On Liberation Theology and Official Catholic Economic Doctrine

© Copyright 1998, 2005 by Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

Liberation theology movements within Christianity aim to emancipate downtrodden peoples from unjust political, economic and social structures and to end the Church’s alliance with oppressive governments, be they aristocracies, oligarchies or plutocracies. Beginning as a Catholic movement in Latin America and soon spreading to Africa, Asia and other regions, liberation theology has emerged as the strongest spiritual voice of protest against the ill effects of unchecked global capitalism, insanely greedy corporate behavior and corrupt plutocracies.

This visionary movement to heal sinful selfishness is based on Jesus’ “social gospel” injunctions to insure the material as well as spiritual welfare of humanity. It was foreshadowed in the early 20th century in France, Italy, Spain and Belgium by the Catholic Action lay movement (which spread to the Americas) and in North America by that gutsy holy woman Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and her Catholic Worker solidarity movement.

Liberation theology officially commenced among Catholic bishops at the epic Latin American Episcopal Conference, CELAM II, in Medellín, Colombia, 1968. Its principles were reaffirmed in 1979 at CELAM III in Puebla, Mexico. The movement has been led by renowned visionaries who live what they preach, including the slum-dwelling Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez (b.1928), Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câ­mara (1909-99; former vice-president of CELAM), Brazilian Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff (b.1938), Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo (b.1925), Mexico’s Bishop Samuel Ruiz, El Salvadoran Jesuits Jon Sobrino and martyr Ignacio Ellacuría (d.1989), Costa Rica’s Hugo Assmann, Argentinian Protestant theologian José Míguez Bonino, et al.

Liberation theology has called, not just for more charitable giving by the “haves,” but, more radically, for 1) complete solidarity with the oppressed in a “preferential option for the poor”; 2) nonviolent and truly revolutionary removal of oppressive political-economic regimes; 3) forming “a new kind of civilization” based on a much fairer distribution of resources and more equal opportunity; along with 4) a humble, penitential, servant Church to help usher in this better and far more just state of affairs.1

Theologians in the movement will say that too many previous “revolutions” in Latin America, Russia, China and elsewhere have merely involved changes of personnel, not real change in oppressive social structures. Hence the elitist corruption and dominance continues, perpetuated by former underdogs turned overlords. Yet liberation theologians have faith that human base communities rooted in godliness can manifest true peace and justice. Over 200,000 of these communities have been formed in Latin America, more than 70,000 by Father Boff in Brazil.

Thus, these visionaries should not be labeled as “dangerous Marxists” and dismissed from further consideration. (Indeed, at CELAM III Marxism and heartless free-market capitalism were both condemned.) Their brand of compassionate solidarity and spiritually-based egalitarianism firmly roots itself in the Gospels and early Christian communities. Liberationists are deeply concerned by, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it, “the idolatrous nature of human profit as promoted by ‘savage capitalism’ [“idolatry means trusting in something or someone other than God”] which tramples the dignity of human beings and turns them into the victims of a cruel and sacrilegious cult.” “We believe that solidarity with the poor person and the fight for justice are unavoidable Christian demands…. We try to live what we call—using a formula which today has become universal—the option for the poor, the preferential option for the poor person, as a spiritual experience, that is, as an experience of the Lord.”2

Much of the impetus for liberation theology came directly from the Second Vatican Council (1962-5)—most notably, the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes (1965)—and ensuing papal encyclicals and documents, especially Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967). These continue the church’s criticism of unchecked capitalism and support for its victims. This attitude was being strongly expressed way back in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII in his compassionate encyclical Rerum Novarum. Courageous women and men like San Salvador’s martyred archbishop, the saintly Oscar Romero (1917-80), have willingly sacrificed their lives in the liberation struggle on behalf of their brothers and sisters oppressed by callous regimes.3

Again, liberation theology must not be dismissed as some “subversive pinko communist redistributionist” scheme. This is love in action, based on Jesus’ own genuine social gospel.

