Liberation Theology: Latin America
M. Daniel Carroll R.
Latin American liberation theology conceives of its primary responsibility as doing theology from a lived experience with the poor in solidarity with their struggle for a life free from oppression. This starting point reorients the whole nature of the theological enterprise, which then is defined as the effort to reflect critically on harsh contextual realities in the light of Christian faith. Theology is a ‘second act’ that reshapes that faith, once the nature of social, economic, and political injustice is understood.
Theology, therefore, cannot be an abstract science. It must be engaged in praxis—that is, in concrete actions guided by a perspective designed to bring social transformation within history and in the here and now. It cannot be individualistic, but rather must be elaborated in collaboration with the marginalized. Liberation theology has coined a number of expressions that capture well its intent: ‘doing theology from the underside of history’ means that the focus is on ‘orthopraxis’ (efficacious deeds for change congruent with Christian ethical mandates rather than simply assent to correct doctrines) from a ‘preferential option for the poor’ (the conscious choice to prioritize the poor in theological and ecclesiastical matters), often in conjunction with the ‘base ecclesial communities’ (groups which try to read scripture in and for the context in contrast to the approaches of traditional hierarchical structures).
The majority of liberation theologians are Roman Catholic, and they have had to go to great lengths to defend their adherence to that church's teachings and to the Magisterium before a papacy that is viewed as quite conservative. John Paul II, although apparently sensitive to the needs of the poor, has replaced several radical bishops, criticized those clergy holding public office (especially in Sandinista Nicaragua, 1979–90), and on occasion silenced individual theologians. The most famous case of censure was that of the Brazilian Leonardo Boff in 1985; he subsequently resigned from the priesthood. There has been support as well for movements considered more loyal to the Vatican, such as the Opus Dei and the charismatic renewal. Sometimes liberation theologians have held their views at great personal cost over and beyond the pressure from church authorities. Some were forced into exile by the governments of their countries. Others, both a number of pastoral workers and also a few internationally recognized figures (in particular, Bishop Oscar Romero and the Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría of El Salvador), were assassinated and are claimed as martyrs for liberation theology.
The liberationist framework requires that theologians consider themselves ‘organic intellectuals’, a concept borrowed from A. Gramsci. They are not to be an élite separated from the life of those who suffer. Speaking for the oppressed is impossible—even immoral—unless theologians are connected with the poor and grasp their plight. To accomplish these ends theology must be properly informed of the mechanisms of oppression that it desires to see changed. Hence the need for the social sciences.
Various streams of Marxism have long held sway in institutions of higher learning in Latin America. It is, then, no surprise that liberation theology would turn to Marxism in order to comprehend social issues. A number of liberationists studied in Europe and there also became acquainted with Marxist thought. Marxist theories are viewed as the most appropriate method to analyse Latin America's woes. It has offered some important categories of liberationist thought, such as dependency theory, praxis, capital as a fetish, the organic intellectual, and the hope of a socialist state. These theologians, however, have never adopted Marxism wholesale. The appropriation of Marxism has varied from theologian to theologian, and use has been selective and critical. For example, they have rejected the atheism of some official Marxist thought, while appreciating Marxist explanations for their nations' poverty. They also consider certain aspects to be compatible with the critiques of wealth and power found in the Bible and Christian tradition.
This manner of doing theology in the Latin American context has profound implications for the study of scripture. To begin with, this perspective claims to be an epistemological break from other Western theologizing, which has ignored oppression in the text and in life itself. The decision to read from the perspective of the poor encompasses more than an ethical stance vis-à-vis social injustice; it requires an entire reformulation of theological method and content. In addition, the goals of biblical study now are redefined as fostering ‘conscientization’ (that is, sensitizing the social consciousness of the people of God), exposing hegemonic readings of the Bible that might perpetuate present injustice, and promoting more liberating interpretations of scripture. As precedents for its biblical work in the service of the lowly, liberation theology points to the multiple passages in the Bible concerning poverty and political abuse, to the impassioned treatises of the seventeenth-century Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas which were designed to protect the indigenous from the horrors of Spanish colonization, and to Christian social teachings over the centuries.