Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Retreat of Liberation Theology

by Edward A. Lynch


Professor Edward Lynch, of Hollins College in Roanoke, VA, explains how the Vatican dealt with liberation theology as part of the larger secular challenge to the Faith.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



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Catholic Polls, Inc., February 1994

Few intellectual movements have begun with more immediate, favorable attention than the theology of liberation, developed by Latin American scholars in the 1960s and 1970s. Encomia to the "new way of doing theology" came from North American and European scholars and from many Latin American bishops. At the Second General Conference of the Latin American conference of Bishops (CELAM), held in Medellin in 1968, liberation theology seemed to come into its own even before the English publication of Gustavo Gutierrez's 1973 A Theology of Liberation.

Twenty-five years later, however, liberation theology has been reduced to an intellectual curiosity. While still attractive to many North American and European scholars, it has failed in what the liberationists always said was their main mission, the complete renovation of Latin American Catholicism.

Instead, orthodox Catholic leaders, starting with Pope John Paul II, have reclaimed ideas and positions that the liberationists had claimed for themselves, such as the "preferential option for the poor," and "liberation" itself. In so doing, the opponents of liberation theology have successfully changed the terms of debate over religion and politics in Latin America. At the same time, liberation theology had to face internal philosophical contradictions and vastly altered political and economic circumstances, both in Latin America and elsewhere. Having lost the initiative, liberation theologians are making sweeping reversals in their theology.

The response to liberation theology was sophisticated and multi-faceted. Nevertheless, it is possible to describe its essential ingredient rather briefly. John Paul II and the other opponents of liberation theology offered it a cultural challenge. That is, they took issue with what liberation theology tried to say about the basic meaning of human life and what is most important to living that life.

Liberationists seek to change the object to which theology devotes its attention. They reject, with disdain, the notion that getting people to heaven is more important than getting them tolerable living conditions. Liberation theology is an attempt to change people's minds about what is most decisive and significant in their lives. In other words, liberation theology is a cultural challenge.

Liberation theology and Antonio Gramsci

Liberation theology's critics responded to it as they would to a Gramscian cultural offensive. Although Gramsci's thought is difficult to summarize without distortion, some opinions are universally connected with his name.

Of particular importance to Gramsci was the cultural unity of Christian Europeans. So long as poor people thought that their Christian identity was the most important, they would readily join forces with Christian elites against atheistic revolutionaries. Changing the culture, for Gramsci, meant inducing people to alter their primary self-identification.

Liberation theology and Gramsci are both determined to persuade people to identify themselves according to their economic status. Poor people, in particular, must be induced to think of themselves first and only as poor people. Moreover, the poor ought to feel resentment toward the rich and to blame the rich for their poverty. Gutierrez declared that "Liberation expresses the aspirations of oppressed classes and people," underlining "the conflictual aspect of the social, economic and political process" (Quoted in Moreno, 1976: 18-19). Juan Segundo exhorted his readers to undertake "conscientization" of the poor, which he described as "social mobilization that seeks to inculcate an . . . awareness of the real interests, especially class interests, at work in society" (1978:21).

Revolutionaries must concentrate on taking over social institutions, until all the transmitters of culture, such as schools, works of art and literature, media outlets and, most especially, churches, convey the belief that material progress, material wealth, and material comfort are the most meaningful elements of human life. Succeed here, Gramsci promised, and taking over government "becomes a relatively painless adjustment to the changed social situation" (Finocchiaro, 1984:124).

In their early writings, liberation theologians openly tried to change the focus of religious thought, from concern about the next life to concern about this one. Liberation theologians hotly dispute the notion that they are interested only in the material progress of man (O'Hare, 1990; III, for example). Nevertheless, liberation theology clearly rejected what it constantly called the traditional Church's preoccupation with matters of faith, morals and getting to heaven.

The emphasis on earthly things is more explicit in early liberation theology than in recent works. Still, as late as 1991, Jon Sobrino defined sin as unjust social structure, or "that which deals death." Examples of sinners for him were oligarchies, multi-national corporations, various armed forces and "virtually every government." He even went so far as to restate the Beatitudes in earthly terms, changing "Blessed are the meek," etc. to "Happy are the meek" (1991: 366, 70).

