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|Part of a series of articles on Christianity|
|Francis of Assisi
Wilhelm E.F. von Ketteler
Pope Leo XIII– Adolph Kolping
Margaret Wedgwood Benn
Phillip Berryman– James Hal Cone
Dorothy Day– Toni Negri
Leo Tolstoy– Oscar Romero
Gustavo Gutirrez– Abraham Kuyper
Daniel Berrigan– Philip Berrigan
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Desmond Tutu– Tommy Douglas
|Confederation of Christian Trade Unions
Catholic Worker Movement
Christian Socialist Movement
|Subsidiarity– Christian anarchism
Marxism– Liberation theology
Praxis School– Precarity
Human dignity– Social market economy
Catholic social teaching
|Rerum Novarum (1891)
Princeton Stone Lectures (1898)
Populorum Progressio (1967)
Centesimus Annus (1991)
Caritas in Veritate (2009)
Liberation theology is a movement in Christian theology which construes the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. It has been described by proponents as "an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor", and by detractors as Christianity perverted by Marxism and Communism.
Although liberation theology has grown into an international and inter-denominational movement, it began as a movement within the Roman Catholic church in Latin America in the 1950s - 1960s. It arose principally as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in that region. It achieved prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. The term was coined by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutirrez, who wrote one of the movement's most famous books, A Theology of Liberation (1971). Other noted exponents are Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay.
The influence of liberation theology diminished after proponents using Marxist concepts were admonished by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1984 and 1986. The Vatican documents criticize certain strains of Liberation Theology for focusing on institutional dimensions of sin to the exclusion of the individual; and for supposedly inaccurately identifying the church hierarchy as members of the privileged class.
Liberation theology proposes to fight poverty by addressing its supposed source: sin. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology – especially Roman Catholic theology – and political activism, especially about social justice, poverty, and human rights. The principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed (socially, politically, etc.). For example Jon Sobrino, S.J., argues that the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace.
Liberation theologians base their social action upon the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus Christ, as bringing a sword (social unrest), e.g. Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 10:34, Luke 22:35-38 Matthew 26:51-52 – and not as bringing peace (social order)[non-primary source needed]. This Biblical interpretation is a call to action against poverty, and the sin engendering it, and as a call to arms, to effect Jesus Christ's mission of justice in this world. In practice, the theology includes the Marxist concept of class struggle, thus emphasizing the person's individual self-actualization as part of God's divine purpose for mankind.
Gustavo Gutierrez gave the movement its paradigmatic expression with his book A Theology of Liberation (1972). In this book, Gutierrez combined Marxist ideas with the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He was influenced by an existing socialist current in the Church which included organizations such as the Catholic Worker Movement and the French Christian youth worker organization, "Jeunesse Ouvrire Chrtienne". He was also influenced by Paul Gauthier's "The Poor, Jesus and the Church" (1965). Gutierrez's book is based on an understanding of history in which the human being is seen as assuming conscious responsibility for human destiny, and yet Christ the Saviour liberates the human race from sin, which is the root of all disruption of friendship and of all injustice and oppression.
Gutierrez emphasized practice (or, more technically, "praxis") over doctrine. "Praxis" is a term borrowed from Marxist theory, particularly the work of Antonio Gramsci. (Praxis is a Greek term that is also the basis of praxeology, a study of "human action" in the world, which is the title of a book by Ludwig von Mises and used by Austrian School of economics). According to Gutierrez, praxis is as important as belief, if not more so. Hence liberation theology has been criticized for emphasizing "orthopraxis" over "orthodoxy". Richard McBrien summarizes this concept as follows:
God is disclosed in the historical ––praxis–– of liberation. It is the situation, and our passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed.
Another important hallmark for Gutierrez's brand of liberation theology is an interpretation of revelation as "history". For example Gutierrez wrote:
History is the scene of the revelation God makes of the mystery of his person. His word reaches us in the measure of our involvement in the evolution of history.
Gutierrez also considered the Church to be the "sacrament of history", an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, thus pointing to the doctrine of universal salvation as the true means to eternal life, and assigning the Church itself to a somewhat temporal role, namely, liberation.
