Liberation Theology, Latin America
LIBERATION THEOLOGY, LATIN AMERICA
In Latin America liberation theology is an interpretation of Christian faith out of the experience of the poor (their suffering, struggles, and hope); a theological critique of the injustice in existing society and its legitimizing ideologies; and reflection on criteria for the activity of the Church and of Christians. These aspects are obviously interconnected: e.g., involvement in the struggle for justice sharpens the reading of Scripture, and it is the Biblical vision that makes the critique of existing society theological.
The primary audience addressed by this theology is neither an academic theological community nor the poor themselves, but pastoral agents (priests, sisters, lay) working with the poor. Although the questions arise out of pastoral work, liberation theologians are not concerned with an immediate "how-to" but rather with the theological sense of the experience of poor and struggling Christians. The overall enterprise is aimed at providing a theologically grounded rationale for pastoral work with a liberating orientation. To a degree this involves defending its legitimacy within the Church.
Since its inception in the 1960s this theology has understood "liberation" to mean a process of basic change toward a more just and participatory society, one in which people will be able to live more as brothers and sisters. Liberation theology does not describe in any detail what such a society would be like nor how it would be reached. A frequent theme is that of "integral" liberation: ending the oppression of the poor is a dimension of the total liberation (from sin and death) effected by Christ.
Liberation theology pays particular attention to its context, both sociopolitical and eccesial. Thus far, three such contexts may be more or less clearly discerned. 1) Liberation theology emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s as Latin Americans concluded that current models of development would not bring most people out of poverty. What was needed was a new model of development—a revolution (not necessarily violent). The 1968 CELAM (Latin American Bishops Conference) meeting at medellÍn, Colombia, was a major catalyst (see latin america, church in). 2) A wave of military coups led to repressive military dictatorships in most of Latin America during the 1970s. As repression affected pastoral work, church people often found themselves working to defend elemental human rights. Moreover, Archbishop Lopez Trujillo, elected secretary-general of CELAM in 1972, set out to counter liberation theology. 3) Developments beginning in 1978 to 1979 (election of Pope John Paul II; CELAM meeting in Puebla, Mexico; revolution in Central America; gradual return to civilian rule in most of Latin America) signalled a third kind of social and ecclesial context.
Local conditions often varied from these general situations. For example, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when repression was worst in Brazil, the Peruvian military government was attempting to implement populist programs. The Brazilian church, representing 40 percent of Latin-American Catholics, relied on its own internal structures and paid little attention to CELAM. Finally; at the village or barrio level, conditions often showed little variation, despite larger political shifts. With these qualifications, the sociopolitical and ecclesial context remains important for liberation theology.
Themes. Liberation theologians reflect on the perennial themes: God, creation, Israel, Jesus Christ, the Church, etc. Their concern, however, is not to justify belief in the face of unbelief, but to serve evangelization in a context of oppression. With regard to the "Godquestion," for example, theologians have retrieved the Biblical category of idolatry. Certain realities, such as wealth, political power, or national security, have taken on an absolute importance, above the welfare and even the life of many human beings, becoming "divinities of death." The Biblical God, however, is a living God who desires that human beings have life—and not only "spiritual" life. Whereas North Atlantic theology seeks to respond to the doubts of its interlocutors, Latin American theology points to a "battle of the gods"—between the divinities of death and the God of life.
While sharing in the larger christological enterprise of biblicists and theologians elsewhere, Latin-American theologians have their own particular emphases. Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, and Juan Luis Segundo, among others, have devoted major attention to Christology. Their central concern however, is not so much to verify with utmost precision what can be known of the "historical" Jesus, as to reflect on the significance of Jesus as a historical actor: his message, his action, the enmity and conflict he aroused, leading eventually to his death; in the Resurrection they see God's vindication of his message and work. The experience of the poor and of persecution of those who struggle for justice has sensitized them to the conflictive aspects of the gospel accounts. They are interested not only in the history lived by Jesus, but in the history-making potential of that history for later generations and especially today. They do not anachronistically seek to make Jesus a first-century revolutionary, but they are convinced that Jesus has revolutionary implications. One central theme is that of the kingdom, the most allembracing symbol of what Jesus proclaimed. Advances in justice and love are partial realizations of the kingdom, steps toward its definitive consummation. The Church must be ever aware that it is not the kingdom, but is to serve the kingdom.
