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Did It Liberate? Liberation Theology: Post Mortem

Editors note: In the inaugural issue of this journal there appeared an article entitled “Death Knell for Socialism and Liberation Theology” [January/February 1991]. Subsequent to the appearance of the papal encyclical Centesimus Annus, Acton President Father Robert Sirico predicted in an article in National Review : “… this encyclical constitutes the epitaph for liberation and collectivist movements.… The ‘Christian-Marxist dialogue’ is dead.”

These obituaries were, of course, not well received in quarters sympathetic to a socialist-Christian synthesis. It is, therefore, satisfying to see these assertions confirmed from the mouths of the very people who for too many years have been advancing ideas deleterious to the very liberation and self-determination they seek.

Following is an unedited transcript of a portion of “The Morning Edition,” broadcast over National Public Radio on October 11, 1991.

Pope John Paul arrives in Brazil tomorrow for his second visit to the world’s largest congregation of Roman Catholics. Many Brazilian Catholics follow what’s known as liberation theology, regarded by some as a Marxist interpretation of the gospel. But Marxism is declining in Eastern Europe, and liberation theology faces a similar fate. NPR’s David Welna reports.

(Excerpt played of singing by Roman Catholics)

David Welna reporting:

The setting is a monastery in the hills outside Rio. The singing comes from Roman Catholics gathered there last month, ostensibly to discuss liberation theology and Catholic social thought. But what these religious workers and liberation theologians ended up talking about was the collapse of communism. Father James Hugg, an American Jesuit, was at the encounter. He says liberation theology has been profoundly affected by the changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Father James Hugg (American Jesuit Priest): European socialism represented a dream–the realization of a dream that the economy could be different, that the poor could be raised up and their basic needs could be met. And with the collapse of that, there’s the collapse of a dream that the liberation theologians have lived from for so long. And so it seems clear to me that there’s a grieving process going on, that the liberation theologians are grieving the death of a dream that gave a sense of vision and direction for their work.

Welna: That work, for about the last 20 years, has been to interpret the gospel in a way that relates to the everyday struggles of the poor, not only in Brazil, but in many other Latin American nations as well.

Otto Maduro (Venezuelan Sociologist): The goal was trying to make life easier for those whose life is harder than anybody else’s, to make their spiritual, psychological, material life easier.

Welna: Otto Maduro is a Venezuelan sociologist of religion who was one of the first to write about liberation theology in the early 1970s. Today Maduro sees liberation theology in a state of paralysis which he attributes in part to liberation theology’s strong identification with a failed ideology.

Maduro: We often fought–how do you say–shoulder-to-shoulder with Marxists that shared in the same dream. And that led us all too often to be very naive, very acritical toward the actual experiments of socialism going on in the world.

Welna: But while the theoreticians of liberation theology mourn the demise of socialism, life goes on among the so-called basic Christian communities that put liberation theology into practice.

(Excerpts played of Brazilians singing).

Welna: About 30 people sing together on a Tuesday evening in Sao Joao de Meriti, one of the most impoverished and crime-infested suburbs of Rio de Janiero. The group calls itself the community of the Divine Holy Ghost of Santana. It’s one of an estimated 60,000 basic Christian communities in Brazil. The tired faces of the men and mostly women sitting on wooden benches tell of a long day’s work. Many are the descendants of slaves brought from Africa. They’ve gathered in this small meeting house along a deeply rutted road. Father Ned Nealand is an Irish priest who works with this basic Christian community. ‘For these people,’ he says, ‘the failure of communism has gone by largely unnoticed.’

Father Ned Nealand (Irish Catholic Priest): The ordinary people don’t know nothing about what’s happening, you know. The ordinary people are still going ahead and trying to get themselves on their feet. They’re way down the line as regards participating in their own history-making, huh? But they–they’re coming through–coming through.

Welna: Many, though, have become disillusioned with the basic Christian communities. Liberation theology has done little to actually improve living conditions during a decade of severe economic crisis in Latin America. Former church activists have left these religious communities to struggle for change elsewhere, running for office in Latin America’s new democracies or holding union posts. Otto Maduro thinks that the liberation theology he helped found, rather than liberating the poor from hardship, has for the most part simply helped them to endure it.

Maduro: We thought we were going to be the ferment of something much more important than a caution–than a cushion. And we criticized many of the agencies in the church that did nothing but try to serve as cushions. And now that’s what we are doing and probably that is what we are doomed to be and do, and that’s probably the best that we can do as an option for the poor in the forthcoming 10 or 20 or 100 years. Who knows?

Welna: Maduro estimates between one million and two million Brazilians, roughly one percent of the country’s inhabitants, still belong to basic Christian communities. But he sees even harder times ahead for liberation theology, not only in Brazil, but throughout Latin America. Conservative bishops, who’ve always made up the majority of the Catholic hierarchy in the region, are now backed by a conservative pope. Under John Paul II, liberation theologians have been forbidden from speaking in public or even teaching in Catholic universities. Their major seminary in Brazil has been closed, and conservative priests have replaced progressive ones. During the 11 years that have elapsed since the pope’s last visit to Brazil, liberation theology has vanished as a threat to the supremacy of Rome. The pope returns this time triumphant. I’m David Welna reporting.