Pope Benedict on liberation theology… again.

Pope Benedict on liberation theology… again. December 21, 2009

An acquaintance of mine who takes issue with my affection for Latin American liberation theology forwarded me a link to a recent message of Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of Brazil in which he reiterates the Roman Catholic Church’s warnings about “certain forms” of liberation theology. I saw a blurb about this papal statement soon after it happened and did not comment on it even though most of the Catholic media went berserk, like this friend of mine, misreading this as another “condemnation” of liberation theology when it clearly isn’t.

In the brief message, Benedict rightly reiterates the Church’s traditional warning against “a-critical acceptance” of certain “theses and methodologies that derive from Marxism” that we see in “certain theologians.” This has in fact happened in the case of a few Latin American theologians, without a doubt.

However, no where in this document, nor in either of the Vatican’s other two documents on liberation theology, does the Church condemn liberation theology as a whole. Nor does the Church even condemn all of the ideas of Marxism. John Paul II in fact used Marx very clearly in his encyclical Laborem Exercens. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of Marxian themes can see Marx’s influence on John Paul II. Paul VI affirmed the compatibility of some forms of socialism with Catholicism and used Marxian terminology in his encyclical Populorum Progressio. In fact, by warning against “a-critical” uses of Marxism, the Church implies that critical use of Marxism is in fact acceptable, and this is what most liberation theologians in fact do. Indeed this is what official Catholic social teaching has done since the Second Vatican Council.

Once again, this is not a condemnation of liberation theology. It is merely a warning against certain tendencies. The only way one would know this, though, is to know the history of the disputes and to know the Vatican’s two previous texts on liberation theology neither of which condemn liberation theology in toto.

Finally, it is important to consider not only this message to the Brazilian bishops, but a message to the same bishops delivered by the Venerable John Paul II who insisted that liberation theology is “both useful and necessary.”

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  • Dave

    The political culture of Latin America has had little opportunity to nurture democracy. The Monroe doctrine never encouraged it. Violence has been a common tool to effect regime change, both on the right and left.

    Violence on the left, by movements such as Castro’s liberation army, the FARC in Columbia, Shining Path in Peru or the Sandanistas in Nigeragua are less violent, perpetrate fewer murders and enjoy more popular support than right wing repression, usually carried out by the hereditary economic elite, with the aid of the cruelly efficient, local military and constabulary establishments, trained in America for just such endeavors.

    Hopefully, democracy will be allowed to take hold in this region. Unfortunately, the Mestizo elite, which includes the Catholic hierarchy, have controlled the economies of most of these countries for more than four centuries, usually leaving the indigenous majorities and late arrivals, with little in the way of reward for their labor or opportunity for improvement. If the cycle of political violence is to be broken, that has to change.

  • Excelsior

    Sure; there’s no out-and-out condemnation of liberation theology, just as there’s no out-and-out condemnation of capitalism. The condemnation is of excesses; of an “unfettered” implementation of, or an “a-critical” acceptance of, either ideology.

    Shue, a back-to-back comparison will show you that, of the two, proportionally, capitalism gets far-and-away the gentler treatment. But just as capitalism comes in for criticism, so too does one of the spin-offs (LT) of its opposite number (Marxism).

    I guess the only concern for us is that we (a.) not be a-critical of the failings of either, and (b.) we try to keep our own condemnations of things more or less in the same relative proportions as those of the Church. A person who sees the good and bad in both: Perfectly fine. But a person who spends half his blogging-time defending Liberation Theology and the other half knocking Capitalism? Or who spends half extolling Capitalism and the other half in rejecting any LT assertions or benefits? Those folks may not be wrong in any of the specific items they state, but they’re out-of-balance.

    • It is strange to compare the Church’s treatment of “liberation theology” and “capitalism.” One is a theological method and spirituality, and the other is an economic system.

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  • I always like bringing up the example of scholasticism. Anyone who knows its history knows all kinds of questions and condemnations which were given to its adherents in its history. Scholasticism was seen as “liberal” in its day, and even great saints like St Thomas Aquinas were questioned and considered heterodox, not only in their lifetime, but also long after their death. If we had the internet in their day, it is clear the kinds of posts people would have written against scholasticism — rejecting the whole because of troubling parts within it, just like we see in Liberation Theology today.

  • digbydolben

    The problem is that, with the possible exception of John Paul II (and, then, only in his less paranoid period as pope), the Vatican does not know how to talk to the modern world. It does not understand modern journalism and does not appreciate the extent to which it could actually use these journalistic tactics to maximize the effect of its moral authority upon both the faithful and the secularist worlds. How about a week-long stay, by a reigning pope, in a South American base-camp, in order to learn from the affected people themselves the necessity of adapting the social justice teachings of the Church to 3rd World living conditions? Then, even if the pope came back with the same conclusions about the dire influence of Marxism, the anti-Catholic press would have no opportunity to accuse the pope of “indifference.” This is something, though, that only a John XXIII would be capable of; even Wojtlywa was too much of a “prince of this world” to think of it.

