movement’s defining books, A Theology of Liberation. Other noted exponents include Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino of Spain, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay.
Latin American liberation theology met opposition in the United States, which accused it of using “Marxist concepts”, and led to admonishment by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1984 and 1986. While stating that “in itself, the expression “theology of liberation” is a thoroughly valid term”, The Vatican rejected certain forms of Latin American liberation theology for focusing on institutionalized or systemic sin and for identifying Catholic Church hierarchy in South America as members of the same privileged class that had long been oppressing indigenous populations from the arrival of Pizarro onward.
A major player in the formation of liberation theology was the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM). Created in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, CELAM pushed the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) toward a more socially oriented stance. However, CELAM never supported liberation theology as such, since liberation theology was frowned upon by the Vatican, with Pope Paul VI trying to slow the movement after the Second Vatican Council.
More or less at the same time as the initial publications of Latin American liberation theology are also found voices of Black liberation theology and feminist liberation theology.
After the Second Vatican Council, CELAM held two conferences which were important in determining the future of liberation theology: the first was held in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, and the second in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979. The Medellín conference debated how to apply the teachings of Vatican II to Latin America, and its conclusions were strongly influenced by liberation theology. Although liberation theology grew out of these officially recognized ideas, the Medellín document is not a liberation theology document. It did, however, lay the groundwork, and since then liberation theology has developed rapidly in the Latin American Catholic Church.
Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo was a central figure after the Medellín Conference, who as priest in Bogota he did not attend, and was elected in 1972 as general secretary of CELAM, and then, its president in 1979 (at the Puebla conference). He represented a more orthodox position, becoming a favourite of Pope John Paul II and the “principal scourge of liberation theology.” Trujillo’s faction became predominant in CELAM after the 1972 Sucre conference, and in the Roman Curia after the CELAM conference in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979.
Despite the orthodox bishops’ predominance in CELAM, a more radical form of liberation theology remained much supported in South America. Thus, the 1979 Puebla Conference was an opportunity for orthodox bishops to reassert control of the radical elements, but they failed. At the Puebla Conference, the orthodox reorientation was met by strong opposition from the liberal part of the clergy, which supported the concept of a “preferential option for the poor”. This concept had been approved at the Medellín conference by Ricard Durand, president of the Commission about Poverty.
Pope John Paul II gave the opening speech at the Puebla Conference. The general tone of his remarks was conciliatory. He criticized radical liberation theology, saying, “this idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechesis”; however, he did acknowledge that “the growing wealth of a few parallels the growing poverty of the masses,” and affirmed both the principle of private property and that the Church “must preach, educate individuals and collectivities, form public opinion, and offer orientations to the leaders of the peoples” towards the goal of a “more just and equitable distribution of goods”.
Some liberation theologians, however, including Gustavo Gutiérrez, had been barred from attending the Puebla Conference. Working from a seminary and with aid from sympathetic, liberal bishops, they partially obstructed other clergy’s efforts to ensure that the Puebla Conference documents satisfied conservative concerns. Within four hours of the Pope’s speech, Gutiérrez and the other priests wrote a 20-page refutation, which was circulated at the conference, and has been claimed to have influenced the final outcome of the conference. According to a socio-political study of liberation theology in Latin America, a quarter of the final Puebla documents were written by theologians who were not invited to the conference.
Main article: Theology
Liberation theology could be interpreted as an attempt to return to the gospel of the early church where Christianity is politically and culturally decentralized.
Liberation theology proposes to fight poverty by addressing its alleged source, the sin of greed. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology (especially Roman Catholic) and political activism, especially in relation to economic justice, poverty, and human rights. The principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed. For example, Jon Sobrino argues that the poor are a privileged channel of God’s grace.
Some liberation theologians base their social action upon the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus Christ, as bringing a sword (social unrest), e.g., Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 10:34, Luke 22:35–38 — and not as bringing peace (social order). This biblical interpretation is a call to action against poverty, and the sin engendering it, to affect Jesus Christ’s mission of justice in this world.