For a time, it was not just a few liberationist intellectuals who wished to make the Church primarily concerned with this world. At the Medellin conference, generally recognized as the CELAM conference at which liberation theology was most influential, the assembled bishops listed three tasks for the Church, in this order: human promotion; evangelization and growth in faith. One commentator commented drily that this "alters the order most commonly used in the church before and after the conference," and noted, correctly, that at the CELAM conference at Puebla 10 years later, John Paul II tried to change the order back again. (McGrath, 1990; 77, 87)

There are numerous points of contact between liberation theology and the plans of Gramsci. Had Gramsci known about liberation theology, he would have embraced it. Opponents of liberation theology have incorporated their struggle against this particular philosophy into a more general attack on secularism, societal disunity and a culture confined to addressing economic conflict. The approach has been quite successful.

Warring against secularism

The pontificate of John Paul II has been marked by a determination to reinsert the Church and its beliefs into elements of human life from which secularism sought to expel them. (John Paul is ably assisted in this endeavor by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, whom the Pope appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger authored a two-part refutation of liberation theology in the 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects of the "Theology of Liberation" and the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation that came out two years later.) John Paul's main enemy, since his election in 1978, has been modern secularism. For the Pope, liberation theology is part of this secularism.

All human activity, John Paul has said, must have reference to the ultimate meaning of life, which is eternal salvation. While seeking to concentrate their efforts on life here and now, modern people have forgotten this essential truth.

In his first encyclical, John Paul II insisted that all authentic humanism must refer to Christ. All else is folly (1979: para. 10). Soon afterwards, he added that: "awareness that man's work is a participation in God's activity ought to permeate, as the Council teaches, even the most ordinary everyday activities. . . . Even by their secular activity [Christians] must assist one another to live holier lives" (1981: para. 25, italics in original).

Juan Segundo, among others, has criticized the Pope's writings, and attacked the 1984 Instruction as "a general attack on Enlightenment humanism and modern thought, aimed at reestablishing an other-worldly and transcendantalist religion" (Quoted in Sigmund, 1990: 163). On this occasion, Segundo was quite right.

Recapturing the language of Catholic liberation

Thus the Vatican has dealt with liberation theology as part of the larger secular challenge to the Faith. Central to John Paul's specific response to liberation theology has been his determination to reclaim for the traditional Church many of the words that liberationists have tried to redefine. The most important of these is the word "liberation." For Gutierrez, and for most liberationists, there are three levels of liberation: first, liberation from unjust social situations; second, personal transformation; third, and "finally," liberation means liberation from sin.

Liberationists implicitly claim that concern for human liberation among Catholics started with Vatican II or Medellin (Segundo 1978, for example). Colombian Primate Alfonso Lopez Trujillo reminded his countrymen, however, that the Church has been developing political and social theology since its beginning. Ricardo Durand, a Peruvian bishop critical of liberation theology, stated baldly: "Many of us were committed to the poor, and suffered for them, before the Medellin conference," Durand wrote (1989: 84). Starting with John Paul II, orthodox Catholics spoke more assertively of their own heritage of devotion to the poor.

The Pope's supporters also began insisting on a more inclusive understanding of "liberation" than the liberationists offered. Only a few weeks after assuming the papacy, John Paul travelled to Latin America to open the CELAM conference at Puebla. For those curious about the new Pope's stand on liberation, his Opening Address was enlightening. He said:

Pastoral commitments . . . must be nurtured by a correct Christian conception of liberation. [The Church] has the duty of proclaiming liberation in its deeper, fuller sense, the sense proclaimed and realized by Jesus. That fuller liberation is liberation from everything that oppresses human beings, but especially liberation from sin and the evil one (Quade, 1982:66-67).

Any attempt to satisfy the material needs of persons, while ignoring their spiritual nature, such as encouraging people to despise the rich, to steal from them or to use violence against them, will only lead people deeper into the slavery of sin. Only a thoroughly materialistic culture can perceive this as progress. For traditional Catholics, "Redemption is liberation in the strongest sense of the word, since it is liberation from sin" (Ratzinger, 1986: para. 3).

Liberation theology addresses economic and social issues by promoting divisions in society and by encouraging envy. This does nothing to ameliorate material deprivation. Chilean bishops told their people, "if their reconciliation with God is sincere, it should have fraternal consequences." Fostering a culture of sacrifice, fellowship, austerity and sharing material goods will do much more to help people than the pronouncements of liberationists (Radio Chilena 1987).

The adversaries of liberation theology promote greater Christian unity by insisting on an inclusive understanding of the oft-repeated phrase "preferential option for the poor." The response to the liberationists' exclusionary use of this phrase is an emphasis on the Church's duty towards all people, regardless of their social class.

