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Assessing the Impacts of Liberation Theology in Latin America


This article examines the nature and impact of liberation theology in Latin America and considers prospects for the future. Liberation theology's fundamental ideas are explored, and the reasons for its emergence and appeal are considered in detail. As a system of ideas, liberation theology first appears during a period of great social change, ecclesiological debate, and political upheaval. The convergence of these elements helps explain the theology's appeal within the churches, makes sense of its characteristically activist identification with the poor, and helps account for the popular appeal of the new organizational structures it has inspired. These convergences also suggest possible constraints and the long-term political impact of this theology. Throughout the article I argue that analysis of impacts must go beyond the ideas of liberation theology to ask how and why such ideas are received and acted upon in concrete settings.

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An earlier version of this article was presented at a conference on “La Theologie de la Liberation,” sponsored by the Asociation Francaise de Sociologie Religieuse in Paris, 1–2 December 1986. I am grateful to Thomas Bruneau, Daniela Gobetti, Michael Lowy, Scott Mainwaring, and Guy Petitdemanges for comments and criticisms.

1. There is a large and rapidly expanding literature on liberation theology. I review recent Latin American debates in “Religion and Politics: Drawing Lines, Understanding Change,” Latin American Research Review 20, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 185201, and place the issues in a comparative context in Religion and Politics in Comparative and Historical Perspective,” Comparative Politics 19, no. 1 (10 1986): 95122, and Holiness, Faith, Power, Politics,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 26, no. 4 (12 1987): 551–61. Liberation theology has drawn emulation and stirred sharp debate outside Latin America. In the Philippines, for example, there has been much discussion of liberation theology and its links to grass roots movements. See Liberation Theology and the Vatican Document Volume I: The Vatican Document and Some Commentaries (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1985); Liberation Theology and the Vatican Document Volume II: A Philippine Perspective (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 1986). Two recent North American contributions on liberation theology are Rodes Robert, Law and Liberation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), and Novak's Michael sharply critical Will It Liberate? Questions About Liberation Theology (New York: Paulist Press, 1986). The transformation of American black religion from quiescence and resignation to activism is relevant to these debates. See Raboteau Albert J., Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), chaps. 5 and 6; and Morris Aldon D., The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The Free Press, 1984).

2. Berryman Phillip, Liberation Theology (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 6, 205.

3. On this point see Zaret David, The Heavenly Contract: Ideology and Organization in Pre-Revolutionary Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), and two books by Hill Christopher: The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in th English Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1982) and The Century of Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982).

4. For a general discussion, see Walzer Michael, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985). The exodus paradigm of “oppression-wandering in the desert-the promised land” runs through much liberation theology. In this vein, Gustavo Gutiérrez compares being poor in Latin America to being in a foreign land in these words: “Exiled, therefore, by unjust social structures from a land that in the final analysis belongs to God alone… but aware that they have been despoiled of it, the poor are actively entering into Latin American history, and are taking part in an exodus that will restore them what is rightfully theirs” (We Drink From Our Own Wells [Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985], p. 11).

5. For a useful review of Latin American Christology see Bussmann Claus, Who Do You Say? Jesus Christ in Latin American Theology (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985).

6. Cf. Hellwig Monika, “Good News to the Poor: Do They Understand It Better?” in Tracing the Spirit: Communities, Social Action, and Theological Reflection, ed. Hug James E. (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), pp. 122–48.

7. Liberation Theology: From Confrontation to Dialogue (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986), p. 11.

8. The phrase has come to symbolize the conclusions reached at this important meeting of Latin America's Catholic bishops. For the complete text of the Puebla documents, along with selected commentaries, see Eagleson John and Scharper Phillip, eds., Puebla and Beyond (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1979).

