Changing structures and changing persons

Changing structures and changing persons August 31, 2009

[Critics of liberation theology] can abandon the idea that we care more for the transformation of structures than for the transformation of persons, that we care more for the social than for the personal. The contrary is the truth. Our revolution is directed toward the creation of a new human being. But unlike the attackers, we seek to posit the necessary means for the formation of this new human being. And the indispensible means is a new social structure. […] How far can you get with the idea that a person should not place his or her heart in money and material things (the central idea of the Sermon on the Mount) if the existing social system inculcates just the contrary under pain of blows and death? Perhaps an insignificant minority can heroically resist the peremptory mandates of such a system. But Christianity cares about all human beings. It cannot content itself with saving a tiny minority. […] Structural change will be a mere means for personal change — but a means so obviously necessary, that those who fail to give it first priority demonstrate by that very fact that their vaunted desire to transform persons is just empty rhetoric.

Jose Miranda, Communism in the Bible (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982), p. 6.

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  • doug

    Liberation theology has already been condemned by the Church. Definitively. For the good of your soul, Michael, let go of the anger within you and come back to orthodoxy within the Church.

  • doug,

    Christopher Blosser and I are presently having a nice conversation about liberation theology in the comment box of my previous post. You might be interested in it. Even Blosser, who is no fan of liberation theology, knows that the Church has not “condemned” it. In fact, the Church has encouraged liberation theology!

    “As long as all this is observed [i.e. consistency with the gospel, tradition, and the teachings of the magisterium] we are convinced, we and you, that the theology of liberation is not only timely but useful and necessary.” – Pope John Paul II to the bishops of Brazil, April 9, 1986.

    For the good of your soul, please try not to spread falsehoods.

  • Kurt

    Thank you, Michael. I believe the Church’s negative statement about LT was regarding “certain aspescts of Liberation Theology.”

    ( and I say that as someone who likely has more reservations about LT than the Holy See does).

  • Matt

    This quote is quite disturbing. It has little to do with the Christian faith and much to do with political ideology. (I have read and studied a fare amount from the fields of theology, politics, and philosophy, and this exert has almost nothing to do with such theology (even left leaning) as I have read, and a great deal in common with the various political writing and some political philosophy.)

    Liberation theology may have some good points. Of coarse Hinduism probably has a few good ideas too. That doesn’t make the embracing of either in place of orthodox Catholicism a good idea. “As long as all this is observed…” does not seem to often hold with LT. Even when LT uses the words of traditional belief, it often means something at least slightly different.

    I think perhaps LT best contributions have been in requiring other streams of theology and thought to take another look at certain issues and address them with greater attention.

    Ultimately I think my greatest problem with the above quote is it denies the fundamental and primary role of the person. It assumes that to change person that systems should be changed, thus forcing everyone, rather than just some, to be conformed to the new vision. This is not liberation, this is slavery. I am all in favor of eliminating major systemic problems that limit the ability of the person to achieve his full potential and embrace the Truth. However, I am not in favor of the idea that some structure can be posited and imposed prior to the conversion of hearts that will simultaneously lead to the earthly and eternal good of ALL people.

    Liberation theology I think tries to be and do too much, and that is why does, should, and must fail. This is overreaching is both its greatest point of commonality with Marxism, and utopian fallicies in general.

  • Even when LT uses the words of traditional belief, it often means something at least slightly different.

    There is no one “traditional” understanding of the terms of the Christian faith. This is especially true if you are coming at the Christian faith as a Catholic. The different views of the religious orders, for example, also mean “something at least slightly different” than one another. Christianity is diverse, and must be, because it is incarnate and has no choice in the matter.

    Ultimately I think my greatest problem with the above quote is it denies the fundamental and primary role of the person.

    What it denies is an individualistic conception of the “person.” You are right in that this passages hinges on one’s anthropology. But on my reading, what it is doing is positing an alternative anthropology that stresses the social dimension of the person. This is hardly foreign to Christianity and we see this stress in thinkers as diverse as Henri de Lubac, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and John Zizioulas.