Lopez Trujillo pointed out that except for analysts using Marxist categories, the division between the exploited and exploiters is not so clearly marked in the first place. For Catholics, everyone, both rich and poor, are pilgrims and sinners before the Eucharist (1980: 254).

By contrast, the liberationists are exclusionary, a point that their critics make frequently. Ratzinger wrote in 1986: "the special option for the poor, far from being a sign of particularism or sectarianism, manifests the universality of the Church's being and mission. This option excludes no one." All human beings are poor. All people need spiritual sustenance; some need material sustenance also (1986: para. 68).

Recapturing Latin America's Catholic culture

Restoring the original meanings to key words and phrases is a way of asserting what ought to be important to theologians. Put differently, it is seizing back the culture of Catholic Latin America.

The success of the Vatican effort is partly reflected in the reaction of Latin America's bishops. The hierarchies of many Latin American countries quickly joined the Vatican in the project of cultural recapture after publication of the 1984 Instruction. Responding directly to this document in 1984, the Peruvian bishops said: "Only the new heart will be capable of renewing the world because only the new heart rejects sin and all its consequences" (Cleary, 1989:272).

In a dramatic turnaround from the early 1970s, when Peruvian bishops ignored issues of personal morality, they emphasized in 1984 that Peru's most serious problems, requiring the greatest diligence and commitment from pastors, included decadence in public morality and private behavior (Cleary, 1989:269). The Chilean bishops repeated the sentiment: "Central elements of the Kingdom are not food and drink but justice and peace and joy in the spirit" (Cleary, 1989: 89).

Faithful Catholics must aid the poor and must try to relieve their suffering. Traditional Catholics believe that they must not sacrifice their souls, nor destroy societal unity, by undertaking sinful, divisive actions to make economic conditions less terrible.

Respecting traditional devotions

Liberationists, for all their talk of "preferential option," do not really listen to the poor. Supporters of liberation theology openly accept this point. Daniel Levine, for example, says that "serving as the 'voice for the voiceless' is not the same as listening to what the hitherto voiceless may have to say" (1990a: 71). Enrique Dussel voices a common attitude among liberationists when he says: "After having tried to lose themselves within the people, to identify with the people, [liberationists] come to understand that they must shake the people" (Burchaell, 1988: 266).

Cardinal Ratzinger has noted that the natural inclination of most poor Latin Americans is toward religious attitudes and cultural priorities that the liberationists reject. He wrote in the 1986 Instruction: "It is the poor, the object of God's special love, who understand best and as it were instinctively that the most radical liberation, which is liberation from sin and death, is the liberation accomplished by the death and resurrection of Christ."

This sensus fidei [Ratzinger uses the traditional term] means that to truly listen to the poor means accepting acts of traditional piety, often most prevalent among the poor, even if they seem old-fashioned or distinctly non-revolutionary. Again, the liberationists fail to live up to their own standards. Rather than "serving as the voice for the voiceless," they seek to misdirect such popular piety toward an earthly plan of liberation. This, writes Ratzinger, leads the poor to another form of slavery, and is a "criminal" act (1986: para. 22, 98).

Liberation theologians disparaged such things as processions, prayers to patron saints, and the veneration of Mary, among other popular forms of piety in Latin America, as "non-transformative." When they discovered that Marian devotions were not going to go away, liberation theologians tried to limit Mary's entire life to two verses from the Magnificat. ["The Lord has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" Luke 1:52-53.]

Their disdain for Marian devotions made many poor Latin Americans mistrust liberation theology. Its critics refer to Mary frequently. Among the most successful orthodox Catholic movements is the Sodalitum Vitae movement in Peru. One liberationist supporter complains that this traditional movement responds to discontented people, but does so in a way calculated to make liberation theology less attractive. Sodalitum Vitae accomplishes this, according to the author, by emphasizing Mary, the saints, and Catholic social thought (Pena, 1992: 160).

Bishops opposed to liberation theology make frequent reference to Mary. In fact, an analyst can discover the attitude of a Latin American pastoral letter almost unerringly by noting the dedication at the end. If the letter does not invoke Mary, or mentions only the Mary of the truncated Magnificat, it is likely to support liberation theology.

