Towards a Proper Appreciation of Liberation Theology, Some Resources from Pope John Paul II

In a recent post to Vox Nova, Michael Iafrate (aka. “The Catholic Anarchist”) offers a welcome reminder concerning Pope Benedict’s admonishment to the Brazilian bishops of “more or less visible consequences, of rebellion, division, dissent, offense, anarchy are still being felt, creating amidst your diocesan communities great pain and a grave loss of living strength”, stemming from “he non-critical import, made by some theologians, of theses and methodologies originating from Marxism.” To which Michael replies:

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.”

Michael is certainly right that the Church has never condemned liberation theology in toto. (Nor has it condemned capitalism or capital punishment or sexual relations in toto, howbeit that is the impression one often receives reading the rantings of the fringe left and/or right, or even many presentations within the mainstream press which abandon, for the sake of a catchy headline or a cheap soundbyte, the carefully-nuanced position of the Catholic Church.

At any rate, as Michael wisely suggests, on the matter of “liberation theology” the remedy here would be a close study of the texts. For our readers’ benefit, a compilation of texts by Pope John Paul II himself.

First, we have John Paul II’s Letter to the Episcopal Conference of Brazil (April 9, 1986) – Italian | Google Translation (from which John Paul II’s recognition of liberation theology as “useful and necessary” is derived, howbeit charting specific theological parameters for its approval:

… both of reflection, both in its practice, the [liberation] is first all soteriological (an aspect of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ, Son of God) and then ethical and social (or ethical-political). Reduce one dimension to another – virtually eliminating both – or prefer the second to the first, is to subvert and pervert the true Christian liberation.It is the duty of pastors, therefore, announce to all men, without ambiguity, the mystery of liberation that is contained in the cross and resurrection of Christ. (cf. 1 Cor 2, 1-5; Gal 6, 14). The Church of Jesus in these days as in all times, in Brazil as anywhere in the world, is only one wisdom, and a single power: that of the cross leading to the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 2, 1-5; Gal 6, 14). The poor of this nation, which has in the Lords their pastors, the poor of this continent, are the first to feel the urgent need for this radical gospel of liberation and integral. Negarlo significherebbe defraudarli e disilluderli. Defraud and deny it would disillusion.

Secondly, an excerpt from John Paul II’s Address to the Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate. . Apostolic Journey To The Dominican Republic, Mexico And The Bahamas (January 25 – February 1 1979). It is in this address that, I think, Pope John Paul II makes known, clearly and without ambiguity, a genuine “theology of liberation”:

In some cases either Christ’s divinity is passed over in silence, or some people in fact fall into forms of interpretation at variance with the Church’s faith. Christ is said to be merely a “prophet”, one who proclaimed God’s Kingdom and love, but not the true Son of God, and therefore not the centre and object of the very Gospel message.

In other cases people claim to show Jesus as politically committed, as one who fought against Roman oppression and the authorities, and also as one involved in the class struggle. This idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive man from Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechesis. By confusing the insidious pretexts of Jesus’ accusers with the—very different—attitude of Jesus himself, some people adduce as the cause of his death the outcome of a political conflict, and nothing is said of the Lord’s will to deliver himself and of his consciousness of his redemptive mission. The Gospels clearly show that for Jesus anything that would alter his mission as the Servant of Yahweh was a temptation (cf. Mt 4:8; Lk 4:5). He does not accept the position of those who mixed the things of God with merely political attitudes (cf. Mt 22:21; Mk 12:17; Jn 18:36). He unequivocally rejects recourse to violence. He opens his message of conversion to everybody, without excluding the very Publicans. The perspective of his mission is much deeper. It consists in complete salvation through a transforming, peacemaking, pardoning and reconciling love. [...]

Any form of silence, disregard, mutilation or inadequate emphasis of the whole of the Mystery of Jesus Christ that diverges from the Church’s faith cannot be the valid content of evangelization.

