A Brief History of Latin American Liberation Theology

This post is my transcription of a recent lecture by Ted Jennings, with some minor additions, posted with his permission.

Latin America has a unique situation that distinguishes the theology that is done there from the theology that is done elsewhere. In fact, very early on in the development of Latin American liberation theology, there was a book by the Protestant theologian José Míguez Bonino, translated in English as Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation. It’s a wonderful book that was published before Gutiérrez. Bonino was involved in the human rights movement in Argentina. He pointed out that what was happening and needed to happen in Latin America, including the kinds of questions that had to be addressed, were fundamentally different from the questions in European theology, even among the political theology of figures like Moltmann, Metz, and Söelle.

The distinctive character of Latin America theology is the hegemony of Catholicism. Until quite recently, the Catholicism of Latin America could be characterized as Pre-Tridentine, that is, the kind of Catholicism that was characteristic of the Late Middle Ages prior to the council of Trent. The Council of Trent, partly responding to the Protestant Reformation, partly due to internal Catholic calls for reform, sought to regularize Catholicism, bringing everything into the ambit of the bishops, regularizing sacraments, insisting on the appropriate way of providing the sacraments, and so on. Feudal Christianity was more informal and included processions, pilgrimages, and holy sites and did not so clearly emphasize the “authorized” forms of worship, such as mass and (what was then called) penance. Latin American religiosity, having been instituted prior to Trent, continued with the earlier form. It was regarded as a bulwark against and a compensation for the loss of Northern Europe to the Reformation. It was a Catholicism that was largely without the Bible, at least in Spanish (even though there was a Spanish translation in Spain). The Catholicism of the people also had very little to do with what happened in church. It centered around events like feast days, in which the whole populations of towns and cities would participate in events like the Stations of the Cross, which was invented for popular religion. Priests covered vast territories, sometimes with areas the size of Texas covered by only one or two priests. They travelled around constantly, as bishops were required for confirmation, which made for a loose relationship between the people and the hierarchy.

Another important characteristic was the approximately 500 years of economic exploitation, mostly foreign–not just Spain and Portugal, but also British exploitation in places like Argentina. There was foreign monopoly of whole industries and sectors which was mediated by a tiny class within Latin America of very powerful wealthy people. There were huge ranches, mines, and military regimes. The church allied with the wealthy and powerful classes, with some heroic exceptions (e.g. Bartolomé de las Casas). In spite of the social teachings of the 19th and 20th Century Catholic Church, which were in many ways quite progressive, reform did not penetrate into Latin America. Accordingly, progressive movements were significantly secular, such as labor unions and university movements. There were some student Christian groups that allied themselves, sometimes called “coffee shop Marxism,” gathering to talk semi-Marxist things, but not connecting to their reality. Progressive movements implemented a modified Marxism and a modified revolutionary fervor. Everyone, to this day, draws upon the memory of Simón Bolívar, who tried to unite Latin America. The Mexican revolution, at the beginning of the 20th century, was a ferociously secular, anti-clerical, anti-church movement, because the church was entirely allied with the tiny class of land owners and exploiters. Throughout Latin America the revolutionary ferment was largely anti-clerical.

In the 50s and 60s, there was a growing history (begun in the 20s) of United States intervention into Latin America. For example, there was something like 17 US military operations in Nicaragua before the Contra War. Under Eisenhower, the elected government of Guatemala was overthrown because it was “socialist,” which meant nothing more than that it threatened the monopoly interests of the United Fruit Company, which ran US foreign policy from Central America down through Ecuador. The US military in Latin America was simply an extension of the United Fruit Company.

The US intervention, which had talked about development since the time of JFK, was translated into the formation of the national security state with the overthrow of populist regimes in Argentina (Eva Perón), Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile. All of this was heavily orchestrated by the US in collaboration with generals throughout Latin America and resulted in extreme oppression. In every single case from the 60s through the 80s, oppressive governments were supported either overtly or covertly by the US. So, there was repression from above and bubbling discontent, largely secular, but with some Christian elements, from below.

