Acton Commentary

Liberation Theology's Civil War


Few fights are nastier than theological quarrels. This axiom has been amply confirmed by the on-going spat that has erupted between two brothers who were crucial figures in the rise of liberation theology -- the Brazilians Leonardo and Clodovis Boff.

Largely unreported outside theological circles, this dispute's importance is more than academic. It suggests that liberation theology, once so prominent in Latin America, is imploding under the weight of its own ambiguities and the force of decades of powerful critiques.

Of the two Boffs, Leonardo is the more famous. His book, Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church (1985), applied Marxist analysis to the Catholic Church. The then-Father Leonardo arrived at the predictable Marxist conclusion that the "institutional church" was the ecclesiastical equivalent of the "bourgeoisie" controlling the "spiritual means of production."

A theological degree isn't needed to know that such arguments are incompatible with orthodox Catholicism. Following conflicts with Brazilian bishops and the Church's official guardian of orthodoxy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Leonardo eventually abandoned the Franciscan order and his priesthood.

His brother, Clodovis, however, maintained his priestly vows and remains a member of the Servants of Mary order. Until recently, he was invariably identified as a radical liberation theologian. But in late 2007, Clodovis dropped a theological bombshell. Shocking many friends, he published a robust critique of liberation theology "as it really exists" in the journal Revista Eclesiastica Brasileira.

Liberation theology's root error, Clodovis stated, lies in its effective substitution of Jesus Christ with "the poor" as the "first operative principle of theology." He singled out the recently-condemned works of Jon Sobrino, S.J., as exemplifying how this approach damages the integrity of Christian faith.

First, liberation theology encourages tendencies to regard the Church as a "popular movement." Church organizations subsequently begin regarding themselves virtually as militant NGOs. But why, Clodovis asked, would anyone join a Church which essentially considers itself just another social movement? Plenty of secular NGOs pursuing hundreds of causes already exist. Why bother embracing the whole apparatus of Catholic doctrine if the Church's primary objective is pursuing earthly utopias rather than saving souls?

More seriously, Clodovis suggested, when theologians prioritize the poor over Christ when it comes to understanding Christian faith, the "inevitable result is the politicization of the faith, its reduction to an instrument for social liberation." In Clodovis' view, any authentically Christian theology of freedom begins "with Christ and arrives at the poor." According to Clodovis, "the Christ-principle always includes the poor, but the poor-principle does not necessarily include Christ."

This echoes one critique of liberation theology made by Joseph Ratzinger - now Benedict XVI -- in the early 1980s.

To be sure, Clodovis claimed his article's purpose was to purify liberation theology of its errors rather than facilitate its destruction. This, however, did not prevent his brother, Leonardo, from publishing an emotionally charged rebuttal in May of this year. Dismissing Clodovis' position as "theologically erroneous," Leonardo argued that to encounter the poor is to encounter Christ. For Leonardo, "man-poor" is "the measure of all things."

But orthodox Catholic teaching is that Christ is the measure of all things; that Christ is ultimately encountered in the sacraments and the Church itself as Christ's Body; and that true knowledge of Christ is found in the apostolic faith communicated by Christ to His Church.

None of this, apparently, matters to Leonardo. His rebuttal, however, soon departs from theological disputation to predict, somewhat conspiratorially, that Clodovis' words will be used by the "local and Roman ecclesiastical authorities" to finish off liberation theology.

This reflects many liberation theologians' conviction that everything is ultimately about power. In their world, the idea that someone might change their mind through genuine conversion is dismissed as an instance of "false consciousness" - the notion that a person may think they are acting sincerely but are blind to the "real" motives driving their behavior.

In taking his stand, Clodovis Boff has effectively been labeled a "useful idiot" by his own brother. This mirrors many liberation theologians' habit of regarding those disagreeing with them as instruments of "bourgeois oppression."

Fr. Clodovis' change of mind, however, is one indication of present-day liberation theology's intellectual fragility. It's as if the theologian Michael Novak suddenly announced that he now regarded capitalism as fundamentally incompatible with Christianity.

No wonder Leonardo is so angry with Clodovis.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author, most recently, of The Commercial Society (2007).