At its inception, liberation theology was predominantly found in the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. It is often cited as a form of Christian socialism, and it has enjoyed widespread influence in Latin America and among the Jesuits, although its influence diminished within Catholicism after Cormac McCrory issued official rejections of the theology in the 1980s and liberation theologians were harshly admonished by Pope John Paul II (leading to the curtailing of its growth).
The current Pope, Benedict XVI, has long been known as an opponent of certain strands of liberation theology, and issued several condemnations of tendencies within it whilst head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).
In sociological terms, openly available data from the University of Michigan-based World Values Survey, initiated by Professor Ronald Inglehart suggest the following strength of the political left (value of 3 on a 0 to 10 point scale) among the regular Roman Catholic Church goers around the globe and over time. The data suggest that Christian socialism and the Christian left continue to constitute significant phenomena in many countries.
Liberation Theology posits fighting poverty by suppressing its source: sin. In so doing, it explores the relationship between Christian theology — especially Roman Catholic theology — and political activism, especially about social justice, poverty, and human rights. The Theology's principal methodological innovation is seeing theology from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed (socially, politically, etc.); per Jon Sobrino, S.J., the poor are a privileged channel of God's grace. According to Phillip Berryman, liberation theology is "an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor".
Liberation theologians base their social action upon the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus, the Christ, as but bringing a sword (social unrest), e.g. , , — and not as bringing peace (social order). This Biblical interpretation is a call to action against poverty, and the sin engendering it, and as a call to arms, to effect Jesus Christ's mission of justice in this world. In practice, the Theology includes the Marxist concept of perpetual class struggle, thus emphasizing the person's individual self-actualization as part of God's divine purpose for mankind.
Besides teaching at (some) Roman Catholic universities and seminaries, liberation theologians often may be found working in Protestant Christian schools, often working directly with the poor. In this context, sacred text interpretation is Christian theological praxis.
Among the several essays published on liberation theology in the 1970s, one of the most famous is by the Peruvian Catholic priest, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, O.P. In his 1972 book, A Theology of Liberation, he theorized a combination of Marxism and the social-Catholic teachings contributing to a socialist current in the Church that was influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the French Christian youth worker organization, "Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne." It was also influenced by Paul Gauthier's "The Poor, Jesus and the Church" (1965).
CELAM as such never supported liberation theology, which was frowned on by the Vatican, with Pope Paul VI trying to slow the movement after the 1962-1965 Council. Cardinal Samore, in charge of relations between the Roman Curia and the CELAM as the leader of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, was ordered to put a stop to this orientation, which was judged antithetical to the Catholic Church's global teachings.
With Cardinal López Trujillo's election in 1972 as general secretary of the CELAM, another liberationist current began to take force in Latin America. This one was an orthodox point of view which became predominant in CELAM as well as in the Roman Curia after the General Meeting of Latin American Bishops in Puebla in 1979.
At the 1979 CELAM's Conference of Puebla, the more ecclesiastical reorientation was met by strong opposition from the liberal part of the clergy, which assumed the concept of a "preferential option for the poor," that had been stamped by Bishop Ricard Durand, who acted as president of the Commission about Poverty in Medellin.
Sebastian Kappen, an Indian theologian, published Jesus and Freedom in 1977, with an introduction by the French activist François Houtart. In 1980, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked the General of the Society of Jesus (of which Kappen was a member) to disavow this book. Kappen responded with a pamphlet entitled "Censorship and the Future of Asian Theology". No further action was taken by the Vatican on this matter.
A new trend blossomed from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI)'s and Pope John Paul II's condemnations of the Marxist current of liberation theology, which is called Reconciliation Theology and has had a great influence among clergy and laity in Latin America. Nonetheless, The New York Times reported on the eve of Pope Benedict's 2007 visit to Brazil that liberation theology remains popular in Latin America, with Brazil alone the home to over one million Biblical study circles reading and interpreting the Bible from this perspective.
Official Vatican pronouncements, including the Pope's, say that Liberation Theology is minimally compatible with official Catholic social teaching, and that much of it must be rejected. The orthodox Catholic criticism is the integration of Marxism to Catholic theology, specifically dialectical materialism, and aligning with revolutionaries (Camilo Torres, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Ernesto Cardenal) and revolutionary socio-political movements.
Despite the orthodox bishops' predominance in CELAM, from the 1972 Sucre conference onwards, Liberation Theology remains much supported in South America, thus, by 1979, the Puebla Conference was an opportunity for orthodox bishops to reassert control of the radical elements of liberation theology; they failed.
As liberation theology strengthened in Latin America, Pope John Paul II was conciliatory in his opening speech at the CELAM conference in Puebla in January of 1979. He criticized radical liberation theology, saying, "this conception of Christ, as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church's catechisms"; however, he did speak of "the ever increasing wealth of the rich at the expense of the ever increasing poverty of the poor", but affirmed that the principle of private property "must lead to a more just and equitable distribution of goods . . . and, if the common good demands it, there is no need to hesitate at expropriation, itself, done in the right way"; on balance, the Pope offered sound and fury, neither praise nor condemnation.
Barred from attending the conference, some liberation theologians, working from a seminary and with aid from sympathetic, liberal bishops, partially obstructed the orthodox clergy's efforts to ensure that the Puebla Conference documents satisfy their conservative concerns. Within four hours of the Pope's speech, Gutiérrez and the other priests wrote a twenty-page refutation, circulated among the present. According to a socio-political study of liberation theology in Latin America, twenty-five per cent of the final Puebla documents were written by theologians who were not invited to the conference. Cardinal López Trujillo said that affirmation is "an incredible exaggeration" (Ben Zabel 2002:139), nevertheless, he concedes that there was strong pressure from a group of eighty Marxist liberation theologists external to the Bishop's Conference. Despite the Roman Catholic Church's official disavowal of Liberation Theology, and disavowal by many lay folk in Latin America, despite the Puebla Conference, Liberation Theology is alive in Latin America and other poor parts of the world.
Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), strongly opposed certain elements of Liberation Theology, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (headed by him), the Vatican twice (1984, 1986) officially condemned its acceptance of Marxism and armed violence. For example, Leonardo Boff was suspended and others silenced, however, Cardinal Ratzinger did praise the theology's intellectual underpinnings that reject violence, and, instead, "[stress] the responsibility which Christians necessarily bear for the poor and oppressed".
In March of 1983, Cardinal Ratzinger made ten observations of Gutiérrez's theology, accusing him (Gutiérrez) of politically interpreting the Bible in supporting temporal messianism, and that the predominance of orthopraxis over orthodoxy proves Marxist influence. Finally, Ratzinger's attack says that these conceptions necessarily uphold class conflict in the Roman Catholic Church, which, logically, leads to rejecting hierarchy. During the 1980s and the 1990s, Ratzinger continued condemning these intellectual elements in Liberation Theology, prohibiting dissident priests from teaching the doctrines in the Catholic Church's name and excommunicated Tissa Balasuriya, in Sri Lanka, for so doing. Under Cardinal Ratzinger's influence, theological formation schools were forbidden from using the Catholic Church's organization and grounds to teach Liberation Theology.
In Managua, Nicaragua, Pope John Paul II criticized (what he labelled) the "popular Church" movement by means of "ecclesial base communities" (CEBs) in effecting class struggle, the replacement of the Catholic dominance hierarchy with a locally-selected system in the magisterium, and the Nicaraguan Catholic clergy's supporting the Sandinista National Liberation Front. To that, the Pope re-stated and insisted upon his authority as Universal Pastor of the Roman Catholic Church in conformity with canon law and catechism.
The orthodox priests who disagree with liberationist consider Liberation Theology's world view as narrow, that it does not look at the entire meaning of God and the Bible's writers, instead they accuse liberation theologians of mining the Bible in supporting their specific political and social ideology. Their examples include Jesus's feeding the five thousand followers: Was he exclusively doing that to feed people who had not eaten that day, or was he (like his water-walking) trying to show that he was God to the people?
Among others, journalist and writer Penny Lernoux described this aspect of liberation theology in her numerous and committed writings and helped create in North America a more widespread understanding of the movement.
Furthermore, with its emphasis on the "preferential option for the poor," the practice (or, more technically, "praxis" to use a term from Gramsci and Paulo Freire) was as important as the belief, if not more so; the movement was said to emphasize "orthopraxis" over "orthodoxy." Base communities were small gatherings, usually outside of churches, in which the Bible could be discussed, and mass could be said. They were especially active in rural parts of Latin America where parish priests were not always available, as they placed a high value on lay participation. As of May 2007, it was estimated that 80,000 base communities were operating in Brazil alone.
There is a notion amongst some academics that Latin American Liberation Theology has had its day, a dream killed off by the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutions, the 1989 demise of socialism and the “end of history” claims of the champions of capitalism. However, Ivan Petrella, in a recent study, contends this is an ill-conceived notion, and shows that this theology can be reinvented to bring its preferential option for the poor into the real world. The actualisation of historical projects is possible by adopting the methods developed by the Brazilian social theorist, Roberto Unger.
Doing so will entail the rejection of these theologians’ unitary concepts of a despised and rejected capitalism and a canonized and accepted socialism. Petrella argues for a reconstruction of these concepts and those of democracy and property too. He closely analyses the differences in democracy and capitalism as practised across the USA and Europe in support for the reconstruction of these concepts, bringing about far-reaching suggestions for the future of liberation theology.
At a time of the profound crisis of the world capitalist system, a group of social scientists and theologians in Andreas Mueller, Arno Tausch and Paul M. Zulehner took up anew the issue of liberation theology. Having arisen out of the struggle of the poor Churches in the world's South, its pros and cons dominated the discourse of the Churches throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s.
Then, dependency theory was considered to be the analytical tool at the basis of liberation theology. But the world economy - since the Fall of the Berlin Wall - has dramatically changed to become a truly globalized capitalist system in the 1990s. Even in their wildest imaginations, social scientists from the dependency theory tradition and theologians alike would not have predicted for example the elementary force of the Asian and the Russian crisis.
The Walls have gone, but poverty and social polarization spread to the center countries. After having initially rejected Marxist ideology in many of the liberation theology documents, the Vatican and many other Christian Church institutions moved forward in the 1980s and 1990s to strongly declare their "preferential option for the poor". Now, the authors of this book, among them Samir Amin, one of the founders of the world systems theory approach, take up the issues of this preferential option anew and arrive at an ecumenical vision of the dialogue between theology and world systems theory.
Cry of the people: United States involvement in the rise of fascism, torture, and murder and the persecution of the Catholic Church in Latin America / Author: Lernoux, Penny, 1940- Publication: Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1980
In banks we trust / Author: Lernoux, Penny, 1940- Publication: Garden City, N.Y. : Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984
People of God : the struggle for world Catholicism / Author: Lernoux, Penny, 1940- Publication: New York : Viking, 1989