The term was coined by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, who wrote one of the movement’s most famous books, A Theology of Liberation (1971). Other noted exponents are Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Jon Sobrino of El Salvador, and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay. Although liberation theology has grown into an international and inter-denominational movement, it began as a movement within the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s – 1960s.
It arose principally as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in that region. It achieved prominence in the 1970s and 1980s. The influence of liberation theology diminished after liberation theologians using Marxist concepts were admonished by the Roman Curia’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 1984 and 1986.
The Vatican documents criticize certain strains of Liberation Theology for focusing on institutional dimensions of sin to the exclusion of the individual; and for undermining church authority by identifying the church hierarchy as members of the privileged class.
Liberation theology proposes to fight poverty by addressing its source: sin. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology especially Roman Catholic theology and political activism, especially about social justice, poverty, and human rights.
The principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed (socially, politically, etc.). For example Jon Sobrino, S.J., argues that the poor are a privileged channel of God’s grace. Liberation theologians base their social action upon the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus Christ, as bringing a sword (social unrest), – and not as bringing peace (social order).
This Biblical interpretation is a call to action against poverty, and the sin engendering it, and as a call to arms, to affect Jesus Christ’s mission of justice in this world. In practice, the theology includes the Marxist concept of class struggle, thus emphasising the person’s individual self-actualization as part of God’s divine purpose for mankind.
Gustavo Gutierrez gave the movement its paradigmatic expression with his book A Theology of Liberation (1972). In this book, Gutierrez combined Marxist ideas with the social teachings of the Catholic Church.
He was influenced by an existing socialist current in the Church which included organisations such as the Catholic! Worker Movement and the French Christian youth worker organisation, “Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne.”
He was also influenced by Paul Gauthier’s “The Poor, Jesus and the Church” (1965). Gutierrez’s book is based on an understanding of history in which the human being is seen as assuming conscious responsibility for human destiny, and yet Christ the Saviour liberates the human race from sin, which is the root of all disruption of friendship and of all injustice and oppression.
Gutierrez also popularized the phrase “preferential option for the poor,” which became a slogan of liberation theology and eventually an official doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Gutierrez emphasised practice (or, more technically, “praxis”) over doctrine. “Praxis” is a term borrowed from Marxist theory, particularly the work of Antonio Gramsci. According to Gutierrez, praxis is as important as belief, if not more so. Hence, liberation theology has been criticized for emphasising “orthopraxis” over “orthodoxy.” Richard McBrien summarizes this concept as follows:
Another important hallmark for Gutierrez’s brand of liberation theology is an interpretation of revelation as “history”. For example Gutierrez wrote:
History is the scene of the revelation God makes of the mystery of his person. His word reaches us in the measure of our involvement in the evolution of history.
Some aspects of Liberation Theology were the subject of two critical “Instructions” from the Vatican’s office for doctrinal orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). The instructions rejected the idea that a class struggle is fundamental to history, and rejected the interpretation of religious phenomena such as the Exodus and the Eucharist in exclusively political terms.
“The mistake here is not in bringing attention to a political dimension of the readings of Scripture, but in making of this one dimension the principal or exclusive component.”
However, the movement in general was not condemned: the Instructions explicitly endorsed a “preferential option for the poor”, stated that no one could be neutral in the face of injustice, and referred to the “crimes” of colonialism and the “scandal” of the arms race. Nonetheless, media reports tended to assume that the condemnation of “liberation theology” meant a rejection of such attitudes and an endorsement of conservative politics.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who was prefect of the CDF at the time when the Instructions were issued, published his own personal criticism of the movement in 1985. In this document Ratzinger claims that in certain forms of Liberation Theology, the meaning of basic theological terms is changed – e.g. terms such as “hope”, “love”, and “salvation” are assigned a Marxist interpretation in terms of “class struggle”.
Ratzinger also argued that Liberation Theology is not originally a “grass-roots” movement among the poor, but rather, a creation of Western intellectuals: “an attempt to test, in a concrete scenario, ideologies that have been invented in the laboratory by European theologians” and in a certain sense itself a form of “cultural imperialism”. Ratzinger saw this as a reaction to the demise or near- demise of the “Marxist myth” in the West.
In March 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger made ten observations of Gutierrez’s theology, accusing Gutierrez of politically interpreting the Bible in supporting temporal messianism, and stating that the predominance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy in his thought proves a Marxist influence.
Ratzinger also stated that Gutierrez’s conceptions necessarily uphold class conflict in the Roman Catholic Church, which, logically, leads to rejecting hierarchy. However, Cardinal Ratzinger did praise liberation theology in some respects, including its ideal of justice, its rejection of violence, and its stress on “the responsibility which Christians necessarily bear for the poor and oppressed.”
Roman Catholic priest and author Andrew Greeley criticized liberation theology in his 2009 fictional book Irish Tweed. In Greeley’s book, a Chicago Catholic school is taken over by a principal and priest practicing liberation theology and its ideas are applied in the school environment. For instance, basketball team members are chosen based on their family’s economic status rather than on their ability.
Such criticisms have provoked counter-criticisms that orthodox Catholics are in effect casting the Catholic Church as a friend of authoritarian regimes; and that the Vatican is not so much trying to defend pure doctrine as to maintain an established ecclesiastical and political order.
This conflict could be compared to some aspects of the Protestant Reformation. Outside Latin America, some of liberation theology’s most ardent advocates are Protestant thinkers.