What is Liberation Theology?

…hope does not weaken commitment to the progress of the earthly city, but rather gives it meaning and strength. It is of course important to make a careful distinction between earthly progress and the growth of the Kingdom, which do not belong to the same order. Nonetheless, this distinction is not a separation; for man’s vocation to eternal life does not suppress but confirms his task of using the energies and means which he has received from the Creator for developing his temporal life. Enlightened by the Lord’s Spirit, Christ’s Church can discern in the signs of the times the ones which advance liberation and those that are deceptive and illusory. She calls man and societies to overcome situations of sin and injustice and to establish the conditions for true freedom.

Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (1986) § 60

Our Lord began His public ministry by declaring “good news to the poor” and “liberty to captives” (Luke 4:18). Since that time, the Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Saints of the Church have been explaining and practicing the preferential option for the poor and the liberation, both temporal and spiritual, which Jesus Christ brought to the world. 

The phrase “theology of liberation” (TOL) comes from Latin America, which has a long history of being both Catholic and the victim of imperial capitalist oppression. In the words of Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, “Liberation theology was born when faith confronted the injustice done to the poor” (Introducing Liberation Theology, Chapter 1). In response to the scandal of destitution, TOL examines the structures of sin which create extreme poverty, takes the side of the poor, and asks “what relation is there between salvation and the historical process of human liberation?… between faith and political action, or in other words, between the Kingdom of God and the building up of the world.” (A Theology of Liberation, Chapter 3).

The book A Theology of Liberation (1972), by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, O.P., is considered the foundational text of the movement. However, the inspiration of TOL is often traced to the Second Vatican Council’s statements: “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et Spes § 1) and “the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (GS § 4). The Latin American Bishops (CELAM) were very supportive of the development of TOL in the Council of Medellín (1968) and the Council of Puebla (1979).

Along with seeing Christ in the poor, Liberation Theology calls for a lived commitment to the liberation of, and solidarity with, the poor. This has led to a number of martyrs, such as Saint Oscar Romero, Sr. Dorothy Stang, Fr. Ezequiel Ramin, and the six Jesuits of UCA (one of whom, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría co-authored the 1991 TOL textbook Mysterium Liberationis), all murdered by right-wing soldiers, death squads, and hitmen. 

Among the people, the Church in Latin America has founded many “base communities,” intentional lay communities—often in indigenous and marginalized regions—dedicated to mutual aid, scriptural study, and communal liberation. Attentiveness to the unique theological insights provided by the poor People of God when they interpret Scripture is another theme of TOL. Due to this, many faithful Catholics have contributed to popular and revolutionary movements throughout Latin America. 

Liberation Theology is an expression of Catholic Social Teaching, and many faithful liberationists have consistently critiqued both capitalism and socialism. Though there was a need for the Vatican Instructions of 1984 and 1986 to correct the heresies of theologians who had embraced Marxist-Leninist views of class war, private property, or hierarchy, or those for whom “the Gospel is reduced to a purely earthly gospel,” TOL remains an essential ethos for integralist political theory. In the words of Pope Saint John Paul II, “…we are convinced, we and you, that liberation theology is not only timely but useful and necessary.” (Letter to the Bishops of Brazil 5:2, 9 April 1986)

This warning should in no way be interpreted as a disavowal of all those who want to respond generously and with an authentic evangelical spirit to the “preferential option for the poor.” It should not at all serve as an excuse for those who maintain the attitude of neutrality and indifference in the face of the tragic and pressing problems of human misery and injustice. It is, on the contrary, dictated by the certitude that the serious ideological deviations which it points out tends inevitably to betray the cause of the poor. More than ever, it is important that numerous Christians, whose faith is clear and who are committed to live the Christian life in its fullness, become involved in the struggle for justice, freedom, and human dignity because of their love for their disinherited, oppressed, and persecuted brothers and sisters. More than ever, the Church intends to condemn abuses, injustices, and attacks against freedom, wherever they occur and whoever commits them. She intends to struggle, by her own means, for the defense and advancement of the rights of mankind, especially of the poor.

Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” (1984), Introduction