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.”