This essay appears in print in Reclaiming Freedom.
In 1984, in the heat of the Cold War, leading neoconservative theologian and American Enterprise Institute fellow Michael Novak took to the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine to denounce the decades-old liberation theology movement. For its advocates, the movement was a method that put social emancipation, not the afterlife, at the center of Christian practice. For Novak, it was an unholy alliance between Marxist ideology and Christianity.
Novak detailed how idealistic Latin American clergy, nuns, and missionaries had all been duped by its fusion of religion and revolutionary thought. It had swindled U.S. politicians, too. When the likes of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill challenged Ronald Reagan’s effort to cast the revolutions rocking Central America as existential threats to U.S. security interests, they were relying on liberation theology’s distorted account of reality, Novak contended. The stakes could not be higher. “If Marxism, even of a mild sort, flourishes” in Latin America and the Philippines, he warned, “and if it were to be officially blessed by Catholicism, two powerful symbolic forces would then have joined hands.”
Novak must have heard how Fidel Castro had discredited a center-right Cuban Catholic hierarchy as “Pharisees” and “white sepulchers” during a fiery August 1960 address. (“To betray the poor is to betray Christ,” Castro declared. “To serve wealth is to betray Christ. To serve imperialism is to betray Christ.”) And he had surely seen the global outpouring of sympathy after the 1980 murder of El Salvador’s archbishop Óscar Romero at the hand of militias once supported by a U.S.-backed government. Romero had been a relatively conciliatory bishop before assuming the Church’s top post in El Salvador, where he grew increasingly frustrated with state violence and the government’s broken promises of reform and embraced liberation theology’s practical vision. Romero’s political turn must have shown Novak what was dangerous about the movement: that it could radicalize the faithful, from young priests on the ground to members of U.S. Congress.
For Novak, one book in particular—“electrifying and seminal,” he had to admit—encapsulated the movement: Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971 and first translated into English in 1973. (The translation was recently rereleased in a fiftieth-anniversary edition by Orbis Books.) Born in 1928 of mixed Spanish and Indigenous ancestry, Gutiérrez studied in Louvain, Belgium, at the height of Francophone progressive theological influence in the post–World War II period; he counted among his classmates the Colombian priest and revolutionary Camilo Torres. When Gutiérrez returned to Peru, he sensed the excruciating disconnect between high theology and everyday realities. Surrounded by crushing poverty and anticolonial resistance, he grappled with where a traditional institution like the Catholic Church should stand. It was in these conditions that A Theology of Liberation was born, melding rigorous biblical interpretation, social science, and a vision for social justice.
In the United States today, organized Christianity is mostly associated with restrictions on reproductive autonomy, countermajoritarian and white nationalist agendas, and an embrace of free enterprise economics (even though it has also played a central role in civil rights and progressive movements throughout U.S. history). A Theology of Liberation, by contrast, represents a tradition that put religious reflection at the heart of the struggle of the global poor. By embodying ambition instead of compromise, it also offered an alternative to the schismatic tendencies of multicultural liberalism.
The book is a product of the concerns of its time; it was published years before women and minority voices began to shape the terms of broad political debate. Some of the social and economic crises it combatted—military rule and armed revolutions—are thankfully, for now, in Latin America’s past. But others—issues of economic dependence, political and cultural oppression, and glaring inequalities—remain, and so too does its influence.
A Theology of Liberation combines multiple publications and talks Gutiérrez gave in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) and in the run-up and aftermath of its Latin American successor, the Second Latin American Episcopal Conference (1968) in Medellín, Colombia. The two conferences, which Gutiérrez attended as a theological consultant, sought to guide the Catholic Church in a comprehensive response to a globalizing and modern world.
The Church had already started down this road in the 1930s. But the horrors of World War II and the onset of the Cold War and decolonization presented new challenges for a faith growing rapidly in a colonized Latin America and the “mission territories” of Africa and Asia. Places and people that had, until then, been mere afterthoughts in the halls of Rome now held the key to Catholicism’s future in the modern world. In a 1962 radio address on the eve of the second council, Pope John XXIII argued for the Church to present itself to the “underdeveloped countries” as “Church of all, and especially the Church of the poor.”