* * *

In the abundant documentation with which you have prepared this Conference, especially in the contributions of many Churches, a certain uneasiness is at times noticed with regard to the very interpretation of the nature and mission of the Church. Allusion is made, for instance, to the separation that some set up between the Church and the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is emptied of its full content and is understood in a rather secularist sense: it is interpreted as being reached not by faith and membership in the Church but by the mere changing of structures and social and political involvement, and as being present wherever there is a certain type of involvement and activity for justice. This is to forget that “the Church receives the mission to proclaim and to establish among all peoples the Kingdom of Christ and of God. She becomes on earth the seed and beginning of that Kingdom” (Lumen Gentium, 5).

In some cases an attitude of mistrust is produced with regard to the “institutional” or “official” Church, which is considered as alienating, as opposed to another Church of the people, one “springing from the people” and taking concrete form in the poor. These positions could contain different, not always easily measured, degrees of familiar ideological forms of conditioning. The Council has reminded us what is the nature and mission of the Church. It has reminded us how her profound unity and permanent up-building are contributed to by those who are responsible for the ministry of the community and have to count on the collaboration of the whole People of God. In fact, “if the Gospel that we proclaim is seen to be rent by doctrinal disputes, ideological polarizations or mutual condemnations among Christians, at the mercy of the latter’s differing views on Christ and the Church and even because of their different concepts of society and human institutions, how can those to whom we address our preaching fail to be disturbed, disoriented, even scandalized?” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 77).

I.9. The truth that we owe to man is, first and foremost, a truth about man. As witnesses of Jesus Christ we are heralds, spokesmen and servants of this truth. We cannot reduce it to the principles of a system of philosophy or to pure political activity. We cannot forget it or betray it.

* * *

Pastoral commitment in this field must be encouraged through a correct Christian idea of liberation. The Church feels the duty to proclaim the llberation of millions of human beings, the duty to help this liberation become firmly established (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 30); but she also feels the corresponding duty to proclaim liberation in its integral and profound meaning, as Jesus proclaimed and realized it (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 31).”Liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is, above all, liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by him” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 9). Liberation made up of reconciliation and forgiveness. Liberation springing from the reality of being children of God, whom we are able to call Abba, Father (Rom. 8: 15); a reality which makes us recognize in every man a brother of ours, capable of being transformed in his heart through God’s mercy. Liberation that, with the energy of love, urges us towards fellowship, the summit and fullness of which we find in the Lord. Liberation as the overcoming of the various forms of slavery and man-made idols, and as the growth of the new man. Liberation that in the framework of the Church’s proper mission is not reduced to the simple and narrow economic, political, social or cultural dimension, and is not sacrificed to the demands of any strategy, practice or short-term solution (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 33).

To safeguard the originality of Christian liberation and the energies that it is capable of releasing, one must at all costs avoid any form of curtailment or ambiguity, as Pope Paul VI asked: “The Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 32). There are many signs that help to distinguish when the liberation in question is Christian and when on the other hand it is based rather on ideologies that rob it of consistency with an evangelical view of man, of things and of events (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 35). They are signs drawn from the content of what the evangelizers proclaim or from the concrete attitudes that they adopt. At the level of content, one must see what is their fidelity to the word of God, to the Church’s living Tradition and to her Magisterium. As for attitudes, one must consider what sense of communion they have with the Bishops, in the first place, and with the other sectors of the People of God; what contribution they make to the real building up of the community; in what form they lovingly show care for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, the neglected and the oppressed, and in what way they find in them the image of the poor and suffering Jesus, and strive to relieve their need and serve Christ in them (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8). Let us not deceive ourselves: the humble and simple faithful, as though by an evangelical instinct, spontaneously sense when the Gospel is served in the Church and when it is emptied of its content and is stifled with other interests.

Lastly, John Paul II returned to the meeting of the Latin-American Episcopate and the subject of liberation in his General Audience of Wednesday, February 21, 1979:

… Certainly it is recalled by that “universal desire for dignity” on the part of man, of which the Second Vatican Council speaks. The “theology of liberation” is often connected (sometimes too exclusively) with Latin America; but it must be admitted that one of the great contemporary theologians, Hans Urs von Balthassar, is right when he demands a theology of liberation on a universal scale. Only the contexts are different, but the reality itself of the freedom “for which Christ set us free” (cf. Gal 5:1) is universal. The task of theology is to find its real significance in the different concrete historical and contemporary contexts.