One of initial earthquakes for Latin American Catholicism was the 2nd Vatican Council. It defined the church as the laity, not the hierarchy, which was a radical departure from Vatican I and the Council of Trent. There was an emphasis on the Bible as the medium of catechesis. The Bishops were given the imperative of internal evangelization of the people by the means of the Bible and at the same time recognized that they were losing the urban masses to secular and Marxist movements, to indigenous religious movements, and to a surge of pentecostal Protestantism.

A number of theologians at this stage, who had been trained in Europe, were now turning to the Bible. Theologians who had graduated from Catholic seminaries in the 40s and 50s had never been required to read the Bible, teach from the Bible, or start Bible studies. Suddenly with Vatican II, there was a recognition that if they did not start, they were going to lose everything. Thus, there was a new emphasis on the Bible with figures like José Porfirio Miranda who wrote Marx and the Bible and others who drew on contemporary currents in European philosophy (Levinas was also an important influence). They also drew on the new development of anti-Stalinist Marxism (the official Communist parties in Latin America were Stalinist and had no credibility). Stalinist parties had opposed the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara, and the Sandinistas. So, the Marxism of the liberation movement was an anti-Stalin, anti-Russian style communism. The Cuban revolution, because it was an indigenous movement (at least at the beginning) that threw out US influence and the land owners, offered a kind of spark and a point of hope for the rest of Latin America.

In 1968, the Latin American bishops came together in a conference at Medellín. Their goal was to figure out how to implement Vatican II in Latin America, where they hadn’t even been influenced by the reforms of Trent yet. They needed to train pastoral workers to work among and come from indigenous peoples, workers, the university, etc. One of the things that sparked this was that there weren’t people who “knew” the Bible through seminary training, but they had to start talking about it and so they read the Bible “naively.” In Brazil, the work of Pauolo Freire had initiated populist education in a quasi-Marxist vein, which became a template for the training of lay workers who would themselves form communities using the Bible and Freire’s pedagogical methods.

The first phase of Latin America liberation theology appropriated the social teachings of the Catholic church, which was essentially the social gospel without Marxism. However, they added their own ways of using Marxism, first as a way of critiquing the economics of “development.” Development, in actuality, meant the siphoning off of Latin America resources from the periphery to the center (the US & Britain). They also developed pastors, which continued the emphasis upon the laity, rather than on church hierarchy.

In the Northern part of Brazil, which was influenced first by Freire, there had been an infusion of protestant pentecostalism. The bishops, who only travelled to the remote parts of Brazil around once a year, discovered that communities were meeting three days a week and that they were losing their influence. Therefore, they recognized that they needed to create local, base communities, where people would gather without priests, or any other members of the hierarchy, but would engage in Biblical reflection that was related to a reflection on the social reality in which they found themselves. So, they combined Bible and Freire. They made use of a lot of Marxism but steered clear of Soviet-style Marxism. They did talk about class conflict, which subsequently got them hammered by the Vatican.

The first phase liberation theology grew out of this movement and spread through Latin America. The theologians were engaged in the training of lay workers, who would go out, come back, and discuss how things went. The theologians, such as Gutiérrez and Sobrino, were moving all over Latin America, attending conferences in every country and region, as they tried to train lay people and talked to one another. Out of that praxis, which began in the 60s and then gathered steam, there started to emerge papers that were titled are aimed at “liberation” as a fundamental locus.

That phase went through to the next big conference of bishops which was the Puebla Conference, in 1979. There was a new pope, John Paul II, and a highly negative response in the Vatican to the Marxist influences in the movement, and to the politicization in the liberation movement, with some priests even becoming political leaders. At the Puebla Conference, the Vatican was trying to put a clamp-down on the movement. At the same time, 15 miles outside of Puebla, around 40 liberation theologians gathered. Every time a statement came out of Puebla, which would happen in the afternoon, by that same night, the Liberation theologians would have extracted anything from the statement they were interested in (such as preferential option for the poor), and they would put out a statement which was essentially a denial that the bishops were opposing liberation theology. They would reinterpret whatever the bishops said in liberation terms. So, from early on, one of the distinctive themes in Latin American liberation theology is the attempt to be “more Catholic” than the Vatican.

