It went almost unnoticed, but on December 5, Benedict XVI articulated one of the most stinging rebukes of a particular theological school ever made by a pope. Addressing a visiting group of Brazilian bishops, Benedict followed some mild comments about Catholic education with some very sharp and deeply critical remarks about liberation theology and its effects upon the Catholic Church.
After stressing how certain liberation theologians drew heavily upon Marxist concepts, the pope described these ideas as “deceitful.” This is very strong language for a pope. But Benedict then underscored the damage that liberation theology did to the Catholic Church. “The more or less visible consequences,” he told the bishops, “of that approach — characterised by rebellion, division, dissent, offence and anarchy — still linger today, producing great suffering and a serious loss of vital energies in your diocesan communities.”
Today, even some of liberation theology’s most outspoken advocates freely admit that it has collapsed, including in Latin America. Once considered avant-garde, it is now generally confined to clergy and laity of a certain age who wield ever-decreasing influence within the Church. Nonetheless, Benedict XVI clearly believes it’s worth underscoring just how much harm it inflicted upon the Catholic Church.
For a start, there’s little question that liberation theology was a disaster for Catholic evangelization. There’s a saying in Latin America that sums this up: “The Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.”
In short, while many Catholic clergy were preaching class war, many of those on whose behalf the war was supposedly being waged decided that they weren’t so interested in learning about Marx or listening to a language of hate. They simply wanted to learn about Jesus Christ and his love for all people (regardless of economic status). They found this in many evangelical communities.
A second major impact was upon the formation of Catholic clergy in parts of Latin America. Instead of being immersed in the fullness of the Catholic faith’s intellectual richness, many Catholic seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s read Marx’s Das Kapital and refused to look at such “bourgeois” literature such Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.
This undermined the Church’s ability to witness to Christ in Latin America, not least because some clergy reduced Christ to the status of a heroic but less than divine urban guerrilla and weren’t especially interested in explaining Catholicism’s tenets to their flocks.
Then there has been the effect upon the Church’s ability to engage the new Latin American economic world that emerged as the region opened itself to markets in the 1990s. Certainly much of this liberalization was poorly executed and marred by corruption. Nonetheless, as The Economist recently reported, countries like Brazil — once liberation theology’s epicenter — are emerging as global economic players and helping millions of people out of poverty in the process. The smartest thing that Brazil’s left-wing President Lula da Silva ever did was to not dismantle most of his predecessor’s economic reforms.
Unfortunately, one legacy of liberation theology is the inability of some Catholic clergy to relate to people working in the business world. Ironically, business executives are far more likely to practice their Catholicism than many other Latin Americans. Yet liberation theology has left a residue of distrust of business leaders among some Catholic clergy — and vice versa. Distrust is no basis for engagement, let alone evangelization.
The good news is that the Church in Latin America is more than halfway along the road to recovery. Anyone who talks to younger priests and seminarians there today quickly learns that they have absorbed the devastating critiques of liberation theology produced by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s. If anything, they tend to regard liberation theologians, like the ex-priest Leonardo Boff, as heretical irrelevancies.
Indeed, figures such as Boff must be dismayed that the Catholic Church has emerged as the most outspoken opponent of populist-leftists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. As Michael Novak observed in Will It Liberate? (1986), liberation theologians were notoriously vague when it came to practical policy proposals. But if any group embodies the liberationists’ economic agenda, it is surely the populist Left, which is currently providing us with case studies of how to drive economies into the ground faster than you can say “Fidel Castro.”
As time passes, liberation theology is well on its way to being consigned to the long list of Christian heterodoxies, ranging from Arianism to Hans-Küngism. But as Benedict XVI understands, ideas matter — including incoherent and destructive ideas such as liberation theology. Until the Catholic Church addresses the legacy of this defunct ideology — to give liberation theology its proper designation — its ability to speak to the Latin America of the future will be impaired.