The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Latin America:
Liberation Theology Swaying in the Political Winds

Aug 18, 1995

Over the last few decades, a movement has arisen in Latin America which has come to be known as liberation theology. For revolutionary Marxists, religion has always been one of the main obstacles to the mass of the workers and oppressed in their battle for self-emancipation. Christianity, for example, offers them the illusion of eternal life after death, if they submit on earth and accept the powers that be. The Catholic Church has fulfilled this function since its inception in Latin America, offering consolation to the Indians as their land was stolen and they were pushed into slavery, blessing the rapacious landlord class and later the capitalists. The church opposed every struggle for liberation in Latin America, supporting Spain at the time of the fight for independence, taking the side of the old regime and the hacienda owners during the Mexican revolution.

Liberation theology, which announced itself to the world at the September 1968 meeting of 146 Latin American bishops at Medellín, Columbia, expresses ideas which seem to contradict the traditional stance of the church. The conference declared a "preference to the poorest and most needy sectors." Of course, the church also condemned, once again, "the Marxist system," but this time it also condemned "liberal capitalism" and called for "authentic liberation." The theology of liberation tells the poor not to wait for a better life until they go to heaven, but to change conditions on earth, not to submit to oppression but to challenge and remove it. This is a far cry from the statement of the bishops of Nicaragua in 1950, "when you obey the government ... you perform acts that constitute obedience to God," which was typical of the 500 years of Christianity in Latin America.

Liberation theology was initiated by the literary effort of the Catholic Church's best theologians and proclamations by bishops at the top of the hierarchy of the Latin American church. But it also includes many thousands of the lower clergy and a couple of million poor activists organized into Base Ecclesial Communities. An example of how these activists' thinking has changed after contact with these communities can be seen in interviews done by Madeleine Adriance, as reported in Opting for the Poor. New members were asked why they were poor. They responded: "the will of God," "because of our sins," "suffering is the test of our faith" – all traditional answers that we'd expect from Christianity. Members who had been in the same community for some time responded: "There is no rain because the rich people are destroying the forests – the drought is caused by lack of trees." "There are two classes – the rich and the poor. The poor are exploited, humiliated, forgotten; the rich create this situation; the landowners care only for themselves."

In Defense of the Church

It was not an accident that the Medellín conference took place in 1968, the year of the massacre of students in Mexico City, the May-June events in France, the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the Black uprisings in the United States and the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam. A section of the Catholic Church responded to the new radicalization that had developed around the world, including in Latin America.

At first, when the church responded to the new social struggles, it was primarily as an attempt to resolve its own problems. The Catholic Church has always had tremendous influence over the poor masses of Latin America. But by the 1950s and early 1960s, the church was failing to attract the poor in the rapidly growing cities, due to competition from unions, nationalist movements, left-wing parties, and protestant churches. For a church heavily dependent on its clergy, the crisis was felt through a shortage of priests, which meant that not every parish could be covered. Moreover, many of the priests were focused on the education of the children of the ruling class, which left the whole church even more removed from the poor.

The Cuban revolution of 1959 caused the church to fear that similar revolutions would spread and displace it. Following the Cuban revolution, students and intellectuals had turned to guerrilla groups or other forms of leftist activity. They fought against U.S. imperialism and the local ruling class that presided over miserable poverty. And the radicalization in Latin America extended to other layers, especially among the workers and peasants, giving rise to mass strikes, land occupations and other social struggles.

Many students from upper class backgrounds began to despise the church, seeing it as siding with the oppressors of the people, so the church was losing its grip even among the sector it had focused on. This serious crisis in the church led many of the clergy to feel the urgent need to change if it were to survive. It had to reestablish its influence among the poor population and offer an alternative to communism. The international head of the Jesuit Order, General Pedro Arrupe, put it sharply, "the battle against atheism is identical in part with the battle against poverty which was one of the causes of mass exodus of the working class from the Church." Substantial portions of the clergy in most of the Latin American countries began in the mid-1960s to organize among the poor.

