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Liberation Theology in Latin America Analysis Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021

During the 1960s, Vatican II and Liberation Theology arrived. Their twin emphasis was upon liberating people from material evil as well as spiritual evil on religious grounds. A weighty social, economic, and political–a “worldly”–dimension was thereby added to religion. The clarification of this additive required social analysis for which Marxism offered one obvious instrument. Thesis In Latin America, liberation theology becomes very popular because of the unique economic, social, and political conditions that affected the countries of this region.

The consequence was the confirmation of findings by pre-Marx theologians, that poverty derived from evil people and their social structures. Its amelioration required their change, and social change meant political action. Liberation turned into a politically explosive issue (Bentley 1982). The explosion was defused because the idea of the welfare state had already been widely accepted. Nevertheless, to the discomfort of the official church, the poverty issue was now fully in the political arena. Its politicization was enhanced because changing sinful structures was acknowledging the possibility of collective sin. Purification from sin was an individual’s private affair. Donating to charity was insufficient. Those benefitting from these structures considered their change a threat to vested interests. Individually, they could do nothing about it. Collectively, they welcomed a loosening of the bonds which had hitherto tied church and oligarchies together. The result has been that dealing with poverty by the church, and the role Liberation Theology was to play in it, has created much controversy over ecclesiastic and secular politics (Braaten 1989).

Liberation Theology has most of its protagonists in Latin America can be substantiated by all the conditions in that subcontinent. Contemporary Latin America is therefore also an area excellently qualified for an examination of politics as they are practiced within and by the church, states, and private groups about a social issue and its wider implications (Braaten 1989). This is all the more the case as the situation regarding poverty in mid-and late-twentieth-century Latin America replicates in many respects the conditions of the early industrial revolution in Europe (Bentley 1982).

Then and now their concern was to keep religion relevant when contemporary conditions were rapidly changing. The nineteenth-century theologians were predominantly dealing with the sociological aspects of the social problem of poverty. The Liberation theologians are, in addition, attempting to reinforce the temporal aspects of their solution to the poverty problem with a new interpretation of an underlying theology. They have attempted to systematize and reinterpret Catholic doctrine–with the help of social science–to keep it abreast of today’s “profound and rapid changes” (Braaten 1989, p. 98). They are hoping thereby to stimulate action and give direction to what have been vague dissatisfactions and scattered goals of improving the living conditions of the poor in conformity with Catholic teaching (Berryman, 1987). The church has tried to cope with that problem by announcing that specific solutions for general problems may have to be adapted to different localities and circumstances.

Any solution must be sufficiently indefinite to fit various situations. Innovations must be incremental, not radical. The early 1960s were a period of questioning the nature of existing societies everywhere, especially with respect to cleavages between rich and poor, social justice, political participation of the masses, and the marginalization of entire sections of populations (Brown 1978). Much lip service, at least, was paid to an ever-widening scope of humanitarianism. In many parts of the world, debates were followed by action, sometimes peaceful, sometimes rebellious, and often oppressive. In many places, the official church was in a quandary. Issues of its primary concern became politicized. Remaining outside the debate was impossible. Joining it forced the church to abandon its preferred position of steering clear of politics, or perhaps more truly, of not admitting openly its political position. The trend toward humanitarianism found a favorable echo among many Latin Americans, where political, economic, and cultural conditions were lagging far behind in most states. The time seemed proper to take advantage of the worldwide concern (Bentley 1982).

For centuries the official church could not or did not want to overcome the results of its participation in the colonization of Latin America. The close cooperation between the cross and the sword in the conquest of Latin America had consequences still effective today, concretely or psychologically (Bruneau 1992). During the decade of the 1960s sections of the church in parts of Latin America loosened the bonds tying it to the secular oligarchies. But its activities to implement a “preference for the poor” left much to be desired in the minds of many Latin Americans. So did mild attempts of the church to become truly universal instead of being, in reality, a Europeanized church (Braaten 1989). As originally in Europe, so in Latin America, the church was and some sections still are inclined to side with the powers that be. These were and are in most of Latin America the commercial, landholding, and military classes, with neither particularly concerned about the poor masses either in the urban centers or in the agricultural areas (Berryman, 1987). The early occasional behavioral deviations of the lower clergy or missionaries devoting, even sacrificing themselves to the welfare of the poor, could bring no significant improvements to the misery of the peasant masses and, later, the urban proletariat (Bentley 1982).

Among the thoughtful individuals turning into analysts and interpreters of prevailing social conditions in the mid-twentieth century could be found the Liberation theologians. By the time Liberation Theology developed, some points had been agreed among all parties-popes, some high and low clergymen, theologians–at least in principle. Liberation could not be limited to the traditional religious concept but had to include material liberation (Brown 1978). Poverty was both the result of sinful behavior by people and social structures. Classes composed and often divided societies and were here to stay. Violence was to be used, if at all, only in the most exceptional cases. The poor would have the preferential interest of the church. What was left, mainly, for the Liberation theologians to do was to reinforce these points; elaborate upon them; give them a thorough, modern theological foundation; apply the Gospel in the Latin American context; or, amounting to the same thing, give the Catholic church a distinctly Latin American identity and, above all, initiate and provide guidance for the translation of these ideas into action (Berryman, 1987).

