Capitalism, Like Marxism, Creates Erroneous Liberation Theologies

Capitalism, Like Marxism, Creates Erroneous Liberation Theologies October 20, 2010

One of the things which amuses me is to watch online commentary on liberation theology by people who obviously have not studied any of its major texts. You will find people assuming liberation theology has been condemned by the Church. It has not. Officials have questioned some forms of liberation theology, criticizing some ways liberation theologians have engaged liberation theology. In the 1984 Instruction on Certain Aspects Of The “Theologies of Liberation, the Vatican stated:

Faced with the urgency of certain problems, some are tempted to emphasize, unilaterally, the liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind. They do so in such a way that they seem to put liberation from sin in second place, and so fail to give it the primary importance it is due. Thus, their very presentation of the problems is confused and ambiguous. Others, in an effort to learn more precisely what are the causes of the slavery which they want to end, make use of different concepts without sufficient critical caution. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to purify these borrowed concepts of an ideological inspiration which is compatible with Christian faith and the ethical requirements which flow from it.

The concern in this document was the way some theologians have engaged Marxist thought, corrupting Christian theology. However, the Vatican made it clear: this is not to be seen as a rejection of the principle behind liberation theology, that is, the preferential option for the poor:

This warning should in no way be interpreted as a disavowal of all those who want to respond generously and with an authentic evangelical spirit to the “preferential option for the poor.”

What was questioned was the proposed methodology of dealing with earthly problems. Strangely enough, the concern expressed here does not have to end with Marxist thought. We must remember the capitalistic system we live in also is a materialistic ideology which runs contrary to the Christian faith, and it is a system which is used to create rival, and equally erroneous, forms of liberation theology. It is as atheistic as Marxism. It is founded upon a sin, greed. It promises utopia, telling us that if we allow capitalist systems to exist without regulation, everyone, including the poor, will end up being saved. The whole “if we allow the rich to be rich, they will give jobs to the poor” is just as much a failed ideology as Marxist collectivism. It is also as evangelical as Marxism. And it is just as spiritually dead as Marxism, especially since it ignores the sinful structures of greed which lie behind a capitalist society, structures that capitalistic liberation theologians not only ignore but try to reinforce by saying this capitalism is natural.

While the human person is indeed essentially good, people are no longer following their essence, but the perverse desires of a fallen mode of being. To ignore this and therefore say “capitalism just follows the natural way of life” is really to say “capitalism is just about the fallen way of life.” And it promotes this fallen existence, with its desires, because it is the way which capital is to be gained; it wants people to ignore the sinful root of society. For if we moved away from individualistic egotism which tries to make the world a slave to one’s passions, the capitalistic system, which is geared towards the further accumulation of wealth (whether or not such accumulation is necessary), cannot continue.

In saying this, we must remember that the Vatican promotes the concerns expressed by liberation theologians. The Vatican wants us to remember, however, that the material problems are connected to spiritual problems. True liberation is liberation from sin; overcoming sin, both personal and social, is what is necessary to create a better society. While sin remains in the world, there will be no utopia. But this does not mean we should give up striving for perfection. That is what we are called to do as Christians, and it is what we cry out for when we say the Our Father: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” To point out that there can be no utopias outside of the eschaton is not to say we should not strive for the best possible society we can create. It is just as silly as to say, outside of the eschaton, sin will remain, so it is fine to keep on sinning.

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  • While it is true to state Marxism destroys the person by collectivism, squashing the person into a monistic synthesis, we must remember Capitalism also destroys the person by individualism, squashing the communio needed for authentic personal existence.

  • dak

    Thank you, Henry. This is a well stated piece. It reminds me of a speaker I heard not too long ago, “You can’t fix spiritual problems with material means.”

    Could anyone recommend a good book to serve as an introduction to liberation theology for someone who is well read but not formally trained theologically or philosophically?

    • You are welcome, dak.

      Since there are many liberation theologies, some good, some not, and of the good, some better than others, it is a difficult task to give one such book. What I would do is recommend three works, two which are not modern works but serve as the foundation of the Church’s social concerns, and one which is a good basic work of a modern liberation theologian.

      The two (short) classic works are:

      St Basil the Great, On Social Justice
      St John Chrysostom, On Wealth and poverty.

      These books are from the Popular Patristic line from SVS.

      The modern work is:

      Gustavo Gutiérrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells.

      The text tries to take into consideration the criticisms offered of previous methodologies used in various liberation theology texts and to engage the issue from a spiritual direction. It is a good introduction from one of the major liberation theologians — and does a good job pointing out the main concerns. One of the things which should interest people is that a key to the text is that such theologies should be local (subsidiarity), pointing out why there can be no universal “method” as to how one would engage the practice of such theology, though there are principles all should uphold.

