Liberation Theology

Thursday, May 22, 2003



I was browsing though some books on my shelf, and surfing the web looking for a "simple" way to introduce the topic of liberation theology and to demonstrate that the Vatican does support some facets of the theology of liberation. However, there is nothing that grabbed me as being a "simple" introduction to the topic.

So, I thought I would post a few thoughts in my own words about liberation theology as I understand it. I need to add a caveat that I only took one three credit graduate course specifically in liberation theology. I am not an expert, and any errors are my own.

The focus of my course was primarily on Latin American theologies of liberation. We explored the works of the major theologians, as well as the works of their major critics, such as Michael Novak and the earliest Vatican documents issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the subject. Later Vatican statements took a view with more nuance and even supported aspects of the movement. The primary proponents of Latin American liberation theology in its early stages were Gustavo Gutierrez, Segundo Galilea, Juan Luis Segundo, Lucio Gera, and Leonardo and Clodovis Boff. The theology grew out of the theological turn to the subject in the mid-twentieth century represented by the theologians of Vatican II such as Congar, Schillebeeckx, Rahner and his student, Johanes Metz.

In its most basic form, I sometimes describe liberation theology less as a theology, and more as a spirituality, though this is not entirely accurate. The position of the liberation theologians is that in order to encounter the God of the Bible, we cannot simply do theology in the academy. Rather, we must live the gospel in a rather literal and radical way with and for the poorest and the most marginalized in society. The emphasis is on orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy. Rather than looking at the developing world as a missionary field to be converted to Western Christianity in terms of intellectual conversion, we need to immerse ourselves in the lives and concerns of the poor and work for the liberation of the oppressed from whatever binds them.

This immersion in the experience of the poor is not a denial of all traditional aspects of Catholic spirituality, and it finds resonances in the life of poverty embraced by the early Franciscans. At the same time, what is a development from the time of Francis is the emphasis on embracing the cause of the poor as more than acts of social service and charity. Where Francis embraced poverty as an ideal in itself, the liberation theology embraces the condition of poverty with the goal of overcoming poverty. Rooting the notion of liberation theology in traditional language, God emptied himself into the human condition in order to elevate the human condition. He died that through his resurrection, we might live. In other words, the act of self-sacrifice is not an end in itself, but a means toward a greater good of improving the condition of the poor.

I mentioned that the liberation theologian does not focus solely on acts of charity and social service. There is an old saying that it is better to take a man to water and teach him to fish than to simply hand him a fish. The liberation theologian immerses himself or herself in the condition of the poorest of the poor in order to understand how and why the condition exists and to begin to work with and for the poor to change the condition. Some liberation theologians have gone so far as to advocate revolutionary change, while most emphasize change through evolution, rather than revolution. This can be done through the simple act of teaching a child in the village to read. However, it can also involve political and economic changes, similar to the abolitionist movement prior to the civil war in the United States.

Indeed, the liberation theologians often point to the Exodus account of escape from Egyptian slavery as a primary symbol of what is meant by the theology of liberation. Salvation is not simply about a pie in the sky afterlife, but it involves temporal experiences of the in-breaking of God's reign in the here and now. This is where liberation is actually most controversial. Let me explain (if I can).

According to the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth did not focus most of his preaching on the afterlife. In the gospel according to Luke, we see the very first homily attributed to Christ:

He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing."

The "acceptable year" was a command in the Old Testament to a year of jubilee, where slaves were set free, loans were cancelled, and so forth every 50 years. In all of the synoptic gospels, the central theme of the teaching of Jesus is that the reign of God is at hand, present, and breaking in to our world through his words and deeds. It is a liberating proclamation of a just and good God "casting the mighty for their thrones and lifting up the lowly" (See v. 52 of Mary's Canticle Luke 1:46-55).

The controversial piece of liberation theology is that God takes sides!

Liberation theologians argue that exegesis and historical criticism of the Bible is good and necessary. However, they point out that the text itself is read differently by the poor and marginalized, even when read in historical context. The argument of liberation theology is that a slave cannot read the Exodus account and not have a hope for actual temporal liberation awakened in his or her heart.

The tendency for theologians in Western academia has been to focus on questions about the history behind the texts OR to focus on traditions that "spiritualize" the texts. For example, the Exodus account is seen as an allegory of the individual soul against Satan and sin. Arguments are held with atheists about whether Moses is a mythic character or a real person. In some cases in Western history, the texts have even been used to rationalize evil, such as when southern land owners in the United States used Biblical texts to justify slavery and racism.

Liberation cuts through all the questions of the West by having the actual slave say, "Let my people go"!

Liberation theology proposes as a theological axiom that God is always and everywhere on the side of the poor and the oppressed and marginalized. The reading of the Biblical texts by the poor is the meaning with the highest truth value, precisely because it comes from the voice of the poor. Catholic Sacred Tradtion is interpreted in the same light, constantly seeking the liberating message with and for the poor. Some Western scholars, such as Raymond Brown, came to call this "advocacy criticism". Indeed, some liberation theologians have gone so far as to suggest that it is impossible to know the God revealed in Scripture and Sacred Tradition unless you become involved in the struggle for the liberation of an oppressed, marginalized or poor people.