    Also, I think you are missing Miranda’s point. He is not denying the person at all — he is showing that liberation theology DOES care primarily about the person, but as full persons, persons who are social in nature.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Michael J. Iafrate writes September 1, 2009 at 3:28 pm
    “There is no one “traditional” understanding of the terms of the Christian faith”.

    What then is the Creed?

  • The Creed is not a propositional document. Dogma is more like rules for speech than a grocery list of propositions. The Creed allows for a certain degree of openness as it describes realities that are beyond human language. Certainly you know this?

  • Matt

    To offer a more specific critique:

    “[Critics of liberation theology] can abandon the idea that we care more for the transformation of structures than for the transformation of persons, that we care more for the social than for the personal. The contrary is the truth. Our revolution is directed toward the creation of a new human being. ”

    Social and structural revolutions (even non-violent) always involve collaterol damage to the innocent. This seems to take as a given that this is justified.

    “But unlike the attackers,”

    Ah, yes, The Other we must set ourselves against. Who are these attackers we must judge, vilify, and cast down?

    “we seek to posit the necessary means for the formation of this new human being”

    No particular theology or any other mere work of man is capable of creating any sort of ideal new man. The remaking of human beings in such a way can only be accomplished by the grace of God, but the deformation of the human person has quite often been accomplished by various political and economic theories trying to recreate the human being and human society.

    “How far can you get with the idea that a person should not place his or her heart in money and material things (the central idea of the Sermon on the Mount) if the existing social system inculcates just the contrary under pain of blows and death?”

    What is this sytem that uses violence and death to force the worship of mamon?

    “But Christianity cares about all human beings. It cannot content itself with saving a tiny minority.”

    Christianity must be concerned for all men, but we must not presume that we are charged with bringing all to both mortal earthly and eternal perfection.

    “Structural change will be a mere means for personal change — but a means so obviously necessary, that those who fail to give it first priority demonstrate by that very fact that their vaunted desire to transform persons is just empty rhetoric.”

    If the social dimension of man is what LT seeks to address, how can it suggest that this element is mere means rather than an end to itself? This seems to contradict itself.

    Further, the closing bit wich condemns all those who fail to make structural change the first priority is a condemnation of much of the work of the saints and apostles, even up to the work of most Christians today. If the Church must choose between saving souls and social experimentation, I think this has the priority entirely backwards.

  • Our revolution is directed toward the creation of a new human being. But unlike the attackers, we seek to posit the necessary means for the formation of this new human being. And the indispensible means is a new social structure.

    Because, you know, humanity has such a stellar track record of “creating new human beings” with “new social structures.”

    What kind do you envision in particular, if I may ask?

  • Who are you talking to, Christopher? Me, or Jose Miranda?

    How strange of you to object to the idea of “the new human being” (the central purpose of Christianity) or the notion of “new social structures.” On the latter, presumably you think the creation of the new democratic social structures of the united states was just fine, and even an advance in some ways?

  • Who are you talking to, Christopher? Me, or Jose Miranda?

    Well, actually I’d like to hear what you think more than Jose Miranda.

  • Christopher –

    As I implied in my last post — and have stated outright before — I don’t believe that there is a blueprint for a perfect society. We Catholics want to guard against political messianism, remember? We just had this discussion. Anarchists, too, hesitate in making their political ideas too concrete. There is no one perfect society in this world. But we have the coming Kingdom to show us the way, and we have principles such as those in Catholic social teaching. Despite your own political judgments, it seems like you at least know many of the principles of CST as well as the principles of anarchism that I would adhere to, so you can get some idea of my own political vision. But I ain’t got a blueprint. Sorry.

  • Here’s a good essay on the history of Latin American liberation theology by Philip Berryman. It’s 10 years old, so it does not include commentary on the more recent swing to the left in Latin America, but it’s an accurate, if brief, history up to 1997 nonetheless.

    http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/40/023.html