Some aspects of Liberation Theology were the subject of two critical "Instructions" from the Vatican's office for doctrinal orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The instructions rejected the Marxist-based idea that a class struggle is fundamental to history, and rejected the interpretation of religious phenomena such as the Exodus and the Eucharist in exclusively political terms. "The mistake here is not in bringing attention to a political dimension of the readings of Scripture, but in making of this one dimension the principal or exclusive component."  However, the movement in general was not condemned: the Instructions explicitly endorsed a "preferential option for the poor", stated that no one could be neutral in the face of injustice, and referred to the "crimes" of colonialism and the "scandal" of the arms race. Nonetheless, media reports tended to assume that the condemnation of "liberation theology" meant a rejection of such attitudes and an endorsement of conservative politics.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI), who was prefect of the CDF at the time when the Instructions were issued, published his own personal criticism of the movement in 1985. In this document Ratzinger claims that in certain forms of Liberation Theology, the meaning of basic theological terms is changed - e.g. terms such as "hope", "love", and "salvation" are assigned a Marxist interpretation in terms of "class struggle".
Ratzinger also argued that Liberation Theology is not originally a "grass-roots" movement among the poor, but rather, a creation of Western intellectuals: "an attempt to test, in a concrete scenario, ideologies that have been invented in the laboratory by European theologians" and in a certain sense itself a form of "cultural imperialism". Ratzinger saw this as a reaction to the demise or near-demise of the "Marxist myth" in the West.
In March 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger made ten observations of Gutirrez's theology, accusing Gutirrez of politically interpreting the Bible in supporting temporal messianism, and stating that the predominance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy in his thought proves a Marxist influence. Ratzinger also stated that Gutierrez's conceptions necessarily uphold class conflict in the Roman Catholic Church, which, logically, leads to rejecting hierarchy. However, Cardinal Ratzinger did praise liberation theology in some respects, including its ideal of justice, its rejection of violence, and its stress on "the responsibility which Christians necessarily bear for the poor and oppressed."
Roman Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley criticized liberation theology in his 2009 fictional book Irish Tweed. In Greeley's book, a Chicago Catholic school is taken over by a principal and priest practicing liberation theology, and its ideas are applied in the school environment. For instance, basketball team members are chosen based on their family's economic status rather than on their ability.
Such criticisms have provoked counter-criticisms that orthodox Catholics are in effect casting the Catholic Church as a friend of authoritarian regimes; and that the Vatican is not so much trying to defend pure doctrine as to maintain an established ecclesiastical and political order. This conflict could be compared to some aspects of the Protestant Reformation. Outside Latin America, some of liberation theology's most ardent advocates are Protestant thinkers (e.g., Jurgen Moltmann and Frederick Herzog).
A major player in the formation of Liberation Theology was CELAM, the Latin American Episcopal Conference. Created in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), CELAM pushed the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) toward a more socially oriented stance. However, CELAM never supported liberation theology as such, since liberation theology was frowned upon by the Vatican, with Pope Paul VI trying to slow the movement after the Second Vatican Council.
After the Second Vatican Council, CELAM held two conferences which were important in determining the future of Liberation Theology: the first was held in Medelln, Colombia, in 1968, and the second in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979. The Medelln conference debated how to apply the teachings of Vatican II to Latin America, and its conclusions were strongly influenced by Liberation Theology.
Cardinal Alfonso Lpez Trujillo was a central figure at the Medelln Conference, and was elected in 1972 as general secretary of CELAM. He represented a more orthodox position, becoming a favorite of pope John Paul II and the "principal scourge of liberation theology." Trujillo's faction became predominant in CELAM after the 1972 Sucre conference, and in the Roman Curia after the CELAM conference in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979.
Despite the orthodox bishops' predominance in CELAM, a more radical form of Liberation Theology remained much supported in South America. Thus, the 1979 Puebla Conference was an opportunity for orthodox bishops to reassert control of the radical elements; but they failed. At the Puebla Conference, the orthodox reorientation was met by strong opposition from the liberal part of the clergy, which supported the concept of a "preferential option for the poor". This concept had been approved at the Medelln conference by Bishop Ricard Durand, president of the Commission about Poverty.
Pope John Paul II gave the opening speech at the Puebla Conference. The general tone of his remarks was conciliatory. He criticized radical liberation theology, saying, "this conception of Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechisms"; however, he did speak of "the ever increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the ever increasing poverty of the poor", and affirmed that the principle of private property "must lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods . . . and, if the common good demands it, there is no need to hesitate at expropriation, itself, done in the right way"; on balance, the Pope offered neither praise nor condemnation.
