The OCR Developments in Christian Theology AS course requires that you know about praxis within liberation theology.  This includes Gutierrez' first and second step praxis, Boff's three mediations (socio-analytical, hermeneutical and practical) and the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

Orthopraxis versus orthodoxy:

Be aware!

However, it is an over-simplification to say that traditionally the Catholic Church has just been concerned with belief or that liberation theologians thought that only praxis mattered.  Traditional Catholicism has always taught that faith should lead to action and have valued good works like charity.  Liberation theologians also value belief and see orthopraxis as being about putting your beliefs into practice. Therefore, traditional teaching and liberation theology are not as far apart as they might appear - it is more a matter of emphasis.

Orthodoxy means 'right belief' and orthopraxis means 'right action'. Liberation theologians would say that traditional Christianity has traditionally placed too much emphasis on right belief (orthodoxy) and not enough on right action (orthopraxis).

For example, historically the Roman Catholic church has done the following things to ensure that people have orthodox (correct) beliefs.

  • The magisterium (Pope, bishops and theologians) make pronouncements on matters of faith, doctrine, interpretation of the bible, moral and ethical issues etc.  Their teaching can be viewed as infallible (when the Pope says is ex cathedra) or just authoritative.  
  • Taught children their catechism.  This involves learning a set of specific answers to specific questions about belief.  Together the questions and answers provide a summary of the central principles of Catholic faith.
  • People could be excommunicated for heretical beliefs.  To be excommunicated meant that a person could not go to Church of take part in sacraments.  Many people believed this meant that the excommunicated person would not be able to go to heaven.

Liberation theologians argue that given the situation in Latin America action was much more important than thought.  They would support this by reference to Jesus' teaching in the gospels and teaching from the Old Testament prophets who stress that God wants justice more than religiosity (see notes on Jesus the liberator and on hermeneutics).

The relationship between faith and action was made clear in the Medellin document which said that 

Love is 'the dynamism which ought to motivate Christians to realise justice in the world'

'We believe that the Latin American Episcopate cannot avoid assuming very concrete responsibilities because to create a just social order an eminently Christian task.'

First and second step praxis:

Gustavo Gutierrez divided the concept of praxis in two. 

  • First step praxis = experiencing poverty and oppression and siding with the marginalised.
  • Second step praxis = actively engaging theologically and trying to bring about transformation.

Thus theology is part of the second stage, not the first.  Liberation theology begins with experience and moves to a theological response to the experience.  This is what is meant by doing theology from 'the underside of history' or from the perspective of the poor.

Leonardo Boff's three mediations set out the way to move from first step praxis to second step praxis in more detail.

The three mediations:

Leonardo Boff set out the three mediations as a way of explaining how to move from first act praxis to second act praxis.  The three mediations are as follows:

  1. See what needs changing.  SOCIO-ANALYTIC MEDIATION (you are analysing society)
  2. Judge how best to change it. HERMENEUTIC mediation (you are interpreting society)
  3. Act and change it. PRACTICAL mediation (you are doing something practical about it)

Notes on the use of Marx here.

Notes on the use of the Bible are here.

Notes on praxis here and CEBs here.

The mediations underpin the whole of liberation theology.  The socio-analytic (seeing) mediation uses Marxism to see and understand the problems within . 

The hermeneutic mediation (judging) uses the BIble to judge society and work out whether or not it fits with God's plan for the world.

The practical mediation (acting) takes place primarily within the CEBs and involves orthopraxis.

Therefore, if you got an essay question on the three mediations you structure your essay around the mediations and use them to bring in the other areas of liberation theology that you have studied.

The prelimary stage: Living commitment

Boff stated that liberation theology begins with experience.  Theology is the second stage that comes from experience.  Liberation theology must begin with a commitment to the poor.  That commitment needs to be real, it cannot just be words (i.e. just saying that you care about the poor is not enough).

Boff described liberation theology as dialectical because it comes from the interaction between faith (theory) and love (action).

The aim of liberation theology is to liberate people and in order to do this effectively the theologian must know what problems they face.  Ultimately, the aim is to produce good liberating theology, but Boff said:

'...what we want to stress here is that this is impossible without at least some contact with the world of the oppressed.  Personal contact is necessary if one is to acquire new theological sensibilities.' 

It is impossible to do liberation theology without experiencing the lives of the people that you want to liberate.  

Although Boff does not use the analogy here, one could say that there is a parallel between the idea of God becoming incarnate to solve the problems of humanity and theologians becoming poor to address the needs to the marginalised and oppressed.  One of the points made at Medellin was that the Church needed to accept voluntary poverty as a commitment in order to truly side with the poor

Liberation theology stressed that theology should be done from the perspective of the poor.  It should not just be done for them.  Without living along side the poor it would be impossible to really understand their problems.  There would be the danger that you would try to solve the wrong problem (i.e. something that might seem a really big issue to you from your outside perspective, but might not actually be their main concern).