There were many Latin American conferences from which, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, the Liberation theologians took comfort and support for their findings of the causes of poverty. Political and social events in parts of Latin America (especially the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba and the fate of the Brazilian revolution of 1964) further raised questions in people’s minds about the nature of their societies never broached by the traditional church. Latin America was in ferment (Brown 1978). In 1955 the first extraordinary Latin American Bishops’ Conference CELAM I took place in Rio de Janeiro. Its importance was in the higher levels of the church hierarchy dealing with social problems in their continent. In 1963, a group of Chicago priests created the first Ecclesiastic Base Community in Panama, the future base for the Liberation theologians’ activities (Bruneau 1992). From there the idea spread to many parts of Latin America and then to the rest of the Third World. In 1967, a message emanating from 17 bishops from the Third World spoke of Christianity as the “true socialism,” which the church must acknowledge by supporting the just distribution of all goods and fundamental equality. All over Latin America religious orders established centers for the study of social sciences and social action. Under the impact of Vatican II and new social analyses of Latin American society, the church underwent modernization and Latin Americanization–just at the time when developmentalism was found wanting (Brown 1978).

In 1968 CELAM II took place in Medellín, followed in 1979 by CELAM III in Puebla, Mexico. The results of these conferences remain a matter of debate, mainly because they were trying to compromise between the more traditional and the more progressive elements among the Latin American bishops, with the consequence that both groups could find encouragement for their positions (Berryman, 1987). They were sufficiently clear and outspoken on the causes of many social issues and on the responsibility of the church to serve as a legitimization for those engaged in theoretical and practical innovative religious activities in Latin America. At Medellín, the church overcame the tendency of separating spirituality from political reality, not by abandoning one in favor of the other, but by combining the two. The conference resolved that liberation and participation require freedom from the “institutionalized violence” of surviving internal and external colonial structures that are “seeking unbounded profits” and foment an economic dictatorship; and from the international “imperialism of money” (Bruneau 1992, p. 94). Development that places “greater emphasis upon economic progress than on the social well-being of the people” must be rejected. For this reason, communism and capitalism, by replacing spiritual with material welfare, were an affront to human dignity (Bruneau 1992).

Medellín, as well as Puebla, signaled considerable independence from Rome. They weakened the long-standing alliance between the church, governments, and the military. They eroded the colonial character of the church. They began to turn the Catholic Church into a Latin American institution, committed to worldly service to society and the defense of the poor, without of course denying the fundamental tenets of the Catholic church or the ultimate authority of Rome (Ferm 1996). Pope Paul VI had set the tone of the conference by his presence and by his statement, “We wish to personify the Christ of a poor and hungry people.”Liberation theologians were not in disagreement. Catholic education must produce the agents who will affect the permanent, organic change that Latin American society needs. There was not only awareness but deliberateness at both conferences regarding the political implications of advocating social change or dealing with secular matters. It was clear to all that making material well-being part of religious liberation necessarily would have political consequences (Berryman, 1987).

The more conservative sections of the Catholic clergy shy away from political involvements. The Liberation theologians come to terms with this situation expressly by refusing to acknowledge a separation between salvation as a task for the church to achieve and material wellbeing as a task for the state to handle. As good Christians, they will insist that the ultimate, total liberation of man exceeds the powers of man and requires a gift of God (Ferm 1996). They have never denied a need for spiritual liberation and a few of them have been hesitant to advocate political action expressly. But since by the nature of things, temporal politics are unavoidable in the execution of religiously founded changes necessary to eliminate the causes of poverty (as Christ and the Bible fully recognized and accepted), the more reform-minded clergy and most Liberation theologians willingly condone political action by clergy and Catholic laymen (Berryman, 1987). Covertly, of course, all sections of the church engage in political action as they have always done everywhere. Indeed, whether the position of the church is that earthly conditions must be accepted and liberation comes late in or possibly afterlife, or whether it is that liberation begins on earth and can partially be achieved on earth, either position has significant political aspects (Haight 1985).

Even if, in their search for the causes of poverty, the Liberation theologians were to restrict themselves to essentially religious, theological matters, political implications could hardly be avoided. The individual’s conversion and salvation, his relation and duty to his God, his conduct of religious life could theoretically be discussed, and have traditionally been considered, to be of concern only to the church, not the state (Gutiérrez 1988). As a social creature, a person’s behavior–sinful or otherwise–affects society and therewith assumes a political dimension of concern to the state. In practice, the church has never been able to remain outside of politics. It merely tried to concentrate the handling of political matters in the Vatican. With the newer concern of the individual’s total social environment, even concerning his religious life, such monopolization is increasingly difficult (Haight 1985). Since Vatican II, the concept of separation had to be discarded, though it lingers on in rhetoric. (Berryman, 1987).

The poor of Latin America have been hit with particular severity due to the export-oriented nature of most Latin American economies. In the view of Leonardo Boff, this international domination is now being “extracted” along with the dominator who has for so long kept people in subjection and with whom the church had been associated for so long. The official church now recognizes that undoing poverty, establishing justice, creating equality, allowing popular participation, involve governments as well as national and international politics. Reaching these goals requires power for the solution of problems no longer amenable to purely local or even national treatment.


Berryman, Ph.. 1987, Liberation Theology. New York: Pantheon.

Bentley James. 1982, Between Marx and Christ. London: Verso & NLB.

Braaten Carl E. 1989, The Future of God. New York: Harper & Row.

Brown Robert M. 1978, Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Themes. Philadelphia: Westminster.

Bruneau Thomas C. 1992, The Church in Brazil: The Politics of Religion. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ferm Deane W. 1996, Third World Liberation Theologies. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Gutiérrez Gustavo. 1988, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

Haight Roger. 1985, An Alternative Vision: An Interpretation of Liberation Theology. New York: Paulist Press.

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