Gustavo Gutiérrez gave the movement its name with his 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation. In this book, Gutiérrez combined populist ideas with the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He was influenced by an existing socialist current in the Church which included organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement and the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne, a Belgian Christian youth worker organization. He was also influenced by Paul Gauthier’s The Poor, Jesus and the Church (1965). Gutiérrez’s book is based on an understanding of history in which the human being is seen as assuming conscious responsibility for human destiny, and yet Christ the Saviour liberates the human race from sin, which is the root of all disruption of friendship and of all injustice and oppression.
Gutiérrez also popularized the phrase “preferential option for the poor”, which became a slogan of liberation theology and later appeared in addresses of the Pope. Drawing from the biblical motif on the poor, Gutiérrez asserts that God is revealed as having a preference for those people who are “insignificant”, “marginalized”, “unimportant”, “needy”, “despised”, and “defenseless”. Moreover, he makes clear that terminology of “the poor” in scripture has social and economic connotations that etymologically go back to the Greek word, ptōchos. To be sure, as to not misinterpret Gutiérrez’s definition of the term “preferential option”, he stresses, “Preference implies the universality of God’s love, which excludes no one. It is only within the framework of this universality that we can understand the preference, that is, ‘what comes first’.”
Gutiérrez emphasized practice (or, more technically, “praxis”) over doctrine. Gutiérrez clarified his position by advocating a circular relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxis seeing the two as having a symbiotic relationship. Gutierrez’ reading of prophets condemning oppression and injustice against the poor (i.e., Jeremiah 22:13–17) informs his assertion that to know God (orthodoxy) is to do justice (orthopraxis). Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), however, criticized liberation theology for elevating orthopraxis to the level of orthodoxy. Richard McBrien summarizes this concept as follows:
God is disclosed in the historical “praxis” of liberation. It is the situation, and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed.
Another important hallmark for Gutiérrez’s brand of liberation theology is an interpretation of revelation as “history”. For example, Gutiérrez wrote:
History is the scene of the revelation God makes of the mystery of his person. His word reaches us in the measure of our involvement in the evolution of history.
Gutiérrez also considered the Church to be the “sacrament of history”, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, thus pointing to the doctrine of universal salvation as the true means to eternal life, and assigning the Church itself to a somewhat temporal role, namely, liberation.
One of the most radical aspects of liberation theology was the social organization, or reorganization, of church practice through the model of Christian base communities. Liberation theology 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. In this context, sacred text interpretation is understood as “praxis”. Liberation theology seeks to interpret the actions of the Catholic Church and the teachings of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the poor and disadvantaged. In Latin America, liberation theologians specifically target the severe disparities between rich and poor in the existing social and economic orders within the nations’ political and corporate structures. It is a strong critique of the various economic and social structures, such as an oppressive government, dependence upon First World countries and the traditional hierarchical Church, that allow some to be extremely rich while others are unable to even have safe drinking water.
The 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. 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. In May 2007, it was estimated that 80,000 base communities existed in Brazil.
Contemporaneously, Fanmi Lavalas in Haiti, the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, and Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa are three organizations that make use of liberation theology.
Brazilian liberation theology
The Brazilian Catholic Church is arguably one of the most theologically progressive Catholic congregations due, in large part, to a history of violent military and political conflicts as well as a divisive socioeconomic climate. During Brazil’s military rule from 1964 to 1985, the Catholic Church and its members assumed responsibility to provide services to the poor and disenfranchised, often under threat of persecution. The Vatican II and Medellín conference innovations in liberation theology entered the Brazilian Church as the Brazilian lower classes experienced sharply deteriorating economic and political conditions. Among these were an increase in landownership concentration, a decline in wages and standards of living, and a rise in the military state’s political repression and violence, including mass detainment, torture, and the assassination of political opponents.