Boff said that living along side the poor gave liberation theologians a 'new spirit' and enabled them to do theology in a new way.  Traditionally theology was done in universities by learned men who were perhaps somewhat removed from the real world.  

The socio-analytic mediation:

The seeing mediation is about discovering what causes oppression. 

'Liberation meand liberation from opporession.  Therefore, liberation theology has to begin by informing itself about the actual conditions in which the oppressed live, the various forms o foppression they may suffer.'

'Furthermore, if faith is to efficacious, in the same way as Christian love, it must have its eyes open to the historical reality on which it seeks to work.'

Exam hints:

Using analogies can be a very good way of helping you to explain ideas convincingly.

You could compare the situation to that of a doctor trying to treat a sick person.

First they need to understand what causes the symptoms, then they can treat the disease. 

'Faced with the oppressed, the theologians' first question can be: Why is there oppression and what are its causes?'

Boff suggested that all the oppressed have one thing in common; they are all poor.  This implies that there is an economic basis for oppression.

'There is one overarching characteristic of the oppressed in the Third World:  they are poor in socio-economic terms.  They are the dispossessed masses on the peripheries of cities and in rural areas.'

Boff also said that we need to look at how they have arrived in their condition of poverty and oppression.  What historical processes led to them becoming poor? Only by understanding how oppression comes about can you end it.

In addition, liberation theologians need to consider what (if anything) the people are already doing for their own liberation.  The liberation theologian cannot just come in and tell people what they should be doing, they need to first see where the people are currently at.

Marxist ideas are used in the seeing mediation to understand the causes of poverty.  Given that Boff has identified economic factors as the common theme among the oppressed it makes sense to turn to an economic theory to understand the problem further.  However, Boff was keen to reject the claim that liberation theologians were Marxists.  He said:

In liberation theology, Marxism is never treated as a subject on its own but always from and in relation to the poor. Placing themselves firmly on the side of the poor, liberation theologians ask Marx:'What can you tell us about the situation of poverty and ways of overcoming it?'  Here Marxists are submitted to the judgement of the poor and their cause, and not the other way around.'

'Therefore, liberation theology used Marxism purely as an instrument.  It does not venerate it as it venerates the gospel.  And it feels no obligation to account to social scientists for any use it may make - correct or otherwise of Marxist terminology and ideas...To put it in more specific terms, liberation theology freely borrows from Marxism certain 'methodological pointers' that have proved fruitful in understanding the world of the oppressed.'


The key idea here is that Marxism is 'an instrument'; it is something that is useful in achieving a particular end.  The reason why Marxism is useful to liberation theologians is that it explains how exploitation, alienation and false consciousness come about.  It critiques Capitalism and religion and provides suggested ways to move forward.

Whilst liberation theologians use Marx to understand the world.  They do not use Marx to judge it (because Marx has no authority to judge).  To judge the situation liberation theologians turn to the Bible.

The hermeneutic mediation:

The hermeneutic mediation or judging mediation uses the Bible to pass judgement on the state of society. The only valid criteria for judgement can be the word of God.

'Once they have understood the real situation of the oppresseed, theologians have to ask:  What has the word of God to say about this?'

This means that liberation theologians use the bible in a very specific way.  When they read the bible they are looking for answers to specific problems.  they want the bible to provide concrete solutions to the issues faced by the poor.  This affects their choice of text and their method of interpretation (see notes on hermeneutics).

'The liberation theologian goes to the scriptures bearing the whole weight of the problems, sorrows, and hopes of the poor, seeking light and inspiration from the divine word.'

This is why biblical hermeneutics needs to be done from the perspective of the poor.

Boff made clear that the way liberation theologians use the Bible is not the only way to interpret it.  However, it is the approach that they feel is best suited to the circumstances.  He also said that although they stress certain themes (e.g. liberation) they do not encourage people to ignore the rest of the Bible.

'We must say straightaway that this is not the only possible and legitimate reading of the Bible.  For us in the Third World today, however, it is the obvious one, the 'hermeneutics of our times'.'

Finally, Boff said that liberation hermeneutics 'favours application rather than explanation'.  They are not interested in discussing how the Bible came about or doing diachronic exegesis (see interpretation of the Bible notes).  They read it as 'a book of life, not only as a book of strange stories'.  

The practical mediation:

The final mediation is about action and involvement.  It is the practical mediation or the 'act' of see/judge/act.  The whole point of understanding the situation and judging it is so that you can then do something about it.  Boff said that ultimately, liberation theology is primarily about action.  

'It starts from action and leads to action'.

Boff hint at one of the most controversial elements of liberation theology - its potential justification of violence in pursuit of social goals.

'It seeks to be a militant, committed, and liberating theology.'

