Liberation Theology: A blend of Marxism and Christianity

Reverberation of reforms

Liberation Theology was a buzzword for nearly two decades; it still continues in some places, where the mention of words such as 'liberation' prick one's mind to anticipate anything marxist. Nevertheless in the present circumstances it has gained a relevance of all time high as the disparity between the rich and poor is increasingly evident. The society requires revisiting this concept largely; apart from researches confined to some small pockets. Having said this, what is liberation theology all about? As the name suggests it has got something to do with theology and religion. Christianity to be precise. Like any other theology, this also is rooted in faith, the unquestioned belief in God, but in essence it distinguishes itself by siding with the poor. A glance through the top links in Google under this keyword would show that almost all have got the same answer. These say that 'in the struggle of oppressed and the oppressor God remains with the oppressed'. And as a point of view from the poor to evaluate religion and faith. BBC gives (which is true if you take a second look!) in the reason of liberation theology being predominantly marxist as, the phrase caricaturing the movement: “If Jesus Christ were on Earth today, he would be a Marxist revolutionary”.

Liberation theology sympathises with the economically deprived and bring them in tandem with the doctrines of Christianity, Jesus Christ as a reformer of society would take sword against the perpetrators of injustice and liberate the poor. It was this thought that gave momentum to the movements of Latin America in orienting towards this. The proponents of the view, a Peruvian Dominican priest, Gustavo Gutierez and a Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff of Brazil went ahead with denigrating the hierarchy of Church that according to them would make it almost impossible for a poor man to liberate himself from 'sin'. Taking a Marxist paradigmatic standpoint, they were (and many others priests) putting forth the principle of 'Class Struggle' into biblical hermeneutics. Exegesis would reveal that the 'Kingdom of heaven' is for the poor. But the multitudes of Latin America in abject poverty were mired in a fix when the priestly class, vowed to poverty and celibecy lived enjoying the amenities of life and security. In Gutierrez's words, “Poverty is not fate, it is a condition; it is not a misfortune, it is an injustice. It's the result of social structures and mental and cultural categories. It is linked to the way in which society has been built, in its various manifestations”. The question of the responsibility of Church towards them in such a situation was mooted, which stemmed into the development of Liberation Theology.

Origin and Action Plan

Even from the start of 1950s the progressive ideas were put into practice across South America and the wave soon hit India, Sri Lanka and Philippines. The domain of thought was trans-national and it acquired an air of something confined to the 'third world countries'. The outcry for progressive policies within the Catholic church was answered by the Second Vatican Council(1962-'65). Latin mass was dropped for the vernacular and liberation theologians headed by CELAM (Latin American Episcopal Conference/Bishops Conference) were able to push the reforms likewise. Though CELAM didn't acknowledge liberation theology per se, the popular movement and the support in itself was a driving force that aligned them with the progressive sects within the church. With these measures adopted and the formation of Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC), a quasi-parish with administration and services carried out by more participation from the laity, Marxist ideas gained a foothold in the Christian community. Several priests and bishops laid hand in hand with Communist revolutionaries in the struggles to throw out despotic unpopular governments. One such story is of Oscar Romero, a bishop of El Salvador. Hailed as a conservative, he turned his attitude while as a bishop but was soon assassinated for the support he rendered to the revolutionary group active there. This sad incident of 1980 marks a watershed in the advancement of Liberation Theology. The church became more vigilant and careful enough to put down anything that is Communist.

The landmark work “A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation” (1971) of Gutierrez emphasises how solidarity with the poor is elementary in Christian faith. It calls for 'praxis'; with the application of historical perspective into Bible, Church was enraged of Marxism infiltrating into the Catholicism. The interpretation of hope, love and faith from the Marxist perspective portrayed Jesus Christ devoid of the 'godliness' and the critique of hypocrisy of Church (authority) was necessitated. The decentralisation prevalent in the church with the advent of Liberation Theology was met with an end finally. Though, eventually the 'preferential treatment of poor', the phrase that echoed the movement was inducted into Church's doctrines, shedding of the religious attributes and viewing the issue from scientific and social perspectives were rebuked within the Church as well as publicly.

Church retaliates

Alarmed of the popularity of Marxist ideology among Liberation Theology, Church resorted to censure the works and personalities behind the movement. Unlike most other mass movements, Liberation Theology was spread and popularised by men of non-academic nature, albeit academic works of great depth have been published studying the topic. Congregation of Doctrine of Faith (CDF), a committee in charge of issues of similar nature was very eager to pounce on it. The prefect of the commission, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), in a private document to the 'Instruction of Fall' published in 1984 delineates on the “defects” of Liberation Theology and some actions instituted by the committee in the same year (it was followed later by a decree in 1986). He narrows down the definition (may be for a descriptive sense, nonetheless avoiding various dimensions it has got to offer) as 'any theology in one way or another have embraced the marxist fundamental option'. It further goes on to speak volumes about a theology that 'has not intended to add anything new' and alluding that it has budded after Second Vatican Council, which 'seriously opened up the inadequacies of theological tradition' and asked people to think on their own. The presuppositions of this kind is enough to come to a conclusion that Church is not satisfied with Marxist ideology getting placed in theology. Reading along, one could see that Cardinal Ratzinger has made it impractical to see the merits of Liberation Theology with the 'filter of anti-marxism'. The oppressed class dominating in the conflict with the elitist upper class was way too unbearable for the Pope and Church.

The “Marxist myth” and the wariness that circled the communists world wide were not alien to Church too. The prejudice that the liberation theology was 'a ploy of the conniving youth to overthrow the establishment of the church' ran through the veins of the officials, invariably. Leonardo Boff who was pivotal in setting up BECs (Base Ecclesial Community) and who criticised heirarchy of Church was silenced in the documents of 1984 and '86, the acts which he described as 'religious terrorism'. The dogmas of Christian faith were against the progressive thread that was seen in the discussions regarding Liberation Theology. By sidelining the prominent way of thinking of that era, Church was not only explicit in projecting the notion of poor subservient of the affluent, but was also seriously caught on the wrong foot when it was found that a sizeable number of small units are still functional in some parts of Brazil. The presence of this thought in the present and reflections on it validates, as asserted by a well-known theologian, "The class struggle is a fact; neutrality on this point is simply impossible”.