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Liberation Theology

Latin American Liberation Theology

The Catholic Church was, for centuries, one of the pillars of Spanish power in Latin America, which was Christianized more than five hundred years ago, unlike other areas later colonized by European countries. The circumstances that made liberation theology possible have deep historical roots; however, there are some more immediate causes, both secular and ecclesial.

The generally conflictive atmosphere, and the rise of authoritarian military dictatorships all over Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, created the conditions in which the Roman Catholic Church had to take a political stance regarding growing violations of human rights, deepening poverty, and organized, armed guerrilla struggle, culminating in some cases in a successful popular revolution (Cuba in 1959 and Nicaragua in 1979). An influential idea behind early liberation theology was the dependency theory, according to which the main reason for the poverty and underdevelopment of the Third World was its dependency on industrialized countries, which were largely developed through the use of, and profit from, dependent regions. Theologically, liberation theology was a radicalization and contextualization of the influence from European political theology and, certainly, in a tradition as long as Christianity itself, of prophetic denunciation of injustice and oppression and declaration of freedom and liberation to those suffering from them.

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) of the Roman Catholic Church established a global opening of the church to society and had an extremely important influence especially on Catholic churches in North America and Latin America. Ecumenically, the World Council of Churches took steps that encouraged Protestant churches to commit themselves to issues of social justice, especially the eradication of poverty. In Latin America, the Latin American Catholic Bishops' Conference (CELAM, Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano) met in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, a meeting often interpreted as a critical point in the departure of the Catholic Church (as an institution) from its five-hundred-year-old relationship to the state. The church formally made "a preferential option for the poor" and aspired to become "a church of the poor." Some of the first important Catholic liberation theologians were Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, Hugo Assmann, Jon Sobrino, and Pablo Richard; on the Protestant side were theologians such as Rubem Alves, José Míguez Bonino, and Elsa Tamez.

At the grassroots level, priests, pastors, nuns, and laypeople started to work with the rural and urban poor, forming ecclesial base communities, or comunidades eclesiales de base (CEBs), in which people learned to interpret their everyday realities in the light of their Christian identity and faith. In some countries, such as Nicaragua and Brazil, the local CEBs played an important sociopolitical role.

According to Gutiérrez, liberation theology is "a critical reflection on praxis in the light of the Word of God." While there is a clear Marxist influence in liberation theologians' use of the concept of praxis, the Vatican's claim that liberation theology is camouflaged Marxism is exaggerated. Liberation theologians interpreted both Christianity and the Latin American situation from a new perspective, that of the colonized "Christian South," in which the majority of people lived in widespread poverty under extremely repressive governments. The method of liberation theology—to give primacy to praxis over theological speculations—has influenced nearly all contemporary theology.

In the 1990s, the influence of both liberation theology and the CEBs has diminished, partly due to the growing presence of Pentecostalism and the rise in Protestant churches in Latin America. Also, the Catholic Church has become much more conservative during the papacy of John Paul II, leaving very few liberation-theological bishops, such as Helder Camara of Brazil and Oscar Romero of El Salvador in the 1970s and 1980s, in the Latin American Catholic Church. At the same time, ever-deepening poverty and the globalization of market economies, issues of sexism and racism, and ecological concerns raise both old and new questions for liberation theologians. An analysis of idolatry as well as of the common roots of Western theology and economy (for example, the sacrificial elements in both) has led to some of the new developments that have deepened the original insights of liberation theology. Capitalism as religion and the "necessary" production of victims as a basically theological belief have been theorized by Franz Hinkelammert and Hugo Assmann. Christianity should always side with the victims and defend their lives, which is why liberation theology is also called the theology of life, teología de la vida, reflecting on the meaning of the God of life, el Dios de la vida.

Liberation theology today might best be seen as forming part of the so-called globalization critique, which, along with theories and practices of alternative globalization, tend to bring together actors and theories from both the First and Third Worlds in order to create alternatives to contemporary economic policies. A lack of democratic control of economic policies, poverty, ecological disasters, the concentrated control of natural resources, and the concomitant issues of sexism and racism, remain as issues.

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