Chile’s Manuel Larraín Errazuriz, from Talca, and Brazil’s Dom Hélder Câmara, from Rio, would pick up the Pope’s call. The two bishops helped organize the informal Domus Mariae group, representing a two-thirds voting majority of Latin American bishops, that successfully organized bishops to approve liturgical and interfaith reforms rather than simply rubber-stamp the previous Vatican Council of 1870. At the same time, French theologian Paul Gauthier’s Christ, the Church and the Poor (1963), which argued that a globalizing Church needed to address global poverty, started making the rounds in a subgroup of bishops, led by Gauthier, that called themselves the “Church of the Poor” and sought to put poverty on the agenda of the Council.
Chief among this second group of bishops was Bologna’s Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro. At the end of the first session of the Second Council in 1962, Lercaro warned that “Our spirit will not be sufficiently responsive to God’s design and man’s expectation unless we place the Mystery of Christ . . . and the preaching of the Gospel to the poor” at the heart of the council’s work. To do so, he proposed that the Church build fewer gilded churches, wear less fine red linen, and take off the multi-jeweled papal tiara, as it were. The liturgical changes sought (and eventually won) at the Council would ideally signal a more profound shift toward massing most of the institution’s vast resources, not just a few individuals who had taken vows of poverty, at the service of the marginalized.
But the agenda of the poor did not drive the discussion at that council, nor at any of the subsequent ones. (In fact, Lercaro retired amid political controversy.) Despite reformers’ best efforts, the economic needs of the global majority were never objects of great concern. Nevertheless, the Church of the Poor reaffirmed its commitment in a “Catacombs Pact,” signed in 1965 primarily by up-and-coming Latin American bishops but also by lesser-known North Atlantic and Asian-stationed prelates, vowing to implement a vision of simplicity and service to the poor upon returning home.
Taking stock of these developments a decade later, Gutiérrez expressed disillusionment about global institutions’ attempts at economic development in Latin America. The largesse of the Alliance for Progress, a U.S. development financing program responding to the Cuban Revolution, had not borne fruit, and the Church hierarchy was moving too slowly. Reaching the poor was an urgent matter of faith, Gutiérrez thought, not just politics. By 1970, five years after the Second Council closed, 349 million of the world’s 654 million Catholics lived in the Global South, and some 256 million lived in Latin America—where 40 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.
The 1965 Gaudium et Spes, one of the Council’s main documents, had allowed besieged populations—those “oppressed by a public authority overstepping its competence”—to “defend their own rights and the rights of their fellow citizens against the abuse of this authority.” In “Populorum Progressio” (1966), John’s successor, Pope Paul VI, nodded to the alleged positive benefits of colonialism and condemned revolutionary violence but—perhaps regretting some of those statements—would go on to bless African decolonization in 1967. How could one not have seen revolutionary violence as a legitimate (though certainly not the only) response to glacial progress?
At that point, Latin American bishops realized that advancing a theology suitable for their countries’ poor was a task they would have to take on themselves. The Second Latin American Episcopal Conference, where Gutiérrez served on various commissions, made significant progress toward this end. Câmara, now in Recife, Brazil, had already argued the need to combat inequality in a 1966 preparatory conference in Argentina. Working with social movements in pursuit of goals such as agrarian reform and labor rights, he argued, would prove that religion was not merely an opiate of the people. The bishops at the Medellín conference laid out what they saw as some of Latin America’s harsh realities—economic and political dependency on the North Atlantic countries, the need for rapid urbanization, high illiteracy, and a weak internal productive capacity and market—and they called on governments to develop policies to address them.
Gutiérrez also wrote in the midst of dictatorial backlash against the Cuban Revolution and Richard Nixon’s increasing concern about socially active priests in Latin America and the Caribbean. Though Nixon wanted to blame radicals for upsetting the stability of the social order, the U.S. State Department was clear-eyed about the threats of inaction. Though “the forces arrayed against the progressives and church-sponsored social reform . . . remain impressive,” intelligence analysts wrote, and “the conservative establishments that control most of the countries are much stronger than the proponents of change,” this state of affairs was far from permanent. These forces might keep revolution in check in the short term, but eventually “frustration over lack of progress, in fact, may lead progressive and radical churchmen into becoming an increasingly disruptive force both within the church and in Latin America in general.” Such warnings proved more than prophetic. They directly guided U.S. policy, which sought to discredit socially minded elements of the Catholic Church as hopelessly in thrall to communism.
