Not so Liberating: The Twilight of Liberation Theology

It went almost unnoticed, but on December 5th, Benedict XVI articulated one of the most stinging rebukes that has ever been made by a pope of a particular theological school. Addressing a group of Brazilian bishops, Benedict followed some mild comments about Catholic education with some very sharp and deeply critical remarks about liberation theology and its effects upon the Catholic Church.

Apart from stressing how certain liberation theologians drew heavily upon Marxist concepts, the pope also described these ideas as “deceitful.” This is very strong language for a pope. But Benedict then underscored the damage that liberation theology did to the Catholic Church. “The more or less visible consequences,” he told the bishops, “of that approach – characterised by rebellion, division, dissent, offence and anarchy – still linger today, producing great suffering and a serious loss of vital energies in your diocesan communities.”

Today, even some of liberation theology’s most outspoken advocates freely admit that it has collapsed, including in Latin America. Once considered avant-garde, it is now generally confined to clergy and laity of a certain age who wield ever-decreasing influence within the Church. Nonetheless, Benedict XVI clearly believes it’s worth underscoring just how much harm it inflicted upon the Catholic Church.

For a start, there’s little question that liberation theology was a disaster for Catholic evangelization. There’s a saying in Latin America which sums this up: “The Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.”

In short, while many Catholic clergy were preaching class-war, many of those on whose behalf the war was presumably being waged decided that they weren’t so interested in Marx or listening to a language of hate. They simply wanted to learn about Jesus Christ and his love for all people (regardless of economic status). They found this in many evangelical communities.

A second major impact was upon the formation of Catholic clergy in parts of Latin America. Instead of being immersed in the fullness of the Catholic faith’s intellectual richness, many Catholic seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s read Marx’s Das Capital and refused to peruse such “bourgeois” literature such Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.

Again, this undermined the Church’s ability to witness to Christ in Latin America, not least because some clergy reduced Christ to the status of a heroic-but-less-than-divine urban guerrilla and weren’t especially interested in explaining Catholicism’s tenets to their flocks.

Then there has been the effect upon the Church’s ability to engage the new Latin American economic world which emerged as the region opened itself to markets in the 1990s. Certainly much of this liberalization was poorly executed and marred by corruption. Nonetheless, as the Economist recently reported, countries like Brazil – once liberation theology’s epicenter – are emerging as global economic players and taking millions out of poverty in the process. The smartest thing that Brazil’s left-wing President Lula da Silva ever did was to not dismantle most of his predecessor’s economic reforms.

Unfortunately, one legacy of liberation theology is some Catholic clergy’s inability to relate to people working in the business world. Ironically, business executives are far more likely to be practicing their Catholicism than many other Latin Americans. Yet liberation theology has left a residue of distrust of business leaders among some Catholic clergy – and vice-versa. Distrust is no basis for engagement, let alone evangelization.

The good news is that the Church in Latin America is more than halfway along the road to recovery. Anyone who talks to younger priests and seminarians in Latin America today quickly learns that they have absorbed the devastating critiques of liberation theology produced by the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s. If anything, they tend to regard liberation theologians such as the ex-priest Leonardo Boff as heretical irrelevancies.

Indeed figures such as Boff must be dismayed that the Catholic Church has emerged as the most outspoken opponent of populist-leftists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. As Michael Novak observed in Will it Liberate? (1986), liberation theologians were notoriously vague when it came to practical policy proposals. But if any group embodies the liberationists’ economic agenda, it is surely the populist-left who are currently providing us with case studies of how to drive economies into the ground faster than you can say “Fidel Castro.”

As time passes, liberation theology is well on its way to being consigned to the long list of Christian heterodoxies, ranging from Arianism to Hans-Küngism. But as Benedict XVI understands, ideas matter – including incoherent and destructive ideas such as liberation theology. Until the Catholic Church addresses the legacy of this defunct ideology – to give liberation theology its proper designation – its ability to speak to the Latin America of the future will be greatly impaired.

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  • elkabrikir

    Thanks for sharing the Pope’s thoughts with us. I think that the “social justice” American catholics have been heavily influenced by Liberation Theology, too. Catholic Exchange has somewhat addressed this “social justice” issue with various articles. Social Justice does not take the place of the Redeemer of the World, the Savior born in a stable, the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ.

    There will always be poor in the world, for each of us is poor regardless of our financial status. Therefore, the Pentecostals gave the people the Living Water, so that they might never thrist again.

    Unfortunately, my former parish was staffed with a Brazilian priest who had been PERSONALLY taught by Boff! He extolled Boff’s virtues in homilies. Probably I was one of a handful of people who actually knew he was spouting Liberation Theology. However, the pews of my former parish are empty, literally. We are the diasporsa Catholics of St Anne Church. Regardless of the ministry in which members were involved (Rosary group, food bank, music, prolife,……)people got the “Uh-Oh”! feeling and left. We wanted Jesus and got Judas, the Marxist, in disguise.

    Praise God for Pope Benedict XVI. He is right to help us see the lingering negative effects of the sin of Liberation Theology.

  • noelfitz

    This is a very deep article. I read “[t]he Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.”
    Did the Church make a mistake in opting for the poor?

    I also read “[t]hey simply wanted to learn about Jesus Christ and his love for all people (regardless of economic status). They found this in many evangelical communities.”
    Why did people in Latin America not find Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church? Do people in other parts of the world find Jesus in other Churches and ecclesial communities and not in Catholicism? If so why?

    I also read “many Catholic seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s read Marx’s Das Capital and refused to peruse such “bourgeois” literature such Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.” These are serious accusations and are a very fundamental indictment of the Church. References to these points would be beneficial.

    However the article gives some hope.