Even the late Pope John Paul II (1920-2005), so conservative in many aspects, famous in the West for his avid anti-communism, also repeatedly condemned run-amok capitalism. After an early misunderstanding of liberation theology (given his experience under Poland’s Soviet communists, he was naturally suspicious of leftist movements in Latin America), John Paul came around to the side of liberation theology in 1979, even though high-level Vatican conservatives, especially Cardinal Ratzinger [the later Pope Benedict from 2005 to 2013] and Cardinal Trujillo, would not affirm its program. The main cautionary note from John Paul was that liberation theologians mustn’t promote class warfare nor become alienated from an inner, contemplative spirituality in their quest to rectify oppressive and unjust circumstances.

In any case, John Paul’s papacy from its inception like previous popes, emphasized “the priority of labor over capital,” “the fair distribution of the goods originally destined for all,” and “the moral obligation” to do whatever is necessary to help the poor and to thereby fulfill the “duty of solidarity.”4 He didn’t hesitate to use the words “sin” and “structures of sin” when referring to individual, collective, corporate and institutional apathy and actions that oppress and exploit. He castigated the spiritual consequences of the “radical capitalist ideology” that glorifies individual ambition and competition over civic responsibility and community well-being, that promotes consumerist gratification of ever-new desires over contentment. John Paul II thus faithfully, adamantly continued in line with his predecessors and their positions expressed in Populorum Progressio, Gaudium et Spes, and other documents. His weighty papal encyclicals Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981) and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns, 1987), and numerous statements during his reign communicated a bonafide, fervent liberation theology.

In Laborem Exercens he castigated unregulated capitalism as having led to a “system of injustice and harm that crie[s] to heaven for vengeance,” and he called out for promotion of labor unions as “indispensable … [for] the just rights of working people… even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of [conflict].” He challenged the libertarian ethics of the free enterprise system: “Christian tradition has never upheld… the right to ownership of property … as absolute and untouchable…. The right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.”5

In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he targeted the insufficient political will that perpetuates obstacles to full development among poor peoples and nations. He sorrowed over the “all-consuming desire for profit and the thirst for power” that has enriched some persons but made the lives of so many people so miserable. He lamented the “scandalous flaunting of wealth” and “crass materialism” among the financially fortunate who, caught in the “cult of ‘having,’” have lost the ability to appreciate the art of “being.” He condemned the worldwide arms production and trade that divert badly-needed funds away from socio-economic development and which foment wars and mass-refugee situations. He faulted the international financial institutions that have locked many poor nations in an endless debt cycle. He decried the callously capitalist and communist forms of “imperialism,” the “structures of sin … rooted in personal sin” that have ruined so many nations and lives.

As the temporal head of the world’s largest faith for 27 years until his passing in 2005, John Paul’s moving plea for sacrifice and solidarity deserves full hearing, especially since it is being strongly amplified by the present Pope Francis within a few months of his being elected to the papacy in March 2013...


Pope John Paul II states:
[F]ace squarely the reality of an innumerable multitude of people—children, adults and elderly—…real and unique human persons, who are suffering under the intolerable burden of poverty…. Before these tragedies of total indigence and need, in which so many of our brothers and sisters are living, it is the Lord Jesus himself who comes to question us (cf. Mt 25:31-46: “… for I was hungry and you gave me no food”).…

If certain forms of modern “imperialism” [causing misery] were considered in the light of … moral criteria, we would see that hidden behind certain decisions, apparently inspired only by economics or politics, are real forms of idolatry: of money, ideology, class, technology.…

These attitudes and “structures of sin” are only conquered—presupposing the help of divine grace—by a diametrically opposed attitude: a commitment to the good of one’s neighbor with the readiness, in the gospel sense, to “lose oneself” for the sake of the other instead of exploiting him, and to serve him instead of oppressing him for one’s own advantage…. Solidarity helps us to see the “other,” whether a person, people or nation, not just as some kind of instrument with a work capacity … to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper”… to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. Hence the importance of reawakening the religious awareness of individuals ….

The solidarity which we propose is the path to peace and at the same time to development.… Solidarity is undoubtedly a Christian virtue….

[S]olidarity seeks to go beyond itself, to take on the … dimensions of total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation. One’s neighbor is then not only a human being with his or her own rights and a fundamental equality with everyone else, but becomes the living image of God the Father… and for that person’s sake one must be ready for sacrifice, even the ultimate one: to lay down one’s life for the brethren….

The “evil mechanisms” and “structures of sin” of which we have spoken can be overcome only through the exercise of … solidarity to which the Church calls us and which she tirelessly promotes…. Many of the … saints offer a wonderful witness of such solidarity and can serve as examples in the present difficult circumstances….

It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine [a “moral theology”]: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a “social mortgage,” which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods.6

[End of excerpted teachings from Pope John Paul II.]

Aspects of liberation theology can be found in strongly worded passages in the momentously revised edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church7 sponsored by Pope John Paul II. This program of compassionate solidarity is echoed by a multitude of voices in other denominations of Christianity, and in Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, indigenous and other religions.8

Yet, sadly, great resistance to this ideal of solidarity has arisen among many elites holding political and financial power. Along with their lackeys, these ignorant souls have tried to vilify reform movements that would promote the commonweal by enacting justice.

Consider what happened to a saintly Brazilian Catholic archbishop, the late Dom Hélder Câ­mara (1909-99). A former right-wing fascist turned social-justice advocate, he became an early international representative of liberation theology in the 1960s and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 in recognition of his prophetic role as a tireless voice for the poor and marginalized. Powerful right-wing elements in government, the Catholic hierarchy and the Brazilian press fiercely scorned him and tried to make his life miserable. Câ­mara’s home came under gunfire and the military regime finally attempted to silence him by not letting Brazilian newspapers even print his name. Yet, over the decades and throughout his retirement years, this populist spiritual hero continued to speak against greed, selfishness and the “unjust politics of international commerce.”

Câ­mara ironically summed up what is in store for anyone, religious or not, who dares to indict unregulated capitalism and elitist political systems: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.9

Yet, as Gustavo Gutiérrez observes, our desperate times represent a kairos, a crossroads opportunity, requiring us to speak with the same parrhesia, the same boldness and outspokenness, as characterized the early apostles of Jesus and all other spiritual representatives of a better way to be human.

And what is that way? To live the love of God in inward contemplation and outward service and solidarity.


1 The “Magna Carta” treatise on liberation theology is Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, Orbis, 1973, rev. ed., 1988. See also Gutiérrez, The Density of the Present: Selected Writings, Orbis, 1999; and Robert McAffee Brown, Gustavo Gutiérrez: An Introduction to Liberation Theology, Orbis, 1990. Orbis has published many other works on/by Gutiérrez, and books on liberation theology by other writers, including Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ, Liberator (1978), Way of the Cross, Way of Justice (1980), Liberating Grace (1984), Passion of Christ, Passion of the World (1987), The Path to Hope (1993), Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (1997), etc.; Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology (1976), Hidden Motives of Pastoral Action: Latin American Reflections (1977), Signs of the Times: Theological Reflections (1993); Alfred Hennelly, Liberation Theology: A Documentary History (1990); Arthur McGovern, Liberation Theology and Its Critics (1989). See Gary MacEoin, The People’s Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters, Crossroad, 1996. Good collections include Ignacio Ellacuria & Jon Sobrino (Eds.), Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, Orbis, 1994 (contributions by Gutiérrez, Boff, et al.); and Mev Puleo, The Struggle is One: Voices and Visions of Liberation, SUNY, 1994 (interviews with many liberation theologians in Latin America). A candid yet sympathetic account by an insider is Jose Comblin, Called for Freedom: The Changing Context of Liberation Theology, Orbis, 1999.

