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Liberation Theology's Civil War

by James K. Fitzpatrick


In this article James K. Fitzpatrick writes about the dicotomy that exists between one of liberation theology's proponents, Leonardo Boff, and his brother, Clodovis Boff, who argues that liberation theology effectively substitutes "the poor" for Jesus as its "first operative principle of theology."

Larger Work

The Wanderer



Publisher & Date

Wanderer Printing Co., St. Paul, MN, September 11, 2008

Perhaps I'm naive, but I make it a point not to assume the worst about Catholics on the left. It has always struck me that I should not be in a truly hostile relationship with anyone who truly believes in a personal God the Father, that Jesus sits at His right hand, and that the Roman Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded. Someone who believes these things should not be my enemy — in the true sense of the word — because we disagree about the most effective role of the federal government in dealing with poverty or how assertive the American military should be in defense of our national interests.

The problem is that not everyone who calls himself a Catholic believes these things, including some folks in clerical collars. There are those who work within the Church to promote a secular ideology that is their primary loyalty. It is not paranoia to think that such people exist. Over the years, we have seen more than a few theologians and members of the clergy leave the Church to proclaim their loyalty to one of the "isms" that shaped the 20th-century's intellectual history: Marxism, existentialism, deconstructionism, and secular humanism. What is exasperating is that these individuals remained priests and theologians and members of religious orders for many years before making their formal break, years when they preached to Catholic congregations and taught Catholic students as if they were still loyal to the Church, with the authority of the Church giving credence to their words. The ex-Brazilian priest Leonardo Boff is an example.

Boff left the Franciscan order and his priestly ministry in 1992, after being silenced by the Vatican for his work promoting liberation theology. But Boff had been a priest since 1964. All during those years, he wrote and lectured and preached as a Catholic priest. Catholics who suspected that they were hearing an advocate for Marxist causes when they listened to him were not being paranoid. They intuited correctly that what they were hearing was closer to Marxist propaganda than the Gospel of Christ; that when Boff wrote in his book, Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church (1985), that the "institutional church" was an arm of the "bourgeoisie," he was making an analysis of the role of the Church in terms of Marx's theory of economic determinism. The man was not trying to bring Latin American revolutionaries to Christ; his goal was to bring Catholics over to the cause of Marxist revolution.

Is that last sentence an overstatement? Not according to Boff's brother, Clodovis. Clodovis is still a priest in Brazil, a member of the Servants of Mary order. Samuel Gregg reported on August 5 on the web site Catholic Exchange ( that Clodovis published in late 2007 a "robust critique of liberation theology as it really exists" in the journal Revista Eclesiastica Brasileira. Clodovis Boff argues that liberation theology effectively substitutes "the poor" for Jesus as its "first operative principle of theology."

The result of this substitution, Clodovis Boff continues, is to transform the Church into the equivalent of a "militant nongovernmental organization," a "social movement" along the lines of a United Nations' poverty agency. Fr. Boff asks the obvious question: "Why would anyone join a Church which essentially considers itself just another social movement? Plenty of secular NGOs pursuing hundreds of causes already exist. Why bother embracing the whole apparatus of Catholic doctrine if the Church's primary objective is pursuing earthly utopias rather than saving souls?"

Clodovis Boff understands what is at stake; that when theologians prioritize the poor over Christ, the "inevitable result is the politicization of the faith" and "its reduction to an instrument for social liberation." Fr. Boff does not balk at Jesus' call to "love our neighbor as ourselves." The "Christ-principle always includes the poor," he writes. A Catholic understanding of our moral duty to the poor "begins with Christ and arrives at the poor." We are to love our neighbors as ourselves as part of our obligation to "love God above all things." But Fr. Boff warns that many in the liberation theology movement have a "poor-principle" that "does not necessarily include Christ."

The secularization of Christianity Fr. Boff is describing can be seen in the work of the best-known liberation theologians. Individuals such as Gustavo Gutierrez make no effort to disguise their goal of transforming Catholicism into a strictly horizontal effort to reform society, with no reference to God the Father, Heaven, or an afterlife. Their goal is to convince Catholics that our efforts should be directed toward remaking this world, not because our obligation is to "remake all things in Christ," but because this world is all there is or ever will be, exactly as Marxists teach.

Gutierrez, the Dominican priest and theologian generally considered to be the father of liberation theology, wrote in his The Theology of Liberation (published in 1971 by Maryknoll's Orbis Books) that one of the great errors of traditional Catholic theology is its insistence upon a separate secular and sacral sphere, what he calls the "Platonic and neo-Platonic categories" with "metaphysics which stressed the existence of a higher world and the transcendence of an Absolute from which everything came and to which everything returned."

In other words, you can forget a personal salvation and the Beatific Vision. Liberation theology seeks to free us from these Platonic traces in our theology. Gutierrez informs us there is a new vehicle through which the "Word of God gathers and is incarnated in the community of faith." "Many agree with Sartre," he continues, "that 'Marxism, as the formal framework of all contemporary philosophical thought, cannot be superseded'." Certainly Gutierrez thinks that: "Contemporary theology does in fact find itself in direct and fruitful confrontation with Marxism, and it is to a large extent due to Marxism's influence that theological thought, searching for its own sources, has begun to reflect on the meaning of the transformation of this world and the action of man in history."

Leonardo Boff responded to his brother's charges. He calls them "theologically erroneous," in an article published in Brazil this past May. But he affirms his conviction that what he calls "man-poor" is "the measure of all things" and that "to encounter the poor is to encounter Christ." He attacks his brother for providing ammunition for "local and Roman ecclesiastical authorities" to attack liberation theology.

We can't read minds. Is Leonardo Boff just an angry Marxist ideologue whose hatred for capitalism colors everything that he sees? I submit that it is difficult to think otherwise after reading his interview with Comunit√° Italiana (November 2001), in which he observed that the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon "represent the shift toward a new humanitarian and world model. The targeted buildings send a message: A new world civilization couldn't be built with the kind of dominating economy (symbolized by the World Trade Center), with the kind of death machine set up (the Pentagon), and with the kind of arrogant politics and producer of many exclusions (White House spared, because the plane fell before). For me the system and culture of capital began to collapse. They are too destructive."

Until 1992, this man was Fr. Leonardo Boff.

© The Wanderer

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