Catholic Church Warms to Liberation Theology |

TBC Staff - EN


For decades, Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest, was treated with suspicion and even contempt by the Vatican’s hierarchy, which saw him as a dangerous Marxist firebrand who used faith as an instrument of revolution.

Gutiérrez was the founder…liberation theology, and while he was never censured in the manner that some of his philosophical compatriots were, there were often rumblings that Gutiérrez was being investigated by Pope John Paul II’s doctrinal czar, a German cardinal named Joseph Ratzinger who would later become Pope Benedict.

In its height in the late 1960s and 1970s, liberation theology – a distinctly Latin American movement – preached that it was not enough for the church to simply empathise and care for the poor. Instead, believers said, the church needed to be a vehicle to push for fundamental political and structural changes that would eradicate poverty, even – some believed – if it meant supporting armed struggle against oppressors. In Nicaragua, priests inspired by liberation theology took an active part in the 1979 Sandinista revolution against Anastasio Somoza’s rightwing dictatorship. The philosophy also influenced leftist rebels in Mexico and Colombia, where one of the main guerrilla factions was led for nearly 30 years by a defrocked Spanish priest, Manuel Pérez.

Since his election as pontiff in 2013, Pope Francis’s insistence that the church be “for the poor”, and his pointed criticisms of capitalism and consumerism have gone a long way to rehabilitate the liberation theology movement and incorporate it within the church. Experts point, too, to Francis’s decision to name Oscar Romero, the iconic Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated by rightwing death squads in 1980, as a martyr as another sign of the resurgence in liberation theology.

The Vatican itself has not formally embraced liberation theology. Even Cardinal Müller himself has denied that his appointment as prefect by Pope Francis – which was seen in some circles as a triumph of liberation theology because of Müller’s relationship with Gutiérrez – represented the “opening of a new chapter” following the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict. “I would like to point out that there is no discontinuity between Benedict XVI and Pope Francis on the issue of liberation theology,” Müller told Inside the Vatican magazine in 2013. But when he was then asked whether he agreed with Benedict’s declaration in 2009 that liberation theology had produced “rebellion, division, dissent, offense and anarchy”, Müller replied: “The negative aspects of liberation theology referred to by Benedict XVI are the result of the misunderstanding and wrong application of this theology.”

Jung Mo Sung, a prominent liberation theologian in Brazil, says the church has turned a page on liberation theology precisely because Francis understands that the church’s mission is not just to announce God to a world of unbelievers, “but to a world marked by an idolatry of money”. “In this sense, we can say that part of liberation theology has been elevated to the doctrine of the church,” Sung says.

[TBC: As far back as the March 1987 issue of the newsletter, Dave Hunt wrote, "Last month we referred to the growing kingdom/dominion/restoration movement, and the related danger of sincere people being involved in a vast international cooperative effort to bring peace and justice upon the earth through humanistic means. Sojourners magazine (headed by Jim Wallis) boasts that it 'has become a connection point...creating a network of faith and action among evangelicals, Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, the historic peace churches, the charismatic renewal, the peace movement, and non-Christians looking for a faith that touches the world they live in.' Any such 'faith' that this ecumenical movement (which includes non- and even anti-Christians) can agree upon is obviously not the faith once for all delivered to the saints for which Jude tells us we must earnestly contend. In fact, this cooperative effort effectively undermines true biblical faith.

"Significantly, the Pope is emerging as the inspirational leader in an unprecedented international ecumenism. He has cleverly declared that 'liberation theology' (divested of Marxism) is the hope of the world and that a common concern for the welfare of humanity will be the means of uniting all religions into one."]