When liberation theologians first used the term "preferential option for the poor", this is what they meant. A "preferential option for the poor" is not simply doing charity for the poor. The fundamental or preferential option for the poor is God taking the side of the poor! This means that God is taking the side of the poor even against the rich!

The phrase was used in a somewhat watered down form by Paul VI, and repeated verbatim widely by many bishops throughout the world. The USCCB's pastoral letter on economic justice uses the phrase a number of times. Thus, liberation theology had strong support in the seventies and early eighties. However, because liberation theology sometimes borrowed language from Marx, and John Paul II came from a country where Marxism was experienced as a form of oppression, liberation theology was criticized strongly in his early papacy.

A word must be said about the Marxist language used by some liberation theologians. The liberation theologians were not Russian or Chinese communists, nor Marxist atheists. However, the Hegelian and Marxist analysis of history and the use of political power was already in the air in Latin America prior to the advent of liberation theology. This philosophical framework was a secular phenomenon, as seen in Cuba, and the liberation theologians decided to use the language of Marxism to make their theology more relevant to their contemporaries.

Furthermore, the framework does work to some extent to communicate the structural changes in society that are demanded by a theology of liberation. Indeed, in the political realm, the preferential option for the poor is a powerful call to reject any notion that the gospel does not have political consequences that favor the poor over the rich! Marxism's emphasis on class struggle and the dialectic tension of thesis, antithesis, and new synthesis is useful to describe how structural social change is achieved through the power of the poor as the embrace the good news in Christ that the reign of God is breaking in to our world today. Marxism is not central to the veracity of liberation theology, but it does provide a way to communicate this theology to the secular world.

In actual practice, Latin American liberation theology was born in the experience of "small base communities". These communities have origins in small faith sharing groups and Bible studies among the poor. These groups often formulated the initial questions that gave rise to liberation theology and political action based on the reading of the Bible among the poor. Many of these groups boasts martyrs and were knit together in their communities very tightly as the small base communities encountered persecution from wealthy land-owners. The priests and religious active in these groups began to articulate the theology of liberation with and for the poor.

The critics of liberation theology point to four fundamental issues:

1) The Vatican has warned that while many aspects of liberation theology are true, we must not forget that eternal life is our ultimate goal, and the great traditions of the mystical interior life must not be lost. Furthermore, with Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the Vatican has been critical of the exclusive focus on politics over works of service and charity. Mother Thersa once said that she could not teach her poor to fish because they were too weak to hold a fishing rod. There is some truth to the fact that social service and social change need to work together, rather than being seen as antagonistic strategies for development.

2) Michael Novak, an economist, who I believe had a seminary background and continues to write on theological and political issues, asks whether liberation theology truly liberates? Even if it is good theology, Novak suggests that it is bad economics and bad politics. He is especially concerned that teaching the poor that they are victims of opporession does not liberate in the way that capitalism's core belief that all people are capable of lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps liberates. Liberation theologians think Novak glosses over inequity in the U.S.A. far too easliy, but Novak raises a good question. Does liberation theology truly liberate?

3) Some conservative theologians have asked if liberation theology is a true theology rather than a spirituality. The emphasis on praxis over academic theology is simply not the way theology has been done through most of the Church's history. I think this is a fair critique, though I embrace many aspects of this spirituality.

4) The issue of God taking sides is clearly Biblical, but many Catholics are uncomfortable with pushing this point so far that we deny that the rich are able to know the Biblical God. God's taking sides can be pushed to saying that the rich cannot be saved, or that God does not love everyone. God's love for all people is also a Biblical truth. Catholicism, by definition (in the Greek) is a universal religion, and while God may take sides in conflict, we may go too far to say that God cannot possibly be known except by the poor. With this said, I do believe the rich have a responsibility to take seriously the concerns of the poor in our political, business, and cultural decisions. Thus, the liberation theologican deserves a hearing, and the marginalized must be consulted by those in power. I do think we owe a preferential option to the poor!

As liberation theology has moved out of Latin America, it has morphed into new forms and continues to develop. The originators have started looking more at culture rather than exclusively looking at politics. The movement has taken new shapes in new geographic regions. There are now African liberation theologies. Even in the early days of the movement, many African Americans embraced liberation theology. Furthermore, those most dedicated to liberation theology have begun to use the principles to even question certain Church teachings and practices, which has not helped the movement to spread, but may have high truth value. By the 1990's liberation theology was embraced by women and gays in North America.

Conservative American Catholics believe these latter developments are the rotten fruit revealing that liberation theology is breathing its last breath before the Holy Spirit kills it. I find it suspicious that so many critics of the theology of liberation are those in power or those living comfortably. Progressive Catholics believe that while further development is necessary, the principles of liberation theology are only just beginning to bear luscious and abundant fruit that will renew and revigorate the Church of the twenty-first century.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 3:17 PM

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