“It seems clear today that the purpose of the Church is not to save in the sense of ‘guaranteeing heaven.’ The work of salvation is a reality which occurs in history…. the Church is to be ‘reconverted’ to the service of the workers in the class struggle.”1 These statements are drawn from the book, A Theology of Liberation, by Father Gustavo Gutierrez Merino, a Peruvian priest who is considered the founder of the so-called Liberation Theology.
Today, Liberation Theology which was so much talked about in the 70’s and 80’s, and which seemed to be dead, has returned to the news. What is liberation theology?
In a nutshell, Liberation Theology is a current of activist theologians who seek to transform the Church and social structures based on a Marxist dialectical interpretation of Scripture. In parallel, they strive to establish an egalitarian Church — one with no distinctions between hierarchy, clergy and faithful — and a classless socialist society with no private property, and which they present as being the Kingdom of God on earth. Their main tool to accomplish this are the so-called Basic Christian Communities.2
Marxist Fermentation in Catholic Circles
With his 1971 book, Liberation Theology, Father Gutierrez is generally thought to be the founder of this politico-religious current. In fact, however, Marxist fermentation in Catholic circles had been going on for a long time, especially in the Catholic Action movement. For example, in Brazil, already at the end of the 50’s, Catholic Action Youth had joined with the Communist Party Youth to dominate student politics. In 1962 these Catholic young adults founded a political movement, Ação Popular, which metamorphosed into the Marxist revolutionary movements of the 60’s and 70’s.3
It was no coincidence that, before entering the seminary, Father Gutierrez was a member of Catholic Action in Peru and became its chaplain after his ordination. Having received his theological training in Europe, he was influenced by progressivist French and German theologians (“Nouvelle Théologie”), as well as revisionist biblical Protestants, especially Rudolf Bultmann.
Using Religion to Bring in Socialism
Gutierrez’s perspective is simple: class struggle is the driving force of history; this struggle pervades both civil society and the Church, and thus a theologian must commit himself to this fight in order to know the truth through action and to “save” and “liberate” man from oppressive structures and establish a socialist classless society. Let us see a few more quotes from his 1971 work: “… class struggle is a fact, and neutrality in this matter is impossible.”
“…there is nothing more certain than a fact. To ignore it is to deceive and to be deceived and moreover to deprive oneself of the necessary means of truly and radically eliminating this condition — that is, by moving toward a classless society.”4
“To participate in class struggle not only is not opposed to universal love; today, this commitment is the necessary and inescapable means of making this love concrete, as this participation is what leads to a classless society, a society without owners and dispossessed, without oppressors and oppressed.”5
“…the Church’s mission is defined practically and theoretically, pastorally and theologically, in relation to… the…revolutionary process. That is, its mission is defined more by the political context than by intraecclesiastical problems.”6
“…class struggle exists within the Church itself…the unity of the Church is rightly considered…a myth that must disappear if the Church is to be ‘reconverted’ to the service of the workers in the class struggle.”7
A Marxist Interpretation of Theology
In March 1983, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith analyzed Gutierrez’s book in the document, Ten Observations on the Theology of Gustavo Gutierrez.
The Congregation’s main objection, from which all its other censures stem, is that Marxism “is the determining principle from which Gutierrez goes on to reinterpret the Christian message.”8
In his doctoral thesis of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame about Gustavo Gutierrez’s thinking, Raymond Bautista Aguas summarizes the document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as follows:
“The first theme is that the CDF claims Gutierrez suffers from a Marxist bias/interpretation. The second is that the Congregation points out flaws in Gutierrez’s methodology. The third is that the Congregation accuses Gutierrez of overemphasizing the human dimension to the detriment or even exclusion of the divine.… [T]he CDF document clearly states that Gutierrez is Marxist.… The CDF also points out that Gutierrez’s methodology as regards many aspects of his theology is flawed. For example, it claims that Gutierrez uses a faulty biblical hermeneutic. The bible is selectively reread, and certain events are given special importance. More importantly, these events, like the Exodus, are given exclusively political interpretations. Another example the Congregation gives is Gutierrez’s prioritizing orthopraxis over orthodoxy. The experience of God in the struggle for social justice is privileged as a means of receiving revelation, to the detriment of the teaching of the Church.”9
Theology Becomes Revolutionary Praxis
In 1984, shortly before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the famous document titled, Instruction On Certain Aspects Of The “Theology Of Liberation,”10 the then-Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of that Congregation, in his capacity as a private theologian, wrote an assessment of Marxist Liberation Theology.