Supplanting liberation theology with reconciliation theology

Orthodox Catholics' encouragement of traditional, outward piety is one element of their insistances on unity, both in the Church and in society. The basic disagreement between orthodox Catholics and liberationists is over what begets unity. For the liberationists, unity will come when economic and social divisions are eliminated, and they are willing to use violence to achieve this end. For their opponents, the unity that matters is cultural, spiritual, and far removed from economics.

In this regard, loyal Catholics have developed a "theology of reconciliation" to counter liberation theology. This new theology made its first appearance in the Declaracion de Los Andes, published at a meeting of orthodox Catholics in Lima in July 1985. The Declaration said genuine liberation is based on "the reality of the reconciliation of man with God, with himself, with others and with all that is created" (Sigmund, 1990:165).

To liberationists, the challenge of reconciliation theology was disquieting. One critic of reconciliation warned that the new theology would "diffuse political activism by encouraging opposition groups to find common ground on which to resolve their differences" (Pena, 1992; 164). The author was quite prescient. This is exactly what occurred.

Liberationists believe that unliberated societies are so severely divided that revolutionary upheaval, and a purge of the ruling class, is absolutely necessary. Reconciliation theology, however, insists that Christianity requires openness, and even love, for people of all social classes, and all classes of sinfulness.

Ratzinger speaks emphatically: "Love of neighbor knows no limits and includes enemies and persecutors." He added later: "There is no gap between love of neighbor and desire for justice." Ratzinger acknowledged that Jesus found most receptivity among the poor, but he also wished to be near the rich, whom he had come to call to conversion. "All those found worthy before Christ's tribunal for having, by the grace of God, made good use of their free will are to receive the reward of happiness" (1986: paras. 55, 66).

The Vatican also believes that the liberationists' expressed demand for "justice" is woefully inadequate as a guide for social action, especially since the liberationists understand this word in primarily economic terms. For a society plagued by wide gaps of power, wealth, and status, the development of a more harmonious society is going to require both forgiveness from the poor, for past exploitation, and sacrifice from the rich, from their abundance. "Justice" must give way to charity, a far more challenging goal (John Paul II, 1987: para. 40).

As the 1980s progressed, Latin American bishops' conferences adopted the themes of unity, reconciliation and inclusion. Bishops of Mexico's southern Pacific Coast, formerly known for their support of some of the themes of liberation theology, wrote in 1985: "We want the good news to reach in a special way those who enjoy a middle- or upper-class socio-economic situation" (Cleary, 1989:294).

In a dramatic break with the liberationists, the bishops praised the contributions of rich people, both in the form of alms and job creation. They listed Catholic saints who had been rich, but who had used their wealth "in a Christian fashion" or had renounced it (Cleary, 1989: 296). Finally, they reminded Catholics that when the rich young man came to Jesus, "He looked steadily at him and loved him" (Mark 10:21). Pastors must imitate Jesus. Love should lead to sympathy, which leads to reconciliation, which leads to societal unity. This unity in turn produces socio-economic improvements.

Practical steps to combat liberation theology

The Vatican and its supporters did not confine their counterattack to homilies, scholarly articles or pastoral letters. Members of the hierarchy, both in Rome and in Latin America, have taken many effective practical actions as well.

After the 1984 Instruction came out, conferences of orthodox Latin American Catholics quickly followed, the most notable of which was the Sodalitum Vitae conference in Lima in 1985. Among the decisions taken by the attendees was to reassert episcopal control over the training of pastoral agents, especially lay pastoral agents (Pena, 1992:166).

More direct actions were soon to follow. Gutierrez had said that the "Secretariats of Justice and Peace," formed after Vatican II and Medellin and largely staffed by liberationists and their supporters, were among the "most interesting departments the church has added after Vatican II" (1990: 17). John Paul, Cardinal Ratzinger, and loyal bishops have closed many of these offices, or appointed orthodox Catholics to staff them. One author laments that John Paul has "orphaned" the progressive Church organizations created by Medellin (Mainwaring, 1990:144).

Since 1978, John Paul has replaced "progressives" with conservatives in nine of Brazil's 36 archdioceses. John Paul's appointees have not hesitated to exercise their prerogatives. In Peru, the new bishop of Cusco has dismantled liberationist social centers. Faithful bishops have imitated such actions across the continent.

The targeted use of ecclesial authority in this manner exploits one of the inherent weaknesses of liberation theology. The liberationists are determined to remain inside the Church, even if they have strong and frequent disagreements with its teachings. To remain nominally part of the Church, however, is to remain under Church authority. Liberationists were most successful when they were able to use persuasion, or intimidation, to keep bishops' conferences from exercising their authority.

