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Gospel of liberation more urgent than ever
By José Comblin
Orbis Books, 252 pages, $24, paper


José Comblin, following St. Paul, insists that freedom affects the entire way of being of a disciple of Jesus. This freedom, however, is not something completed. It is rather a calling. “All are called to freedom: called to accept freedom, which entails overcoming their fear of being free.”

Such is the central theme of what is a profound philosophical and theological reflection on the status and prospects of the human race today, with specific (though by no means exclusive) focus on Latin America.

Comblin writes of what he knows. Belgian-born, he has worked for 40 years in Brazil and Chile. He played a key role in the composition of the 1968 Medellín Documents, in which the Latin American bishops proclaimed the option for the poor that soon grew into liberation theology.

Comblin believes that the institutional church made a radical mistake in the 14th century when it abandoned the poor and allied with temporal power to create what we know as Christendom. It meant the abandonment of the Pauline call to freedom. If this call is so poorly known to Christians, he writes, “it is not simply out of ignorance but because it has been systematically concealed. Paul’s message has been set aside and replaced by a law whose inspiration may owe more to the Old Testament than to the New.”

The 18th-century Enlightenment stressed the human thrust to freedom from all arbitrary restraints, a concept similar to St. Paul’s. The popes from Pius VI to Pius IX responded with an emphatic no to this call as embodied historically in political and social revolutions, in new philosophies and in the incipient sciences, both physical and social.

Leo XIII introduced the concept of a “new evangelization” when he proposed, however haltingly, the option for the poor in Rerum Novarum. Pius X’s anti-modernist reaction brought a division that still persists. In the social and political realm, Catholics can engage in dialogue with the modern world and propose new ideas. In the theological and dogmatic sphere, no change is permitted; even Vatican II, Comblin insists, has not changed this attitude.

More recently, “a hundred years of attempts and proposals to re-examine evangelization have been dismissed and rejected as useless and dangerous, and the proposal for a new evangelization has been taken over by integralist movements that believe in resurrecting Christendom and want nothing but medieval theology, as it was codified in the Council of Trent and 16th-century scholasticism.”

What this means is that the church has painted itself into a corner where it can be of no help to a humanity that desperately needs it. It has no message of hope for the vast and growing human masses that are being rendered superfluous worldwide by neoliberalism. Comblin sees no quick reverse of this new form of apartheid in which the wealthy are physically removing themselves in gated communities from contact with the rest of us. (The United States already has as many private security guards as it has agricultural workers.)

This does not mean, he insists, that we are locked into the neoliberal model, to which the Christian response must always be prophetic, denouncing injustice. It means that the need for liberation theology is greater than ever and that this need will continue as long as systemic poverty remains. Although there is no socialist alternative in sight, “socialist tendencies are so deeply rooted in humankind that they will inevitably have to reappear. ... Socialism will remain in the form of utopia, dream and aspiration. There will be further attempts to embody it in history.”

What is especially attractive about this book is the author’s realism. He helps us to understand the enormity of the world changes we are living and forces us to ask the practical question: “What is to be done?” There is a challenge on every page.

Gary MacEoin writes from San Antonio.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998