2 Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Density of the Present, op. cit., pp. 132-3, 138-40.

3 Many books focus on Romero. See M. Dennis, R. Golden & S. Wright, Oscar Romero: Reflections on His Life and Writings, Orbis, 2000; Jon Sobrino, Archbishop Romero: Memories & Reflections, Orbis, 1990; James Brockman, Romero: A Life, Orbis, 1989; Placido Erdozain, Archbishop Romero, Martyr of Salvador, Orbis, 1981; Jon Cortina, The Faith of Archbishop Romero, Catholic Institute for International Relations; Dermot Keogh, Romero, El Salvador's Martyr: A Study of the Tragedy of El Salvador, Dominican Publns. See the excellent film starring Raul Julia focusing on the last years of his life: Romero (Vidmark Entertainment / Paulist Films, 1989). Romero’s works include A Shepherd's Diary (Irene Hodgson, Tr.), St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1996; Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Orbis, 1985; The Violence of Love (James Brockman, Ed. & Tr.), Plough Pub., 1998.

4 Pope John Paul II’s comments against global capitalism, informed by his dozens of visits to regions around the world and by his communications with bishops, priests, nuns and laity worldwide, were especially emphatic on his October 1995 visit to the U.S. See, for example, “Pope says ‘evil’ economic policies causing hunger,” Reuters, Mon., 23 Oct. 1995; and Larry Stammer & John Goldman, “Pope Presses U.S. to Aid Poor, Preserve Family,” Los Angeles Times, Sat. Oct. 7, 1995. See also his remarks at Nairobi, Kenya: “The continuing gap between rich and poor regions of the world is a serious threat to global stability” (etc.), “Pope Ends Africa Trip,” Associated Press, Wed., 20 Sep., 1995. On “labor over capital,” see Jonathan Kwitny, “A Holy Visit to a Troubled Nation,” Los Angeles Times, Thur., Oct 5, 1995. See Kwitny’s Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, Henry Holt, 1997, which reveals many of the Pope’s views on the injustices of run-amok capitalism. Kwitny wants to promote this much more attractive side of the Pope’s ministry, in contrast to his rigid views on birth control, women’s ordination, etc., which alienate most American and European Catholics.

5 Quoted in Jonathan Kwitny, Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, Henry Holt, 1997, pp. 399-401.

6 Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concerns), Dec. 30, 1987, Sections 13, 37-40, 42. Available at http:listserv.american.edu/catholic/ church/papal/jp.ii/jp2solli.txt.

7 See, for example, Article 7, “The Seventh Commandment” (You shall not steal), paragraphs 2402-2414, 2424-2463, and Article 3, “Social Justice,” paras 1928-1948; Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Liguori Pub., 1994.

8 See Michael Amaladoss, Life in Freedom: Liberation Theologies from Asia, Orbis, 1997, which covers social justice movements both within and beyond Christianity; Christopher Queen & Sallie King (Eds.), Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, SUNY, 1996, which profiles the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Sulak Sivaraksa, A.T. Ariyaratne, B.R. Ambedkar, et al.; and Fred Eppsteiner (Ed.), The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, Parallax, rev. ed., 1988, with contributions from the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Maha Ghosananda, Joanna Macy, Charlene Spretnak, Gary Syder, et al.

9 This is the pithiest version of the widely-quoted saying by Dom Helder Camara; for his general thought, see Dom Helder Camara, The Conversions of a Bishop: An Interview with Jose de Broucker (H. Davies, Trans.), London: Collins, 1979; and Sister Earth: Creation, Ecology, and the Spirit, New City Press ed., 1995. In 1964, while at the Vatican II council, Camara and John Paul II (then Wojtyla) had a serious disagreement over Marxism; by 1980 John Paul II would extol Camara: “This man is the friend of the poor, and my friend.” (In J. Kwitny, Man of the Century, op. cit., p. 367.)