Once the bishops, and the Pope, began actually using their authority, it forced the liberationists to make the stark choice of defecting, and losing much of their standing with devout Latin Americans, or remaining in the Church and submitting to the loss of many of their institutional bases. Combined with the philosophical assault, the astute use of authority has confused liberationists and helped bring liberation theology to its current weakened state.

Orthodox Catholics have also reclaimed the Christian Base communities (CEBs). These small groups of lay Catholics originally appeared in Latin America (especially in Brazil) to study the Bible and apply the Faith in areas not served by priests. Liberationists perceived them to be ideal fora for proselytization in the 1960s and 1970s and took them over in many areas. Catholic authorities are now insisting that the CEBs remain inside the Church and under Church discipline, if they are going to claim to be Catholic.

The poor people who created the CEBs, and who make up most of their membership, rejected heavy-handed liberationist control, especially when the liberationists tried to refocus the CEBs on economic matters exclusively. When liberation theologians try to compel ordinary Latin Americans to dedicate their CEBs to liberationist tasks, the poor simply desert them, sometimes finding spiritual direction among evangelical Protestants.

The retreat of liberation theology

John Paul II showed that liberation theology's progress could be halted, simply by using the tools that the Church has at its disposal. By the end of the 1980s, liberation theology was noticeably in retreat. With both the CEBs and the national Bishops' Conferences rejecting liberation theology, its supporters lost ground from both above and below. Nor has the theology created new creators. Liberationists active during the 1970s still dominate the literature.

The most convincing proof of liberation theology's retreat, however, is the speed with which liberation theology is changing, combined with the vehemence of its proponents' contention that it is doing nothing of the kind. Liberationists acknowledge new directions and new emphases in their work, but insist that these seeming changes were present from the beginning.

This is simply not the case. Most observers have noted radical changes in the movement in the last few years. The movement is demonstrating much more skepticism of Marxism and of dependency theory. Liberationists are behind most of the rest of the world, but this still represents an important change. The liberationists' enthusiasm for socialism is also waning.

Levine notes that liberation theology is redirecting its "central concerns away from politics in the narrow sense to issues of popular religion, spirituality, and long-term social and cultural change" (1990b: 607). In other words, liberationists are now centrally concerned with everything liberation theology used to haughtily disdain.

Gutierrez has changed too. He skipped an international conference on liberation theology at Louvain University. He told organizers that he could not attend the conference at liberation theology's birthplace because he was busy organizing emergency soup kitchens for his parishioners in Peru. In the 1970s, liberationists disparaged charity work on such a small scale and of such a "non-transformative" nature (O'Higgins, 1990:390). Liberation theology's new emphasis on spirituality has been especially prominent. This new spirituality is conspicuous because liberationists used to be so critical of the "other worldliness" of the traditional Church. The old Church, they said, avoided the problems of this world by taking refuge in prayer and sacraments. Gutierrez discovered in 1990 that Latin American popular prayer, "which seems so primitive and superstitious to us, is really a protest against repression and demand for freedom" (1990: 18). For liberationists to embrace these is a complete turnaround. More to the point, it is a turnaround prompted by the Vatican's successful cultural effort.

In spite of the sizable retreat that liberation theology has been forced to make since 1978, its opponents would be sadly mistaken to think that the danger is past. I pointed out earlier that John Paul's attack on liberation theology was part of his larger attack on the secularizing culture of the modern world. This battle continues and its outcome is by no means certain. In Latin America, the liberationists may well find that, even though socialism is currently out of fashion, capitalism may serve their purposes just as well, if not better. As the 1990s opened, virtually all Latin American countries were abandoning traditional Latin American statism in favor of some form of free market capitalism.

Catholic social thought has warned against unbridled capitalism since 1891. It contains many of the evils that the Pope is committed to fighting. The Catholic Popes stress the disquieting similarity of capitalism and socialism, which Pius XI called the "twin rocks of shipwreck." Since it is materialistic itself, capitalism cannot counter the threat of another secular, materialistic philosophy like socialism. John Paul desires to supersede both by replacing the culture of profit (capitalism), and the culture of envy (socialism), with a culture of fellowship, solidarity, work, austerity and unity.

If capitalism comes to Latin America without these cultural elements, it may bring greater productivity to Latin America, but it will also, at least in the short term, bring resentment, brutal competition, and other evils that could resuscitate liberation theology. •

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