Base ecclesial communities
After decades of repression from the government authorities, the liberationist Catholic Church in Brazil is absent of traditional centralization and encourages an increased lay participation. Faced with a severe priest shortage, much of the Brazilian Catholic Church is organized into Base Ecclesial Communities or, “CEBs” in which the Mass, community spirituality programs, and community needs are led or addressed by a single clergy member or a trained lay member in either a small chapel or an individual’s home. The CEBs introduced new social ideas and democratic methods which led to many participants’ active involvement in popular movements of Brazil that worked for progressive social change. An example of progressive social change initiated by the CEBs is in Nova Iguaçu. A health program began there to try to organize the population in order to remedy widespread malnutrition, open sewers, and other health hazards. Eventually the neighbourhood initiative reached a national interest level where it then became a mass movement in nearly every neighbourhood. Initiatives like the health program in Nova Iguaçu illustrate how CEBs have helped the transition from military to democratic rule.
While liberation theology has brought about significant progressive reforms in Brazil, anthropologist Robin Nagle questions the effectiveness of Catholic Church theology in Brazil. Nagle concentrates on the conflict between conservatives and liberationists in Recife, Brazil, in 1990. The poor neighbourhood of Morro da Conceição had a liberationist priest named Reginaldo who was expelled by the traditionalist archbishop because the archbishop found Reginaldo’s politics and social theology annoying and adverse to his own agenda. When Reginaldo and his followers refused to accept the expulsion and the new priest, the archbishop called in the Military Police. Conversely, the event did not cause a mass response because the liberationist agenda aroused distrust and even hatred among many of its intended audience. The main reason was that it was too much to ask poor parishioners to embrace a Church focused more on the troubles of this life than solace in the next.
While Robin Nagle claims that liberation theology is ineffective for genuine social change, anthropologist Manuel Vásquez argues that liberation theology embraced by CEBs create a twofold effect, because it not only provided moral justification for resistance but it also served as a means to organize the resistance. Many people come to the CEB through conversion experiences, but also because they are keenly concerned with the spiritual and infrastructural needs of their community.[ Through his fieldwork in working-class neighbourhoods of Rio de Janeiro, Vásquez reveals that CEBs combat disenfranchisement but also serve to overcome the obstacles associated with materialism and globalization. The social and political impact can be viewed in terms of initial consciousness-raising, the motivation for involvement, the sense of community they develop, the experience of grassroots democracy, the direct actions they engage in, and finally, directly political actions.
Liberation theology and indigenous Brazil
Anthropologist and author Max Maranhão Piorsky Aires analyzes the influence of liberation theology on the transformation of the indigenous Tapeba people of Brazil from poor, uneducated inhabitants neglected by the state to rights-bearing and involved citizens. Specifically he largely attributes the work of the Brazilian Catholic Church to the progression of the Tapeba. The Catholic Church enlisted state authorities, anthropologists, and journalists to help uncover the identity of neglected indigenous peoples of Brazil. Early recognition by missionaries and followers of liberation theology stimulated indigenous identification of the Tapeba population as a possibility for attaining rights, especially land, health, and education. The Church gathered and contributed historical knowledge of indigenous territory and identity of the Tapeba in Caucaia that ultimately succeeded in the tribes obtaining a legally codified identity as well as a rightful place as Brazilian subjects.
In Gurupá, the Catholic Church employed liberation theology to defend indigenous tribes, farmers, and extractors from land expropriation by federal or corporate forces. New religious ideas, in the form of liberation theology, have fortified and legitimized an evolving political culture of resistance.Meanwhile, the Church-supported Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs) have promoted stronger social connections among community members that has led to more effective activism in Gurupá. Anthropologist Richard Pace’s study of Gurupá revealed that CEBs assured safety in united activism, and, combined with liberation theology, encouraged members to challenge landowner’s commercial monopolies and fight for better standards of living. Pace references a specific incident in the CEB of Nossa Senhora de Fátima, in which a community of 24 families of farmers, timber extractors, and traders resisted an extra-regional timber extraction firm. The community negotiated an agreement with the firm that gained them a higher standard of living that included imported goods, increased food availability, and access to health care. While severe social dislocations such as government-initiated capitalist penetration, land expropriation, and poor wages persist, small-farmer activism is fortified by liberation theology and receives structural support from unions, political parties, and church organizations.
