Liberation theology is a Christian theology in which the salvation brought by Jesus Christ is understood in terms of a liberation from unjust political, economic, or social conditions. Infuenced by Marxist social theory, its theologians consider "structural sin" to be a root cause of poverty and oppression, and consider the primary responsibility of the Church to be its "option for the poor". 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 of the 1950s - 1970s. It arose principally as a moral reaction to widespread poverty caused by social injustice in that region.[1] It had a widespread influence in Latin America, although its influence diminished after liberation theologians using Marxist concepts were admonished by the Catholic church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984 and 1986.

The peruvian bishop Gustavo Gutiérrez coined the term "liberation theology", and gave the movement its most famous and enduring presentation in his book, A Theology of Liberation (1971).[2] Other leading exponents include Leonardo Boff of Brazil, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay.[3][4]

In the mass media, 'Liberation Theology' may refer to a wide variety of politically-activist Christian thought.

Orthodox catholics who disagree with liberation theology claim that it takes a narrow view of the Bible, or that it mines the Bible to support a political and social ideology. Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, is known as an opponent of certain types of liberation theology, and issued several condemnations of tendencies within it while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

These criticisms, in turn, provoke counter-criticisms that the orthodox 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, Frederick Herzog).


Liberation Theology posits fighting poverty by suppressing what proponents claim is its 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 Theology's principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed (socially, politically, etc.); per Jon Sobrino, S.J., the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace. According to Phillip Berryman, liberation theology is "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".

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). 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 perpetual class struggle, thus emphasizing the person's individual self-actualization as part of God's divine purpose for mankind.

Besides teaching at (some) Roman Catholic universities and seminaries, liberation theologians often may be found working in Protestant schools, often working directly with the poor. In this context, sacred text interpretation is Christian theological praxis.

The issue is seriously confused by the problem of terminology. "Liberation theology" is used in a technical sense to describe a particular theology which uses specific Marxist concepts. It is also used, especially by non-specialists and the media, to refer to any approach which sees Christianity as requiring political activism on behalf of the poor. It is in the first sense that the Roman Catholic hierarchy has condemned "liberation theology", rejecting especially the idea that a violent class struggle is fundamental to history, and the reinterpretation of religious phenomena such as the Exodus and the Eucharist as essentially political. The broader sense is not condemned: "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." [5] The Instruction 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. However, media reports tended to assume that the condemnation of "liberation theology" meant a rejection of such attitudes and an endorsement of conservative politics.

These tensions have probably been worsened by the fact that many liberation theologians regard their concepts of political liberation as the only meaningful ones, and thus see little advance in the official attitudes described.

Principal texts

The more orthodox tendency in Liberation Theology is exemplified by Rubem Alves, a Brazilian theologian working at Princeton, who wrote Towards a Theology of Liberation (1968).

The more radical tendency in Liberation Theology is exemplified by the Peruvian Catholic priest, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P. In his 1972 book, A Theology of Liberation, Gutierrez theorized a combination of Marxism and the social-Catholic teachings contributing to a socialist current in the Church that was influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the French Christian youth worker organization, "Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne." It was also influenced by Paul Gauthier's "The Poor, Jesus and the Church" (1965). The 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[6].


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.[7]

During the four years after the Council, CELAM prepared for the 1968 Medellín Conference in Colombia. Cardinal [Alfonso López Trujillo]] was a central figure at the Medellín Conference, and was elected in 1972 as general secretary of CELAM. He represented a more orthodox-catholic form of Liberation Theology which became predominant in CELAM after the 1972 Sucre conference, and in the Roman Curia after the CELAM conference in Puebla 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 Medellin 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, Gutiérrez 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.[8] 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.

Reaction within the Catholic Church

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), strongly opposed certain elements of Liberation Theology, and issued official condemnations of it in 1984 and 1986.[5][9] After this, Leonardo Boff was suspended and others were censored. 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".

In March 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger made ten observations of Gutiérrez's theology, accusing Gutiérrez 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.

During the 1980s and the 1990s, Ratzinger continued condemning these elements in Liberation Theology, and prohibited dissident priests from teaching such doctrines in the Catholic Church's name. He excommunicated Tissa Balasuriya, in Sri Lanka, for so doing. Sebastian Kappel, an Indian theologian, was also censored for his book Jesus and Freedom.[10] 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 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 dominance 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.

Liberation theology in practice

One of the most radical parts of liberation theology was not the writing of highly educated priests and scholars, but the social organization, or re-organization, of church practice through the model of Christian base communities. Liberation theology, despite the doctrinal codification by Gutiérrez, Boff, and others, strove to be a bottom-up movement in practice[11], 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, which is extremely common in the United States though they are associated with the right more than the left.

Among others, 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.