Latin-American theology is very ecclesial—it grows out of pastoral work and much of the theological writing itself addresses the (specifically Roman Catholic) Church. The notion of the "popular church" is a focus of controversy. Starting in the 1960s, the base-community became a common, though far from universal, model of pastoral work. In Brazil, a nationwide meeting on base-communities coined the expression "church born of the people through the Spirit of God" (1975), usually shortened to "popular church." The intent of the term was not anti-institutional but simply referred to the church "happening," as it were, among the poor masses of the people, when they are evangelized and begin to live their faith at the local level with their own expressions of worship and mutual concern. This is also understood as an ecclesial expression of a process taking place in society as a whole, as poor people become active agents in society, especially in movements to defend their rights. In the period leading up to the CELAM meeting at Puebla (1979) the term became polemical. There the bishops, following Pope john paul ii, warned against the notion of a "popular church," which they assumed to be in opposition to an "institutional church."
Similarly, the bishops, while supporting base-communities, warned that they were incomplete and stressed that the Church is more fully present in the parish, and even more fully present in the diocese. From this perspective, the base-community is regarded as the lowest subdivision of the world-church. Yet, it is also argued that if the "fullness" of the Church exists where people live the gospel injunction, then it exists fully in the base-community, and in fact, the "higher" levels of the church (parish or diocese) exist to serve the "front lines" where people seek to put the gospel into practice. If the fullness of the Church is there, should it not be expressed eucharistically? If present ministerial structures make that impossible, might they not be changed? It is within this kind of argument that Leonardo Boff raised the question of ordination for married people, including women, at the base-community level.
Most Latin-American liberation theologians operate consciously within the Roman Catholic horizon. They have generally not raised certain questions (papal ofrice and infallibility, sexual morality) commonly discussed in post-Vatican II North Atlantic theology, and they go out of their way to avoid taking on a rebel role, e.g., Boff accepted his silencing (1985). They do not want the central issue of the liberation of the poor to be obscured by ecclesiastical controversies. Their position also reflects a basic acceptance of Roman Catholic eccesiology. For example, in critiquing the "Ratzinger document" [Libertatis Nuntius (Aug. 6, 1985)], Juan Luis Segundo explicitly accepted the magisterium, and expressly argued that the authority of Vatican II was higher than that of a Roman congregation (see below).
Although relatively few in number, Protestants have played an important role in the development of liberation theology. Nevertheless, ecumenism is more a matter of practical collaboration than of expressly thematized theological reflection.
Critique of Society—Marxism. There is a consensus that existing development models do not serve the poor majority. puebla spoke of a "grave structural conflict" (i.e., conflict is inherent in existing socioeconomic and political structures) and quoted Pope John Paul II: "The growing affluence of a few people parallels the growing poverty of the masses." Puebla also critiqued ideologies (capitalist liberalism, Marxist collectivism, national security), but as if the Church and its social teaching were above ideology. Liberation theologians question this stance and tend to see ideology as embedded in language and part of the human condition. Moreover, they distinguish between ideologies as all-embracing philosophical systems, such as dialectical materialism, and as limited analytical instruments, means toward an end, specifically for understanding how society functions with a view toward changing it. In this limited understanding they make use of Marxism as do virtually all Latin-American intellectuals who are serious about structural change. Militant grassroots organizations also usually make some use of Marxist categories of analysis.
Nevertheless, Marxism appears rather less frequently in liberation theology than one might expect. Some theologians scarcely mention it, and only a few deal with it head on. Segundo in Faith and Ideologies (Maryknoll, New York 1984) has an extended critique. In The Ideological Weapons of Death (Maryknoll 1986), Franz Hinkelammert utilizes Marx's concept of fetishism as a major category for uncovering the idolatry present in major Western thinkers and even, he believes, in representatives of Catholic social teaching.