    It is important that we all have hope, thus to study deeply our problems and realize divine providence exists is important. We are a redeemed people. The Church is the pillar and ground of truth, in which truth exists. Pessimistic and negative carping is destructive. For the next year (2010) I am going to try to be more positive and focus on the goodness of God and the one, true, holy and Catholic Church He founded.

  • elkabrikir


    to what are you referring with this phrase: “Pessimistic and negative carping is destructive”?

    You might find it interesting to note that “carping” is how President Obama referred to people, such as myself and many US senators, who oppose and speak out against his health care policies. (whatever they are, but popularly known as Obamacare)

    I hope you do not intend to limit freedom of thought and speech by declaring that those folks of good will, like me, are pessimistic by trying to work for just solutions against the aparatichik whether it is found among the bishops or politicians.

  • noelfitz


    Thank you for your post.

    I was really talking to myself. I am trying to put my new year resolutions into effect early.

    I am going to try to realize what a gift we have in the faith, how fortunate we are to be Catholics and rejoice in the Lord.

    “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that wasa in Christ Jesus,
    who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
    but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
    The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), Php 2:1-8.

  • joanspage

    Jesus preached to the poor. The Church cannot ignore His example. Preaching to the poor does not equate with class warfare. One must preach love to all. But we must remember how good we have it and must try to alleviate the harshness of poverty.

    While it may be true business owners go to church more, we cannot say we have to call them more holy than the poor. That is what the Pharisees did.

  • joanspage

    I do not think he suggested any limits of speech.

  • goral

    Copy of my earlier post:

    Catholic social doctrine has also been formed by the high percentage of so called Christian communists that populate the Church Universal. We are well aware that they share some of the political goals of Marxists, for example replacing capitalism with christian socialism. This opens the door for full blown communism at a later point in the future. Christian communists share the conclusions but not the underlying premises of Marxists.

    This needs to be kept in mind as the healthcare debate continues to go forward despite all the provisions that make it unacceptable in a free, wealthy, and capitalist society. What has happened is that the Gramsci style communists have infiltrated the church even into the hierarchy.

    Antonio Gramsci, was one the the most influential Italian Communist thinkers of the twentieth century. He is considered by many to be the father of Western Marxism. His entirely palatable, pseudo-christian, and “Judas” version of social doctrine is what is present in many parts of Catholic social teaching. It goes by many names – Liberation Theology, concern for the environment, right to affordable healthcare, catholics for pro-choice and so many other code terms that hide under the umbrella of legitimate Catholic social thinking.

    Their aim is always the same, the bastardization and betrayal of the true meaning and purpose of Catholic subsidiarity, love of neighbor and opposition to all movements that put aside the overarching spiritual purpose behind all that we do to satisfy our physical and temporal needs.

  • noelfitz


    you raise many interesting points.

    I would like clarifications and amplifications on many of these.

    You wrote “What has happened is that the Gramsci style communists have infiltrated the church even into the hierarchy.”

    This is interesting. Do you refer to the American or the European Hierarchies? How can Catholics know that their bishops are loyal to the magisterium and to the Church? Should Catholics obey the bishops who disagree with Catholic teaching?

    Are those Catholics who disagree with their bishops enemies of the faith or the remnant of true believers?

    It is a very serious problem. Please tell us more.

  • Joe DeVet


    “Church opted for the poor, but the poor opted for evangelicals.” The point here was not THAT the Church opted for the poor–She does, and will continue to do so–but HOW the Church opted for the poor where LibTheo was dominant. The point is that this kind of opting for the poor is not only theologically abhorrent, but was recognized as a sham by the poor themselves. It is not an indictment of the Church itself, but of LibTheo.

    Why did they not find the message of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church? The article answers this: the message was displaced by a flawed enthusiasm for LibTheo.

    Regarding your request for citations on errors in seminaries, you sound dubious, and your tone seems to convey a suspicion that such criticism is disloyal to the Church. Against that I would offer John Paul II’s encyclical “Veritatis Splendor”, section 5. He’s explaining his reasons for issuing an encyclical which contradicts a number of errors in moral theology, and he notes regretfully that many of these errors had found their way into seminary instruction. I don’t think that John Paul II was being disloyal to the Church in noting this–in fact, quite the opposite!

  • goral

    Without getting into specifics of where the infiltration took (takes) place;
    I would just refrence the Scripture which says that the devil would fool even the elect.

    Satan knows the saying: Corruptio optimi, pessima. He is never far from the Church. It is our job to be vigilant and not be fooled by false promises and doctines.
    The majority of our Martyrs come from opposing authority and being true to their faith.

    Insubordination is not something to be taken lightly, yet there are times for it.

  • noelfitz

    Many thanks for your serious and thoughtful reply to me.

    I read in it that “he (JPII in Veritatis Splendor,No 5) notes regretfully that many of these errors had found their way into seminary instruction.”

    This is not in the Encyclical. In fact he wrote “I came to the decision …to write an Encyclical with the aim of treating “more fully and more deeply the issues regarding the very foundations of moral theology”, foundations which are being undermined by certain present day tendencies.” Here there is no mention of false teaching in seminaries.

    JPII does not undermine trust in bishops, quite the opposite as he wrote “I address myself to you, Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate, who share with me the responsibility of safeguarding “sound teaching””.

    I think it is important for us to understand the role of bishops. Is it their job to teach the faithful? Should we be suspicious of their beliefs and use our own personal judgment about the soundness of their teaching? If our bishop has not been censured by Rome, should we believe him in matters of faith and morals?

    You have made accusations and write about the corruption of the best, I really think you should be specific and give examples of bishops who are corrupt, if that is what you are claiming.