Indeed, Gutiérrez’s choice to dedicate his book to José María Arguedas and Antônio Henrique Pereira Neto speaks to the region’s perilous political and religious conflicts—and to the growing sense of a Latin American political and ethnic identity they crystallized. The work of Arguedas, a Peruvian poet and personal friend of Gutiérrez’s, contrasted Andean Indigenous cosmologies with Western materialism, manifest in both traditional colonization and orthodox Marxist materialism. Neto, a young sociologist and priest who worked with Câmara in Recife, was murdered in 1969 under Brazil’s new military regime.
And if economic progress was measured by national autonomy, Latin America’s situation was also grim. In 1950 Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch had warned that “the enormous benefits that derive from increased productivity have not reached the periphery in a measure comparable to that obtained by the peoples of the great industrial countries.” Even after the 1950s and 1960s, when Brazil and Mexico had achieved their industrialization targets, the situation had simply deteriorated further.
It was this context that led Gutiérrez to reject “a spiritual life removed from worldly concerns.” Communion with God, he insisted, should mean addressing the failure of development and the persistence of abject poverty. If, as Antonio Gramsci argued, philosophy was for everyone, so, for Gutiérrez, was theology. Christians could and should become “organic intellectuals” by prophetically denouncing injustice and announcing the Good News of a society to come here on earth. Like Augustine, Gutiérrez argued that Christians should interpret the changing times in light of Scripture’s historical and future-oriented visions to discern where God stood.
Discerning a path forward from the 1970s realities was even more important given the coexistence of Marxist and Christian worldviews in Latin America, both of which offered egalitarian views of the future. Gutiérrez made clear that Christianity and Marxism had important differences, though these differences, for him, led to “direct and fruitful confrontation” rather than irreconcilable conflict. Through this debate, Christianity would have to search “for its own sources” to better understand both the role of humans in history and how to transform the world.
Developmental theorists such as Joseph A. Schumpeter, Colin Clark, and François Perroux had offered one answer. They argued that economic development could both serve the common good and foster innovation. The newly independent Asian and African countries that met at the 1955 Bandung Conference had also demanded a right to economic development as opposed to a cycle of debt with industrialized colonial powers. It encouraged its participants to sell finished goods instead of raw materials.
The failure of this path led younger social scientists such as Enzo Faletto and Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who would later serve as Brazil’s president), Theotonio dos Santos, and Andre Gunder Frank to focus less on the stages of development of individual economies and societies than on their position in the global economic system. Under these new theories, countries were either “peripheral” or “central,” dependent on others or in a position to profit from dependence. It was here, Gutierrez thought, that theology could enter into the fold. If dependency was a form of domination or oppression, did Christians not have the obligation to take up the struggle to liberate the region from it?
A Theology of Liberation’s sweeping review of 1970s Latin America, development, and dependency theories can sometimes lead one to forget that it is primarily a theological work. Yes, those who shared “the same political option” were often “Christians of different confessions . . . often marginal to their respective ecclesiastical authorities,” Gutiérrez wrote. But this diversity should not water down Christianity for the sake of cooperation, he thought. It should instead cause these Christians to ponder what their faith as such could contribute to conflictual or postrevolutionary societies.
At the heart of Gutierrez’s own theology lay a “qualitative” view of salvation. Gutierrez, like the Second Council, rejected an over-spiritualizing of the Jewish prophets rooted in Blaise Pascal’s anti-Semitic reading of the Tanakh as merely a precursor to the New Testament. The Tanakh contained forceful denunciations of economic inequalities, but some Christian philosophers like Pascal had argued these could be ignored altogether as if it was simply a Jewish “carnal” precursor to the “true” heavenly salvation.