Christ himself links liberation particularly with knowledge of the truth: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32). This sentence testifies above all to the intimate significance of the freedom for which Christ liberates us. Liberation means man’s inner transformation, which is a consequence of the knowledge of truth. The transformation is, therefore, a spiritual process, in which man matures “in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24). Man, inwardly mature in this way, become a representative and a spokesman of this “righteousness” in the various environments of social life. Truth is important not only for the growth of human knowledge, deepening man’s interior life in this way; truth has also a prophetic significance and power. It constitutes the content of testimony and it calls for testimony. We find this prophetic power of truth in the teaching of Christ. As a Prophet, as a witness to truth, Christ repeatedly opposes non-truth; he does so with great forcefulness and decision and often he does not hesitate to condemn falsehood.

So this service of truth as participation in Christ’s prophetic service is a task of the Church, which tries to carry it out in the various historical contexts. It is necessary to call by their name injustice, the exploitation of man by man, or the exploitation of man by the Stale, institutions, mechanisms of systems and regimes which sometimes operate without sensitivity. It is necessary to call by name every social injustice, discrimination, violence inflicted on man against the body, against the spirit, against his conscience and against his convictions. Christ teaches us a special sensitivity for man, for the dignity of the human person, for human life, for the human spirit and body. It is this sensitivity which bears witness to knowledge of that “truth which makes us free” (Jn 3:32). It is not permitted for man to conceal this truth from himself. It is not permitted to “falsify it”. It is not permitted to make this truth the object of a “tender”. It is necessary to speak of it clearly and simply. And not to “condemn” men, but to serve man’s cause. Liberation also in the social sense begins with knowledge of the truth.

[...]

The theology of liberation must, above all, be faithful to the whole truth about man, in order to show clearly, not only in the Latin-American context but also in all contemporary contexts, what reality is this freedom “for which Christ set its free”.

Christ! It is necessary to speak of our liberation in Christ; it is necessary to proclaim this liberation. It must be integrated in the whole contemporary reality of human life. Many circumstances, many reasons, demand this. Just in these times, in which it is claimed that the condition of “man’s liberation” is his liberation “from Christ”, that is, from religion, just in these times the reality of our liberation in Christ must become, for us all, more and more evident and more and more full.


“Pope John Paul II on his 1983 arrival in Managua, publicly reprimanded Jesuit priest and Sandinista Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal.

Additional Sources

At this point in the spirit of collaboration and in recognition of one who — I admit, is much more knowledgeable in this particular subject than myself — I welcome Michael Iafrate’s recommendation of additional texts, authors and resources, which may be said to offer a understanding of a genuine, faithful and Catholic “theology of liberation” (as distinguished from those which John Paul II and Pope Benedict have deemed false and misleading).

18 Responses to Towards a Proper Appreciation of Liberation Theology, Some Resources from Pope John Paul II

  • S.B. says:

    Michael is certainly right that the Church has never condemned liberation theology in toto.

    The relevant point, however, is that it most certainly (and rightly) has condemned liberation theology as to the ideological ends that michael and his ilk prefer — all of the reinterpreting Christ as a political figure, the constant and small-minded reduction of Christianity so that nothing is left but the hackish promotion of leftist politics, etc.

  • I know such distinctions are difficult for you, S.B., but I’d like to reiterate that Jesus was not merely a political figure but he was indeed a political figure. No time to explain “political figure” at the moment as I’m about to hit the (ice covered) road, but you might assume I mean he was a figure who has political significance. In Jesus’ time, the idea that “spirituality” could be separated from “politics” was unthinkable. And they, unlike us, were correct. This is hardly controversial.

  • S.B. says:

    Well, that’s just the usual intellectual ju-jitsu in which “political” is used equivocally — Christ is described as “political” in the sense that he sometimes told human beings how to treat each other in a community (polis), but then his teachings are (mis)interpreted as if they gave definite answers to modern “political” issues (meaning governmental and economic policies).

