A Chronology of Liberation Theology 1512 – 1986
Bartolomé de las Casas made a Dominican priest in Hispaniola. His conversion experience came while reading Sirach 34:22, "He slays his neighbor who deprives him of his living; he sheds blood who denies the laborer his wages." Las Casas argued that it was better for Indians to live as pagans than to die as Christian slaves. He rejected using the force of arms rather than the power of the gospel to win the Indians over. Over a dozen sixteenth century bishops (mostly Dominicans) vigorously defended the Indians.7
…the present age handed over the workers, each alone and defenseless, to the inhumanity of employers and the unbridled greed of competitors… the whole process of production as well as trade in every kind of goods has been brought almost entirely under the power of a few, so that a very few rich and exceedingly rich men have laid a yoke almost of slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers.5
Active participation (rather than passive discussion) by lay members of the church in society encouraged by Acción Católica (Catholic Action).3
…a person's superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.6
Latin American Catholic Action increasingly influenced by the French and Belgian models, based on the work of Canon (and later Cardinal) Joseph Cardijn. Young farmers, workers, and students recruited by three largely independent branches – to influence the secular world in which they worked. Methodology of see-judge-act based on Thomas Aquinas's teachings of prudence.3
15,000 members were in the Brazilian branch of Juventud Obrera Católica (JOC) – Catholic Working Youth, based on the French model of Catholic Action – it would grow to 120,000 in the mid-1960s. In other countries, instead of joining the JOC, Catholics created labor leadership schools (such as those in Bolivia) or Catholic labor unions (such as the CLASC in Venezuela and other countries). Other branches of Catholic Action included Juventud Agrícola Católica (Catholic Agricultural Youth) and Juventud Universitaria Católica (Catholic University Youth).3
The II Interamerican Study Week held at Chimbote, Peru, attempted a this-worldly description of the social and political situation in Latin America, and urged love, rather than hostility, for Protestants.3
Conclusions at Chimbote reaffirmed at the IV Interamerican Catholic Action Week.3
Centers for Social Investigation and Action (CIAS) established by Jesuits in each Latin American country – refocusing the Jesuits on social problems rather than merely academic concerns. The investigation into Latin America's human and spiritual situation by the Federation of Religious and Social Studies (FERES) led to deeper questions – why was Latin America underdeveloped and why were so many forced to live in the margins of society?3
Rural guerrilla movements inspired by the Cuban revolution rose in Venezuela, Guatemala, Peru, and other Latin American countries. John F. Kennedy responded with the Alliance for Progress – development aid combined with police and military upgrades in the target countries. Peasant leagues became militant. Radicalized middle-class people (particularly university students) worked directly with the poor. Students and workers in Catholic Action, as well as Catholic intellectuals, became involved.7
September 18, 1962
A pastoral letter from the bishops of Chile stated:
…it would be anti-Christian in the present circumstances to let one's goods remain unproductive or to invest them abroad. It would also be anti-Christian to consecrate them to the production of articles or services that satisfy the fictitious needs of a small minority of the population, while the basic necessities of our national community are ignored.13
April 11, 1963
The encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) issued by John XXIII, angering some conservatives and industrialists by calling on not just Christians but all of good will to work together for social justice.3
April 30, 1963
A message from the Central Commission of the Conference of the Bishops of Brazil discussed Pacem in Terris and the Brazilian reality:
Our social order is still burdened by the heavy weight of a capitalist tradition which has dominated the West these past centuries. It is a system in which money and economic power are the underlying determinants in all economic, political and social decisions. It is an order in which a minority has access to culture, a high standard of living, health, comfort and luxury, and in which the majority, having no way of obtaining these goods, are by that very fact deprived from exercising many of man's basic and natural rights, as enunciated in Pacem in Terris: the right to existence, the right to a decent standard of living, the respect of his dignity and freedom, the right to participate in the benefits of culture, finally, the right relative to his life in society…
No one can be unaware of the situation of millions of our brothers who live in the country, unable to participate in the benefits of our development, in conditions of utter poverty which are an insult to human dignity… To satisfy such an urgent need [the possibility of acquiring land] expropriation in the interest of society contains nothing contrary to the social doctrine of the Church.13
A small group of Latin American theologists invited to Petrópolis, Brazil by Monsignor Ivan Illich to test and exchange ideas – where Juan Luis Segundo, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Lucio Gera presented some of the most influential position papers (ponencias) on Latin American theology.3
A coup staged by the Brazilian military forced intellectuals, politicians, and popular leaders to flee the country and silenced the church for a decade.7 The literacy movement was dismantled by the military because of efforts by people such as Paulo Freire (professor of education at the University of Recife) to raise the consciousness of illiterate adults and empower them to take charge of their own lives.3
The United Front platform, written mostly by Father Camilo Torres became public. At Louvain University3 in Belgium, Torres had studied theology and sociology in the 1950s.7 He returned to Colombia in 1962 as the national chaplain to the university student movement.3 In the early 60s, he went from researching living standards, education, democracy, and sociology to providing training directly to peasants across Colombia. Torres made appeals to Christians, to women, to Communists, to soldiers in the military, to trade unionists, to students, and to peasants. By the end of the year, he had joined the Army of National Liberation (ELN).7
Never has the human race enjoyed such an abundance of wealth, resources and economic power, and yet a huge proportion of the world's citizens are still tormented by hunger and poverty…
While an immense number of people still lack the absolute necessities of life, some, even in less advanced areas, live in luxury or squander wealth. Extravagance and wretchedness exist side by side. While a few enjoy very great power of choice, the majority are deprived of almost all possibility of acting on their own initiative and responsibility, and often subsist in living and working conditions unworthy of the human person…
God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples… The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods. If one is in extreme necessity, he has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.