  • Wj

    I though Novak proved that the theology of capitalism constitutes an advance over the prior tradition. 🙂

    In (serious) response to Excelsior: it is because of the dominance of capitalist ideology in the developed world that a disproportionate attention to liberation theology–and especially those elements in it that articulate and critique the unthought presuppositions of the West–is necessary and urgent. Pretending as though there is any sort of parity between the existent powers of capitalism and those of Marxism, and that therefore one needs to split the middle between the two, is naive. The problem with Marxism is not that it is too radical but that, as liberation theologians as well as informed thomists have understood now for quite some time, it is not radical enough.

  • brettsalkeld

    It may be best to take different aspects of the varying systems and note the Church’s approval or disapproval of each.
    Private property = good
    A consumer culture = bad
    Option for the poor = good
    Armed revolution = bad

    Liberation theology, like other theologies, can be good and/or bad. One way to tell if a particular expression of liberation theology is good or bad is to see where it lines up with the Church on the above issues (and others like them). When liberation theology condemns consumerism, good. When it advocates armed revolution, bad.

    Our need for labels and camps really hinders our ability to ‘read the signs of the times.’

  • Kyle R. Cupp

    A good reminder, Michael. Thank you.

  • Michael,

    Fair enough, and point well-taken, but when Benedict says:

    Its more or less visible consequences consisting of rebellion, division, dissent, offence, and anarchy make themselves felt, creating in your diocesan communities great suffering and a serious loss of vitality. I implore all those who in some way have felt attracted, involved and deeply touched by certain deceptive principles of Liberation Theology to consider once again the above-mentioned Instruction, perceiving the kind light with which it is proffered

    Who is that being directed towards? Leo Boff? He’s been out of the priesthood for almost 18 years. Which prominent liberation theologians (and/or members of Brazilian base communities) are still using Marxist dialectic today? Why bring it up now?

  • Brett – That is helpful but I think each of those things can and should be broken down so we can see the church’s nuanced positions. “Private property” can mean different things, for example, and the church’s defense of private property is, of course, not absolute. Just read a book that shows how Leo’s defense of private property was in fact focused on the worker and the right the worker has to the fruits of his/her labor, rather than a focus on the rights of the capitalist class. In other words, Leo is quite close to Marx and his entire purpose of opposing private property!

    And although I am a pacifist, it seems that “armed revolution” is not ruled out by the church but would be “good” or “bad” depending on a number of factors.

  • Who is that being directed towards? Leo Boff? He’s been out of the priesthood for almost 18 years. Which prominent liberation theologians (and/or members of Brazilian base communities) are still using Marxist dialectic today? Why bring it up now?

    That’s the real question, isn’t it? That’s kind of been the real question every time Ratzinger has written about liberation theology. He never refers to any specific theologians or texts, but speaks only vaguely, which of course gives the impression that “the church” opposed liberation theology as a whole.

    In the case of Boff, if you read the statement on his book Church: Charism and Power (which is the only text of his to be critiqued by the Vatican to my knowledge), the problem is his ecclesiological proposals, specifically his assertion that ecclesial structures were invented by human beings and are not “divine” in the sense of being unchangeable. On a related note, his use of Marxist language to challenge the use of the church’s sacramental system was also critiqued. These are very specific concerns. Boff’s attraction to Marxism as a way of critiquing the capitalist order was not criticized. Likewise, the criticism of Sobrino had nothing to do with Marxism but with his Christological proposals. Sobrino doesn’t really use Marxist analysis at all.

    Latin American theologians still for the most part assume the validity of the Marxist critique of capitalism (as does anyone in his or her right mind). Use of Marxism as a political strategy is far less common and indeed usually seen as passe, often because as was pointed out above, it is not radical enough. Indeed, few put much faith in “Marxism” as a strategy anyway. Looking more broadly, many other non-Latin American forms of liberation theology have had little use for Marxism. Black, feminist, and indigenous theologies for example hardly if ever refer(red) to Marxism. Liberationists still advocate radical social and political change, but less emphasis is placed on Marxism. Times have changed.

    So why does he bring it up? Surely not because he has any idea what liberation theologians are saying today and is concerned about it. He does not seem up to speed on what is happening and is perhaps even more out of touch today than he was before. I think he’s merely bringing it up as a vague ecclesiastical warning.

  • brettsalkeld

    Yes, each of the above things I mentioned should be subject to more careful analysis. The basic point was to compare apples to apples. It was an indirect response to your comment that it is odd to compare ‘capitalism’ and ‘liberation theology.’ I have only named the apples. I agree, in substance, with your points about the particular apples in question.

  • You’re making me want some apple crisp, Brett!

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