Furthermore, with its emphasis on the "preferential option for the poor," the practice (or, more technically, "praxis" to use a term from Gramsci and Paulo Freire) was as important as the belief, if not more so; the movement was said to emphasize "orthopraxis" over "orthodoxy." 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.[12]

Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, has suggested that the movement is in origin 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. He did, however, qualify this as referring especially to the origins of the movement and did not deny that it had popular support.[13]

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, as for instance with basketball team members being chosen on their family's economic status rather than on ability.[14]

Future developments

There is a notion that Latin American Liberation Theology has had its day, a dream killed off by the “end of history” claims of the champions of capitalism. However, Ivan Petrella, in a recent study, contends this is an ill-conceived notion, and shows that this theology can be reinvented to bring its preferential option for the poor into the real world. The actualisation of historical projects is possible by adopting the methods developed by the Brazilian social theorist, Roberto Unger.

Doing so will entail the rejection of these theologians’ unitary concepts of a despised and rejected capitalism and a canonized and accepted socialism. Petrella argues for a reconstruction of these concepts and those of democracy and property too. He closely analyses the differences in democracy and capitalism as practised across the USA and Europe in support for the reconstruction of these concepts, bringing about far-reaching suggestions for the future of liberation theology.

At a time of the profound crisis of the world capitalist system, a group of social scientists and theologians in Andreas Mueller, Arno Tausch and Paul M. Zulehner took up anew the issue of liberation theology. Having arisen out of the struggle of the poor Churches in the world's South, its pros and cons dominated the discourse of the Churches throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s.

Then, dependency theory was considered to be the analytical tool at the basis of liberation theology. But the world economy - since the Fall of the Berlin Wall - has dramatically changed to become a truly globalized capitalist system in the 1990s. Even in their wildest imaginations, social scientists from the dependency theory tradition and theologians alike would not have predicted for example the elementary force of the Asian and the Russian crisis.

The Walls have gone, but poverty and social polarization spread to the center countries. After having initially rejected Marxist ideology in many of the liberation theology documents, the Vatican and many other Christian Church institutions moved forward in the 1980s and 1990s to strongly declare their "preferential option for the poor". Now, the authors of this book, among them Samir Amin, one of the founders of the world systems theory approach, take up the issues of this preferential option anew and arrive at an ecumenical vision of the dialogue between theology and world systems theory.


Liberation theologians

Influence on others

See also


Related movements


  1. Wojda, Paul J., "Liberation theology", in R.P. McBrien, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (Harper Collins, 1995).
  2. First (Spanish) edition published in Lima, Peru, 1971; first English edition published by Orbis Books (Maryknoll, NY), 1973
  3. Liberation Theology General Information, on [Believe, an online religious information source
  4. Wojda, Paul J., "Liberation theology", in R.P. McBrien, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia (Harper Collins, 1995).
  5. 5.0 5.1 INSTRUCTION ON CERTAIN ASPECTS OF THE "THEOLOGY OF LIBERATION" from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
  6. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation(London: SCM Press,1974) 36f
  7. According to Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, Liberation Theology was simultaneously created by the Reflection Task Force of CELAM, and by Rubem Alves's book, Towards a Theology of Liberation (1968). However, Cardinal Trujillo had himself been general secretary of CELAM, and president of CELAM's Reflection Task Force. Cardinal Samore, who as leader of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America was in charge of relations between the Roman Curia and CELAM, was ordered to put a stop to liberation theology, which was judged antithetical to the Catholic Church's global teachings.
  8. Smith, Christian. The Emergence of Liberation Theology
  9. "Liberation Theology" by Cardinal Ratzinger at Christendom Awake
  10. Jesus and Freedom was published in 1977, with an introduction by the French activist François Houtart. In 1980, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Ratzinger, asked the General of the Society of Jesus (of which Kappen was a member) to disavow this book. Kappen responded with a pamphlet entitled "Censorship and the Future of Asian Theology". No further action was taken by the Vatican on this matter.
  11. Article by Brother Fillipo Mondini on praxis
  12. "As Pope Heads to Brazil, a Rival Theology Persists" The New York Times 2007-05-07.
  13. Joseph Ratzinger and Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report (SanFrancisco: Ignatius Press, 1985)pp. 186-7.
  14. Greeley, Father Andrew. Irish Tweed. Forge Books, 2009. ISBN 0765322234
  15. Interactivist Article on Liberation Theology
  16. Filippo Mondini on the March on Nayager | Abahlali baseMjondolo
  17. Abahlali basemjondolo Theology by Brother Filipo Mondini


Basic titles (all by Penny Lernoux)

  • Lernoux, Penny, Cry of the people: United States involvement in the rise of fascism, torture, and murder and the persecution of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980.
  • Lernoux, Penny, In banks we trust. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.
  • Lernoux, Penny, People of God : the struggle for world Catholicism. New York: Viking, 1989.

Further readings:

External links



Liberation theology and social science

Vatican responses

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