Liberation theology redux: A new pope revives an old debate

Liberation theology is a movement that recalls the kind of ideological clashes that were considered obsolete when the Cold War ended. But the election of Pope Francis, a vocal advocate for the poor as a priest and bishop in Argentina, and now as pope, has renewed debates about this controversial strain of theology.

Background

Francis himself is believed to have, at best, mixed views on liberation theology, whose proponents often interpreted the gospel message as a mandate for the kind of political and economic change that critics viewed as akin to socialism. Others say liberation theology’s advocates pushed for violent revolution, which Christians should not support.

Some early reports after the election of the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in March 2013 indicated that as a Jesuit priest in the 1970s, Bergoglio openly opposed other Jesuits who were often the biggest supporters of liberation theology.

But the record may be more complex, and because Francis comes from Latin America, where liberation theology first flourished, and because he has made so many strong statements about the perils of greed, about capitalism and about the need for the church to identify with the poor, there is a renewed focus on Christianity’s relationship to economics.

Indeed, Francis has been lauded by veteran liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, and he has reportedly cleared the way for the canonization process for slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, an icon to many in the liberation movement.

Liberation theology is also relevant for reasons that go beyond the pope’s election. One is that its influence in Latin America and other regions was never completely eradicated. Liberation theology is still preached and taught, and in many places some aspects of liberation theology have been integrated into church communities and political policies.

Some experts also say that liberation theology has evolved in response to geopolitical changes around the world, and they say its message is in many respects more relevant today given economic globalization and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Moreover, liberation theology has influenced feminist, Latino, black and Asian theologies throughout the world.

This edition of ReligionLink provides resources for reporters to explore the role of liberation theology today, and the wider issue of Christianity’s role in pushing for changes to economic and political systems.

  • Liberation theology emerged in the late 1960s in Latin America, where Catholics began reading the gospel as a call to free people from oppression and to challenge political systems in countries where poverty was widespread. Many priests, nuns and scholars embraced this new theology with fervor.
  • Under the late Pope John Paul II, who was elected in 1978, the Vatican began to crack down on liberation theology, viewing it as a dangerous amalgam of Marxist ideology and Christian faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later succeeded John Paul as Pope Benedict XVI, was head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and one of liberation theology’s staunchest critics. He silenced many theologians associated with such scriptural interpretations.
  • Some scholars say Ratzinger and others successfully stifled a movement that was already headed toward extinction because it addressed specific historical and economic situations that have been altered by global capitalism and other factors. Some also say that it was weakened because it relied on a method of scriptural interpretation that has been overtaken by new developments in biblical criticism.
  • Liberation theology is still practiced in rural and middle-class villages in Latin America, and it is studied widely in seminaries in the United States and elsewhere. Some scholars say it has taken new life in feminist, Latino, black and Asian theologies throughout the world. The emphasis has shifted from the poor to those marginalized by race, ethnicity or gender. The focus is less on supporting socialist revolution than critiquing mainstream civil society.

Developments

National sources

  • Robert Sirico

    The Rev. Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich. Sirico says liberation theology faded with the collapse of the Soviet Union but has since “morphed,” and much of its progressive agenda reappears in “eco-spirituality,” indigenous rights groups and anti-globalization efforts. These movements, he says, tend to avoid the explicitly Marxist language of their predecessor while using the same socialist analysis.

  • Fernando Segovia

    Fernando Segovia, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., has written about the challenge and promise of Latino spirituality. He co-edited A Dream Unfinished: Theological Reflections on America from the Margins (Orbis Books, 2001).

     

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak, philosopher, theologian and public policy commentator at The American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, is the author of Questions about Liberation Theology (Paulist Press, 1991). He argued that by the late 1980s, liberation theology was in danger “of slipping into a backwater” because it had done very little to help the poor. He is also author of The Joy of Sports: End Zones, Bases, Baskets, Balls and the Consecration of the American Spirit. Many consider his book on sports and religion the first and best on the topic.