    All of this sort of analysis ignores the crucial fact that Christ never concerned himself with Roman policies at all — with one exception, that being to recommend radical submission to the worst policies! (“If a Roman demands that you carry his stuff one mile, carry it two.”) One could hardly imagine anything more contrary to the spirit of Christ than the sort of “politics” that michael recommends.

  • Blackadder says:

    In a sense the question of whether liberation theology has or has not been condemned is a moot question. Liberation theology is, if not already a spent force, well on its way to becoming so.

  • I like this site. I don’t understand why it sometimes tries to act as a secondary Vox Nova message board.

    Well, speaking for myself, on occasion there’s something written on Vox Nova which I want to respond to — but since most of us are banned on that site most of the time, it works better if we issue any critiques on our own turf. ;-)

  • Zach says:

    By and large Liberation theology is a Christian adaptation and incorporation of Marxism. Insofar as Marx got a few things right, liberation theology gets a few things right. But I think some of the premises from which liberation theology works are flawed. And yes I’m aware that there is not one “liberation theology” – there’s one for every class of people.

    Christ was only a political figure if you mean by “political” that his teaching had social implications. If you mean by political that he was some sort of ruler, or that he described the means by which we ought to order our lives together, then you are wrong.

    The reason there is confusion is because Michael means by political the former, and everyone else means the latter. The latter definition ( that politics is about how we ought to order our lives together) is the common definition, employed by nearly all political philosophers, scientists and also the common man.

    FWIW, Most of my comments at Vox Nova get rejected, too.

    Part of the reason for this website responding to Vox Nova is that disagreement about political means and ends between putatively faithful Catholics, who share common principles, is very interesting.

    I, for one, tend to think that disagreement about means is often rooted in disagreement about principles. The conversation between Vox Nova is an attempt to root out these differences in the way we understand Catholic morality.

  • Joe Hargrave says:

    Saying that Jesus “wasn’t a political figure” seems to be an easy way to justify certain policies without having to worry about their morality.

    I don’t understand this, Zach:

    “Christ was only a political figure if you mean by “political” that his teaching had social implications. If you mean by political that he was some sort of ruler, or that he described the means by which we ought to order our lives together, then you are wrong.”

    Christ is a ruler – he is our spiritual king. That’s why we have the feast of Christ the King; it was specifically instituted to remind men that their allegiance is to an authority higher than man (at the time, Pope Pius XI was targeting Mussolini).

    And he did describe “the means by which we ought to order our lives together” – albeit in a broad sense. Christ and His Church have established the moral parameters for politics. They have outlined what is not acceptable and given us room to experiment with what is.

    In the narrowest sense of politics the Church has no preference – democracy, republic, monarchy, presumably even a dictatorship are all theoretically acceptable (the Church supported Franco and Salazar, after all, against the communists). If this is what you mean by “order” then you are right.

    But “order” implies a lot more, especially when you say “order our lives together” – how we are to distribute resources, what our moral priorities are to be with respect to the law and its enforcement, how we are to engage with other nations, and so much more.

    It isn’t that there is only ONE way to order these things, but it IS to say that there are certain ways in which they must NOT be ordered.

    The Old Testament contains a very specific order for God’s chosen people. The New Testament might free us from the particulars of the old law, but it is rather clear to me based on my admittedly limited studies of Scripture that there is a moral core passed on from the old law to the new, and that much of it is social (compare Ezechiel 18 with Matthew 25).

    It is impossible to speak of what is social without speaking of politics – politics is an expression of social currents, moral ideas, cultural values, it does not stand alone and apart from everything else.

  • Zach -

    Jesus didn’t take Caesar’s place in the sense of taking over his position, job, seat, etc. Jesus simply wasn’t interested in Caesar’s gig. But the early Christians DID think Jesus took Casear’s place for them in terms of Lordship, authority, allegiance, etc. And they understood it not only “spiritually” but politically.

    What do you think Christ meant when he said his kingdom is “not of this world”? That it is somewhere else? Would that then mean that this world is not part of Christ’s kingdom?

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