Issues Relating to Practice. Although their questions arise from pastoral work, liberation theologians are not interested in resolving immediate issues, but in elaborating criteria for what the Church and Christians should do. In raising the question of the unity of the Church, for example, John Sobrino was no doubt stimulated by particular conflicts within el salvador, particularly divisions within the Church over how to respond to the increasing repression and growing popular militancy during the late 1970s. In response, he sought to discern ecclesiological criteria (e.g., that the Church is to serve not itself but the kingdom, and that tension between prophetism and institution is to be expected). He observed that "authority is not the final or sole criterion of discernment," which is rather to be sought in the "communal doing of truth." Unity within the Church will always be "relative, partial, and provisional" and is achieved "through the dialectic of union and conflict." Such a position cautions against an easy reliance on unity with the bishops as a single criterion for Church unity, and suggests a theological basis for living with some tension within the Church, when that tension arises out of the struggle for justice.
The establishment of a revolutionary government in nicaragua (1979) raised many questions—practical, but ultimately theological—for Christians, although not a great deal of formal theological writing. People's responses were largely based on a prior political judgement. If one assumed that the Sandinista government was Marxist and that Marxism is ultimately incompatible with Christianity, the Christian response should logically be one of opposition. Numerous Christians, including priests, sisters and theologians, had a different perspective. They argued that discernment should be based not on how the Church would fare institutionally but on the revolution's capability of bringing about a more human life for the majority of the people. On that criterion, they judged that it was the best feasible alternative, and that Christians should support the revolutionary process. Such support should be critical, but criticism should be made within an overall position of support and participation, not from outside or in a manner that would undermine the revolution itself.
For its part the Sandinista front departed from the precedent of all previous Marxist parties in power when it officially declared that the (Marxist) view of religion as a "machine of alienation" was a product of a particular period in history, and was not true of Nicaragua. This was in effect a rejection of Marx's "opium of the people" dictum as a timeless principle. The Sandinistas furthermore declared that religious belief would not bar anyone form being a Sandinista—a clear break with the practice of Marxist governments in power. As relations between the hierarchy and the Sandinista government worsened, Christians supportive of the revolution maintained that the problem was essentially one of division within the Church over how to respond to the revolution and not a fundamental clash between the Church itself and the revolution.
Liberation Theology and Magisterium. Liberation theology's relationship to official Catholic teaching is complex, and in fact, official Church teaching is close to liberation theology on significant points. The 1971 synod of bishops declared that "action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or … of the Church's mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation," a position echoed at the 1974 synod. Similarly, the Puebla document (1979) shows the effects of liberation theology, especially in its "preferential option for the poor." Latin American theologians welcomed and wrote commentaries on Pope John Paul II's encyclical laborem exercens (1981).
Nevertheless, there are numerous disputed points, most of which were expressed in the 1984 Instruction of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. While acknowledging the sincerity of many pastoral workers, and the legitimacy of the theme of liberation, the Instruction points to "deviations and risks" present in some "liberation theologies." (This use of the plural implies that there exist legitimate and illegitimate forms. When leading exponents such as Boff and Gutierrez were summoned to Rome, however, it was unclear who the proponents of a legitimate liberation theology might be.)
Objections can be divided into those against the use of Marxist analysis, and those against what is regarded as liberation theology's hermeneutics. Arguments against Marxism are made on several grounds: that it claims to be "scientific" but in fact overlooks essential aspects, that it promotes "class struggle" and violence, and is committed to atheism. Moreover, existing Marxist regimes, a "shame of our times," are totalitarian and hold millions of people in servitude. As for hermeneutics, liberation theology is said to propose "a novel interpretation of both the content of faith and of Christian existence which seriously departs from the faith of the Church, and in fact actually constitutes a practical negation." Its reading of the Bible is reductionist and it twists the notion of the truth through praxis, making it the criterion for truth. Similarly, it is argued that the Church is "emptied of its specific reality, and its sacramental and hierarchical structure … which was willed by the Lord himself." The Instruction is a compendium of charges raised against liberation theology since the early 1970s.