The focus on action has lead some people to argue that liberation theology is not really a theology at all.  However, Boff replied that it is a theology because

'But despite all this,faith cannot be reduced to action, however liberationg it may be.  It is 'always greater' and must always include moments of contemplation and profound thanksgiving.'

Thus action (praxis) is central to liberation theology - but liberation theology comprises of more than just praxis.  The call to orthopraxis relates to a more general theological understanding of the world, of the purpose of Jesus and of hermeneutics.

Examples of Praxis:

The main focus of the practical mediation was the work done within the CEBs.

Scott Mainwaring has written a study of CEBs within Nova Iguacu (near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and gives some good examples of orthopraxis in action.  Nova Iguacu underwent rapid growth in the population between 1940 and 1980.  This lead to a host of social problems as infrastructure failed to keep up.  There were too few doctors, dentists and hospital beds, too few school places for children, inadequate sanitation, unpaved muddy roads and no rubbish collection.  This lead to problems like illiteracy, poor living conditions and high rates of infant mortality.

During the 1970s the local bishops and CEBs took measures to address the health problems in Nova Iguacu.

  • In 1974 two doctors began to provide voluntary services to the poor, but soon realised that the task was too great for them alone.
  • In 1975 the Roman Catholic charity Caritas employed hired these doctors and to others to run a health programme.
  • In 1976 the diocese published a report which said 'The solution of health problems depends more on the population' unity and action than on the presence of a doctor.  Having a health post is important, but it does not resolve health problems. Therefore, all the forms the population has of uniting to reflect on its problems and develop its consciousness are important.  Actions which are purely palliative, which are not concerned with populations conscientization discourage true learning and do not resolve health problems.'
  • In 1976 they held health courses in various established groups including many associated with the CEBs.

Mainwaring also commented on the political function of the CEBs.  In Nova Iguacu the political aspects of the CEBs were limited, but important.

'During the most repressive years, the base communities, which began to flourish in the 1970s, were virtually the only popular organisations to promote critical political perspectives.  Although these communities were involved only in rudimentary political actions such as signing petitions for urban services, their existence would prove important for the development of Baixada's popular movements.'

Scott Mainwaring, Brazil, the Catholic Church and popular movements in Nova Iguacu 1974-85

A documentary (Living Liberation Theology) made in 1991 (and currently available on youtube - see link below) recounted the work of CEBs in the Langamar favela. Some of the community projects that the CEB orchestrated were:

  • Clubbing together to buy a two room building to use both for worship (they held their Mass there once a month) and for community projects.
  • Buying three sewing machines to establish a sewing cooperative (in the upstairs room of the church building) to provide a means for single mothers to earn some money.
  • Organising the community into digging their own sewer.  This replaced the open sewer that had previously run through the streets.
  • Fighting forced eviction when the government wanted to reposes the land.

One of the things revealed in the documentary was the large (disproportionate) number of women involved in CEBs.  This is something investigated by Carol Ann Drogus in her article 'We are women making history' Popular mobalization in Sao Paulo's CEBs. She suggested that the primary demographic group in CEBs was older women who no longer had dependent children.  She argued that involvement in the CEBs made women more politically aware.  She quotes a woman who she spoke to who said 'Before I joined the community, my husband told me who to vote for and I did it.  Now I participate in everything.'


It would be hard to find a Christian who thinks that behaviour is utterly unimportant. Equally, almost all would agree that social justice is a good thing and that the poor should be helped.  

However, there are various aspects of their views on praxis that can be challenged.  We could question the three mediations:

  • Can Marxist ideology really be used in the way that Boff suggests? Is it acceptable to use some ideas and reject others? Furthermore, is Marx even useful? Is he correct in his criticism of capitalism? Is his analysis of exploitation right?
  • Is theology really best done from the perspective of the poor?  Is traditional Biblical scholarship really so unnecessary?  What problems might be associated with liberation hermeneutics?

We could challenge the priorities that liberation theology has:

  • The afterlife matters more than this life.  Christianity should be concerned with the soul and a person's salvation rather than fixate on issues like earthly poverty.  It is not wrong to help the poor, but it should not be the Church's main mission. 

We might question where this emphasis on praxis might lead.

  • How far can a person go in pursuit of helping the poor? Is it legitimate to use violence for the greater good? If so, how much violence? Can an individual decide for themselves whether violence is required or should they seek out a higher authority?

We could also ask whether this actually works.

  • Has liberation theology been effective? Have they brought about sufficient change to legitimise their methods?  If not, why not? Have they not been radical enough? Are CEBs ineffective?

Further reading:

1991 documentary Living Liberation Theology about life in Langamar favela.  Part one and two on youtube (start rather slow, more explanation from part way through).

Scott Mainwaring's article on CEBs in Nova Iguacu here (long but has some excellent detail).

Carol Ann Drogus' article on women's involvement in CEBs in São Paulo's CEBs here.