How Liberating Is Liberation Theology?

diegoMany Catholics first encountered the term “liberation theology” during the 2008 presidential campaign, when then-candidate Obama’s pastor said from the pulpit, “not God bless America—God d*** America,” and was identified as a supporter of a related school of thought, “black liberation theology.”

Liberation theology (which I will abbreviate to LT) was founded by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Dominican priest, in the 1960s. The movement arose from his experiences in dealing with poverty in Latin America. At first glance, LT represents a heightened commitment to the Gospel command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the sick. But there is more to it than that.

In 1984 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, analyzed the movement in “Liberation Theology: Preliminary Notes.” The essay noted that the movement’s impetus can also be traced to the ideas of Lutheran theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who separated the “historical Jesus” from the Jesus of the Christian faith. One important effect of Bultmann’s thinking, Ratzinger explained, was to diminish the importance of faith and elevate the role of science in social matters.

Meanwhile, Ratzinger noted, Marxism’s view of class struggle had come to be regarded as the most scientific perspective on human history. To accept that view required seeing capitalism as the enemy of the masses. The Catholic church, like other Christian denominations, found itself with a difficult choice: embrace the Marxist view and be considered a friend of the poor and a comrade in their struggle against the rich, or reject the Marxist view and be denounced as an enemy, and by extension an oppressor, of the poor.

What makes LT complicated and, in Ratzinger’s view, dangerous is that it transforms Christian theology into an instrument for “progressive” political action. It therefore represents a “radical . . . reinterpretation” of the Christian faith. The article ended by urging Catholics to meet the challenge of LT by increasing genuine faith and making it more “visible.”

joseph-cardinal-ratzingerThen Cardinal Ratzinger’s assessment of the dangers of LT was supported by Malachi Martin’s illuminating book, The Jesuits, published three years later.  Martin revealed that many Jesuits embraced LT. One example was Arthur McGovern, who rejected capitalism and portrayed Jesus as a revolutionary. Another was Francis Carney, who “drank in Liberation Theology like fine wine.” Carney urged Christians to be more supportive of “armed revolution, socialism, Marxism, and communism.” A third was Jan Luis Segundo, who argued that armed revolution was the only way to overcome “capitalism and transnational imperialism from Central America” and declared that “to be a Christian is to be a revolutionary.”

Martin explained how LT led many Jesuits not only to reject their historic role as defenders of the papacy, but also to replace the authority of the Church with the authority of “the people of God.” He then demonstrated how that perspective exerted a profound influence on Vatican Council II.

Unlike traditional theology, liberation theology aims at political rather than spiritual reform. It is based on a number of false assumptions—notably that human beings are inherently wise and good and all their problems are caused by outside agencies or economic systems (such as capitalism); that the individuals championing the liberation are themselves incorruptible; that the end of liberating the oppressed justifies the means of torture, murder, and terror; and that the liberation will eliminate oppression, rather than merely install a new group of oppressors.

In brief, liberation theology denies each individual’s potential for evil and the historical reality that “liberators” often turn out to be as exploitive and tyrannical as the people they replaced.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved