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notes on liberation theology (2)

August 2nd, 2007 by isaac · 5 Comments

In preparation for a talk I gave on Liberation Theology, I decided to re-read the 1984 Vatican document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “Instruction on certain aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation.’” If those who don’t know about this document, it’s a very important reflection of the Roman Catholic Church that sets the terms of the Church’s reception of Latin American theology. And, interestingly, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now pope Benedict) oversaw it’s authorship. (I will use “The Congregation” as short of the authors of the document, “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith”).

For those who may know a lot about this document, I’d be interested to read your comments.

It’s important to notice that the document doesn’t reveal a Church with it’s head in the sand. The authors are quite aware of the desperate needs of the poor and oppressed through the world, and particularly those in Latin America. And it roots it’s cry for the oppressed in the Scriptures, places like Amos and the prophets: The prophets “threaten the powerful: the accumulation of evils can only lead to terrible punishments. Faithfulness to the Covenant cannot be conveived of without the practice of justice. Justice as regards God and justice as regards mankind are inseparable. God is the defender and the liberator of the poor” (IV.6). It doesn’t get more explicit that that: God is the defender and the liberator of the poor. And the document isn’t shy about naming some of the evils that create a world that makes people poor:


The scandal of the shocking inequality between the rich and poor – whether between rich and poor countries, or between social classes in a single nation – is no longer tolerated. On one hand, people have attained an unheard of abundance which is given to waste, while on the other hand so many live in such poverty, deprived of the basic necessities, that one is hardly able even to count the victims of malnutrition. (I.6)




The lack of equity and of a sense of solidarity in international transactions works to the advantage of the industrialized nations so that the gulf between the rich and the poor is ever widening. Hence derives the feeling of frustration among third world countries, and the accusations of exploitation and economic colonialism brought against the industrialized nations. (I.7)



Most of our world’s inhabitants are driven into poverty by an economic system that works overtime for the sake of the so-called ‘developed’ nations. The global poor are justified, in the Vatican’s eyes, as they cry out against their rich neighbors to the North.

The Congregation also remembers the terrorizing and wasteful military-industrial complex that rich countries harbor as they continue to manufacture and sell advanced killing devices. This is an especially appropriate word given the negotiation of a $20 billion US arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

The Apostolic See, in accord with the Second Vatican Council, and together with the Episcopal Conferences, has not ceased to denounce the scandal involved in the gigantic arms race which, in addition to the threat which it poses to peace, squanders amounts of money so large that even a fraction of it would be sufficient to respond to the needs of those people who want for the basic essentials of life. (I.9)

But the document has lots of worries as well. The authors sense the urgency coming from Latin America, and in a lot of ways echo it, but they can’t adopt much of what they find in “liberation theology.”
Faced with the urgency of certain problems, some are tempted to emphasize, unilaterally, the liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind. They do so in such a way that they seem to put liberation from sin in second place, and so fail to give it the primary importance it is due.” (prologue)

Maybe this isn’t an outright condemnation, but a question of emphasis. Of course the liberation theologians talk about sin, and the other-worldly consequences of sin. God has a problem with the way the rich horde their money and make money of the economic enslavement of the poor. And, as a result, you bet God will have some sins to punish. That seems like the point of what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31f—all the nations will be judged by how they provided for the poor. Apparently, it’s about the sinful structures of nations—and this is not “to put liberation from sin in the second place, and so fail to give it the primary importance it is due.” It simply sounds like the Congregation doesn’t like it when the liberation theologians get specific about the sins they witness.

Maybe the most significant part of the document is it’s condemnation of “Marxist Analysis” (that’s the title of the longest section, part VII). The problem, as the Congregation sees it, is that Marxism claims to be a science, to be empirical, but it is in fact rooted in an ideology. And, as they put it, “If one tries to take only one part, say, the analysis, one ends up having to accept the entire ideology” (VII.6). The point is a simple one: there’s no such thing as neutral science. And Marxism presents its science while hiding its ideology. Gustavo Gutierrez respectfully disagreed with Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation on this point. Gutierrez responds with an influential article, “Teologia y ciencias sociales” (translated and published in The Truth Shall Make You Free). He makes the basic point that it is important for theology to engage with social science (of which Marxism is an important part) if the gospel will have anything to say to everyday lives of so many people who suffer. And it is in fact possible to use Marxism and other social sciences critically. “The presence of the social sciences in theology at the point when it is important to have a deeper understanding of the concrete world of human beings does not imply an undue submission of theological reflection to something outside it. Theology must take into account the contribution of social sciences, but in its work it must always appeal to its own sources” (Essential Writings, p. 49).