The Example of Brazil

Brazil was the country where liberation theology first took shape as a movement among the poor. The years from 1961 to 1964 were marked by radicalization and polarization in the society, especially in the impoverished rural Northeast. A Catholic left in the student and union movements was swept up in this radicalization and worked with the outlawed Communist Party. Meanwhile the upper and middle classes in the cities were in a right-wing mood, and clamored for the military to crack down. The hierarchy moved between the Catholic left and right, calling for agrarian reform and promoting Christian rural unions as rivals to the Communist ones. In November 1960 the National Council of Brazilian Bishops chose Natal in the Northeast for a new initiative. The bishops set up treatment centers to combat disease and malnutrition and, in order to promote the faith, proposed a program of literacy. In doing these things they could not avoid having almost immediately to discuss social problems. Church activists used the teaching methods which Paulo Freire called "conscientization", a method filled with "lessons" like the following: "The peasant is a man of the land. He works the land. He gathers the fruit of the land. Does the peasant have land? Does he have all that he needs to cultivate the land?"

The bishops also turned to the national government of Janio Quadros, which gave them 1.5 million dollars for the church's Basic Education Movement. Using this money, the church was able to open 1,400 radio stations which delivered basic education, but also soon added the Mass. In numerous communities, groups of poor people gathering around a radio to listen to the broadcasts, effectively attended a Mass delivered by the bishop. The church found in these meetings a solution to the absence of priests. By 1963, these meetings were being turned into what the church called, Base Ecclesial Communities, groups of 20 to 30 people, usually poor, who studied the Bible and sang hymns, but were pushed, if only by the situation, to intervene in the social struggles going on at the time.

At the time of the 1964 coup, most bishops thanked the military for saving the country from communism. They tried to enter an alliance with the new regime. But the military repaid the church's efforts by coming down on the clergy involved in the Basic Education Movement, closing its radio stations, censoring its newspapers, arresting, torturing and even killing some priests. Several of the conservative bishops took a stand against the government in defense of their priests and lay people. Furthermore, as trade unions, student groups, and the press were repressed, the church soon became the only institution in the country with the ability to speak out. In line with its goal to reach out to these organizations, to strengthen its influence among the poor, the church found itself the spokesperson for these groups. Many activists from the unions and other social movements found the church the only place where they could maintain their activity. When they eventually moved back into the unions, they had been influenced by the church; thus the church extended its reach to the poorest layers of society.

As a consequence of all this, a part of the hierarchy became radicalized. In 1967, seven bishops published a message which declared that true socialism is Christianity integrally lived, that wealth must be shared by all, and that revolution was, in some cases, necessary. In the following years under the military dictatorship, the Base Ecclesial Communities grew to some 80,000 or 100,000 in Brazil, with an estimated one to two million members. And those who left for exile brought their ideas to other countries.

Extension and Radicalization

The church attempted to turn toward the oppressed in other countries of Latin America in the mid-1960s. But when sections of the clergy turned to the poor, they were confronted, as they had been in Brazil with the class struggle and the necessity to choose sides. As the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez said, "class struggle is a fact and neutrality in this matter is impossible. The class struggle is part of our economic, social, political, cultural and religious reality." Their former students came back from the universities after discovering Marxism or dependency theory, which addressed the problem of imperialism and poverty in Latin America. Many of the clergy felt these ideas offered an explanation of poverty which they could draw upon.

The Cuban revolution appealed to them because it appeared able to carry out tasks that mere charity could not even contemplate. It threw the United States out of the island, instituted a thoroughgoing land reform and promoted literacy, health and social programs. The Cuban revolution inspired the priest Camilo Torres in Columbia to organize a United Front of peasants, slum dwellers and workers. This led him to sharp conflicts with the hierarchy. He renounced the priesthood, joined the guerrilla Army of National Liberation, and was killed in 1966. In the eyes of many Christian activists, he was a martyred saint who argued the futility of reform and the necessity for violent revolution. They established hundreds of "Camilista groups" in Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia which read his writing and speeches, and repeated his proclamation, "The duty of every Catholic is to be a revolutionary. The duty of every revolutionary is to make the revolution."