In March 1983, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), made ten observations of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s theology, accusing Gutiérrez of politically interpreting the Bible in supporting temporal messianism, and stating that the predominance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy in his thought proved a Marxist influence. Ratzinger objected that the spiritual concept of the Church as “People of God” is transformed into a “Marxist myth”. In liberation theology he declared, the “‘people’ is the antithesis of the hierarchy, the antithesis of all institutions, which are seen as oppressive powers. Ultimately anyone who participates in the class struggle is a member of the ‘people’; the ‘Church of the people’ becomes the antagonist of the hierarchical Church.”
Ratzinger did praise liberation theology in some respects, including its ideal of justice, its rejection of violence, and its stress on “the responsibility which Christians necessarily bear for the poor and oppressed”. He subsequently 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. Nonetheless, media reports tended to assume that the condemnation of “liberation theology” meant a rejection of such attitudes and an endorsement of conservative politics.
In 1984, it was reported that a meeting occurred between the CDF and the CELAM bishops, during which a rift developed between Ratzinger and some of the bishops, with Ratzinger issuing official condemnations of certain elements of liberation theology. These “Instructions” rejected as Marxist the idea that class struggle is fundamental to history, and rejected the interpretation of religious phenomena such as the Exodus and the Eucharist in exclusively political terms. Ratzinger further stated that liberation theology had a major flaw in that it attempted to apply Christ’s sermon on the mount teachings about the poor to present social situations. He asserted that Christ’s teaching on the poor meant that we will be judged when we die, with particular attention to how we personally have treated the poor.
Ratzinger also argued that liberation theology is not originally a “grass-roots” movement among the poor, but rather, 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.
Throughout the 1990s, Ratzinger, as prefect of the CDF, continued to condemn these elements in liberation theology, and prohibited dissident priests from teaching such doctrines in the Catholic Church’s name. Leonardo Boff was suspended and others were censured. Tissa Balasuriya, in Sri Lanka, was excommunicated. Sebastian Kappen, an Indian theologian, was also censured for his book Jesus and Freedom. Under 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.
Towards reconciliation under Pope Francis
According to Roberto Bosca, a historian at Austral University in Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio (later Pope Francis) had “a reputation as an opponent of liberation theology during the 1970s” but he “accepted the premise of liberation theology, especially the option for the poor, but in a ‘nonideological’ fashion.” Before becoming Pope, Bergoglio said, “The option for the poor comes from the first centuries of Christianity. It’s the Gospel itself. If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the Church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist. The Church has always had the honor of this preferential option for the poor … At the Second Vatican Council the Church was redefined as the People of God and this idea really took off at the Second Conference of the Latin-American bishops in Medellín.” Bosca said Bergoglio was not opposed to liberation theology itself but to “giving a Catholic blessing to armed insurgency”, specifically the Montoneros, who claimed liberation theology as part of their political ideology. Blase Bonpane, a former Maryknoll father and founding director of the Office of the Americas, said “The new pope has not been comfortable with liberation theology.”
On September 11, 2013, Pope Francis hosted Gutiérrez in his residence, where he concelebrated mass with Gutiérrez and Gerhard Müller, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Some saw this meeting as a sign of warming relations between the hierarchy and liberation theologians. The same month, L’Osservatore Romano published an article by Archbishop Müller praising Gutiérrez. On January 18, 2014, Pope Francis met with Arturo Paoli, an Italian priest whom the Pope knew from Paoli’s long service in Argentina. Paoli is recognized as an exponent of liberation theology avant la lettre and the meeting was seen as a sign of “reconciliation” between the Vatican and the liberationists.
Miguel d’Escoto, a Maryknoll priest from Nicaragua, had been sanctioned with an a divinis suspension from his public functions in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, for political activity in the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Pope Francis lifted the suspension in August 2014, in response to a request by d’Escoto.
At a 2015 press conference in the Vatican hosted by Caritas International, the federation of Catholic relief agencies, Gutiérrez noted that while there had been some difficult moments in the past dialogue with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, liberation theology had never been condemned. Although he saw an increasingly clear emphasis on Church teachings on the poor, he did not consider that liberation theology was undergoing a rehabilitation, since it had never been “dishabilitated”.
