6.2.1 Liberation theology: an outline

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Unit 6 Contents



For centuries Latin America has been, in an obvious sense, the most Roman Catholic region of the world; it has had and still has the highest proportion of people who identify as Catholic.1 In 1968, just three years after the end of Vatican II and one year Populorum Progressio appeared, a major gathering of Latin American Catholic bishops took place in the city of Medellin, Colombia.  At that time Latin America included several highly authoritarian political regimes, including in Brazil, which is by far the largest country in the region.2 In most countries there was extreme inequality: great wealth held by small elites alongside immense poverty.3 Inspired not least by Gaudium et Spes and PP, the Medellin conference issued a set of statements characterized by “an extraordinary freshness, clarity and power” that, in sum, expressed a stance of opposition to the oppression to which so many in Latin America were subject.4

In the years after the Medellin meeting, this stance was interpreted in a distinctive way and developed more fully in the movement called liberation theology.  Some of the most significant developments in CST in the decades after Medellin, especially to do with justice and international development, can be seen as formed in response to liberation theology.  This is why we are studying it here.



Apart from in the first page of Unit 6, liberation theology was mentioned at one point earlier in the module: at the end of Unit 2’s outline of the historical context of the development of CST – see the last few paragraphs in 2.4.6.

Are you at all familiar with liberation theology from other sources or experience?

What assumptions about it are you bringing to this study of it?


At the start of a short book called Introducing Liberation Theology, written by two of its leading exponents, one of the authors relates some incidents from his experience, including this:

One day, in the arid region of northeastern Brazil, I met a bishop going into his house; he was shaking.  “Bishop, what’s the matter?” I asked.  He replied that he had just seen a terrible sight: in front of the cathedral was a woman with three small children and a baby clinging to her neck.  He saw that they were fainting from hunger.  The baby seemed to be dead.  He said: “Give the baby some milk, woman!”  “I can’t, my lord”, she answered.  The bishop went on insisting that she should, and she that she could not.  Finally, because of his insistence, she opened her blouse.  Her breast was bleeding; the baby sucked violently at it.  And sucked blood.  The mother who had given it life was feeding it, like the pelican, with her own blood, her own life.  The bishop knelt down in front of the woman, placed his hand on the baby’s head, and there and then vowed that as long as such hunger existed, he would feed at least one hungry child each day.5

The movement of liberation theology was driven by reaction against the human suffering that poverty causes.  Its advocates argued: here, in Latin America, poverty – meaning people “lacking the means to sustain life”6 – is so severe that we need fundamental social change, a once-and-for-all liberation, like God’s liberation of the Israelite slaves from the Egyptian pharaohs.  ‘Development’ makes a false promise, because dramatic change is needed.  Moreover, the ways in which economic production and trade are structured across the world mean that, within each country, power is concentrated in a wealthy elite that holds down the poor majority and, globally, rich countries collectively keep poor countries in poverty. Despite PP’s vision of integral human development, those structures mean that it won’t happen; rather, what ‘development’ means in practice is the extension of capitalism – and this means exploitation of workers that keeps them in poverty.

The liberation theologians asked: how can there be change?   The interests of the powerful and rich are secure as things are, so in practice most of them will resist making the major changes that are really needed – and this is especially the case under military dictatorships.  Therefore the poor cannot expect the existing economic and political elite to act for them.  Rather, they must take their destiny into their own hands and become agents of their own liberation, willing to challenge, oppose and, by peaceful methods, to overthrow the existing regimes.

Moreover those Christians who are not already among the poor need, like Jesus did, to live in solidarity with the poor – consciously to identify with them and to work for their liberation.  Living in this way makes a reality of God’s “preferential option for the poor”.

In the last three paragraphs I have attempted to sum up the essence of liberation theology.



What is your first reaction to liberation theology, as outlined in these paragraphs?

Does it represent a coherent vision?

On the basis of just those three paragraphs, does liberation theology strike you as consistent with or in tension with CST as presented in Mater et Magistra and Populorum Progressio (i.e. as studied in Unit 5)?

The first page of Unit 6 noted that there was a huge debate about liberation theology within the Catholic Church; this was especially in the 1970s and 1980s but has continued until today.  In light of that outline, why do you think it was controversial?

If you already have some knowledge of liberation theology, do you have a sense of where you stand in that controversy?  Are you attracted to liberation theology or do you react against it?  Either way, why?


The above gives only a brief outline of liberation theology and, to understand how it relates to developments in CST, we need to examine it more fully.  Below and on the next four screens, we give careful attention to its main elements.

Any movement calling for radical change to the status quo will be controversial, but the debate about liberation theology in the Catholic Church centred less on the fact that it made such a challenge than on Marxism.  Leading liberation theologians were in some ways influenced by Marxism and this was bound to provoke reactions: as you know, CST had always been clearly opposed to Marxism.  The basic question this raised can be put like this: does liberation theology represent a cogent and compelling Christian position quite apart from ways in which its advocates drew on Marxism, or did this influence mean that Marxist ideas became an inherent part of liberation theology such that it contradicted Catholic teaching?

As we now study liberation theology more fully, I shall first describe it without reference to Marxism.  Then, on 6.2.5, I shall bring in ways in which Marxism was an influence.  I hope this approach will help you to form your own assessment about how the question above should be answered.  I hope too that it will help us to prepare to examine the Vatican’s own response to liberation theology on the subsequent pages.  The aim of this approach is to enable our study to do justice both to liberation theology and to its critics’ arguments.

On the next screen we look at two of the elements that formed liberation theology.



End of 6.2.1

Go to 6.2.2 Base ecclesial communities and Freire on ‘conscientization’

Module B outline

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  1. Latin America means South and Central America. Strictly, the term does not name a continent but a global region. 

  2. There was military rule in Argentina for most of 1955-1983, in Bolivia for most of 1964-1980, in Brazil from 1964-1985, in Chile from 1973-1988, in Peru from 1968-1980, and in some other Latin American countries for parts of the same decades. 

  3. In 1960, approximately 50% of people in Latin America had income of less than US$2 per day. By 1970 the figure was about 40%. Source: Perry, Guillermo E., Arias, Omar S., López, J. Humberto, Maloney, William F. and Servén, Luis. Poverty Reduction and Growth: Virtuous and Vicious Circles (World Bank, 2006), p. 2; accessed 12 June 2015 at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTLACOFFICEOFCE/Resources/870892-1139877599088/virtuous_circles1_complete.pdf. For a main source of statistics on Latin America see the ‘Data and statistics’ section of the website of CEPAL, in English ECLAC, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, at http://www.cepal.org/en/datos-y-estadisticas

  4. Dorr, Option for the Poor (ref. in 6.1.1 n. 1), p. 206 

  5. Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, translated by Paul Burns, Introducing Liberation Theology (Tunbridge Wells: Burns and Oates, 1987), pp. 1-2 

  6. Boff and Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, p. 46 

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