A brief aside: That famous Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, participated in the emerging liberation theology of Latin America. Through is ecumenical work, he was invited to speak at theological gatherings in South America where the liberationist agenda was a priority. In his essay, “Biblical Roots of Liberation Theology” (Grail 1.3, Sept 1985), Yoder spells out the (necessary?) link between liberation theology and Marx:

So it was Helder Camara himself a few years ago…who noted how Aquinas made us of Aristotelian categories in order to organize medieval Christian thought. Camara added that today’s Aristotle is Marx. Marx gives us the categories; we we have to Christianize them, adapt them, give them new content. We must take the categories of our age and do with Marx what Aquinas did with Aristotle: we must use him for Christian purposes. (72)

This is the same sort of thing Augustine advises in De doctrina XL.60, where he tells Christians to follow the example of the Israelite slaves who plundered the Egyptians as they left on their exodus:
When the Christian separates himself in spirit from their miserable society, he should take this treasure with him for the just use of teaching the gospel. And their clothing, which is made up of those human institutions which are accommodated to human society and necessary to the conduct of life, should be seized and held to be converted to Christian uses.

Now, back to the Vatican… In his response to the Congregation, Gutierrez practices a receptive generosity that, I guess, comes with the territory of submitting to the authority of the Catholic magisterium. But I don’t have to, so let me make one more point that I think may be important. Just as social sciences aren’t as neutral as they advertise, neither is theology, even when it comes from the Vatican. Theology always comes from somewhere. But the theologians of the Vatican claim a certain kind of universality, a neutrality, that seems to pull the rug out from the grassroots theological work that happens in the base ecclesial communities of Latin America. The Congregation offers an unreceptive, and therefore blind, theological method: “the ultimate and decisive criterion for truth can only be a criterion which is itself theological” (VII.10).

Sure, the document roots theological reflection in the Bible. But it adds a qualification that assumes interpretive authority: “an authentic theology of liberation will be one which is rooted in the Word of God, correctly interpreted” (VI.7). And, as everyone knows, the site of correct interpretation, happens in the magisterium, not in among the people who gather with their bibles near the graves that claimed their loved ones, and will soon claim them. (Sorry. I’ll get off my soap box.)

The theses of the “theologies of liberation” are widely popularized under a simplified form, in formation sessions or in what are called “base groups” which lack the necessary catechetical and theological preparation as well as the capacity for discernment. Thus these theses are accepted by generous men and women without any critical judgment being made. (XI.15)

It’s hard to reach such statements about theological preparation, and not find it patronizing. The ‘base groups’ don’t have enough training to discern what the Holy Spirit has to teach them as they listen for the Word together.

Given these declarations from the Congregation, it is no surprise that Leonardo Boff gets in trouble for writing a book this one: Ecclesiogenesis, The Base Communities Reinvent the Church. Boff takes seriously the hermeneutic and ecclesiastical authority of the grassroots movements of liberation theology:

The rise of the basic church communities and the praxis of these communities are of matchless value when it comes to questioning the prevailing manner of being church. They are sprung from basic, minimum elements like faith, the reading of the word, and meditation on it, and mutual assistance in all human dimensions. As we have seen, they are genuine church. (23)