Some liberation theologians, however, including Gutierrez, had been barred from attending the conference. Working from a seminary and with aid from sympathetic, liberal bishops, they partially obstructed the orthodox clergy's efforts to ensure that the Puebla Conference documents satisfied conservative concerns. Within four hours of the Pope's speech, Gutirrez and the other priests wrote a twenty-page refutation, which was circulated at the conference, and has been claimed to have influenced the final outcome of the conference. According to a socio-political study of liberation theology in Latin America, twenty-five per cent of the final Puebla documents were written by theologians who were not invited to the conference. Cardinal Trujillo said that this affirmation is "an incredible exaggeration" (Ben Zabel 2002:139), nevertheless, he conceded that there was strong pressure from a group of eighty Marxist liberation theologists external to the Bishop's Conference.
In 1984, it was reported that a meeting occurred between Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the CELAM bishops, during which a rift developed between Ratzinger and some of the bishops. As mentioned above, Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) issued official condemnations of certain elements of Liberation Theology in 1984 and 1986.
After this, and throughout the 1990s, Ratzinger, as prefect of the CDF, continued to condemn these elements in Liberation Theology, and prohibited dissident priests from teaching such doctrines in the Catholic Church's name. Leonardo Boff was suspended and others were censured. Tissa Balasuriya, in Sri Lanka, was excommunicated. Sebastian Kappen, an Indian theologian, was also censured for his book Jesus and Freedom. Under Cardinal Ratzinger's influence, theological formation schools were forbidden from using the Catholic Church's organization and grounds to teach Liberation Theology in the sense of theology using unacceptable Marxist ideas, not in the broader sense.
In August, 1984 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated that liberation theology has a major flaw in that it attempts to apply Christ's teaching on the sermon on the mount regarding the poor to present social situations. 
Ratzinger believes that Christ's teaching on the poor means that we will be judged when we die, and at the final judgement, with particular attention to how we personally have treated the poor.
On the other hand, the liberation theologians contend that we must engage in a class struggle (in the Marxist sense) in the present to break down the gulf between rich and poor. As summarized by Cardinal Ratzinger, "The biblical concept of the poor provides a starting point for fusing the Bible's view of history with marxist dialectic; it is interpreted by the idea of the proletariat in the marxist sense and thus justifies marxism as the legitimate hermaneutics for understanding the Bible."
And the liberation theologians place the Church in a difficult position: If the Church disagrees with this theological teaching, "she would only prove that she is on the side of the rich and the rulers and against the poor and suffering..."
Another aberration in liberation theology, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, is that the spiritual concept of the Church as "People of God" is transformed into a "marxist myth." In liberation theology, the "people is the antithesis of the hierarchy, the antithesis of all institutions, which are seen as opressive powers. Ultimately anyone who participates in the class struggle is a member of the "people"; the "Church of the people" becomes the antagonist of the hierarchichal Church."
In Managua, Nicaragua, Pope John Paul II criticized what he labelled the "popular Church" movement by means of "ecclesial base communities" (CEBs) in effecting class struggle, the replacement of the Catholic hierarchy with a locally selected system in the magisterium, and the Nicaraguan Catholic clergy's supporting the Sandinista National Liberation Front. The Pope re-stated and insisted upon his authority as Universal Pastor of the Roman Catholic Church in conformity with canon law and catechism.
One of the most radical aspects of liberation theology was the social organization, or re-organization, of church practice through the model of Christian base communities (CEBs).
Liberation theology strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice, with Biblical interpretation and liturgical practice designed by lay practitioners themselves, rather than by the orthodox Church hierarchy. This type of church community resembles the Independent type of Protestantism. In fact, liberation theologians often work in Protestant schools, often working directly with the poor. In this context, sacred text interpretation is understood as "praxis".
Journalist and writer Penny Lernoux described this aspect of liberation theology in her numerous and committed writings intended to explain the movement's ideas in North America. Base communities were small gatherings, usually outside of churches, in which the Bible could be discussed, and mass could be said. They were especially active in rural parts of Latin America where parish priests were not always available, as they placed a high value on lay participation. As of May 2007, it was estimated that 80,000 base communities were operating in Brazil alone. Contemporaneously Fanmi Lavalas in Haiti, the Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil, and Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa are three organizations that make use of liberation theology.
Introductory works (all by Penny Lernoux)
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