Jean-Pierre Cloutier

Note : Initially published in the Spring of 1987 in The Haiti Times.

There is ample talk these days of Liberation Theology, Church of the People, and Grassroots Religion. Much was said on the role of the Church in the downfall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, and almost simultaneously, in that of Philippino President Ferdinand Marcos. In South Korea lately, priests harbored protesters being chased by the police and army. In Nicaragua, the Church was instrumental in overthrowing Anastasio Somoza in 1979. In Brazil, the clergy asked for the end of systematic torture. The torture ended in 1979. It then called for free elections, which were held in 1985. Even in southwestern United States, base communities led by progressive priests are defending the rights to clean water and decent housing for Mexican Americans. Increasingly, large segments of the Catholic clergy are getting involved in social causes, promoting change, often using politics as a tool for transformation of the structures that keep the rich rich, and the poor poor. Supporting the base communities and the involved clergy are Church resources like radio stations, newspapers, publications, and the traditional Sunday homely. The now accepted term for this increased involvement of the Church is Liberation Theology.


Although the recent attention given to Liberation Theology would have us believe the phenomenon is new, the creation of trendy sectors of the clergy, or a coining of a phrase by keen propagandists, such is not the case. As far back as the Book of Exodus, The Book of Prophets (especially Amos), the Old Testament, and the Book of Beatitudes, the Christian message has been reflected and interpreted as a means of liberation of the poor. In Latin America, the first call for the Church to address policy issues came at the turn of the 15th century, when Pope Alexander VI granted control of the Latin American church to the kings of Spain and Portugal in exchange for political support of papal political endeavours in Europe. Then in 1537 Pope Paul III declared the American natives "truly human". In early industrial Europe, the Church also took position in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII's encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (New Things) which dealt with the conditions of the European working class.

The modern wave of Liberation Theology, however, dates back to the sixties and originates in Latin America where it is intertwined with direct political action. Significantly, Latin America was the cradle of Colonial Christianity but the anti-imperialist guerrilla phenomenon burgeoning at the time forced individuals or groups, including members of the clergy, into radical involvement. A current emerged from this radicalism, Revolution Theology, the vibrant symbol of which was Colombian priest Camilo Torres, killed in 1966 as he was fighting at the side of rebel groups. But the movement gained momentum after the Vatican II Council, which was held in late 1965 under Pope Paul VI. Emphasis in the debates had been put on the Church being the People of God, and on the Bible being the corner stone of Christian doctrine. This was somewhat of a change in doctrinal attitude because the Church had been based on a rigid hierarchy having the Pope at the summit of the pyramid, and second, it revalorized the presence of God in historical terms. Before the Council, a saying existed in the Roman Catholic Church that exemplified Rome's undisputed authority: Roma locuta, causa finita; Rome has spoken, the case is settled. But after Vatican II, some sectors of the Church felt empowered with more autonomy that they had previously experienced. At the time, then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla from Poland had championed the reforms. After his election to the Holy See, his first trip was to Puebla, Mexico, to address the first conference of Latin American bishops in almost 20 years. He was later to halt liberalization, after his election as Pope John Paul II.

Except for the controversial and outspoken Monsignor Dom Helder Camara from Brazil, the Latin American episcopate did not actively participate in the debates. However, the seed had been sown, and in 1968, the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) organized a general conference of bishops from the sub-continent in Medellin, Colombia. Its purpose was to apply Vatican II to Latin America. The impact was strongly felt throughout the continent. By the thousands, members of the clergy got involved in small base communities, urban and rural. The Church based its support on the poor and the under privileged, putting the Bible teachings and principles in action. Working with small groups of people, the groundwork for social justice had been laid. Non-existent in the sixties, the number of those small groups and base communities was evaluated in 1984 at between 80,000 and 100,000 in Brazil alone.


But such a mobilization of forces disquieted conservative elements of the Church's hierarchy, and opposition to Liberation Theology mounted. For the Latin American episcopate, the offensive was led by Colombian Bishop Alfonso Lopez Trujillo (since then named Cardinal). He had held the position of secretary general of CELAM, and later became its president in 1980. He was, in 1985, the only Latin American consultant to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CPDF), the Church's advisory board on doctrinal themes. The CPDF, originally called the Saint Office, is the Vatican's agency that was responsible for conducting the 16th-century Inquisition.

In 1983, feeling the movement was getting hard to contain, the Vatican asked Monsignor Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the CPDF to calm down the supporters of Liberation Theology. The movement was very strong in Peru, the native land of Father Gustavo Gutierrez considered by many as the new father of the modern Theology of Liberation. Gutierrez had played a major role at the Medellin meeting in 1968, and in 1971 had authored what amounted to be the new code book of action, Teologia de la Liberacion. So in March of 1983, Monsignor Ratzinger wrote to the bishops of Peru a message containing ten "observations" on the theories of Gutierrez. The expected end result was an official disclaimer by the Peruvian episcopate of Liberation Theology, but profoundly divided on the subject, the bishops decided not to issue any word on the subject.

In September 1983, at a conference held in Rome, Ratzinger renewed his attacks on Gutierrez, and also seriously questioned the views held by Salvadorean Professor Jon Sobrino, a close friend and advisor of Monsignor Oscar Romero who had been shot to death as he was saying mass in 1980. In May 1984 it was Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff's turn to be asked by Monsignor Ratzinger for explanations of his concepts. Charged with "doctrinal error in his writings", Boff, a Franciscan priest and former theology student of Ratzinger, was allowed to be accompanied by two archbishops to help him defend his ideas: Cardinals Evaristo Arns from Sao Paolo and Aloiso Lorscheider from Fortalezza. On September 3, 1984, the CPDF published an "instruction" dated August 6 rejecting Liberation Theology in principle. The document was signed by Monsignor Ratzinger and bore the approval of Pope John Paul II. On September 7, Boff was asked to restrain from further developing his Liberation Theology notions, and then by mid-1985, his book Church, Charisma and Power was officially banned by the Vatican. The book dealt with the liberating aspects of Christian faith, and challenged the Church to put into practice within its administrative hierarchy the human rights principles it prescribed for secular authorities.

In Nicaragua, the Pope called Liberation Theology base communities a schism, siding with a staunch critic of the Sandinista government, Managua Archbishop Miguel de Obando y Bravo, who had referred to them as popular churches. The Pontiff went even further in barring Fathers Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, respectively ministers of Culture and Education, from performing religious functions. Similar measures were taken against Maryknoll Father Miguel D'Escoto, minister of Foreign Affairs, and Father Edgard Parrales, Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organization of American States. In early 1985, each received a letter ordering him to resign from his post or be suspended from priesthood. The four said they would ignore the Vatican orders. Father Miguel D'Escoto commented by saying that his decision had always been the same, to serve God by serving his people.


Essentially, the conservative wing of the Catholic Church has formulated two criticism against Liberation Theology. First, the use of marxist analysis and other theories that in the end, it is said, defeat the cause of the poor; Monsignor Ratzinger once stated that one cannot examine injustice in Marxist terms without tacitly endorsing the philosophy's denial of the spiritual world and of God. Second, the questioning of the Church's hierarchy and authority lines. Ratzinger contends that Liberation Theology undermines the Church leaders' influence over the laity.

Liberation Theologists counter attack by saying their opponents' arguments are based on euro-centrist principles and that critics seem to ignore the spiritual resources of the poor and under privileged. In Teologia de la Liberacion, Father Gustavo Gutierrez draws a parallel between spiritual aspects of Christianity and the need to liberate people from degrading social conditions he simply calls oppression. The Christian response to oppression, he argued, should go beyond traditional charity. Christians should study how certain systems keep the majority of people in a state of poverty and need, and then act to restructure those systems. The analysis, says Gutierrez, is based on observation, not Marxism. Biblical tradition has God siding with the oppressed, as Moses led the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, as Jeremiah proclaimed freedom for the oppressed, as Jesus had come to "set at liberty them that are bruised." For Dom Helder Camara, Christianity's biggest challenge today is to find a way to deal with Marxism, as Thomas Aquinas did with the then-alien Aristotelian philosophy.

During his trip to Latin America in January and February 1985, Pope John Paul II failed to clarify his position on Liberation Theology. On the one hand, he emphasized the "need to make the impossible in order to bridge the gap separating the rich andthe poor" but on the other hand he warned against "passing ideologies" that subordinate the Bible to socio-political categories thus threatening the Church's identity and unity. In 1981, in his encyclical letter Laborem Exercens (On Work), he had vigorously supported trade unionism, human rights, due process of law, minimum guaranteed standards of living, as a whole, supporting the struggle of the trade union Solidarnosc in his native Poland.


The method adopted by the small Church groups involved in Liberation Theology is to teach the Bible by establishing parallels with nowaday realities. But even the method of teaching is non-conventional. Adherents to small groups are not necessarily asked to memorize chapters and verses, but rather to develop an awareness of their social environment, and see how the Lord's words apply to it. This notion had been elaborated in principle by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in a book titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed published in the mid-sixties. Freire suggested that learning should start from the point of view of the poor and seek to help students develop awareness of their own answers to urgent needs. In short, the theory was a precursor of the bottom-up concepts of the eighties.

But teaching the Gospel through awareness is not the only action undertaken by Liberation Theologists. Base communities go on to form theological reflection groups and human rights advocacy organizations, and propose new structures like land reform, self-help ventures, and peasant cooperatives. As expected, Liberation Theologists are often labeled as communists because of their option for changing existing social rapports de force. It is to be remembered that in 1967, Pope Paul VI had been criticized by several sectors after he issued his encyclical letter Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples) judged as leaning too far to the political left.


Liberation Theology, like it or not, is a fact of life in Latin America. But it is also present in South Africa where apartheid, white minority rule supported by armed repression, is being fought by some progressive sectors of the clergy. South African theologians issued in October, 1985, the Kairos (Moment of Truth) document. It asserted that "Both oppressor and oppressed claim loyalty to the same Church. They are both baptised in the same baptism and participate together in the breaking of the same bread,the same body and blood of Christ. There we sit in the same church, while outside, Christian policemen and soldiers are beating up and killing Christian children or torturing Christian prisoners to death, while yet other Christians weakly plead for peace. The Church is divided and its day of judgment has come." According to the Kairos document, the division of the Church is set in three: State Theology, Church Theology, Prophetic Theology.

State Theology is the theological justification of the status quo achieved by the misuse of biblical texts and concepts. Law and order is criticized by South African theologians. They say that the apartheid law is unjust, and that order is the organized and institutionalized disorder of repression. Fear of communism is also part of State Theology. "This is a very convenient way of frightening some people into accepting any kind of domination and exploitation by a capitalist minority"said the document.

Church Theology is described as calling for non-violence, thereby criticizing the resistance of the people while overlooking the violence of the police and army. "The State and the media have chosen to call violence what some people do in the townships as they struggle for liberation i.e. throwing stones, burning cars and buildings and sometimes killing collaborators. But this excludes the structural, institutionalized and unrepentant violence of the state and especially the oppressive and naked violence of the police and the army. These things are not counted as violence. And when they are acknowledged to be 'excessive', they are called 'misconduct' or even 'atrocities' but never violence."

The Kairos document called for a Prophetic Theology that would be unambiguous in its stand for the poor and the oppressed, and for a ministry of involvement that would decry the evils of apartheid and the injustices of the system, and serve the needs of the struggle for liberation, mobilizing its members to work and plan for a change in government. And yes, at times, getting involved in civil disobedience.

Another powerful force in the South African Church is Bishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. Speaking at a World Council of Churches session in Harare in December 1985, he made what some considered provocative statements when he declared "We who want a peaceful solution are rapidly becoming an irrelevancy. We talk with words and they (the government) reply with bullets. This is why I have said, if I was young, I would have rejected Bishop Tutulong ago." But at no time did he suggest the Church should take up the call to arms. This impatience of the youth of several developing countries toward tangible social changes was also addressed by Beyers Naude, Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches and co-author of the Kairos document, in a message to the General Synod of the Church of England. He called on Churches, both inside and outside South Africa to carefully reconsider their traditional stand on violence in the light of what was happening in South Africa. "Especially where we are challenged by the thousands of young people who are currently engaged in the struggle for liberation in South Africa and are saying: 'For years and years we have waited for the Churches to prove to us that they, with their non-violent actions, have been successful in dismantling apartheid -- to little avail. Now we see our militant, and sometimes violent actions seem to achieve more in a short space of two years than all the Church resolutions of the past 20 years.'" In South Africa, Naudes said, the three white Dutch Reformed churches continue to support government policy, while the Baptists, Pentecostals and the Charismatic groups maintained "non-political" stances, refusing to become involved in the issue of social justice.


"I believe the teachings of Christ are highly revolutionary and coincide completely with the objectives of a Socialist or of a Marxist-Leninist. The raw material of a religious martyr is just the same as that of a revolutionary." This quote is not from a bishop, priest or theologian. It is an excerpt from a book about Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Fidel and Religion, written by Brazilian theologist Brother Betto and based on 23 hours of interviews with the Lider Supremo. A record-setting book in the Cuban publishing history, 300,000 copies were sold in the first four months after it was originally published in December 1985. No mere feat if one considers there are only an estimated 80,000 practicing Catholics in Cuba. The book puzzled observers of the internal politics of the Caribbean's largest island; some said that as Castro entered his sixties, he was getting softer toward religion than during his early revolutionary years. Others said the Jesuit-trained leader wanted to erase any hint of religious persecution in Cuban. But Western diplomats in Cuba felt he was trying to use Liberation Theology to diffuse his revolutionary message in neighboring countries. Castro says in the book: "Nowonder imperialism, its governments, its spokesmen and its theoreticians have begun a bitter struggle against Liberation Theology... a theory that includes the best in the history of Christianity and which is in absolute contradiction to the values of imperialism. I would define Liberation Theology as an encounter of Christianity with its roots, and all Latin America's left should consider this one of the most important events of modern times." As for the author, 41 year-old Brother Betto, he says he is not certain what Castro's political intentions were, but his purpose in meeting him was to show points of convergence between Marxists and Christians as there is no fundamental antagonism between believers and unbelievers who fight for justice.


Latest figures published in the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year indicates there are 1.06 billion Christians in the world. The West Indies, Central and South America have between them more than 400 million believers in the Bible, and although Liberation Theology has gained no stronghold in the Northern Hemisphere, except in Poland, it has developed into a major force within these people south of the U.S. border. It is also growing in influence in Africa. By the year 2000, half of Christianity will be in Third World countries, in countries where the majority are poor and for which Liberation Theology has more to offer than the traditional Theology of Submission. Submission to a State, to a highly hierarchized Church, to a fate of poverty and hunger.

Whether they are called bidonvilles in Haiti, favellas in Rio de Janeiro, barriadas in Lima, tambos in Bolivia, ranchitos in Caracas or ciudades perdidas in Mexico, a slum is a slum. Overcrowded, dirty, with no water or sanitary conditions, no health services, housing millions of jobless, lost cities where even hope is hard to come by. Theologian Elizondo explains: "Liberation Theology came out of the context of poverty because most of the people in Latin America are poor. The Church asked the question 'What does it mean to be a Christian here and now?'"

During his trip to Latin America in 1985, Pope John Paul II while in Peru declared that the real problem of the region was not Marxism, it was misery. But the recent push of Liberation Theology has prompted the Vatican into trying a perplexing balancing act. While supporting the preferrential option for the poor, but condemning the Marxist influence, the Vatican has lately appointed bishops known for their conservatism like Monsignors Arturo Rivera y Damas in Salvador, Miguel Obando y Bravo in Nicaragua, and Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga in Honduras.

Liberation versus Submission. The balancing act is proving hazardous. Either the Church endorses Liberation Theology in clear and un-ambiguous terms, or it risks losing its membership to more active and radical ways of effecting change. With or without Rome, the trend is too strong be be halted now and looks likely to be a determining factor until the current state of things becomes more oriented towards a better repartition of wealth and resources, a trend that seems bound to carry us through to the turn of the twentieth century.


Back to The Haitian Files Page

On this site: May 18, 1997