Influence of liberation theology

In this section of the OCR AS DCT specification you need to know about responses to liberation theology from the Roman Catholic church and from Protestants. You also need to know about how it has influenced other theologies of liberation like coloured theology or gay theology.

Responses from the Roman Catholic Church:

Ratzinger Letter (1983):

Read the letter here:

Cardinal Ratzinger began his letter by specifying that the term 'liberation theology' can be applied to a whole range of criticisms. He said that his criticisms were only targetted at those that had 'in one way or another, have embraced the marxist fundamental option'. He also said that whilst liberation theology was overall erronious it did contain some truth within it. In his opinion, the Church needed to 'in denouncing error and pointing to dangers in liberation theology, we must always be ready to ask what truth is latent in the error and how it can be given its rightful place, how it can be released from error's monopoly.' [i.e. it had to be influenced by the good bits whilst rejecting the bad].

His key objection to the content of liberation theology was that liberatio theologians misrepresent the Biblical message and misunderstand key Christian ideas. This occurs because they interpret the Bible in the light of exprience and making use of Marxist ideas and terminology. 

Love comes to mean a preferential option for the poor rather than something more universalist.

The poor are interpreted in Marxist class terms as the proletariat rather than being about an attitude of humility to God.

The Kingdom of God becomes something humans should achieve through praxis. It is not understood in a spiritual or universalist manner. 

The Exodus rather than the crucifixion/resurrection becomes the most important salvation event.

The Eucharist becomes a celebration of political liberation rather than a sacrament of atoning sacrifice.

Orthopraxis ursurps orthodoxy so that belief does not matter and the Biblical message can be reinterpreted.

Libertatis Nuntius (1984):


There is more detail here than you need (though reading primary material is useful). Skim to the bottom for a bullet point summary.

The Libertatis Nuntius or 'Instruction on certain aspects of the "Theology of Liberation"' was written by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1984.

It begins with a brief overview of the development of liberation theology and the key problems with it.

'Faced with the urgency of certain problems, some are tempted to emphasize, unilaterally, the liberation from servitude of an earthly and temporal kind. They do so in such a way that they seem to put liberation from sin in second place, and so fail to give it the primary importance it is due.'

In other words, liberation theology have a very narrow definition of liberation. They focus entirely on earthly liberation and do not place enough importance on liberation from (personal) sin.

The next cricism is directed at their use of Marx.

'Others, in an effort to learn more precisely what are the causes of the slavery which they want to end, make use of different concepts without sufficient critical caution. It is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to purify these borrowed concepts of an ideological inspiration which is incompatible with Christian faith and the ethical requirements which flow from it.'

In other words, Marxist concepts are used uncritically. Marxist ideas are at odds with Christianity and should not be used. (This point is developed in more detail later in the document).

Anther problem discussed is the problem of reductionism or over-simplification. For example, the Exodus story is part of the story of God's relationship with the Hebrews. It relates to issues of covenant, of monotheism and of ethical rules. Thus, liberation theology uses the Exodus story in a reductionist way.

'...the liberation of the Exodus cannot be reduced to a liberation which is principally or exclusively political in nature.'

Likewise, liberation theologians over-simplify and politicise the problem of suffering. It is true that a lot of the Bible does present God as helping those who suffer however,

'...suffering is not purely and simply equated with the social condition of poverty or with the condition of the one who is undergoing political oppression. It also includes the hostility of one's enemies, injustice, failure, and death...'

Because they over-simplify the problem they also over-simplify the solution to suffering. Political suffering is solved by political solutions and imply that humans can solve it. However, only God can really liberate people from the various things that oppress them and cause their suffering.

'The Psalms call us back to an essential religious experience: it is from God alone that one can expect salvation and healing. God, and not man, has the power to change the situations of suffering.'

Liberation theologians tend to reduce sin to either social sin or structural sin. However, the key problem is human relationships with God. It is only once this is recognised that other problems can be addressed.

'...the full ambit of sin, whose first effect is to introduce disorder into the relationship between God and man, cannot be restricted to "social sin." The truth is that only a correct doctrine of sin will permit us to insist on the gravity of its social effects.'

Ratzinger argues that the concept of structural sin enables people to avoid responsibility.

'Nor can one localize evil principally or uniquely in bad social, political, or economic "structures" as though all other evils came from them so that the creation of the "new man" would depend on the establishment of different economic and socio- political structures.'

He argues that Liberation theology fails to recognise that the structures of society come about from individual personal choices (and not people's choices from the structures). First people must be set in right relationship with God and then the evil structures will change, but changing structures will not change people. In other words, liberation theology has got its priorities around the wrong way.

'Structures, whether they are good or bad, are the result of man's actions and so are consequences more than causes. The root of evil, then, lies in free and responsible persons who have to be converted by the grace of Jesus Christ in order to live and act as new creatures in the love of neighbor and in the effective search for justice, self-control, and the exercise of virtue.'

Ratzinger also argued that the Roman Catholic Church had not been an impliment of oppression. It had stood up for the poor and oppressed and argued for socially responsible action.

'In order to answer the challenge leveled at our times by oppression and hunger, the Church's Magisterium has frequently expressed her desire to awaken Christian consciences to a sense of justice, social responsibility, and solidarity with the poor and the oppressed...'

Thus the Libertatis Conscientia reaffirms that helping the oppressed is important. However, Ratzinger cautions that it is still important for the Chruch to get its priorities right. Spiritual things should matter more than physical ones

'The feeling of anguish at the urgency of the problems cannot make us lose sight of what is essential nor forget the reply of Jesus to the Tempter: "It is not on bread alone that man lives, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4; cf. Deuteronomy 8:3).'

'Faced with the urgency of sharing bread, some are tempted to put evangelization into parentheses, as it were, and postpone it until tomorrow: first the bread, then the Word of the Lord. It is a fatal error to separate these two and even worse to oppose the one to the other.'

To focus just on the social element of Jesus' message results in a reductionist attitude to the whole gospel message.

'To some it even seems that the necessary struggle for human justice and freedom in the economic and political sense constitutes the whole essence of salvation. For them, the Gospel is reduced to a purely earthly gospel.'

Furthermore, concern with only social problems has lead liberation theologians to seek solutions in the wrong places.

'Impatience and a desire for results has led certain Christians, despairing of every other method, to turn to what they call "marxist analysis."'

This is (in Ratzinger's opinion) unwise for a number of reasons. Firstly, Marx might be wrong and his method may not be as logical as it appears.

'But the term "scientific" exerts an almost mythical fascination even though everything called "scientific" is not necessarily scientific at all. That is why the borrowing of a method of approach to reality should be preceded by a careful epistemological critique.'

Secondly, Marx provides a whole world view and all the aspects of his thought relate to each other. Thus it is not possible to take a pick and mix attitude to Marxism. 

'Marx is such a global vision of reality that all data received form observation and analysis are brought together in a philosophical and ideological structure, which predetermines the significance and importance to be attached to them. The ideological principles come prior to the study of the social reality and are presupposed in it. Thus no separation of the parts of this epistemologically unique complex is possible. If one tries to take only one part, say, the analysis, one ends up having to accept the entire ideology.'

Those using Marxist ideas need to be clear about where it might lead. 

'Marxism as it is actually lived out poses many distinct aspects and questions for Christians to reflect upon and act on. However, it would be "illusory and dangerous to ignore the intimate bond which radically unites them, and to accept elements of the Marxist analysis without recognizing its connections with the ideology, or to enter into the practice of class-struggle and of its Marxist interpretation while failing to see the kind of totalitarian society to which this process slowly leads." '

Marxist terms cannot be used out of context without risk of causing confusion in the minds of the hearers.

' In this context, certain formulas are not neutral, but keep the meaning they had in the original Marxist doctrine. This is the case with the "class-struggle." This expression remains pregnant with the interpretation that Marx gave it, so it cannot be taken as the equivalent of "severe social conflict", in an empirical sense. Those who use similar formulas, while claiming to keep only certain elements of the Marxist analysis and yet to reject the analysis taken as a whole, maintain at the very least a serious confusion in the minds of their readers.'

Anti-Chrsitian ideas are central to Marxism. For example, atheism and lack of concern for the individual (the end justifies the means).

'Let us recall the fact that atheism and the denial of the human person, his liberty and rights, are at the core of the Marxist theory.'

However, Ratzinger makes it clear that he understands the appeal of Marx.

'In certain parts of Latin America, the seizure of the vast majority of the wealth by an oligarchy of owners bereft of social consciousness, the practical absence or the shortcomings of a rule of law, military dictators making a mockery of elementary human rights, the corruption of certain powerful officials, the savage practices of some foreign capital interests constitute factors which nourish a passion for revolt among those who thus consider themselves the powerless victims of a new colonialism in the technological, financial, monetary, or economic order.'

Despite these concerns, the concept of class-struggle and the implicit use of violence that go with it are unChristian.

'For the Marxist, the 'praxis', and the truth that comes from it, are partisan 'praxis' and truth because the fundamental structure of history is characterized by 'class-struggle'. There follows, then, the objective necessity to enter into the class struggle, which is the dialectical opposite of the relationship of exploitation, which is being condemned.'

This relates back to reductionism and too much emphasis on salvation by human means. This means that the Kingdom of God becomes nothing more than something humans can create by their own struggles.

'thus there is a tendency to identify the kingdom of God and its growth with the human liberation movement, and to make history itself the subject of its own development, as a process of the self-redemption of man by means of the class struggle. This identification is in opposition to the faith of the Church.'

This in turn makes violence an obligation for Christians. If it is an important duty to resist oppression and if the way to do this is through violent class struggle then the Christian must have a duty to be violent. This seems to be at odds with the Christian message. In particular, it is at odds with universal love of neighbour.

'As a result, participation in the class struggle is presented as a requirement of charity itself. The desire to love everyone here and now, despite his class, and to go out to meet him with the non-violent means of dialogue and persuasion, is denounced as counterproductive and opposed to love. If one holds that a person should not be the object of hate, it is claimed nevertheless that, if he belongs to the objective class of the rich, he is primarily a class enemy to be fought. Thus the universality of love of neighbor and brotherhood become an eschatological principle, which will only have meaning for the "new man", who arises out of the victorious revolution.'

Ratzinger believed that liberation theologians had misunderstood what was meant by the term 'the poor' in the Bible.

'...disastrous confusion between the 'poor' of the Scripture and the 'proletariat' of Marx. In this way they pervert the Christian meaning of the poor, and they transform the fight for the rights of the poor into a class fight within the ideological perspective of the class struggle.'

Another problem with the liberation theologian's method is that they automatically reject theological ideas which come from those with power and authority. Only theology done from the perspective of the poor counts as authoritative, so all the rest is automatically excluded.

'Theologians who do not share the theses of the "theology of liberation", the hierarchy, and especially the Roman Magisterium are thus discredited in advance as belonging to the class of the oppressors. Their theology is a theology of class. Arguments and teachings thus do not have to be examined in themselves since they are only reflections of class interests. '

The effect of this is to make theology subordinate to class struggle. Theology and belief come second to action.

'Theological criteria for truth are thus relativized and subordinated to the imperatives of the class struggle. In this perspective, 'orthodoxy' or the right rule of faith, is substituted by the notion of 'orthopraxy' as the criterion of the truth.'

This in turn leads to unduly political readings of the Bible in which only the political message is appreciated.

'The new 'hermeneutic' inherent in the "theologies of liberation" leads to an essentially 'political' re-reading of the Scriptures. Thus, a major importance is given to the Exodus event inasmuch as it is a liberation from political servitude. Likewise, a political reading of the "Magnificat" is proposed. The mistake here is not in bringing attention to a political dimension of the readings of Scripture, but in making of this one dimension the principal or exclusive component. This leads to a reductionist reading of the Bible.'

The focus on political and social progress means that Christianity becomes no different from any other system which encourages social justice. The part which is unique (salvation in Jesus through atoning sacrifice) is lost.

'In giving such priority to the political dimension, one is led to deny the 'radical newness' of the New Testament ...'

Key sacraments are affected and the true meaning of the Eucharist (communion) is lost.

'This inversion of symbols is likewise verified in the area of the 'sacraments'. The Eucharist is no longer to be understood as the real sacramental presence of the reconciling sacrifice, and as the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ. It becomes a celebration of the people in their struggle. As a consequence, the unity of the Church is radically denied.'

It is important to note that Ratzinger did specifically say that Christians should be concerned with social justice, they should try to change society and they should pay attention to the social message of the Gospel. 

He said that the 'scandal of the shocking inequality between the rich and poor' should not be tolerated.

He also cautioned that his criticism of Liberation Theology 'must not be taken as some kind of approval, even indirect, of those who keep the poor in misery, who profit from that misery, who notice it while doing nothing about it, or who remain indifferent to it. The Church, guided by the Gospel of mercy and by the love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might.'

The dispute is not about whether the poor should be helped but HOW they should be helped.

The key points made were as follows:

  • Liberation theologians make too much use of Marx. This is problematic because Marxist thought all relates together so even if ideas are intended to be used in isolation they still relate to the whole thing. Marxist ideas like class-struggle and atheism are at odds with Christianity, however accepting Marxist analysis of the problems makes entering into class-struggle a duty.
  • Liberation theologians read Biblical stories in such a way that the political/social message is the only one of interest to them. It is not a mistake to see a political message, but it is a mistake to see it as the only message.
  • Liberation theologians prioritise dealing with social and structural sin without recognising that personal sin is the real problem. Liberation theologians need to recognise that evil structures come from evil people, not the other way round.
  • Liberation theology confusing human effort and human social progress with salvation and the Kingdom of God. They do not recognise that real salvation comes from God and only from God.
  • Christianity loses its distinctive and sacramental elements and becomes just a social message.

Silencing of Boff:

In 1984 Boff received a letter from Ratzinger objecting to the content of his book Church, Charisma and Power. Ratzinger hightlighted the ideological (i.e. Marxist) undertones and the non-traditional doctrines. In 1985 Boff was silenced for a year.

The work of other liberation theologians like Sobrino has also been closely scrutinised.

Attitudes of Pope Francis I:

In 2013 Pope Benedict resigned and Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope. He chose the name Francis as his papal name and became Pope Francis I.

Since becoming Pope, Francis has said and done various things that have led people to think that he is much more in tune with liberation theology than previous popes have been. Boff has welcomed Francis proclaiming in his blog that Francis will revitalise and reform the Church.

St Francis was a saint renown for his simple life-style.

According to Boff, the choice of the name 'Francis' is very significant and is a clear statement about the type of Pope that Jorge Mario Bergoglio intends to be. 

Boff also pointed out that Pope Francis

  • Has said that he wants the Church to be a church of charity.
  • He wore white rather than fancier papal regalia after his election of Pope.
  • Asked the people to pray for him rather blessing them first - thus giving power to the people.

Evangelii Gaudium here.

His first papal letter Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) included a criticism of capitalism, a concern for the poor and calls for the Church to decentralise power. In it he said:

'Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?'

Interview with Pope Francis here.

His criticisms of 'unfettered capitalism' have led people to accuse him of Marxism. In response to this he has said 'The Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people.'

He then went on to explain his criticisms of capitalism thus 'The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor.'

BBC article here.

In addition to this Pope Francis has said that he wants the Church to be 'a poor church for the poor.'

In September 2013 Pope Francis invited Gutierrez to the Vatican for a private visit.

This has all led to a lot of discussion about whether or not Pope Francis is a liberation theologian. Before he became Pope he had been regarded as a critic of liberation theology but his latin american background means that he understands better than most where liberation theologians are coming from.

  • The Telegraph announced in January 2014 that 'Liberation Theology is taking over the Vatican a quarter of a century after John-Paul II systematically sought to stamp out the "singular heresy"'.
  • In May it was reported that Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller had said that Francis 'is not so much a liberation theologian in the academic sense, but as far as pastoral work is concerned, he has close ties with liberation theology’s concerns. What we can learn from him is the insight that there is no pastoral work without profound theology and vice versa.' In other words he recognises the importance of commitment to the people as an essential element of doing good theology. Muller is head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithful (the papal body that had previously been critical of Liberation Theology). Muller himself has written a book entitled Poor for the Poor: The Mission of the Church. This book has two chapters by Gutierrez and a preface by Francis!

Protestant Theologies:

Other theologies of liberation:

Black Theology:

Gay/Queer Theology: 

Feminist Theology:

Further Reading:

Ratzinger letter here.