…it is the right of public authority to prevent anyone from abusing his private property to the detriment of the common good.
By its very nature private property has a social quality which is based on the law of the common destination of earthly goods. If this social quality is overlooked, property often becomes an occasion of passionate desires for wealth and serious disturbances, so that a pretext is given to the attackers for calling the right itself into question.
In many underdeveloped regions there are large or even extensive rural estates which are only slightly cultivated or lie completely idle for the sake of profit, while the majority of the people either are without land or have only very small fields, and, on the other hand, it is evidently urgent to increase the productivity of the fields. Not infrequently those who are hired to work for the landowners or who till a portion of the land as tenants receive a wage or income unworthy of a human being, lack decent housing and are exploited by middlemen. Deprived of all security, they live under such personal servitude that almost every opportunity of acting on their own initiative and responsibility is denied to them and all advancement in human culture and all sharing in social and political life is forbidden to them. …Indeed, insufficiently cultivated estates should be distributed to those who can make these lands fruitful…
…the greater part of the world is still suffering from so much poverty that it is as if Christ Himself were crying out in these poor to beg the charity of the disciples. Do not let men, then, be scandalized because some countries with a majority of citizens who are counted as Christians have an abundance of wealth, whereas others are deprived of the necessities of life and are tormented with hunger, disease, and every kind of misery. The spirit of poverty and charity are the glory and witness of the Church of Christ.8
Lectures given by Gustavo Gutiérrez in Montreal and at Chimbote in Peru on the poverty of the Third World and the challenge it posed to the development of a pastoral strategy of liberation. La fe en busca de eficacia (The faith in search of effectiveness) published on the Protestant side by José Míguez Bonino.1
As St. Ambrose put it: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich." These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional…
This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the "international imperialism of money."
Such improper manipulations of economic forces can never be condemned enough; let it be said once again that economics is supposed to be in the service of man.
But if it is true that a type of capitalism, as it is commonly called, has given rise to hardships, unjust practices, and fratricidal conflicts that persist to this day, it would be a mistake to attribute these evils to the rise of industrialization itself, for they really derive from the pernicious economic concepts that grew up along with it.9
The second general conference of the episcopate of Latin America held at Medellín, Colombia.1 Non-Catholic observer-delegates were invited by the Department of Ecumenism of CELAM (The Latin American Episcopal Council). Roger Schutz, prior of a Protestant community in Taizé, France, promised to bring a million Bibles in Spanish and a half million in Portuguese – the work of a team of ecumenical scholars. Schutz requested housing among the poor and advocated that the church stand at the side of the poor. He would later receive a standing ovation from the Latin American bishops at the Puebla conference. Five non-Catholic participants took communion at the last liturgy of the conference. Archbishop Botero Salazar of Medellín noted, "It was something that was required, given the atmosphere of fellowship and participation."3
From the conclusions of its final document:
"Because all liberation is an anticipation of the complete redemption of Christ, the Church in Latin America is particularly in favor of all educational efforts which tend to free our people… A deafening cry pours from the throats of millions of men, asking their pastors for a liberation that reaches them from nowhere else."3
Paul VI said to Eduardo Pironio (secretary general of CELAM), "The Latin American church had arrived at a degree of maturity and an extraordinary equilibrium that made it capable of assuming fully its own responsibility."3
Our hope is in him who makes all things new. He judges our structures of thought and action and renders them obsolete. If our false security in the old and our fear of revolutionary change tempt us to defend the status quo or to patch it up with half-hearted measures, we may all perish. The death of the old may cause pain to some, but failure to bring up a new world community may bring death to all. In their faith in the coming Kingdom of God and in their search for his righteousness, Christians are urged to participate in the struggle of millions of people for greater social justice and for world development.15
"Toward a Theology of Liberation" put forward at the theological congress at Cartigny, Switzerland. Religion: Opium of the People or Instrument of Liberation published on the Protestant side by Rubem Alves.1
De la sociedad a la teología (From society to theology) published by Juan Luis Segundo. Apuntes para una interpretación de le Iglesia argentina (Notes for an interpretation of the Argentine Church) published by Lucio Gera.1
The Episcopal Conference of Ceylon at the Catholic Asian Bishops Meeting in Manila stated:
The presentation of the Word of God must be related to the action of Christians – or else we remain mere talkers; and this is the cause of the present credibility gap concerning Christian interest in man… The exigencies of the Gospel are very radical and demanding. For example, what is the challenge placed on us by the story of Dives and Lazarus in this world of plenty and poverty, or of the Good Samaritan in the context of exploitation in Asia? Do we really take Jesus and his Gospel seriously? Many young people and many who are not Christian do not think we do so. If we did we should be at least as dedicated to a meaningful and effective transformation of man and society as are the followers of other less revolutionary and less inspired doctrines such as Marxism.15
March, 1970 and July, 1971
The first Catholic congresses devoted to liberation theology held in Bogota, paralleled in Buenos Aires by Protestants in the group Church and Society in Latin America (ISAL).1
"Oppression-Liberation: The Challenge to Christians" symposium conducted by Hugo Assmann in Montevideo. The Jesus Cristo Libertador (Jesus Christ Liberator) series of articles published by Leonardo Boff.1
In a pre-Synod statement (no. 10 in NADOC no. 220), Peruvian Catholic Bishops affirmed:
What we have already said and the experience of our people lead to the rejection of capitalism, both in its economic aspects as well as in its ideological foundation which favors individualism, profit, and the exploitation of man by man himself. Thus we must strive to create a qualitatively different society.15
May 14, 1971
The encyclical Octogesima Adveniens issued by Paul VI, no longer condemning socialism:
Some Christians are today attracted by socialist currents and their various developments… Too often Christians attracted by socialism tend to idealize it in terms which, apart from anything else, are very general: a will for justice, solidarity and equality… Distinctions must be made to guide concrete choices between the various levels of expression of socialism: a generous aspiration and a seeking for a more just society, historical movements with a political organization and aim, and an ideology which claims to give a complete and self-sufficient picture of man… This insight will enable Christians to see the degree of commitment possible along these lines, while safeguarding the values, especially those of liberty, responsibility and openness to the spiritual, which guarantee the integral development of man.10
Edward Cleary wrote of the emerging thought:
A review of the social teachings of the church shows a number of changes and advances. The church begins to employ a new methodology. The perspective has changed: no longer is it church and world, or the church in the world, but rather the church for the world. This is a major shift. Advances in social teaching place the church at the side of the poor, helping them claim what is theirs. The church also shifts its focus from alleviation of the results of poverty to elimination of the causes of poverty.3
A statement issued by the Christian Filipino Democratic Movement (IDOC-NA no. 33, p. 26) read:
Capitalism has set up once more the idols execrated of old by the people of God – mammon, Baal, and Astharte. Filipino Christians have the obligation to smash these idols enshrined in the capitalist structure, both in its foreign neocolonial aspect and in its domestic semi-feudal manifestations. We must collaborate in building a new world order wherein men will strive not for selfish gain but for service to the common good of the human race.15
Gustavo Gutiérrez's seminal work, Teología de la liberación (Theology of liberation), published.1
"Christian faith and the transformation of society in Latin America" discussed at the congress at El Escorial, Spain.1
Complete issue (vol. 6, no. 10) devoted to liberation theology in Concilium, the international theological review, published in seven languages. All articles written by Latin American liberation theologians.1
The first congress of Latin American theologians, held in Mexico City.1
December 8, 1975
Fifteen paragraphs (25-39) devoted to evangelization and liberation in Paul VI's apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi:1
"…Peoples, as we know, engaged with all their energy in the effort and struggle to overcome everything which condemns them to remain on the margin of life: famine, chronic disease, illiteracy, poverty, injustices in international relations and especially in commercial exchanges, situations of economic and cultural neo-colonialism sometimes as cruel as the old political colonialism. The Church, as the bishops repeated, has the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, many of whom are her own children–the duty of assisting the birth of this liberation, of giving witness to it, of ensuring that it is complete.2
…we rejoice that the Church is becoming ever more conscious of the proper manner and strictly evangelical means that she possesses in order to collaborate in the liberation of many. And what is she doing? She is trying more and more to encourage large numbers of Christians to devote themselves to the liberation of men. She is providing these Christian "liberators" with the inspiration of faith, the motivation of fraternal love, a social teaching which the true Christian cannot ignore and which he must make the foundation of his wisdom and of his experience in order to translate it concretely into forms of action, participation and commitment."2
The Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT) created. EATWOT congress held in Dar es Salaam.1