In January 2019, during the World Youth Day in Panama, Pope Francis discussed changing attitudes to liberation theology during an extended discussion with a group of thirty Jesuits from Central America. He noted that he had a devotion to the martyred Salvadoran Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, even before he came to know Óscar Romero well. Francis commented that “Today we old people laugh about how worried we were about liberation theology. What was missing then was communication to the outside about how things really were.”
Communist era general of Romania’s secret police, Ion Mihai Pacepa, claims that the KGB created liberation theology. Commentators, notably John L. Allen of Crux on the left and Damian Thompson of The Spectator on the right, have suspected these claims are exaggerated.
US political reactions
In 1983 US vice president George H. W. Bush said he could not comprehend how Catholic theologians could harmonize Catholicism and Marxism and support revolutionaries in Central America. “I’m puzzled. I just don’t understand it.”
Latin American integral mission
Main article: Integral mission
Integral mission or holistic mission is a term coined in Spanish as misión integral in the 1970s by members of the evangelical group Latin American Theological Fellowship (or FTL, its Spanish acronym) to describe an understanding of Christian mission which embraces both the evangelism and social responsibility. Since Lausanne 1974, integral mission has influenced a significant number of evangelicals around the world.
The word integral is used in Spanish to describe wholeness (as in wholemeal bread or whole wheat). Theologians use it to describe an understanding of Christian mission that affirms the importance of expressing the love of God and neighbourly love through every means possible. Proponents such as C. René Padilla of Ecuador, Samuel Escobar of Peru, and Orlando E. Costas of Puerto Rico have wanted to emphasize the breadth of the Good News and of the Christian mission, and used the word integral to signal their discomfort with conceptions of Christian mission based on a dichotomy between evangelism and social involvement.
The proponents of integral mission argue that the concept of integral mission is nothing new – rather, it is rooted in Scripture and wonderfully exemplified in Jesus’ own ministry. “Integral mission” is only a distinct vocabulary for a holistic understanding of mission that has become important in the past forty years in order to distinguish it from widely held but dualistic approaches that emphasize either evangelism or social responsibility.
The priest Camilo Torres (a leader of the Colombian guerrilla group ELN) celebrated the Eucharist only among those engaged in armed struggle against the army of the Colombian state. He also fought for the ELN.
Main article: Black theology
Black theology refers to a theological perspective which originated in some black churches in the United States and later in other parts of the world, which contextualizes Christianity in an attempt to help those of African descent overcome oppression. It especially focuses on the injustices committed against African Americans and black South Africans during American segregation and apartheid, respectively.
Black theology seeks to liberate people of color from multiple forms of political, social, economic, and religious subjugation and views Christian theology as a theology of liberation—”a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the Gospel, which is Jesus Christ,” writes James Hal Cone, one of the original advocates of the perspective. Black theology mixes Christianity with questions of civil rights, particularly raised by the Black Power movement and the Black Consciousness Movement.
Palestinian liberation theology
Palestinian liberation theology is an expression of political theology and a contextual theology that represents an attempt by a number of independently working Palestinian theologians from various denominations—mostly Protestant mainline churches—to articulate the gospel message in such a way as to make that liberating gospel relevant to the perceived needs of their indigenous flocks. As a rule, this articulation involves a condemnation of the State of Israel, a theological underpinning of Palestinian resistance to Israel as well as Palestinian national aspirations, and an intense valorization of Palestinian ethnic and cultural identity as guarantors of a truer grasp of the gospel by virtue of the fact that they are inhabitants of the land of Jesus and the Bible. The principal figure in Palestinian liberation theology is the Anglican cleric Naim Ateek, founder of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.
- Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa
- Dalit theology in India
- Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil
- Lavalas in Haiti
- FSLN in Nicaragua (see The Catholic Church and the Nicaraguan Revolution)
- FMLN in El Salvador
- Christians for Socialism (Cristianos por el socialismo)
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia