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Liberation Theology and the Pope

On his highly publicized voyage to Mexico late in January 1979, Karol Wojtyla, only recently become Pope John Paul II, faced two systems of authoritarianism. He faced Latin American feudal regimes of a cruelty well known to the bishops he was about to address, some of whom had experienced prison themselves. And he faced a rising enthusiasm, particularly on the part of foreign-trained Latin American clergymen, for “Marxist liberation.”

The Pope addressed the Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM) at Puebla on January 28. At first his 8,000-word sermon drew words of disappointment and sarcasm from many of the “liberation theologians” he was taken to be attacking. Then began a process by which the Pope’s straight sentences were gradually softened and transmuted until, we were told by the New York Times (February 18), the theologians in question celebrated the end of the conference by drinking beer, singing “folk songs from all over the continent,” so that “well past midnight their songs echoed through the streets . . . sounding suspiciously like a victory celebration.” What had actually happened? Had the Pope attacked “liberation theology” or had he given it official sanction?

The meeting at Puebla was the third major meeting of CELAM in twenty-five years. At the first one in Rio de Janeiro, the bishops of Latin America had established a continent-wide organization. Over the years, they formulated some fairly clear views about their own special needs and the general need for a reorganization of the international church. Thus, at the Second Vatican Council (1961-65), their regional unity was already conspicuous, and their interventions helped the “progressive” forces at the Council do much more than expected. Then in 1968—the year of vast student unrest in the United States, Mexico, France, and elsewhere—the bishops met for the second time, at Medellin, Colombia, and produced a document that addressed the public-policy needs of the continent. Tinged with Marxist rhetoric, that document gave rise, two years later, to the first writings self-described as “liberation theology,” that is, formal attempts to translate Christianity into Marxist categories. Works in this genre have multiplied since.

Pope John Paul II went straight to the heart of all this in the opening paragraphs of his address at Puebla. He said immediately that his “point of departure” was “the conclusions of Medellin” as well as the sympathetic support of those conclusions by Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi. But he did not hesitate to qualify his praise of “all the positive elements” that the Medellin conclusions contained, with the warning that he was not about to ignore the “incorrect interpretations at times made and which call for calm discernment, opportune criticism, and clear choices of position.”

The misconception, the confusion which the Pope wished to sweep away was that Christianity is reducible to Marxist categories. He opposed those “rereadings” of the Gospel that “cause confusion by diverging from the central criteria of the faith of the Church.” He opposed those for whom “the Kingdom of God is emptied of its full content and is understood in a rather secularist sense,” as if it were to be reached “by 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.” And he particularly opposed those who “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.”

The Pope observed that “our age is the one in which man has been most written and spoken of,” yet it is also “the age of man’s abasement to previously unsuspected levels, the age of human values trampled on as never before.” Like Solzhenitsyn in his commencement address at Harvard last year, Pope John Paul II attributed this to “the inexorable paradox of atheistic humanism.” By contrast, “the primordial affirmation of [Catholic] anthropology is that man is God’s image and cannot be reduced to a mere portion of nature or a nameless element in the human city.” He rejected a “strictly economic, biological, or psychological view of man,” insisting instead that “the complete truth about the human being constitutes the foundation of the Church’s social teaching and the basis of true liberation. In the light of this truth, man is not a being subjected to economic or political processes, these processes are instead directed to man and subjected to him.” It is necessary, in short, to reject a materialist interpretation of history and to defend the primacy of the spiritual.

At this point, Pope John Paul II showed himself in consonance with the traditional political philosophies of Western civilization. Tocqueville, for example, had made a similar observation: “There is no religion which does not place the object of man’s desire above and beyond the treasures of the earth, and which does not naturally raise his soul to regions far above those of the senses. Nor is there any which does not impose on man some sort of duties to his mind, and thus draws him at times from the contemplation of himself.” Correspondingly, the Pope discerned in “human dignity a gospel value that cannot be despised without greatly offending the Creator,” and then launched one of his two explicit condemnations of Latin American practices:

This dignity is infringed on the individual level when due regard is not had for values such as freedom, the right to essential goods, to life . . . it is infringed on the social and political level when man cannot exercise his right of participation, or when he is subjected to unjust and unlawful coercion, or submitted to physical or mental torture, etc. I am not unaware of how many questions are being posed in this sphere today in Latin America.

The Pope then turned to problems of action. The mission of the Church, he said, “although it is religious and not social or political, cannot fail to consider man in the entirety of his being.” This mission “has as an essential part action for justice and the tasks of the advancement of man.” But the Church “does not need to have recourse to ideological systems in order to love, defend, and collaborate in the liberation of man . . . acting in favor of brotherhood, justice, and peace, and against all foes of domination, slavery, discrimination, violence, attacks on religious liberty, and aggression against man, and whatever attacks life.” The Church has a commitment, like Christ’s, “to the most needy. In fidelity to this commitment, the Church wishes to stay free with regard to the competing systems, in order to opt only for man.”

The Pope then went on to define liberation in a Christian way, first positively, and then with this negative: “Liberation . . . 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.” The important thing is “to safeguard the originality of Christian liberation,” and “to avoid any form of curtailment or ambiguity” which would cause the Church to “lose her fundamental meaning” and leave her open to “manipulation by ideological systems and political parties.”



What is the liberation theology to which the Pope so clearly addressed himself? The headquarters for liberation theology in the United States, and perhaps in the entire world, are located near the Hudson River at Maryknoll, New York, international center of America’s most active missionary order, the Maryknoll Fathers and Sisters. In a recent bibliography of Third World theologies, 32 of 82 titles were published by Maryknoll’s Orbis Press. Founded in 1970, Orbis announced that it “draws its imperatives from and orders its priorities on the fact that the majority of Christians live in the affluent countries of the North Atlantic community, which controls almost 80 per cent of the world’s resources but accounts for only 20 per cent of the world’s population. . . . Christians bear a heavy responsibility for a world that can annually ‘afford’ to spend $150 billion on arms, but can scarcely scrape together $10 billion for economic and social development.” At the heart of the matter, according to the initial Orbis release, was the need for a change in intellectual focus: “Total development will demand the restructuring of oppressive political and social orders wherever they exist, in Calcutta or Chicago, New York or Recife. For this reason, the word development should be replaced by liberation.”

It is quite remarkable that the list of cities requiring liberation did not include Cracow or Leningrad, Havana or Peking, Hanoi or Prague. The complete Orbis catalogue of 141 titles, as of the end of 1978, maintains this distinction intact.1 Thirty-nine titles are concentrated on Latin America, a few on Africa and other places, none on Communist lands, even though such lands were once the target of intensive missionary effort.

The focus on Latin America is not accidental. Liberation theology is mainly, although not entirely, a product of the Spanish-speaking world. Father Sergio Torres of Chile, lecturer at Maryknoll, describes his world view and that of his fellow Latin American theologians in this way:

What we understand is that we are at the end of a stage in the history of the world. Europe and Western society is no longer making the history of the world as it has been since the Roman empire. We understand that history is now being made by the peoples of the Third World. The oil crisis is getting that through here in the United States. . . . We in Latin America are the only continent that is both Christian and underdeveloped, so we are in a special place. We will start a new understanding of the faith because we belong to the churches, Catholic and Protestant, and are living in a situation which makes them functional to the system. . . . The process of colonization, liberation, and organization is best understood in Marxist terms.

Father Miguel D’Escoto, a Nicaraguan, the director of communications at Maryknoll, adds:

As Latin Americans, we know capitalism in a way young people here don’t know it. We had no New Deal, no Roosevelt to come along and soften it up. Capitalism is intrinsically wrong at its base. The basic concept is that man is selfish, and being realistic, we should accept this and cater to it rather than change it.

The chief systematizer of liberation theology, Father Juan Luis Segundo, whose five-volume treatise, Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity, has sold 64,000 copies, recently told a group of American Jesuits:

There is no perfect solution. The only way is for us to choose between two oppressions. And the history of Marxism, even oppressive, offers right now more hope than the history of existing capitalism. . . . Marx did not create the class struggle, international capitalism did.

The most widely read of all the liberation theologians is Father Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, whose A Theology of Liberation (Orbis) has sold 45,000 copies. He writes:

It is undeniable that the class struggle plants problems for the universality of Christian love and church unity. But every consideration on this matter ought to begin with two elemental attestations: class struggle is a fact and neutrality in this matter is impossible.

But it is not merely the theologians and the priests of Latin America who have looked upon Marxism with favor. Distinguished bishops, like the Bishop of Cuernavaca, Arceo Mendez, and the Archbishop of Recife, Dom Helder Camara, have been unambiguous in their preference for Marxism. Archbishop Camara, for example, addressed the University of Chicago’s celebration of the Seventh Centenary of St. Thomas Aquinas in these terms:

When a man, whether philosopher or not, attracts irresistibly millions of human beings, especially young people; when a man becomes the inspiration for life and for death of a great part of humanity, and makes the powerful of the earth tremble with hate and fear, this man deserves to be studied. . . . As the University of Chicago chose to take upon herself the responsibility of celebrating St. Thomas Aquinas’s Seventh Centenary, we have the right to suggest that the best way to honor the centenary . . . should be for the University of Chicago to try, today, to do with Karl Marx what St. Thomas, in his day, did with Aristotle.



The social and intellectual background of the liberation theologians is germane to their views. When I was studying theology in Rome at the Gregorian University in 1956-58, I became familiar with some of the Latin American and Spanish seminarians, and several clear impressions about their political-theological culture fixed themselves in my mind. First, it was obvious that they chafed under the image of Latin cultures which prevailed in the English-speaking world. They were, they felt, the victims of an Anglo-Saxon ethnocentric bias, a Protestant bias to boot, and a bias informed by the sort of individualism, pragmatism, and materialism they found especially abhorrent. Some seemed, in effect, to be still carrying in mind the long-ago defeat of the Spanish Armada in much the same way some Southerners recall the humiliation of defeat in the Civil War.

Many of these bright young men studied not only in Rome but in Belgium, and France, and Germany as well. There they shared in what was then known as nouvelle theologie—that contemporary reaction against Thomism, strong on Scriptural studies and “salvation history,” intensely preoccupied with the renewal of the Church from biblical and patristic sources (and hostile to the theory of Christian democracy developed by Thomists like Jacques Maritain). On their return to Latin America, many of them became involved in the movements organizing peasants in credit unions and agrarian cooperatives. Much of their earlier training seemed far too theological, and they reacted with a veritably Oedipal vehemence against their European teachers.

Yet in their work among the peasants, many found themselves already upstaged by Marxist organizers; as for the sophisticated French and German theology they brought to the peasants, it served little useful purpose. So the younger clergy began to attend more intently to the indigenous piety of the people. They discovered the power of popular religion. In its quiet endurance and strength, they found new theological resources—resources, moreover, which served to differentiate them from the despised Yankee experts and technicians who imported into Latin America the strange and threatening concepts of “development,” capitalist-style. In expressing their resentment of the Northern experts, such activists have had no better spokesman than the brilliant but erratic Ivan Illich of Cuernavaca, whose anti-institutional reflections have become so popular in radical circles in North America.

When the Latin American liberation theologians speak of “class struggle,” they are thinking primarily of the struggle within feudalism of landholders and peasants, hardly at all of the classic Marxist picture of an industrial proletariat. (What Latin Americans persist in calling “capitalism” is, in Latin America, largely a form of syndicalism or corporatism, which descends from the rights given by the Spanish or Portuguese crown to certain large landholders or adventurers and constitutes virtual monopoly or state mercantilism.) Both the Industrial Revolution and the social revolution that would have broken the power of the traditional landholders, as the Glorious Revolution did in Great Britain, have hardly been known among them. In most of Latin America, the middle class is quite small, and “bourgeois values,” of the sort well-established in the North Atlantic world, scarcely exist.

The full effect of the Protestant spirit of dissent and individual conscience has thus not been felt in Latin cultures. By the same token, the compensating social forces of pragmatic compromise, voluntary association, and cooperative fellow-feeling that characterize Anglo-American individualism are equally missing in Latin American politics. Latin forms of idealism and romanticism make for acute political fractionalization. There is in Latin America little scope for the entrepreneur, for invention, for enterprise. There are few Horatio Algers. The virtues most celebrated—honor, nobility, dignity—are the opposite of bourgeois.

The system confronted by Latin American Catholics is one of entrenched inequality, in which powerful landholders (often of early Spanish stock) have power and privileges far removed from those of peasants and workers (often of Indian stock). The Latin American elites lack those traditions of service, stewardship, and public-spiritedness that within the United States have softened the impact of economic elites upon political life. The lower classes in Latin America have had little opportunity to develop the political consciousness which has characterized the Anglo-Saxon yeoman for several centuries, and have scarcely shared in the traditions of “the rights of Englishmen” which have affected Anglo-Saxon consciousness.

The picture is further clouded by the powerful traditions of a strong, authoritarian military. In many Latin American countries, a military career has offered ambitious youngsters more opportunities for higher education and advancement than any other profession. Not infrequently, the military provides leaders of idealistic tendencies both on the socialist and on the democratic side. In recent years, however, military regimes have grown more “modern” in precisely the least humane ways: in the techniques of cruel repression.

All this, moreover, takes place in an environment in which European ideologies—both the Fascism of the World War II era, and the Marxism of Stalin’s time—exist not merely as abstract theories, but as embodied political forces. In such an environment, the theological idealist is often forced to take sides, to throw in his lot with one or another active organization. In many places, there are few organized alternatives of the middle, liberal, democratic way.



Thus it was that in 1968, the second Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin legitimized not only the normal preaching of the Church about social conscience (“the formation of Christian conscience”) and not only the classical, peaceful tactics of social reform (labor unions, credit unions, cooperatives, and the like), but also the bald use of Marxist categories. It did so in a context in which instances of armed insurrection by a few “guerrilla priests”—not simply as chaplains but as active combatants—were occurring, and in which the public-policy elites of the continent, especially the university intelligentsia, were already deeply immersed in Marxist thought.

But in what sense are the liberation theologians Marxist? None of them shows evidence that he has actually studied Marx, the social systems derived from Marxist thought, or the literature assessing socialist experiments. They do not, apparently, believe in the total abolition of private property (the principle Marx offered as a pithy summary of his theory). They claim not to be materialists. They are not atheists. They say that they are not totalitarians, as Castro is. They surely do not hold—since few Marxists today do—that economic gains for the poor are empirically to be achieved through the nationalization of major industries. It is doubtful whether they believe in the humane quality of the authoritarian, bureaucratic state which is the natural outgrowth of socialism. It is not clear that they are ready to impose equality, to command choices of what society and individuals “need,” to insist upon planning by technical experts, or to repress private initiatives.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be two senses in which they are Marxists. Repeatedly, liberation theologians insist that they are Marxists “because the people are.” By this they do not mean that “the people” have ever read Marx or know much about him but a few slogans. But the slogans are the point. If it is difficult to take liberation theologians seriously as theoreticians of Marxism, one can grant that they are “populist Marxists,” using Marxist slogans to ventilate some of the frustrations and aggressions of people whose aspirations have long been colored by external propaganda.

There is a second sense in which they are Marxists. Marxism in Latin America is not just a theory. It is a well-financed, well-organized political institution, with parties, officials, printing presses, secret agents, operatives, intellectual sympathizers, international connections, and designated politicans. To be a Marxist, as the liberation theologians say, is not merely to hold a theory but to be committed to a “praxis.” Yet the innocence with which the liberation theologians are committed to the Marxist “praxis” speaks volumes.

Marxist “praxis” is something of which the world has had some experience—but one would not know it from the writings of the liberation theologians. The literature of liberation theology, which is rich in general allegations about “capitalist” practice, is silent when it comes to the empirical evidence of how Marxist regimes operate. Since almost three-quarters of the world’s nations are, officially, Marxist in design, and since most have had upward of thirty years to prove themselves, it should not have been beyond the capacity of theologians to work out an assessment, even a theological assessment, of their actual daily “praxis,” and judge these in the light of the gospels. But this the liberation theologians have conspicuously not done.

In recounting the experience of the “poor and the oppressed” of the Third World, strange gaps appear in the empirical reasoning of liberation theologians. No notice is taken of those Third World nations whose annual rate of economic growth borders on 10 per cent—nations like Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, whose secrets in overcoming poverty are open to inspection. No empirical survey of the comparative inequalities between elites and the poor is made as between socialist and capitalist regimes. Little attention is paid to measurements of institutional respect for human dignity and liberties, as, for example, between South Korea and North Korea.

