The theology of liberation
Michael Löwy (Sao Paulo, Brazil, 1938) is a French-Brazilian Marxist sociologist and philosopher. He is presently the research director in social sciences at the CNRS (French National Center of Scientific Research) and lectures at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS; Paris, France). He is also a member of the French political party Nouveau Partie Anticapitaliste (NPA).
He explains how the movement of the theology of the liberation is only the visible tip of the iceberg, while the philosophy is far greater and prior to the theology itself. There was a leftist Christian movement far before the development of the theology of the liberation in South America in the seventies. The philosophy of the theology of the liberation actually started to appear in the beginning of the sixties in Brazil through the meeting of different factors. Firstly, a debate was launched around change and reforms in the Catholic Church with the arrival as a pope of Jean XXIII. He opened a new era in the Catholic Church, which will unfortunately be closed after his death by his successors. Secondly, the Cuban Revolution in 1959 had consequences throughout the region and influenced the youth enormously.
The first expression of the theology of liberation is with the Brazilian Christian youth document, which associates ideas from the Christian tradition and anti capitalism Marxism. The movement will therefore extend throughout South America, a position which will embarrass the leadership of the Catholic Church in the region and in Rome. The movement started and expanded from Brazil because there was a link between the French and Brazilian Catholic Church from a while ago. In the French Catholic Church, there were leftist currents since the Second World War, with various groups’ such as “Esprit” that were part of the revolutionary left and close to the political thought of Emmanuel Mounier. These thoughts arrived in Brazil and influenced a lot the youth. A new interpretation was being made of the Bible and the Christian Theology in the frame of South America to reach ideas such as the “The South must free itself from the rich West”.
A very high symbolic point was reached in Colombia in 1965 when the priest Colores involved himself in the war and the Guevara struggles, taking up arms. His death will make him a martyr of the theology of the liberation.
The first institutional consequence was witnessed at the Medelin Bishops Conference where important decisions were made. Insurrections were legitimated and considered right in the case of tyranny, while the liberal economic structure of society was condemned as well. The text of the conference was written by the young assistants of the Bishops. These young assistants will become in their majority adherents to the theology of the liberation, notably Gustavo Guttierez who wrote the first book on the theology of the liberation.
Gustavo Guttierez had a vast Marxist knowledge and used to teach Marxism to students in Universities and Colleges. His book will have a huge impact in the region, and especially among the youth who will adhere in mass to this movement.
In 1964 in Brazil, the military Coup d’Etat, which was supported by the leadership of the Church at first, will mark the beginning of the repression against the sympathizers and members of the theology of the liberation who oppose the military regime. Many of them were involved in the résistance against the regime, supporting the military resistance as well. The severe repression against members of the church supporting the resistance will push the leadership of the Church to finally oppose the military regime in the seventies.
The theology of the liberation in these years will reinterpret various traditional thoughts of the Church. The traditional opposition of the Catholic Church to capitalism, showed by Marx Weber, which is considered to not respect any moral ethic, will be reframed from a conservative opposition to it to a more progressive one associated with Marxism and the papal encyclical. An anticapitalism based on moral indignation towards it from leftist Christians is therefore developed; their opposition to capitalism overtakes even sometime the ones of communist party in the region.
The Catholic Church traditional discourse of charity towards the poor is less and less used and changed towards a critic of the structure of the system. Erdel Kumara, an adherent of the theology of the liberation, resumes well in one sentence the consequence of such a change: when I help the poor charitably I am a saint, but when I ask why they are poor, they accuse me of being a communist.
The theology of the liberation criticizes the flaws of the capitalism system. Why are they so many poor? In the theology of the liberation, the poor are subjects of history; need to make them aware of it to liberate them.
The theology of liberation movement has had an enormous impact on the history and the reality of the region. In Brazil, the landless movement and lot of workers were involved in the theology of liberation. In the Sandinista revolution in Honduras, the theology of liberation activist s played a very important role. The Bishop from Chiapas was one of the founders of the Chiapas Zapatist movement; they also promoted the self organization of natives.
A number of activists following the theology of liberation were imprisoned and considered as traitors to the church. They divided the society between oppressors and oppressed. The pontificate in Rome reacted against this movement, including Jean Paul II and Ratzinger who attacked severely many followers of the theology of the liberation. Rome nominated conservative bishops and closed schools where the theology of the liberation was taught. A process of marginalization of the theology of liberation was pushed by Rome and instead the conservative wing was developed by it throughout the region. This conservatism particularly targets women and their rights; nevertheless the Church is often still progressive on social issues, especially on their support for agrarian reforms.
The theology of the liberation has known some inflection, but they have not abandoned their main themes. They added some issues such as racism against colored people, natives and marginalization of women. Ecology is an issue pushed forward recently by many activists of the theology of the liberation, including L. Boff. This latter denounces capitalism which destroys, oppress and exploits lands and people.
Many activists and supporters from the theology of the liberation have been killed in the past such as in Salvador when the army invaded the Jesuit University and assassinated numbers of them. The theology of the liberation was definitely an important phenomenon in South America, without which we cannot understand its contemporary history.