The third general conference of the episcopate of Latin America held at the Palafoxiano Seminary in Puebla, Mexico. More journalists were present than were at the Olympics of 1968. Signs were seen of a significant shift in church emphasis from hierarchy to community – the comunidades de base.3 From its final document on February 13:
We see a crisis in moral values: public and private corruption; greed for exorbitant profit; venality; lack of real effort; the absence of any social sense of practical justice and solidarity; and the flight of capital resources and brain power. All these things prevent or undermine communion with God and brotherhood.3
From the heart of Latin America, a cry rises to the heavens ever louder and more imperative. It is the cry of a people who suffer and who demand justice, freedom, and respect for the fundamental rights of man."4
A document issued by the Committee of Santa Fe (consisting of advisors to Ronald Reagan) declared:
U.S. policy must begin to counter (not react against) liberation theology as it is utilized in Latin America by the 'liberation theology' clergy.7
Penny Lernoux wrote of the emerging tensions:
…it was only in 1980 that the American church began to display a hitherto unknown militancy in its relations with the U.S. government because of the murders in El Salvador of Archbishop Oscar Romero and four female American missionaries. Romero was admired in Catholic circles in the United States because of his work on behalf of the poor and his support for democracy – key elements in liberation theology. His assassination shocked the U.S. bishops, who took up Romero's call for an end to U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran junta. The subsequent rape and murder of three American nuns and a lay worker by Salvadoran soldiers sharply increased U.S. Catholic opposition, particularly after the incoming Reagan administration tried to dismiss the killing as an accident – Secretary of State Alexander Haig's story was that the women, presumably after being raped, were killed while running a roadblock. The more Haig and other officials tried to whitewash the junta, the angrier grew public reaction, particularly among Catholics. Five months into Reagan's term, congressional mail was running 600 to 1 against military aid to El Salvador…
Liberation theology was… singled out for unfavorable notice in the document A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties, written in 1980 by Reagan's advisers on Latin America, including Roger Fontaine, who became his Central America adviser on the National Security Council, and Lewis Tambs, who served as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica until he was forced to resign because of his involvement in the Iran-contra scandal. Popularly known as the "Santa Fe Document" for the city in which it was written, A New Inter-American Policy served as a charter for the Reagan administration's Latin American policies. Several of its proposals were adopted, including an attack on liberation theology, which was held responsible for the church's criticism of "productive capitalism" in Latin America.14
International conference of Christians for Socialism held at Santiago, Chile.
Lecture entitled "Freedom Through Unity – Liberation Through Ecumenism" given by José Míguez Bonino at the University of San Francisco:
"Unity" is one of those magical words which can, by its mere invocation, justify a discourse. Whatever produces unity is good; whatever destroys or threatens it is bad. In some areas of the world and some sectors of society, however, experience has taught us to ask questions about the frequent calls to unity that are addressed to us – who calls for unity? with whom? against whom? on what basis? for what purpose? for whose benefit? Such questions may sound impertinent, even narrow-minded and ungenerous. But such people – young people and women in the family, workers in industry, minorities in societies, dependent nations in the world, lay people in the churches, in general the poor and marginal, have so frequently discovered that such unity was simply co-option, for the sake of the economy, the authority, the comfort of the powerful, that they have become convinced that as often as not "unity" is a tool of oppression rather than of liberation.
…The traditional Western answers, as articulated in the idea of "the responsible society" proved unsatisfactory. The questions of radical change, ideology, political involvement could not be postponed…
Translated into ecclesiological languare, therefore, the issue is that of the "mission of the Church". Our differences – now specifically the questions of dependence and domination, of racial oppression, of poverty and economic justice, of human and social rights – are not adiaphora, issues peripheral to the life of the Church. They touch the very essence of the Church: the God we worship, the Christ we confess, the nature and task of the community of faith.
…The Latin American churches have frequently defined its major dimensions as (1) a militant option for the poor – i.e. the struggle of the poor and the struggle against de-humanizing poverty is the historical process through which humankind – both rich and poor, powerful and powerless, oppressed and oppressors – can gain (or re-gain) their true humanity. This is true not only because the Bible clearly asserts God's particular concern for the poor but also because unnecessary and surmountable, but also growing and artificially increased poverty is the characteristic that defines our contemporary world.
