Is Liberation Theology History?

No discussion of Latin American political economy is quite complete without mentioning liberation theology. Like dependency theory, liberation theology is concerned with Marxist themes of domination and a quest for radical change. Whereas the West is the bogeyman in the former theory, prevailing local structures are the villains in the latter. Jesuit priests in Latin America were the main exponents of liberation theology, which gained a following mostly in the seventies and eighties in the poverty-stricken and largely Catholic region. In fact, I was taught liberation theology in college as I attended a Jesuit university, though I had misgivings even then. Unsurprisingly, the Vatican has had even larger misgivings about incorporating Marxist elements into church teaching. After all, how is it to reconcile the atheistic Marx who proclaimed religion to be the "opiate for the masses" with Catholicism? Moreover, the well-established institution of the Vatican is precisely the sort of status quo organization that liberation theology lashes out against. Here is a brief primer on liberation theology:

Liberation theologians agree with Marx's famous statement: "Hitherto philosophers have explained the world; our task is to change it." They argue that theologians are not meant to be theoreticians but practitioners engaged in the struggle to bring about society's transformation. In order to do this liberation theology employs a Marxist-style class analysis, which divides the culture between oppressors and oppressed. This conflictual sociological analysis is meant to identify the injustices and exploitation within the historical situation. Marxism and liberation theology condemn religion for supporting the status quo and legitimating the power of the oppressor. But unlike Marxism, liberation theology turns to the Christian faith as a means for bringing about liberation. Marx failed to see the emotive, symbolic, and sociological force the church could be in the struggle for justice. Liberation theologians claim that they are not departing from the ancient Christian tradition when they use Marxist thought as a tool for social analysis. They do not claim to use Marxism as a philosophical world view or a comprehensive plan for political action. Human liberation may begin with the economic infrastructure, but it does not end there.

Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was already very critical of liberation theology as John Paul II's point man on doctrine. In 1984, he gave it a rough going-over. In addition to the points I mentioned, Ratzinger added that liberation theology was excessively concerned with structural fetters and placed those of sin in second place, whereas he believed it should be the other way around. Since he became Pope, Benedict XVI has, if anything else, become harsher on liberation theology. Father Jon Sobrino, one of the remaining architects of liberation theology, is now set to be disciplined by the Vatican:
Still, many saw a message in the criticism of one of the last champions of liberation theology, a political and sometimes radical interpretation of Roman Catholicism that emphasizes justice for the poor. The controversial school of thought was despised by the conservative church hierarchy, which believed it departed from core dogma.

The order against Sobrino will be issued by the Vatican's watchdog arm, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [which Ratzinger previously headed], and will carry the approval of Pope Benedict XVI who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led efforts to stamp out liberation theology.

The move comes just two months before Benedict is to make his first trip to Latin America as pope. He will visit Brazil, another onetime bastion of liberation theology.

A Spanish-born Basque, Sobrino was assigned to El Salvador half a century ago.

He was part of an intellectual team of Jesuit priests based for many years at the University of Central America. Some believed in liberation theology, but all preached Catholicism with a social conscience in a country that descended into civil war in the 1980s.
Elsewhere in the article it is suggested that the current archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Saenz Lacalle of the arch-conservative Opus Dei organization, had a role in bringing about this measure. Papal politics are at play. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if liberation theology can outlast current efforts to stamp it out, or even if it will fade away through lack of a following.




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