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Key principle of liberation theology

NCR Staff

Though it has distant historical roots in 16th century Christian humanism, and more immediately in Vatican II, properly speaking liberation theology stems from the 1968 assembly of the Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia. That session endorsed a “preferential option for the poor” on behalf of the Catholic church in Latin America. The movement took its name from Gustavo Gutiérrez’s 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation.

Today it is common to speak of a variety of “liberation theologies.” In his 1995 book Liberation Theologies, Jesuit Fr. Alfred Hennelly distinguishes nine: Latin American, North American feminist, black, Hispanic, African, Asian, First World, ecotheology and even a liberation theology of world religions. The focus in this article is on the Latin American form that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.

Four ideas have been central to the movement:

  • The preferential option for the poor. For the liberation theologians, this means that the church must align itself with poor people as they demand justice. Such insistence has led to charges that liberation theology advocates class struggle. The liberationists, however, say that they did not invent the division of society into a wealthy elite and an impoverished majority. The church helped create this social order: Catholic missionaries served as evangelizers for the European conquerors, and church leaders sided with the elites for 400 years. The point, say the liberationists, is not to involve the church in class struggle, which is a given of the Latin American situation. Their goal is to shift the church’s loyalties.
  • Institutional violence. Liberationists see a hidden violence in social arrangements that create hunger and poverty. Thus when critics accused theologians of advocating revolutionary violence (which most did not), they often responded: “But the church has always tolerated violence.” They meant that by endorsing the status quo, church leaders were acquiescing in a system that did violence to millions of people.
  • Structural sin. Liberation theologians argued that there is a social dimension that is more than the sum of individual acts. Examples frequently cited include neocolonialism and the feudal nature of the relationship between the Latin American oligarchy and the peasants. By extension, the redemption from sin won by Christ must be more than the redemption of individual souls. It must redeem, transform the social realities of human life.
  • Orthopraxis. This term was coined by the liberation theologians as a counterpoint to insistence on orthodoxy, meaning correct belief. Liberation theologians argue that what is most fundamental is correct action -- that is, effort leading to human liberation. Most liberation theologians say the accent on orthopraxis is a matter of balance. They wanted to remedy a centuries-long Christian inclination to overemphasize belief at the expense of action.

Liberation theology places a premium on social analysis. To remedy injustice, they believe, one must first understand the social mechanisms that produce it. To do this, many liberation theologians were drawn to Marxism. Critics found this alarming, insisting that one cannot distinguish between Marxist “science” and its ideological underpinnings -- atheism, materialism and totalitarianism.

Finally, liberationists stress the pastoral dimensions of their work. In Latin America, liberation theology came to be identified with the base communities, tens of thousands of small groups of Christians, usually 10-30 people, who come together for scripture study and reflection leading to action.

The base communities were at the roots of much of the Vatican alarm about liberation theology. Since they existed independent of clerical oversight, they seemed to represent a model of “church from below”; and indeed they were sometimes presented this way by some of their more enthusiastic advocates. Mainstream liberation theologians have repeated, however, that there is nothing necessarily adversarial about the base communities.

National Catholic Reporter, June 2, 2000