…It is the tension between unity which is created "from within" the churches, in the classical sense of ecumenical relations, and unity which emerges in relation to actions, projects, affirmations which respond to the questions of the larger human community in which Christians participate with people of other religions, creeds, or ideological convictions. Sometimes we have spoken in this respect of a "new ecumenism", a "wider ecumenism": the unity that is created among Christians and non-Christians engaged in a common task in the world. This has become for us a common, perhaps the dominant experience. There – in the struggle for human rights, for social transformation, for political participation – Christians of different confessions participate with women and men of different ideologies, without claiming any special privilege, without hiding or watering down their own Christian convictions, and discover both their common humanity and their Christian identity as an unexpected "gift". Such fact cannot be considered a merely "secular" one. Such unity is not simply a "functional" unity. If our confession of the power of the Spirit has any meaning, then the unity which is created in such common human effort has to be seen as part of that same unity which Christ has entrusted to the Church for the sake of the unity of humankind – as the epistle to the Ephesians puts it. In terms of the Incarnation and the ministry of Jesus we cannot accept an opposition between Christian identity and human indentification. Identification with the poor in their struggle is not a "danger" to our identity as Christians. It is, on the contrary, the only way to "identify" with Christ and consequently to reach our true Christian identity.
…When the Church engages herself in this mission, she finds unity in her struggle for liberation and that unity strengthens and deepens her commitment to freedom. Such unity and such liberation, we claim, the Church can find today when she identifies with her Lord by committing herself to and participating with the poor in their own struggle for a new day for the whole of humankind. 11
March 16, 1984
Two weeks before his death, Karl Rahner (one of the foremost Catholic theologians of his generation) wrote to the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima:
I am convinced of the orthodoxy of the theological work of Gustavo Gutiérrez. The Theology of Liberation that he represents is entirely orthodox… A condemnation of Gustavo Gutiérrez would have, it is my full conviction, very negative consequences for the climate that is the condition in which a theology that is at the service of evangelization may endure. Today there are diverse schools and it has always been thus… It would be deplorable if this legitimate pluralism were to be restricted by administrative means.12
September 9, 1984
"Instruction on Some Aspects of Liberation Theology" published under the auspices of the Prefect and Secretariat of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dated August 6.1 While they did not consider themselves liberation theologians, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop Alberto Bovone wrote:
The scandal of the shocking inequality between the rich and the poor – whether between rich and poor countries, or between social classes in a single nation – is no longer tolerated. On one hand, people have attained an unheard-of abundance which is given to waste, while on the other hand so many live in such poverty, deprived of the basis necessities, that one is hardly able even to count the victims of malnutrition…
The Apostolic See, in accord with the Second Vatican Council and together with the episcopal conferences, has not ceased to denounce the scandal involved in the gigantic arms race which, in addition to the threat which it poses to peace, squanders amounts of money so large that even a fraction of it would be sufficient to respond to the needs of those people who want for the basic essentials of life.12
In Havana, a conference on the Latin American debt is attended by one hundred Catholic priests. Fidel Castro read a letter from São Paulo Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns that said the debt must not be repaid at the expense of the poor. Castro received a standing ovation.7
1Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, "A Concise History of Liberation Theology", Introducing Liberation Theology, Orbis Books.
3Edward L. Cleary, Crisis and Change: The Church in Latin America Today, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, July 1985.
4Penny Lernoux, Cry of the People, 1980, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York.
5Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, On the Condition of the Working Classes, May 15, 1891, Office of Information Technology at American University.
6Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, On Reconstruction of the Social Order, May 15, 1931, Office of Information Technology at American University.
7Phillip Berryman, Liberation Theology, 1987, Pantheon Books, New York.
10Pope Paul VI, Octogesima Adveniens, A Call to Action, May 14, 1971, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Office for Social Justice.
11José Míguez Bonino, "Freedom Through Unity – Liberation Through Ecumenism", 1983, Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, The Paul Wattson Lectures.
12Juan Luis Segundo, Theology and the Church, translated by John W. Diercksmeier, 1985, Winston Press, Minneapolis.
13François Houtart and Emile Pin, The Church and the Latin American Revolution, translated by Gilbert Barth, 1965, Sheed and Ward, New York.
14Penny Lernoux, People of God, 1989, Penguin Books, New York.
15the radical bible, adapted by John Eagleson and Philip Scharper from bibel provokativ, edited by Hellmut Haug and Jurgen Rump, translated by Erika J. Papp, 1972, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York.