Sunday, May 6, 2007

Liberation Theology in Latin America

The New York Times has a very interesting article on the persistence of liberation theology as a force in Latin America despite the best efforts of the Vatican:

In the early 1980s, when Pope John Paul II wanted to clamp down on what he considered a dangerous, Marxist-inspired movement in the Roman Catholic Church, liberation theology, he turned to a trusted aide: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Now Cardinal Ratzinger is Pope Benedict XVI, and when he arrives here on Wednesday for his first pastoral visit to Latin America he may be surprised at what he finds. Liberation theology, which he once called “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church,” persists as an active, even defiant force in Latin America, home to nearly half the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.

Over the past 25 years, even as the Vatican moved to silence the clerical theorists of liberation theology and the church fortified its conservative hierarchy, the social and economic ills the movement highlighted have worsened. In recent years, the politics of the region have also drifted leftward, giving the movement’s demand that the church embrace “a preferential option for the poor” new impetus and credibility.

Today some 80,000 “base communities,” as the grass-roots building blocks of liberation theology are called, operate in Brazil, the world’s most populous Roman Catholic nation, and nearly one million “Bible circles” meet regularly to read and discuss scripture from the viewpoint of the theology of liberation.

. . .

Since liberation theology first emerged in the 1960s, it has consistently mixed politics and religion. Adherents have often been active in labor unions and left-wing political parties and criticized governments they complain are beholden to modern-day Pharisees.


Supporters see that activism as a necessary virtue to answer the needs of the poor. Opponents say it dangerously insinuates the church into the temporal, political realm, and in recent years they have repeatedly announced the movement’s decline or disappearance.


Read it all.

I have two observations about liberation theology. First, liberation theology largely developed in Latin America as an alternative to the Catholic establishment because in most Latin American countries, that establishment was historically firmly aligned with the rich and powerful. Liberation theology was thus a useful counterweight to an often oppressive and rigid hierarchy that showed a preference for the rich and powerful rather than the poor.

Second, it is important to understand, however, that Pope John Paul II's rejection of liberation theology did not mean (at all) a rejection of a belief that the place of the Church was with the poor. To the contrary, both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have strong records of support for the poor of the world. And it is no accident that the Latin American Roman Catholic establishment is no longer a trusted ally of the rich and powerful in several countries--this is a legacy of Pope John Paul II. The New York times article offers an interesting recent example:

At a news conference here on April 27, the newly appointed archbishop of São Paulo, Odilo Scherer, 57, tried to conciliate the two opposing viewpoints. While he criticized liberation theology for using “Marxism as a tool of analysis,” he also praised liberation theologians for redirecting the church’s mission here to focus on issues of social injustice and poverty.


In this instance, I think we need to take at face value, the critique of liberation theology offered by the Vatican. (While still remaining deeply sceptical of the more local opposition by the Catholic hierarchy). The concern is less the focus of activism for the poor, than with the close alignment of theology with an expressly Marxist philosophy.

I suppose I could now offer Reinhold Niebuhr as a more theologically sound (but still realistic) alternative to progressive Christians in Latin America (and elsewhere), but I'll restrain myself (for now).

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