At this point, liberation theology enters into what could be called a second phase. They began to realize that they had emphasized economic and political issues (e.g. the national security state and neoliberalism) at the expense of a number of other issues of increasing importance. These included the needs of indigenous populations, which were a small minority in some places, but were the majority in places like Brazil. These groups were often not even Spanish speaking. So, they started paying attention to people’s indigenous spirituality and brought it into the ken of liberation theology. They also paid attention to the Protestant pentecostal movements (which were often popular among the urban poor), that they had initially denounced, and tried to bring them into the liberation movement by finding elements that were potentially progressive. They attempted to form alliances rather than doing the typical knee-jerk Marxist reaction to pentecostalism.

A theme that began to emerge was “life versus death.” From about the 80s forward, they stopped writing books with “liberation” in the title (though they were still being translated into English with those titles). Texts began to be written, such as “The God of Life and the Idol of Death.” They also reclaimed of the themes of spirituality, with Boff & Boff, Sobrino, and Gutíerrez all writing books on liberation spirituality. Another important theme was a shift to thinking about issues of ecology. Ecology was initially seen as very suspect because it was regarded as an American bourgeoise concern: “They want our forests to give them oxygen.” However, people began to realize, first in Brazil, and then later in other places, that the fate of the earth and the fate of the poor are interrelated. So you get books like Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor.

So, Latin American liberation theology has gone through a number of phases and there continues to be new reflection and writings.

14 thoughts on “A Brief History of Latin American Liberation Theology

  1. This doesn’t get into the harsh, violent reaction by the US against liberation figures, such as the death squad assassinations, but hopefully it provides a bit of context for those who are interested. Another place to look for introduction to the themes and theology is Boff and Boff’s Introducing Liberation Theology.

  2. this is great stephen — thanks for posting, and sorry for the delayed reading. I plan to reblog it.

    The book from which I first learned some of the history of LALT is by David Tombs and seems to be relatively under-utilized. Tombs continues on where this concise synopsis leaves off by talking about the so-called “crisis of relevance” in liberation theology in the 90’s, corresponding not incidentally to the post-Cold War era and the Fall of the Berlin Wall of course.

    Someone who has done a good job of picking up the baton by critiquing but also reappropriating LALT in a very constructive way is the Argentine social theorist Ivan Petrella, who currently chairs the liberation theologies group of AAR and teaches at the University of Miami.

  3. I’m interested in the global expansion of liberation theology. It seems not much work (history, documentation, etc) has been done on new forms or manifestations of liberation theology in Asia, Africa, even Europe and North America. It is still mostly talked about as a Latin American phenomenon, which is partially understandable. Any good resources for what I’m looking for?

  4. I don’t know specifically where one would look for a history/summary of African/Asian/etc. developments in liberation theology. I could make some suggestions about particular landmark texts that one might look at.

  5. For solidarityinuganda, one of the reasons you don’t find a lot on recent developments in liberation theology in Africa is that there aren’t really any recent developments. Pretty much everywhere outside the Sahel, the charismatic movement (both Protestant Pentecostal/charismatic, and the Catholic Charismatic revival) has totally overwhelmed other forms of Christianity – both independent/prophetic and mainstream ex-mission over the past 20 years. There was never a very strong movement in the first place, though we can’t forget Jean-Marc Ela (Le cri de l’homme africain, Ma foi d’Africain, etc).

  6. Apropos the ‘is Latin America turning Protestant?’ question, Michael Lowy has a book, The War of the Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America, which takes up the relationship between liberation theology and Pentecostalism. It’s more interesting and intelligent than Stoll’s book.

  7. Interesting – I think the level of political consciousness is certainly there among clergy and laypeople, though perhaps not at an organized level, or under the term “liberation.” There seems to be more focus in Africa on reconciliation, which is often understood as less subversive. I would venture to guess that in the next 20 years, we will see this somewhat amorphous movement make strong dents in the social fabric, especially in female groups and the youth that are not taken away by the fads modernization offers. It may come about as a natural consequence of the growing disparity between rich and poor.

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