  • Craig Nessan

    Craig Nessan, professor of contextual theology and academic dean at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, has written about the Gospel of Luke and liberation theology and the North American response to liberation theology. He says liberation theology has been incorporated more as a dimension of mainstream theology that advocates justice for the poor, women, oppressed racial groups and other minorities.

  • Mark Hulsether

    Mark Hulsether, Religious Studies Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has written extensively on religion and popular culture. He wrote the 2007 book Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Edinburgh University Press). He has also written about North American liberation theologies and the transformation of the Protestant left since World War II.

  • Dwight N. Hopkins

    Dwight N. Hopkins, University of Chicago theology professor, has written about black theology of liberation, and also about gun control. Black liberation theology, he says, is aligning more closely with black churches and developing partnerships with liberation theologians in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and the Pacific Islands. 


  • Harvey Cox

    Harvey Cox is the Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and a renowned author and commentator on religious issues, especially Christian-Jewish relations. He has written many books on the of religion and theology, including The Silencing of Leonardo Boff: The Vatican and the Future of World Christianity and The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective. In 1985, Cardinal Ratzinger issued a call to silence the Franciscan theologian, one of the most widely read proponents of liberation theology.

  • James H. Cone

    James H. Cone, Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968-1998. He is widely considered to be one of the founders of black liberation theology, which frames Christianity as a means out of oppression.

  • Daniel Bell Jr.

    Daniel Bell, professor of theology and ethics at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., has written about Latin American theology in the wake of capitalism’s triumph and on Latin American liberationists’ defense of revolutionary violence. He says that Latin American liberation theology has moved from advocating a socialist revolution in the 1970s to more emphasis on working through civil society and nongovernmental organizations. There’s been a shift to critiquing the “fundamentalism of the free market.” Bell didn’t expect much change with Pope Benedict XVI. With the decline of priestly vocations and the explosive growth of Protestant religious movements, there are more pressing issues on the Vatican’s agenda.

  • Ivan Petrella

    Ivan Petrella is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. Petrella is a citizen of Argentina and spends much of the year there. His academic credentials include a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, and his books include The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and ManifestoBeyond Liberation Theology: A Polemic; and (as editor) Latin American Liberation Theology: The Next Generation. He served as co-executive editor of the Reclaiming Liberation Theology book series.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Margaret Guider

    Sister Margaret Guider, associate professor of missiology at Boston College, is the author of Daughters of Rahab: Prostitution and the Church of Liberation in Brazil (Augsburg Fortress, 1995).

  • Heidi Hadsell

    Heidi Hadsell, president of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., has written about eco-justice and liberation theology.

  • Richard Horsley

    Richard Horsley, professor of liberal arts and the study of religion at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, has written about the Bible and liberation and how Jesus and Paul ignited a revolution and transformed the ancient world.

  • John Burdick

    John Burdick, Syracuse University professor and anthropology chair, is the author of Legacies of Liberation: The Progressive Catholic Church in Brazil (Ashgate Publishing, 2004). He says the emphasis in liberation theology has shifted from the poor to those marginalized by race, ethnicity or gender – though not yet sexuality. Contact , .

  • Daisy Machado

    The Rev. Daisy Machado is Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, New York. She has written about Latina feminist theology, the border, immigrant issues and globalization.

  • Otto Maduro

    Otto Maduro, professor of Christianity at Drew University in Madison, N.J., has written from a sociological perspective about the liberating option for the oppressed in Latin American Catholicism and on the relations between Marxism and religion.

  • Arthur Pressley

    Arthur Pressley, associate professor of psychology and religion at Drew University in Madison, N.J., has written about liberation theology, pastoral care and the spirituality of violence.

     

  • Michael E. Lee

    Michael E. Lee is associate professor of theology at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. He teaches a course in liberation theologies and discussed his views on the subject in the March 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic.

  • Phillip Berryman

    Phillip Berryman is an affiliated faculty member in the Latin American studies program at Temple University in Philadelphia. His books include Liberation Theology: Essential Facts About the Revolutionary Movement in Latin America — and Beyond (February 2013).

In the South

  • James Dawsey

    James Dawsey, professor of religious studies at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Va., has written about liberation theology and economic development.

