The Pope on Liberation Theology

March 29, 2019

On January 26, 2019, at the World Youth Day events in Panama (January 23 – 27, 2019), Pope Francis met with 30 Jesuits, of which 18 were novices, from the Central American Province, which includes Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

A variety of topics were discussed at the meeting, including liberation theology and the relationship between the Jesuits and politics. The Holy Father answered the questions asked of him, frequently referencing his personal experiences. An account of the interview was published on February 14, 2019, on the website of the Italian Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica.

“In America you were pioneers in the years of the Christian social struggles,” the pope said, “with your sins, with your errors, but still pioneers.” He deplored the general condemnation of the movement: “At that time whenever people condemned liberation theology, they were condemning all of the Jesuits in Central America. I heard terrible condemnations. (…) Anyhow, history has helped discern and purify.”

“Certainly, some fell into Marxist analysis,” he admitted—only to recall unexpectedly that he had concelebrated a Mass with, 

...the one most persecuted, Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian (…) and the then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Müller. And it happened because Müller himself brought him to me as his friend. If anybody had said back then that the prefect of the CDF would have brought Gutiérrez to concelebrate with the pope, they would have taken him for a drunk. 

Journalist Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service (CNS) clarified that this could have happened in September 2013, when Cardinal Müller and Gustavo Gutiérrez met privately with Pope Francis at the Domus Sanctae Marthae. Since then, Pope Francis’ statements and the interreligious document of Abu Dhabi have somewhat enlightened the German cardinal, despite his friendship with Fr. Gutiérrez and works in support of him, which would explain his Manifesto of Faith of February 9, 2019 (see DICI no. 381, February 2019).

In the same interview, Francis explained, “The idea was that canonizing Romero was impossible because that man wasn’t even a Christian; he was a Marxist!” The former archbishop of San Salvador, assassinated in 1980, was canonized on October 14, 2018 by Pope Francis. “Today we old people laugh about how worried we were about liberation theology,” the sovereign pontiff stated outright.

Liberation theology appeared in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 65). Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, archbishop of Bologna, stated at the time that “poverty and the evangelization of the poor should not be a theme of the Council, but the theme of the Council.” In 1968, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, chaplain to the Peruvian students, was a theological consultant at the second conference of the Latin American bishops’ conference held in Medellín, Colombia. He was asked to speak of the theology of development; he then spoke of “liberation theology.” His book Liberation Theology was published in 1971.

In 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), whose prefect at the time was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, condemned liberation theology (Instruction Libertatis nuntius, August 6, 1984) for its employment of Marxism in its analysis of society. Among the most famous members of the movement can be included Archbishop Hélder Câmara, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Leonardo Boff, and Gustavo Gutiérrez, its founding father. Liberation theology can be perfectly summarized in two statements. The first is a quote from liberation theologian Leonardo Boff: “What we propose is Marxism, historic materialism, in theology.” The second is from the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez: “Our understanding of liberation theology is the participation in the political process of revolution.” Gutiérrez explained the meaning of this participation:

It is only in rising above a society divided into classes (…) and in supressing private ownership of the riches created by human labour, that we will be in a condition to lay the foundations for a more just society. This is why efforts to program a more just society in Latin America orient themselves more and more towards socialism.

In an interview with Sergio Ferrari of news agency Apic [now] published May 7, 2007, Leonardo Boff said that the evolution of South American governments to the left is thanks to liberation theology. “The new fact,” he declared, that we are living in a left-center democratic process in almost all the countries on the continent. This social phenomenon, for example, among others, in Bolivia, in Ecuador and in Brazil, is partly due to significant participation from the Liberation Church, which has carried the same banners for 50 years, and is victorious today. Liberation theology helped to consolidate this advance, as Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa has publicly recognized. Several of [Brazilian president] Lula’s ministers are from this sector. The triumph of this theology is very clear today, both in the political sphere and in ecclesiastical domains.

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