This gets to the heart of the issue for the Roman Catholic Church and the task of maintaining it’s authority over the shape of the doctrine about ecclesiology. Cardinal Ratzinger and the Congregation are not stupid. They rightly, it seems, perceive the grassroot movements of liberation theology as a threat:
Building on such a conception of the Church of the People, a critique of the very structures of the Church is developed. It is not simply the case of fraternal correction of pastors of the Church whose behavior does not reflect the evangelical spirit of service and is linked to old-fashioned signs of authority which scandalize the poor. It has to do with a challenge to the ‘sacramental and hierarchical structure’ of the Church, which was willed by the Lord Himself. There is a denunciation of members of the hierarchy and the magisterium as objective representatives of the ruling class which has to be opposed. Theologically, this position means that ministers take their origin from the people who therefore designate ministers of their own choice in accord with the needs of their historic revolutionary mission. (IX.13)

Liberation theology is the name given to what the poor and marginalized—the economically enslaved people of South America—hear as they listen for the good news of Christ in the midst of their darkness. It’s people who gather in villages and slums and read the bible and talk about their lives of death. And it’s the priests who have given their lives in service to these people. On the first page of his important book, James Cone puts it clearly and starkly: “theology cease to be a theology of the gospel when it fails to arise out of the community of the oppressed” (A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 1).

I think the theologians whose lives resound with the cries of the oppressed ask us a fundamental question: What does it mean to worship the same God while forgetting about our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history, hidden by the mechanisms progress and development? And this question is also quite threatening, especially if we listen to how some among the poor and oppressed answer it:

The poor of the earth, in their struggles for liberation, in their faith and hope in the Father, are coming to the realization that, to put it in the words of Arguedas, ‘the God of the masters is not the same.’ Their God is not the God of the poor. For ultimately the dominator is one who does not really believe in the God of the Bible.

(Gustavo Gutierrez, quoted in Daniel Bell Jr., Liberation Theology After the End of History, p. 6).

Tags: reading corner · theology

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mel // Aug 8, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    Hi Isaac. So I thought this was interesting. My Catholic boss at my Catholic university keeps me abreast of the Vatican happenings. He told me that Benedict has been very open to pursuing a theology of creation that specifically combats global climate change. What’s interesting is his reasoning. According to jefe Tom, the Pope sees global warming as a way to get young people involved in an issue they care about. And if they begin to care about the creation maybe they can be taught to love the Creator.

    It’s strange to me that he couldn’t apply the same theory to liberation theology. Why would he be so willing to see environmentalism as a way into the church but not the liberation of oppressed peoples? Any thoughts?

  • 2 isaac // Aug 16, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Mel, thanks for the Vatican gossip. I hadn’t heard about this environmental concern. Please email me any links you may come across. For some reason, I also like to keep up with the RCC program.

  • 3 isaac // Aug 16, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    I was reading through some back issues of the London Review of Books this morning and came across a very interesting interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Catholic priest and president of Haiti. During the 1970s, Aristide was involved in the Latin American Liberation Theology movement. There’s a line from the interview that cuts against paternalism when it comes to the poor:

    “The phase in which we may have to speak on behalf of the impoverished and the oppressed comes to an end as they start to speak in their own voice and with their own words. The whole process carries us a long way from paternalism, from any notion of a ‘saviour’ who might come to guide the people and solve their problems” (p. 9).

    What’s also interesting about the interview is that Peter Hallward sat down and did the interview. I know his work on Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze, but had no idea he’s now working on a book on Haiti.

  • 4 Mel // Aug 16, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    you were reading through some back issues of the London Review of Books?! Oh Isaac….

  • 5 isaac // Aug 17, 2007 at 3:27 am

    Hey, what’s so wrong with spending my first day off in a long time in the periodicals section of the library?... Since you brought up the London Review of Books again, let me tell you about another wonderful essay: Terry Eagleton, “I Contain Multitudes” (June 21, 2007) on Mikhail Bakhtin. Well… how about I just share a quote:

    “Why this curious parallelism between the age of Stalinist terror and the era of the iPod? The answer is fairly obvious. Just as Bakhtin’s work is among other things a coded critique of Soviet autocracy, so postmodernism springs in large part from the rout of modern Marxism. In the work of Baudrillard, Lyotard and others, it began as an alternative creed for disenchanted leftists. Its obsession with discourse makes sense in an age short on political action. Instead of setting fire to campuses, American students now cleanse their speech of incorrectness.”

    Mel, I guess it’s probably better for you that the kids are running around worrying about political correctness instead of burning down the campus.