      I hope that helps.

  • Chris C.

    It is a fundamental part of Marxism as expressly stated by Marx as well as his best known adherents, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao that any belief in God is condemned. Such hostility is inherent in the philosophy of Marxism. As such a rejection of the free market, such as you propose cannot rest on the same grounds as does your evident rejection of Marxism. Some proponents of the free market may indeed adhere to materialist thinking but there is nothing inherent in the operation of the free market that would compel a rejection of God, which likely explains why the Church has never stated a clear condemnatin of the free market unlike it’s rejection of Marxism and other collectivist systems.
    In other words they are not both equally abhorent examples of the heresy known as Liberation Theology. If you wish to reject the free market on theological grounds, you will need to find another argument; one that to date, The Church has not found.

    • Free market is not the same thing as capitalism; and capitalism is most certainly a form of economic materialism, and has been consistently rejected by the Church, with authorities speaking out as it being the twin to Marxism.

  • Vermont Crank

    It is not known amongst Catholics, but it ought be well known, that Capitalism began with what was, essentially, a Catholic heresy and was perfected in Perfidious Albion with the looting of Catholic Church property.

    As for Liberation Theology, Our Holy Father described it as a fundamental threat to the Faith.

    “An analysis of “liberation theology,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger in 1984, “reveals that it constitutes a fundamental threat to the faith of the Church.” He goes on to discover “radically marxist (sic) positions” in those who teach the theology and, although he acknowledges that “no error could persist unless it contained a grain of truth…an error is all the more dangerous, the greater that grain of truth is.”8 The grain of truth, of course, is the mission of Christ and his apostles as defined by the Gospels, most notably by the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus clearly affirms the “option for the poor.” Cardinal Ratzinger replies that this is an amalgam of a basic truth of Christianity and an un-Christian fundamental option, which seductive and has the semblance of truth. “The Sermon the Mount is indeed God taking sides with the poor,” he writes. “But interpreting the poor in the sense of the marxist (sic) dialectic of history, and taking sides with them in the sense of class struggle, is a wanton attempt to portray as identical things that are contrary” While acknowledging the “irresistible logic of the liberation theologians, Cardinal Ratziner suggests that this new interpretation of Christianity is tainted, that we should return to the “logic of faith, and present it as the logic of reality,”9 and that theologians, priests, lay people and nuns cannot interpret God’s word, only the Church in her authority.

    • Vermont

      First, the Church’s official declarations have not condemned liberation theology, but has criticized forms in which it has been done. The distinction is important. We could go back to scholasticism and find similar rejection of scholastic theology by holy saints — condemning much of its early practice because of what was incorporated in it. However, then it continued to be grappled with and taken to orthodox dimensions by many other great saints.

      This is important to remember, especially because it is wrong to say all liberation theology is “Marxist.” It is also important to note that Pope Benedict has even pointed to some of the things within Marxist thought which was needed to be engaged — one of the things which many people fail to understand is that we must deal with truth wherever it is found, and bring it, when it is found in an imperfect setting, to the fullness of the faith. Thus, one could condemn Pope Benedict in some of his work with Marxism, if you wish, and you would have to do so if we followed your own misunderstanding of Benedict and theology.

      If one studied liberation theology — as a discipline, one would begin to see how many things promoted by the West (such as the Iraq War) are also liberation theologies and of methodologies which are also to be rejected.

  • AV

    A Weber reference!!!! Yaaaaay! My Berkeley educated heart skipped a beat. It is no wonder that all modernizing regimes were anti-clerical without exception. First step in modernization: take the Church’s stuff and give it to the rich.

  • Vermont Crank

    Somewhere, a Unicorn is pulling a wagon filled with goods and he is headed for a Free Market.

    Well, what do folks mean by a Free Market? Mr. Fleming helps us to tease-out what is meant, and not meant, by the term Free Market.

  • Vermont Crank

    Mr Karlson. Card Ratzinger essentially called it a heresy and so I have no idea why you think it is a good idea to think its definition is so elastic it can be stretched to include Unjust wars, waged for Israel and Oil, in the M.E.

    If you are pro-liberation theology as it existed in So America, just say so.

    The fact is is that Cardinal Ratzinger considered his war against LibTheo as a great victory.

  • I am very short on time after having spent some of it reading this post. Truly well done. I appreciate what you bring to the conversation, that being that either extreme brings challenges. I of course am very “both/and” and not “either/or” in general. This is why church teaching and clarity are important, not glib reactions.

    • Fran — thanks. Yes, the both and is always an issue.

  • Vermont Crank

    In this present document, we will only be discussing developments of that current of thought which, under the name “theology of liberation”, proposes a novel interpretation of both the content of faith and of Christian existence which seriously departs from the faith of the Church and, in fact, actually constitutes a practical negation.

