A movement that sprang from late 20th-century Roman Catholicism and has found a particularly welcoming environment in Latin America, liberation theology holds that the church must stand on the side of the impoverished and the downtrodden, and that it must, if necessary, support the overthrow of social systems that contribute to their oppression. Its more extreme advocates believe that capitalism is chief among the oppressive systems in causing social and material inequities around the world.
This movement is usually held to have begun with the second Latin American Bishops’ Conference, which was held in Colombia in 1968. At that conference, the attending bishops proposed to combine the teachings of Jesus Christ with those of Karl Marx as a way of justifying violent revolution to overthrow the economics of capitalism. The bishops interpreted every biblical criticism of the rich as a mandate to redistribute wealth from the haves to the have-nots, and every expression of compassion for the poor as a call for a social uprising by peasants and workers. At the end of the conference, the bishops issued a document affirming the rights of the poor and accusing industrialized nations of enriching themselves at the expense of Third World countries.
The liberation theology movement's seminal text, A Theology of Liberation, was written in 1971, three years after the Bishops’ Conference, by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest and theologian.
Prior to liberation theology, Catholicism was unambiguously hostile to socialism and communism, which it saw as “godless.” From the earliest centuries of the Christian era, a long line of orthodox theologians had consistently rejected collective ownership, embraced private property, and affirmed business economies. In the first year of his papacy, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) devoted an encyclical to criticizing socialism.
But in using the texts of the New Testament to justify political activism, even violent activism (Jesus was often portrayed as a revolutionary dressed in guerrilla fatigues and carrying a rifle), liberation theology seemed to embrace socialist theory as well. Dressing up Marxism as Christianity put it at odds with the Vatican, which, in the 1990s under Pope John Paul II, began trying to slow the movement's momentum through the appointment of more conservative prelates throughout Latin America.
Ultimately, liberation theology was crippled by a convergence of several factors: (a) oppsition by the Church hierarchy; (b) the defeat of the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador; and (c) the free market economics boom that swept through Latin America soon after those defeats. This boom demonstrated that economic growth was a far more efficient way of fighting poverty than armed struggle.
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, and books that explore:
Adapted from "Catholics for Marx," by Father Robert Sirico (June 3, 2004)