Initially most liberation theologians, such as Gutierrez and Boff, took a benign view of the Instruction, stating that what it presented was a caricature of liberation theology, and that any theologian who held such views would merit censure. They also stated that it reflected a European view, remote from the Latin American experience. Juan Luis Segundo, however, directly confronted the Instruction. In a close reading of the text, and especially the first half, which deals with general principles, he extracted the Instruction's implicit underlying theology, particularly a dualistic pattern of thought that he held was overcome at Vatican II. He noted that paul vi, anticipating that some might wonder whether the Church had "deviated toward the anthropocentric positions of modern culture," had responded, "Deviated, no; turned, yes." In Segundo's assessment, the Instruction is at odds with the theology developed at Vatican II, whose authority is higher than that of a Roman Congregation.
The April 1986 "Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation" issued by the same congregation, avoided condemnations, although its tone and style were alien to Latin American thinking. The lifting of Boff's silencing and a cordial meeting between the Brazilian bishops and Pope John Paul II during the same month also signalled a lessening of tension.
Contraction and Expansion. In the 1990s, Liberation Theology experienced both contraction and expansion. The contraction, mainly experienced at home in Latin America, was the result of pressure from both the Vatican and some bishops in CELAM. Nonetheless theologians struggled to prove themselves faithful carriers of Catholic theology and continued to flourish under ecclesiastical activism. Creative expansion of the movement fostered a quieter but even greater impact in a number of areas and on a global scale. By adhering to their methodological starting point of a careful reading of the "signs of the times" as Gaudium et spes recommended, liberation theology expanded its horizons well beyond a Marxist critique and dependency theory to a broader theological critique of culture, a more discerning examination of neo-Liberal economies, and the quest for authentic, integral development in the Third World. The fall of the Berlin wall provided the opening for movement from an ideological posture of confrontation to a more theologically and educationally focused engagement with local, national and global structures. The focus on the suffering poor continued but with a clearer understanding of the impact of globalization, urbanization and technology on that suffering. Following the lead of the founding fathers of liberation thought, Gustavo Gutiérrez and Juan Lois Segundo, José Comblin emphasized the "changing context" but still highlighted the freedom of Christ as "calling and risk." He continued, "It is God's gift, and the Pauline name for the reign of God." It is a gift that never reaches completion on earth but is the fundamental drive that guides the human adventure with its joys and tragedies. That freedom in Jesus Christ constitutes the human calling and vocation. It is that profound sense of freedom which allows for a deeper grasp of poverty. Jon Sobrino's treatment of Jesus Christ as liberator advances this line of thought.
Liberation theology's impact at the beginning of the 21st century had expanded to the whole globe and touched the thorny issues of gender and indigenous cultures. African, Asian, Black, Feminist and Indigenous Theologians were influenced by the methods of liberation theology. A candid and honest cross-fertilization enriched these efforts in contextual theology in a rapidly globalizing world. Likewise, the liberation motif had a positive reaction in other world religions. Liberation theology movements emerged in buddhism, judaism and islam. The imprint of liberation thinking also registered in Catholic social teaching, most notably perhaps, in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1988) and Ecclesia in America (1998) of Pope John Paul II. That same imprint could be deciphered in the important worldwide pastoral efforts surrounding debt relief for underdeveloped countries and faith-based community organizing in the poor inner cities of the United States. Finally, it should be noted that liberation theology, and particularly the "conscientization" approach of Paulo Freire, were singled out as a unique Catholic-Christian contribution to sustainable and integral social-economic development worldwide.
In both its contraction and expansion liberation theology continued, in a modest way, to give a Christian direction for the global pursuit of justice for all peoples.
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