    10. Concepts uncritically borrowed from Marxist ideology and recourse to theses of a biblical hermeneutic marked by rationalism are at the basis of the new interpretation which is corrupting whatever was authentic in the generous initial commitment on behalf of the poor.

    For Lord’s sake, Mr. Karlson. People can read you know…

    And trying to compare particular problems within scholasticism (Was THAT a negation of the Faith; did THAT borrow from a condemned heresy?)
    and, textually, trying to imply that liberation theology is essentially on the same basis as the Orthodoxy of Scholasticism is, frankly, laugh-out-loud funny.

    Now, after having said there are similarities twixt problems within scholasticism that are essentially the same kind as problems existing within LibTheo, you have a duty to show us, using examples, of how that is so, or, risk having exposed yourself as one who is simply blowing smoke to obfuscate the truth.

    • Vermont

      Once again, you are confusing the document and what it is saying. It is not saying all liberation theologians are doing such, but criticizing some who do. And yes, scholasticism when it begun was seen as a rejection of the faith by many of its opponents.

  • Ronald King

    There is no “free” market when the value system is based on greed as Henry has stated. No matter what system is employed to manage the exchange of goods and services it will be the expression of values held by those running the system.
    Due to our individual fear-based values we cooperate with the capitalistic system of competition for goods and services and, as a consequence support the “culture of death” that we so despise.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    To add my two cents to this discussion: the 1984 Vatican document on Liberation Theology was probably a useful corrective, but one thing that bothered me on reading it recently was that it conflated all Marxist thought (a large, rambling and often contradictory body of scholarship and praxis) into a single entity which resembled the vulgar Marxism that even most marxist scholars condemn. (Anyone who has talked to a Trotskyite from the SWP or a member of the old CPUSA knows what vulgar Marxism is.) I think the document would have been much better if it had not set up a straw man like this.

    I want to reinforce a point that Henry has been trying to make: the sum totality of Marxism is incompatible with Christian thinking, but there are MANY ideas which are worth engaging with and re-constructing on an orthodox foundation. Aquinas did this with Aristotle, just as some Church Fathers did with Platonism.

  • Nate Wildermuth

    “You can’t fix spiritual problems with material means.”

    While this has a nice ring to it, it is completely wrong. See: the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection–all material and spiritual. You can’t fix persons without addressing sin in both body and spirit, just as Christ did, and will.

  • Vermont Crank

    Fides et ratio (see #43 and 44) praises the scholastic method while the CDF states, quite clearly, that Liberation Theology constitutes a practical negation of The Faith.

    When you get time, please post for all to see any similar condemnation of scholasticism issuing from The Holy Office.

    Of course you can do no such thing so you will continue to blow smoke.

    Oh well, its only your reputation as a reliable source of information that is on the line here.

    • No, Vermont Crank, you are misreading the CDF statement. More importantly, scholasticism was given various condemnations in its early stages before it became accepted. The problem, as the CDF pointed out, is uncritical acceptances of thought which contradicted Christian thought — and found only in some trends of the theology, not the whole of the theology. They make it very clear, if you read, that they have not made universal statements on everyone who engages a theology of liberation.

  • dak

    Nate, your interpretation of the quote is without the benefit of the context in which it was delivered (which focussed largely on our attempt to fix our problems without allowing for the benevolence of God) and without regard to what Henry writes about above.

    You say “material AND spiritual”, which is exactly the point. Your examples are not all either strictly material or made by mortal man. It took a heavy dose of the divine for all of them. Your statement that it is “completely wrong” is not completely right.

  • Thus, as I quoted, and you ignored, the document begins with a caveat that is important, and serves as the context of the whole document:

    “much more limited and precise purpose” and “certain forms of liberation theology.”

    In section XI, it reaffirms this:

    “The warning against the serious deviations of some “theologies of liberation” must not be taken as some kind of approval, even indirect, of those who keep the poor in misery, who profit from that misery, who notice it while doing nothing about it, or who remain indifferent to it. The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by the love for mankind, hears the cry for justice [28] and intends to respond to it with all her might.”

    Which is why the document says, “More than ever, the Church intends to condemn abuses, injustices, and attacks against freedom, wherever they occur and whoever commits them. She intends to struggle, by her own means, for the defense and advancement of the rights of mankind, especially of the poor.”

    That is a theology of liberation right there! And this is why it calls for an authentic liberation theology: “We noted above (cf. 3) that an authentic theology of liberation will be one which is rooted in the Word of God, correctly interpreted.”