At Vatican II, the 1962-65 meetings of the world Catholic hierarchy in Rome, the 600 Latin American participants met together to discuss their common problems. In the following years some of the bishops and professional theologians synthesized their new experience and the first successes they had made in reestablishing their influence among the poor. They drew up a program, which led to the theology of liberation documents presented at Medellín in 1968. Within the next couple of years, large numbers of the clergy and Catholic activists throughout Latin America grabbed hold of these ideas. The Base Ecclesial Communities spread, enrolling somewhere between two and four million members. Out of the church's crisis over its loss of influence it had turned to the poor, bringing a significant section of the clergy and lay activists to join the radicalization of the time. The theology of liberation was a broad movement, with a wide spectrum of views, with some people traveling considerably further leftward than others. Some never called for socialism. Others did. For example, a group called Christians for Socialism in Chile, supporting the Cuban revolution and Allende, claimed, "there is no middle ground between capitalism and socialism." A small minority went as far as guerrilla warfare. A number of them, even in the high levels of the hierarchy, like Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, went much further than they expected. A conservative when appointed to his post, Romero wound up defending the violence of self-defense by the poor and was murdered by the Salvadoran death squads.

First of All an Ideology

The theology of liberation is an attempt to address the causes of poverty in Latin America, critiquing capitalism and showing support for the struggles of the oppressed, all within a religious framework. It posits the cause of poverty in the social system. But its ideas, far from raising the consciousness of the oppressed, confuse and obscure it.

For example, a group of eighty Chilean priests in 1971 declared that poverty was the result of "the capitalist system, which is produced by the domination of a foreign imperialism and abetted by our own country's ruling class." But behind this social system they found ... sin! As Gustavo Gutiérrez, the most famous of the liberation theologians, said, "Sin, the breach with God, is not something that occurs only within some intimate sanctuary of the heart. It always translates into interpersonal relationships... and hence is the ultimate root of all injustice and oppression – as well as of the social confrontations and conflicts of history.... In describing sin as the ultimate cause we do not in any way negate the structural reasons and the objective determinants leading to these situations. It does, however, emphasize the fact that things do not happen by chance and that behind an unjust structure there is a personal or collective will responsible – a willingness to reject God and neighbor. It suggests, likewise, that a social transformation, no matter how radical it may be, does not automatically achieve the suppression of all evils." The liberation theologians stick to god, sin, prayer, salvation ... and the divinely inspired role of the church hierarchy!

Liberation theology is marked by its "preference for the poor." Gutiérrez says of Jesus, "He addressed his gospel by preference to the poor. He lashed out with invective against the rich who oppressed the poor and despised them." The liberation theologians claim to borrow from Marxism, which they regard as a social science tool. But there is an abyss between the social conceptions of Marx and these people. Marx never saw the working class as a suffering class. He recognized that it has the power, due to its social position, to transform and reorganize society. Liberation theology gets its emphasis on the poor, not from Marx, but from Christianity, which has always expressed a concern for the poor – as an object of charity – while propping up the social systems that gives rise to poverty.

Liberation theology can even agree with the necessity to abolish private property. As the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff said, "The kingdom of God is not to be in another world but is the old world transformed into a new one." And what does it look like? Gutiérrez said, "only by eliminating private ownership of wealth created by human labor will we be able to lay the foundation of a more just society... We must hence opt for social ownership of the means of production." But liberation theologians are careful not to speak of communism. Above all they do not see the proletarian revolution as the way to get to socialism. As radical as they might be, as involved as they are in the different social and political fights in the different countries of Latin America, they never crossed this demarcation line, which is the decisive criterion for judging the class character of any political current in our epoch.