9. For example, Novak, Will It Liberate? or the first Vatican instruction on liberation theology written by Ratzinger Joseph Cardinal, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the ‘Theology of Liberation,'” Origins NC Documentary Service 14, no. 13 (09 1984): 193204. The second Ratzinger instruction is more muted in tone. See Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation,” Origins NC Documentary Service, 15, no. 44 (17 04 1986): 714–28.

10. Cf. Dodson Michael, “Liberation Theology and Christian Radicalism in Contemporary Latin America,"Journal of Latin American Studies, 11, no. 1 (05 1979): 203222.

11. All citations from the Theses on Feuerbach are from the text in Tucker Robert, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972).

12. On Central America, see Berryman Phillip, Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in the Central American Revolutions (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984).

13. Gutierrez , We Drink From Our Own Wells, p. 2.

14. Ibid., p 29.

15. Gutierrez Gustavo, Teologia de la Liberacion (Lima: CEP, 1971).

16. Collier David, ed., The New Authoritarianism in Latin America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), remains a useful overview of political developments. On Central America, see Berryman, Religious Roots, and Baloyra Enrique, “Reactionary Despotism in Central America,"Journal of Latin American Studies 15, no. 2 (11 1983): 295319.

17. Smith Brian, “Churches and Human Rights: Recent Trends on the Subcontinent,” in Churches and Politics in Latin America, ed. Levine Daniel H. (Beverly Hills: SAGE Publications, Inc, 1980), pp. 155–93.

18. Adriance Madeleine, Opting for the Poor (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1986).

19. Levine , “Religion, the Poor, and Politics in Latin America Today,” in Religion and Political Conflict in Latin America, ed. Levine Daniel H. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 323.

20. The literature on CEB’s is large and growing fast. Recent collections of evidence with useful bibliographies include Azevedo Marcelo, Basic Ecclesial Communities in Brazil: The Challenge of a New Way of Being Church (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1987);Bruneau Thomas, The Church in Brazil: The Politic of Religion (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), Hewitt W. E., “Strategies for Social Change Employed by Comunidades Eclesiaes de Base (CEB’s) in the Archiodese of Sâo Paulo,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 25, no. 1 (03 1986): 1630; Levine, Religion and Political Conflict in Latin America; and Levine Daniel and Mainwaring Scott, “Religion and Popular Protest: Contrasting Experiences,” in Power and Popular Protest: Latin American Social Movements, ed. Eckstein Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming, 1988).

21. For details on Brazilian and Colombian cases, see Levine and Mainwaring, “Religion and Popular Protest.”

22. This point is made forcefully by Azevedo in his Basic Ecclesial Communities esp. pp. 8098 and 119–57. See also Wolterstorff Nicholas, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), especially chap. 7.

23. Berryman , Liberation Theology, p. 56.

24. For a detailed discussion, see Levine Daniel H., “Colombia: The Institutional Church and the Popular,” in Levine, Religion and Political Conflict, pp. 187217.

25. Two fascinating cases involving North American pastoral agents who were killed in Latin America are James Guadelupe Carney and Jean Donovan. See Carney’s revealing autobiography, To Be a Christian Is to Be a Revolutionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987). For Donovan, see Carrigan Ana, Salvador Witness The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985). I review the broader implications of Donovan's life and death in “‘Whose Heart Could Be So Staunch?’” Christianity and Crisis, 22 07 1985.

26. See Levine , “Colombia: The Institutional church and the Popular"; “Religion and Politics: Dimensions of Renewal,” Thought 59 (06 1984): 117–42; and “Church and Politics: Basic Trends and Likely Futures,” in The Signs of the Times: church and Politics in Latin America, ed. Keogh Dermot (London: Macmillan, forth-coming).

27. Smith Brian, The Church and Politics in Chile: Challenges to Modern Catholicism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), esp. chaps. 5–7.

28. Mainwaring Scott, “The Catholic Church, Popular Education, and Political Change in Brazil,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 26, no. 1 (02 1984): 92125, and his The Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil, 1916–1985 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986).

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