  • Lorine Getz

    Lorine Getz is a scholar based in Hilton Head, S.C., and a retired professor of religion, culture, ethics and spirituality and the arts at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She co-edited Struggles for Solidarity: Liberation Theologies in Tension (Fortress Press, 1991).

  • Iain Maclean

    The Rev. Iain Maclean, associate professor of Western religious thought, philosophy and religion at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., has written about liberation theologians and the struggle for democracy in Brazil.

  • Dennis McCann

    Dennis McCann, Professor Emeritus of Bible and Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga., has written about liberation theology and business ethics.

  • Debra Sabia

    Debra Sabia, a former associate professor of political science with a specialty in Latin America at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, has published three books, Contradiction and Conflict: The Popular Church in Nicaragua (1997), The American Myth of Democracy: A Crisis of Consciousness (2010), and Imagining Democracy (2012). She is also the author of a variety of scholarly articles on community development, immigration, and democratization in Latin America.

  • Kenneth Surin

    Kenneth Surin, professor of religion, literature and critical theory at Duke University, has written about liberation as a critical term of religious study and the relevance of Marxism.

  • Paul R. Dekar

    Paul R. Dekar is Professor Emeritus of Evangelism and Mission at the Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tenn. He wrote the article “The Inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr. for Nonviolent Justice Seekers in Latin America and the Caribbean” for the Memphis Theological Seminary Journal (1997).

  • Douglas Meeks

    Douglas Meeks, Cal Turner Chancellor professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., has written about the economy and the future of liberation theology in North America.

  • Theodore Walker Jr.

    Theodore Walker Jr. is associate professor of ethics and society at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He wrote the book Empower the People: Social Ethics for the African-American Church, about African-American resources for a more inclusive liberation theology.

     

In the Midwest

  • Luis Rivera-Rodriguez

    Luis Rivera-Rodriguez, associate professor of theology and director of the Center for the Study of Latino/a Theology and Ministry at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, wrote the article on “Liberation Theology” in the Encyclopedia of Religion and War (Routledge, 2004).

  • Daniel Schipani

    Daniel Schipani, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., has written about liberation theology and Biblical education and an Anabaptist perspective on liberation theology.

  • Gerald Schlabach

    Gerald Schlabach, Professor of Theology and Chair of the Department of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., has written about North American nonviolence and the Latin American liberation struggle, and on nonviolent action in Latin America.

  • Edward Phillip Antonio

    Edward Phillip Antonio is associate professor of Christian theology and social theory, associate dean of diversities and director of the Justice & Peace Program at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. He wrote the article “Black Theology” in The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology.

  • Miguel A. De La Torre

    Miguel A. De La Torre teaches social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he directs the school’s Justice and Peace Institute. Issues he can discuss include religion’s effects on class/race/gender oppression, Santeria, Cuba and liberation theology. His numerous books include, as co-editor, Rethinking Latino(a) Religion and Identity (Pilgrim Press, 2006) and Handbook of Latina/o Theologies (Chalice Press, 2006).

  • Gustavo Gutierrez

    Gustavo Gutierrez is John Cardinal O’Hara Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation is considered a foundational work on Latin American liberation theology, and he contributed an essay to The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology.

  • Thia Cooper

    Thia Cooper is associate professor of religion at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and the author of Controversies in Political Theology: Development or Liberation?

In the West

  • Carlos R. Piar

    Carlos R. Piar, professor of religious studies at California State University, Long Beach, is the author of Jesus and Liberation: A Critical Analysis of the Christology of Latin American Liberation Theology (Peter Lang Publishing, 1995) and edited a primary-source reader, Readings in American Religious Diversity (2007). He has also written articles on virtue ethics. He specializes in Latin American religions, modern Christian thought, and religious ethics.

  • Kathleen Nadeau

    Kathleen Nadeau is an anthropology professor at  California State University in San Bernardino. She has written about liberation theology in the Philippines and Asian liberation theologies and Marxism. Nadeau says liberation theology has been integrated into the progressive wing of all the churches. Even if the movement is forced to move underground, it will carry on.

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