Liberation Theology in Action

The liberation theologians simply joined the movements going on. They didn't advocate their own political party, such as was developed by the church earlier in this century. Instead they joined with secular militants, including socialists and communists, in popular campaigns and movements such as unions, slum dwellers' organizations, and peasant associations. In so doing, they were reestablishing the church's influence among these sectors of the population and, whether consciously or not, were acting in consonance with the aims of the church hierarchy, which had been so important in impelling their movement. The most radical of the left Christians, who joined socialist parties and in smaller numbers the guerrilla groups, supported the mainstream of what the Latin American left put forward as socialism, including Castroism in Cuba, the Allende government in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the guerrilla movement in El Salvador and the Workers Party in Brazil. They and the movements they joined were focused on Latin American liberation, not on the world proletarian revolution. By supporting these movements, they took on all the limitations of these various claims to socialism, which, no matter how radical they might be, never went beyond nationalism, and which, by not fighting for proletarian power, ultimately left the power of the world bourgeoisie intact.

So it was in the Nicaraguan revolution, where liberation theology had some influence. A priest, Gaspar Garcia Laviana was killed leading an armed attack on December 11, 1978. Other left-wing Catholics entered the Sandinistas, who led the successful struggle to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. The first Sandinista government included four priests and some bourgeois ministers. Even after the latter were forced from the government, the regime protected the bourgeoisie's ownership of the land, the means of production and capital. The Sandinista regime constantly pushed the bourgeoisie to invest, at the same time it tried to take a part of the bourgeoisie's wealth for social programs. But in a country as miserably poor as Nicaragua, the bourgeoisie refused to give up anything. Under attack from U.S. imperialism, with its support for the Contras, and from the bourgeois opposition, supported by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the Sandinistas wound up pushing austerity on the workers and peasants. Of course, the left-wing Christians in and outside the government had nothing different to propose than did the rest of the Sandinistas. The theology of liberation's socialism, like Sandinismo, proved to be an attempt at reforms within a bourgeois society that couldn't afford them.

Liberation theology grew up in opposition to the military dictatorships of Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador and Argentina. But, in the last decade, there has been a return to a fragile bourgeois democracy in these countries. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe caused some of the liberation theologians to question their assumptions about collective ownership. The radicalization of the 1960s with which liberation theology grew up has been replaced by a strong turn to the right, and liberation theology has changed with the times. Just as in the past they entered the existing radical movements, having nothing special to offer them to carry the struggles further, now when these movements receded, they retreated with them. Today their emphasis is on working within bourgeois democracy. They are not sure that socialism will work. They place a heavier emphasis on spirituality. Liberation theology continues in most Latin American countries and some of its supporters still see themselves as socialists and revolutionaries, but the center of gravity of the movement has shifted to the right.

One example of this was the role played by the left wing of the Catholic Church in the Workers Party of Brazil, which it was involved in building in the early 1980s. The left-wing Christians were in Articulation, which was the right wing of the Workers Party. Articulation called for wage restraint by the workers in union negotiations, deals with bourgeois parties and the transformation of the Workers Party into a more social democratic party. Articulation also worked to expel the revolutionary left from the party – successfully.

Another example is the stance of left-wing Christians toward one of the main social questions in Latin America, the oppression of women. The governments of the continent make abortion a crime under the pressure of the church. The church fights contraception, makes divorce difficult, if not impossible, and supports all the institutions that keep women oppressed. On all these questions the liberation theologians accepted the church's reactionary positions. They have never publicly disagreed with the church on abortion, birth control or divorce, even when their attachment to the sexist attitudes of the church adversely affected the cause, not only of the people, but of the movement they were trying to build. During the 1989 Brazilian election, the reactionaries discovered that the companion of Lula – a leader of the metalworkers struggle, and the presidential candidate of the Workers Party – had had an abortion and used this as a major issue with which to attack the Workers Party. The Christian activists in the Workers Party were against the right to abortion, and they used their influence to prevent the Workers Party from waging the type of campaign necessary to defend women's right to abortion.