If followers were freed of this misreading, Gutierrez argues, they would find that Christian beliefs had liberatory implications in the present. “By his death and resurrection, he redeems us from sin and all its consequences,” he writes. Salvation was not merely “a cure for sin in this life” but rather a “communion of human beings with God and among themselves,” wrestling with “all human reality” and transforming it “to its fullness in Christ.” In a break from traditional North Atlantic theologians, Gutierrez suggests that salvation first required denunciation—what Herbert Marcuse called a “great refusal” of current social arrangements. But it could not stay there. A society in the fullness of Christ would achieve utopia, the “city of the future” envisioned by Thomas More where “the common good prevails, where there is no private property, no money or privileges.” Quoting Che Guevara, Gutierrez points out such a society would not simply have “shining factories.” Rather, it was “intended to help the whole person.” “Human beings,” Che thought, “must be transformed.”
This vision had both social and theological implications. The Kingdom could not be reduced only to “temporal progress,” or the improvement of material conditions—an error Gutiérrez claimed even the Council and Teilhard de Chardin had made. Sin, “the fundamental obstacle to the Kingdom,” was “also the root of all misery and injustice.” The Christian must accept not only personal salvation but “the liberating gift of Christ” embodied in “all struggle against exploitation and alienation.” The Church as an institution also had an obligation to speak out. “Its denunciation must be public,” Gutiérrez concluded, “for its position in Latin American society is public.”
The Exodus story is the “paradigmatic” lens through which Gutiérrez reads this salvation history. God desires the liberation of his people, but even they can look back fondly on “the security of slavery” by “beginning to forget” the horrors of enslavement in Egypt, Gutiérrez writes. But the very act of breaking free of Pharaoh’s grip leads to a “desacralization” of the prevailing social order and justifies direct Christian action in history. If there is any “final meaning of history,” such an end gives “value to the present.” God’s promise of salvation in the future should drive Christians to commit to a just social order now.
The most controversial section of A Theology of Liberation addresses the universal call of Christian love in a region split into oppressive and oppressed classes. Gutiérrez argues that the God of the Exodus story took sides and that Christians must as well. Quoting the French bishops, he points out that class struggles were a fact, not something one advocated or deplored. More importantly, as Brazilian educator Paulo Freire argued in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), liberating the oppressed would liberate the oppressors as well. “One loves the oppressors by liberating them from their inhuman condition as oppressors,” Gutiérrez writes—that is, “by liberating them from themselves.” Quoting Che again, he emphasizes revolution as an act of love in a Latin American context. While in the 1988 edition Gutiérrez was careful to denounce “terrorism and repression,” in the original text he was more ambiguous. “The political arena is necessarily conflictual,” he had written. “The building of a just society means the confrontation—in which different kinds of violence are present—between groups with different interests and opinions.” In short, violence was natural in the pursuit of liberation, even if one should do all one could to avoid it.
These ideas presaged a convergence between North Atlantic and Latin American liberation theologies. In the United States, Black American theologian James H. Cone was already making similar arguments in response to the civil rights movement’s turn toward Black Power. “Unless the empirical denominational church makes a determined effort to recapture the man Jesus through a total identification with the suffering poor as expressed in Black Power,” Cone wrote in Black Theology and Black Power in 1969, “that church will become exactly what Christ is not.” Cone also prefigured Freire, who would later write in the foreword to the 1986 edition of Cone’s book, A Black Theology of Liberation: “The man who enslaves another enslaves himself. . . . Whites are thus enslaved to their own egos. Therefore, when blacks assert their freedom in self-determination, whites too are liberated.”
Gutiérrez’s book had limited reach in the English-speaking world until its 1973 translation, which generated immediate commentary. His seeming endorsement of violence caused concern among mainstream U.S. theologians distant from harsh Latin American realities. Paul Schilling, writing in The Thomist, chided Gutiérrez for an alleged lack of ethical analysis: “One misses in this perceptive interpretation any critical examination of the role of revolutionary violence from the standpoint of Christian ethics.” A 1975 National Catholic Reporter article covering a transnational liberation theology conference in Detroit saw support for violence as a prophetic contradiction in Gutiérrez’s thought. “A Christian can employ violence when it is the lesser of existing evils,” the article contends. “Instead of Isaiah’s exhortation to turn swords into plowshares, liberation theology would turn altar rails into barricades.”