    • I think it is problematic to say that liberation theologies that draw from “Marxism” are incompatible with the Catholic faith. That is generally Ratzinger’s view, but that’s his personal view. The relevant church documents criticize an uncritical acceptance of Marxism, implying that a critical acceptance of Marxism is in fact compatible with the faith. The important question is not whether this or that theologian has been influenced by Marx but how that theologian has been influenced by Marx. Even John Paul II was influenced by Marx.

      Ratzinger’s personal view is essentially that (monolithic) “liberation theology” is a heresy. John Paul II said liberation theology is “both useful and necessary.”

      The CDF document you quote suffers from a dualism that most liberation theologians and most followers of the nouvelle theologie movement rightly reject: the opposition of liberation from sin and liberation from “earthly” oppression. The two are not opposed. Nor does one have “priority.” “Sin” is embodied in earthly, material reality and human relationships. Human oppression is sin. Liberation theologians have always described human, material oppression as sin, not as something other than sin.

      • Michael

        Right; it is not necessarily drawing from Marx, but drawing the wrong things from Marx which is the issue. But the main point I was trying to make is that this is also true with the popular forms of liberation theology from the US, which accepts much which is bad from the capitalist mindset. I’ve been trying to point out — that it is not liberation theology, but bad theology, which is the real concern, and it does not have to come from uncritical application of Marx to be a bad theology.

      • This is also why I wrote it as “the way that…” because I knew there were legitimate ways to engage Marx. Even Benedict does so.

  • Vermont Crank

    More importantly, scholasticism was given various condemnations in its early stages before it became accepted

    Mr. Karlson. I knew you could not produce one word from The Holy Office substantiating your disingenuous assertion.

    And despite your attempts to blow smoke to obfuscate the obvious, all can see what you are doing.

    I am done wasting my time with you.

    I wanted to give y’all a chance. I did; and what I found was not unexpected.

    I’m done with this joke of a site

  • WJ

    What about Archbishop Tempier’s banning the study of Aquinas after the Universal Doctor’s death, as well as banning the study of all Aristotelianism? The Church only officially removed the ban some 50 years after, though it is suspected that the Dominicans continued to use Aquinas, in defiance of the episcopal see. The condemnation of “certain” elements of liberation theology is not at all as exhaustive. It’s not as though Ratzinger came out and banned the reading of Gutierrez!

  • WJ

    Also, if Benedict XVI is so hostile to *all* aspects of Marxist thought, why does he constructively engage Theodore Adorno (along with Lukacs the most sophisticated Marxist of last century) in his encyclical Spe Salvi!? Is he violating his own directive?

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    @Vermont Crank

    The Holy Office, so named, came into existence in 1908. Its precursor, the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, was created in the 16th century. The disputations about scholasticism occurred 3-4 centuries before this, so no, there are no condemnations of scholasticism from the Holy Office.

    This does not mean that scholasticism was not condemned. The Condemnation of 1277 by the bishop of Paris included a condemnation of 20 points from the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas, the father of Scholasticism. Earlier condemnations touched on other aspects of the rapidly evolving discipline.

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  • Also, if Benedict XVI is so hostile to *all* aspects of Marxist thought, why does he constructively engage Theodore Adorno (along with Lukacs the most sophisticated Marxist of last century) in his encyclical Spe Salvi!? Is he violating his own directive?

    Exactly. But many folks in the Ratzinger fan club have no idea who Adorno is.

  • grega

    Well unfortunately it seems that the general information overload in our society contributes mot only to often deliberately dumbed down guts level politics (and politicians – Palin, Tea Party etc.) but also to deliberately ignorant theology.
    But what does one expect if we consider that even a intellectual heavyweight like Ratzinger travels all the way from the lofty asperations of post WWII per Vatican II ‘fresh’ air into the church to a fierce advocate of orthodox shut doors and windows.
    This will pass.
    It will pass within our lifetime and we will be back to progessive theology and society.
    In my view our journey as a society and religion is a journey towards the more progressive and forward looking perspective. One can be assured that billions of people will see to it that they are equal part of this never ending game. One can read the past that way and chances are the future will have plenty of societal Sturm und Drang. It is all good.
    And lets be honest this would be a very boring place if everybody would happen to do always the correct just wonderful thing – that is not us, we are all rather governed by both our good as well as selfish instincts.

  • Vermont Crank

    Dear David Cruz-Uribe.

    You are right, thanks for the correction.

    Dear Mr. Karlson. I apologise for acting like a jerk in our exchange. Sometimes I get so caught up in trying to “win” an argument that I do not even open my eyes to read and think about what the other man is saying.

    Your argument makes perfect sense because that is the history of ideas in The Catholic Church.

    Ideas are advanced, struggled over etc and Holy Mother Church decides what is acceptable or not in those ideas and it is no different with LibTheo.

    And, of course, Card Ratzinger was vilified when he said Vatican Two was, in part, a counter-syllabus.

    Again. Sorry for my actions.