One last example comes in Haiti, one of the countries where the influence of liberation theology came to worldwide attention in recent years. The priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was one of the leaders of a mass movement that helped bring down the Duvalier dictatorship and gave rise to democratic elections which brought Aristide to power. Once in power, he did not move against the bourgeoisie. Instead he used his movement to restrain those who wanted to push the struggle further. After the military coup, Aristide banked on U.S. imperialism to restore him to power, rather than on the poor of Haiti, whom liberation theology says should be the subjects of their own liberation. The liberation theologian in power proved to be just another bourgeois politician.

In the Fold of the Church

The Vatican began to crack down on liberation theology for going too far just a few years after Medellín. Pope John Paul II said that some people "depict Jesus as a political activist, as a fighter against Roman domination and the authorities, and even as someone involved in class struggle. This conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive from Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechesis." He appointed reactionary bishops as openings arose. In Peru, the church's social centers were dismantled. In Recife, Brazil, the archdiocesan human rights office was closed. The large archdiocese of Sao Paulo was split in two to undermine Cardinal Arns. And Leonardo Boff, one of the most prominent spokesmen of liberation theology, was ordered silenced for ten months.

The liberation theologians accepted this crackdown with resignation. The Argentine Enrique Dussel said, "After 1972, liberation theologians began to suffer repression not only from governments but also from within the Church. The effect of this, however, was to make the theologians more able to identify with the poor of Latin America. Later, Rome believed it could criticize one theologian to hurt us. It was a mistake. This type of condemnation only gives us publicity. Liberation theologians are repressed, poorly paid, threatened, and so on – all of our biographies are the same in this way. But we are happy because we know that history is on our side. We are like a group of close brothers; there is a special, strong bond among us. So we refuse to allow ourselves to be thrown out of the Church – it is our Church and we'll stay there." Despite the crackdown, and despite their knowledge of the church's history and current role in Latin America, the theologians of liberation choose to stay with this reactionary institution. At the extreme point of the revolution in Nicaragua, some of them, like David Chavarria Roca, who worked in an auto parts workshop and joined a left-wing religious community could say, "I consider myself a Christian, but I am clear that if at any moment I have to choose between religion and revolution, I'd choose revolution." But so far most liberation theologians have chosen religion and not revolution. And with the general move to the right in Latin America, they are moving further away from revolution.

Not only do the liberation theologians stick to the church, they give it new life. In countries where the poor were moving away from the church, hundreds of thousands have become tied to it through the Base Ecclesial Communities, and millions more have a much more favorable view of the church due to liberation theology. The liberation theologians are the representatives of the church among the poor. It's not surprising that the Vatican hasn't gone so far as to excommunicate any of them. While it wants to keep them on a tight leash – and so far they haven't chosen to break this leash – it sees the advantage of using them to keep the sheep within the fold.

The working class and poor masses of Latin America will emancipate themselves through their struggles. But a precondition for their struggles to go all the way to the socialist revolution is their increased consciousness of the world, the social system and the power they have to change it. This awareness includes understanding the reactionary role of the church and religion in holding people back and keeping them oppressed. When the liberation theologians teach people to read, it is of course an advance, but when they use their new knowledge to read the Bible and to become more deeply attached to obscurantist ideas, it is a step backward. When the left-wing theologians support the fight of the poor, it's a way for the church to wage a battle against atheism and genuine Marxism. As their history has shown, their support to the oppressed in their struggles is not unconditional, and it doesn't go all the way to the end which alone could make real liberation possible. Even in its most radical form, liberation theology brings the workers and the poor reactionary ideas. The workers of Latin America don't need liberation theology, but the liberation from theology.