Gutierrez’s reception in the Global South and nonwhite America was quite different. In 1971 the National Catholic Reporter highlighted a conference he headlined with Puerto Rican independence movements, the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), and Mexican American priests like Father Ralph Ruiz, who had worked to bring the plight of the hungry and poor in San Antonio to the national stage. The book received its share of critiques from these other audiences, but they were generative. Authors such as Native American theologian and activist Vine Deloria Jr. criticized the entire category of liberation as a Western construct flattening the specific national identities of first peoples. From this perspective, liberation was not an international struggle of a universal worker subject; it was the right to the recognition of their own sovereignty, language, and difference, even if that meant drawing on their own traditions where the Old Testament failed them.
Moreover, feminists such as Mexican reproductive health scholar Itziar Lozano challenged bishops and theologians at the 1979 Puebla Conference to go beyond classifying women simply under the category of “poor.” This presaged later challenges even to the very use of the Exodus story itself in Native American and Palestinian contexts. Black and African theologies, too, were conflicted over the proper balance between politics and theology, hope and anger. But for all their differences, they revolved around the revolutionary method A Theology of Liberation had cemented: reading scripture through the lens of liberation. It was an endlessly flexible method, this reception showed—one that could serve constituents from lesbians and women in the home to democratic resistors in Korea and caste outcasts in India.
Of course, this uptake alarmed the religious and political powers of the day. John Paul II, the Polish pope who had supported worker priests in Europe, turned against the guiding philosophy of those who had put him over the top in his 1978 election. The CIA developed informal plans to limit the reach of socially minded clergy and issued worried reports about their progress. Well-heeled Catholic libertarians like Novak wrote polemics. Local governments killed U.S. Catholic women missionaries in El Salvador—eliciting only silence from the Reagan administration. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took aim at liberation theologies for replacing the Kingdom of God with revolution, importing heretical theories from Europe in the name of local theology, and calling for the dismantling of the Church hierarchy. Gutiérrez himself narrowly avoided censure by a tie vote of his own country’s conference of bishops.
In the 1988 edition of A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez responded both to critiques of the book and to the crackdown on the broader movement, astutely updating the work in various ways. He cited John Paul II’s more favorable encyclicals on the working class, declared dependency theory obsolete, and reflected the growth in feminist and identity-based theologies, which drew attention to the “doubly oppressed and marginalized.” He referenced the Brazilian bishops’ wrestling with the country’s continuing injustices during their Abolition Centennial. And in a completely rewritten section, he highlighted racism in South Africa and acknowledged ongoing conflicts in “Northern Ireland, Poland, Guatemala, and Korea”—and changed “class struggle” to the more anodyne “social conflict.” But he also framed the project of liberation as largely a success. In this, he rejected the claim of conservative Catholics that the movement had driven the faithful into Latin American evangelicalism.
Demographics were not everything. Gutiérrez’s thought has continued to inform social movements both within Latin America and around the world. It instilled courage in figures such as the martyred Oscar Romero, canonized as a saint in 2018, and Argentina’s Enrique Angelleli, declared a martyr that same year. In 1975 Paul VI praised liberation theology’s ecclesial base communities as “a hope for the universal Church.” The late global health advocate Paul Farmer took inspiration from Gutiérrez. Even a mainstay of the Catholic hierarchy’s opposition to reforms, German bishop Gerhard Müller, published a book with Gutiérrez in 2015.
Liberation theology’s influence further manifests in the long-running debate among Latin American evangelicals about the role of social justice and liberation. While recent political trends have underscored evangelicals’ focus on conservative cultural values, among a substantial minority of evangelical intellectuals and a significant part of working-class evangelicals in countries like Brazil there remains a healthy respect for implementing public policies reflecting the values the liberationists advocated.
Gutiérrez was not the first theologian to write about liberation, nor did his book provide the most expansive definition of the movement. But it might have been the most politically instrumental: here was a work that both responded to the specific context of 1970s Latin America and foresaw our changing politics of recognition more broadly. In the 1990s, beaten down by harsh political repression and socialism’s apparent discrediting after 1989, the liberation theology school seemed, for a moment, to have finally run out of steam. But it never fully died. How could it? Gutiérrez’s simple message—that God is on the side of the poor and marginalized—is one forever waiting to be retooled for shifting times.
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