Though not mentioning Father Gutierrez by name, Cardinal Ratzinger draws some quotes from his book and summarizes his thought. After showing Bultman’s influence, he presents that theology’s Marxist aspect:
“The fundamental concept of the preaching of Jesus is the ‘Kingdom of God.’ This concept is also at the center of the liberation theologies, but read against the background of Marxist hermeneutics. According to one of these theologians, the Kingdom must not be understood in a spiritualist or universalist manner, not in the sense of an abstract eschatological eventuality. It must be understood in partisan terms and with a view to praxis….
“The word redemption is largely replaced by liberation, which is seen, against the background of history and the class struggle, as a process of progressive liberation. Absolutely fundamental, finally, is the stress on praxis: truth must not be understood metaphysically, for that would be ‘idealism.’ Truth is realized in history and its praxis. Action is truth. Hence even the ideas which are employed in such action are ultimately inter-changeable. Praxis is the sole deciding factor. The only true orthodoxy is therefore orthopraxy.”11
An Orthodox Liberation Theology?
According to the documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in principle one could have a non-Marxist, orthodox Liberation Theology. But for this to work it would be necessary to jettison the fundamental principles of that theology, which are the replacement of theological reflection with revolutionary praxis and the principle of class struggle.
Now then, to this day no Liberation Theology is on record as having done that.
Father Gutierrez himself, who sought to adapt his book to the Holy See’s guidelines by removing its references to Karl Marx, has not rejected the concept of class struggle or the so-called orthopraxis.
Sarah Kleeb, who studied Gutierrez’s thought and the revised (1988) edition of his book makes this comment:
“While Gutierrez goes to explicit lengths to distance himself from Marx…this seems to be done only in a token fashion, and that his understanding of injustice remains forceful even in light of his modifications of methodology.”12
Indeed, Kleeb shows that Gutierrez has remained faithful to the principle of class struggle, though quoting the French Episcopate rather than citing Marx directly. And she comments:
“Yet, the difference between this understanding of class struggle and the ‘Marxist interpretation of this struggle is unclear. Both acknowledge the existence of class struggle, its origins among greedy minorities, and the necessity of resolution. It would seem the only real divergence lies in the inspiration for such action—for Marx, class conflict must be resolved for the sake of humanity; in the above mentioned framework, it must be resolved for the sake of proper faith. Despite their points of origin, however, the goals of each are one and the same.”13
Only the Truth Sets us Free
“The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32), Our Lord said. In vain will one find liberation outside of this truth which is the Savior Himself (Cf. John 14:16), or outside “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Anchored in these foundations, the Supreme Magisterium of the Catholic Church serves as our guide and leads us to salvation. Without these foundations, “liberation theologians” do the work of the one who did not dwell in truth and is the father of lies, the devil and Satan (Cf. John 8:44).
At this time of extreme confusion, let us remain faithful to the faith of our fathers, rather than run after lying novelties.
- Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis Books, 1973), pp. 255, 277.
- Cf. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Gustavo Antonio Solimeo, Luiz Sérgio Solimeo, As CEBs… das quais muito se fala, pouco se conhece – A TFP as descreve como são (São Paulo: Editora Vera Cruz, 1983), 4th
- Cf. Ação Popular, http://www.pucsp.br/cedic/colecoes/acao_popular.html; Sebastião Nery, A UNE no açougue, http://www.sebastiaonery.com.br/visualizar.jsp?id=1953.
4 Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, p. 272.
- Ibid., 274.
- Ibid., p.276.
- Ibid., p. 138.
- Ibid., p. 277.
- Ten Observations on the Theology of Gustavo Gutiérez, no. 2, quoted by Raymond Bautista Aguas, Relating Faith And Political Action: Utopia In The Theology Of Gustavo Gutiérrez, p. 161. http://etd.nd.edu/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-07202007-124112/unrestricted/AguasRB072007.pdf. (Our emphasis).
- Aguas, Relating Faith And Political Action, pp. 161-162.
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Libertatis Nuntius on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation, Aug, 6, 1984, at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19840806_theology-liberation_en.html.
- In The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI, Vittorio Messori, Ignatius Press, 1985, pp. 183, 185. (Emphasis added)
- Sarah Kleeb, “Envisioning Emancipation: Karl Marx Gustavo Gutierrez, and the Struggle of Liberation Theology,” http://utoronto.academia.edu/SarahKleeb/Papers/84048/Envisioning_Emancipation_Karl_Marx_Gustavo_Gutierrez_and_the_Struggle_of_Liberation_Theology.
- Sarah Kleeb, op. cit.