The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 31, 2014

REFERENCE DESK
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Liberation Theology
Rev. Robert A. Sirico - 10/05/12

Liberation theology defined a doctrine and a movement that sought a religious justification, particularly within the framework of Catholicism, for the Marxist revolutionary politics that swept Latin America in the 1970 and ’80s. It taught that Christ’s message pertained not only to salvation of the soul, but also to political salvation here on earth through the establishment of Christian socialism. The movement pitted the poor against the rich, as if their interests were in intractable conflict, and sought to morally justify violent peasant revolts on behalf of the poor. Christ was rendered not only as the Son of God but also as a political radical who came to liberate the poor from oppression.

The intellectual power of the liberation theology movement derived from its attempt to justify a traditionally atheistic Marxist movement within a framework that would appeal to religiously minded Latin Americans. In this respect, it breathed new life into an economic doctrine that had not yet developed a serious following among ministers of the Gospel. The political power of the movement was built on the objective conditions of the poor in the developing world, which seemed to offer evidence that the Marxist theory concerning capitalism and socialism was correct.

The first and leading intellectual defense of liberation theology came from the pen of Peruvian priest Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez. His book A Theology of Liberation (1971) was a seminal treatise that galvanized theology and seminary students in the United States and Europe, a number of whom traveled to Latin America to support Marxist rebels in non-Marxist countries and the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Other writers in this tradition included Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff and Jesuit scholar Jon Sobrino, whose works were also read by religious students of that generation.

The theology was not complicated. It combined Marxian economic doctrine with a misrendering and politicization of Christ’s moral injunctions to help the poor. In this respect, it was easily refuted through simple economic logic. The “structures of oppression” that so outraged the liberation theologians were not capitalism but traditional mercantilist policies in which a government-connected elite used the state to inhibit free competition for land and capital and sought trade policies that would benefit large landholders at the expense of craftsmen and small farmers. The “liberation” that these faith-based Marxist ideologues sought could only be found in the overthrow of mercantilist economics and the invigoration of a business economy that would spread economic opportunity and prosperity.

Uprooting the theological error was more complicated. Formal political and theological criticism came from the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II. Having lived under the totalitarian socialism of both Nazism and communism, he saw the grave dangers that seemingly naïve misunderstandings of economics, combined with religious zeal, could pose for societies. He used his personal influence among Latin American bishops to weigh against the teaching of the liberation theologians, and he directly confronted leaders of Marxist political and ecclesiastical movements for their distortions of traditional Christian teaching. At issue, he said, was not only the danger that liberation theology would lend moral support to would-be totalitarians; he also rejected the attempt to thoroughly politicize Christ’s message on behalf of the poor.

The leading opponent of liberation theology in the United States was Michael Novak, who had once identified with “progressive” movements in the 1960s before their links to statist economic policies became too much to bear. As a former spokesman for the theological Left, however, Novak’s voice had a special resonance when denouncing the economic and theological agenda of liberation theology.

The rise and decline of the Sandinista regime (1985–90) in Nicaragua roughly chronicles the popularity of liberation theology in the public mind. Daniel Ortega came to power in what appeared to be a popular revolution but was voted out of power in 1990 because of the severe economic hardships that Sandinista socialism had imposed on the country. His defeat at the polls refuted the notion that the Sandinistas enjoyed popular support. Long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ortega ran for office again (1996) and was humiliated.

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