There are other strange gaps in empirical knowledge. Bishop Helder Camara, in his youth a Fascist as in his maturity a Marxist, is constant in his criticism of liberal democracies. He is especially fond of the suggestion that a small fraction of mankind uses a large fraction of the earth’s resources, and that poverty results for millions. Is this in fact true? A special kind of human culture is required for the production of wealth. Not every organization of society or culture is suited to such production. Indeed, only a small fraction of the earth’s population produces the larger part of the world’s wealth. Besides, many of the earth’s resources were unknown even a century ago, or no use for them—hence no value—had yet been found. In fact, Latin America is immensely rich in resources, now that other cultures have discovered their secrets and learned their uses.

It is not empirically true, either, that “the poor are getting poorer.” In longevity, medical care, and nutrition, the modern production of wealth has raised the levels of the entire population of the world by unprecedented annual increments over the last fifty years. Average personal incomes have also risen annually, in Latin America even more than in Asia or Africa. If the present organization of the production of wealth is “sinful,” what shall we say of rival Marxist systems) which are not raising the levels of the poor by so much?



Catholic theologians, especially those who claim to speak for “liberation,” have a duty to study how liberation has, in fact, been attained in human history, and by what empirical and practical means its scope can be extended. If such a study were undertaken dispassionately and in good faith, I believe it would show that the greatest chances for improving the concrete daily life of human beings everywhere lie with the forces not of Marxist “liberation” but with the forces of democratic capitalism. Others may disagree; but that Catholic social theory has so far failed even to raise the necessary intellectual questions is a sign of its bankruptcy in this area, and of the extent to which too much of it has, in fact, already fallen hostage to Marxist categories of thought.

In the writings of liberation theologians, the contradictions of Marxist theory and practice go unnoted. And this tells us something about the liberation theologians: they are Marxists not by reason or by experience, but by faith. As Leszek Kolakowski, who (like Pope John Paul II) has lived though the Marxist phenomenon in Poland, has observed: “Almost all the prophecies of Marx and his followers have already proved to be false, but this does not disturb the spiritual certainty of the faithful, any more than it did in the case of chiliastic sects: for it is a certainty not based on any empirical premises or supposed ‘historical laws,’ but simply on the psychological need for certainty. In this sense Marxism performs the function of a religion, and its efficacy is of a religious character.”

In the real world, Marxism has been immobilized for decades as the ideological superstructure of totalitarian states and of parties aspiring to that status. As an explanatory system, Marxism “explains” little. There is nothing in the Latin American system, to which the liberation theologians point, for which Marxism affords the only or the best explanation. It offers no “method” either of inquiry or of action by which modern life is to be better understood, its future predicted, or its utopian hopes realized. Contemporary Marxist literature, as Kolakowski shows, is dogmatic, sterile, helpless, out of touch both with modern economics and with cultural life. But what Marxism does do very well today is to inspire with fantasies of utopian fulfillment, and to license the identification of some malevolent enemy as the only roadblock to that fulfillment. In a quite literal sense, the works of liberation theologians are innocent both of empirical verification and of sophistication about Marxist theory. Their originality lies chiefly in their openness to fantasy.



It is thus hardly surprising that Pope John Paul II’s clear-eyed account of Marxism in Puebla proved to have a stronger bite than many Catholics could accept. He attempted to staunch the unthinking fantasies of theologians bent on the creation of totalitarian processes whose consequences they do not allow themselves to foresee and whose dynamics they cannot control. As against this, the Pope maintained the independence and integrity of the Church. He based himself on sound political philosophy. He spoke for the authentic interests of the poor and the oppressed, against those who would transmute their sufferings into envy, hatred, and coercion. He refused to adopt the role of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, offering bread in exchange for liberty. For this, even those who are secular have reason to be grateful.


1 Incidentally, in a recent collection of essays about liberation theology and oppressed groups, not a word is said about Catholics from Eastern Europe, or Lebanon or Ireland or Armenia. See Mission Trends #4, edited by Thomas S. Stransky and Gerald H. Andersen, Paulist Press, 1979.

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