A theology of liberation

A profound radical change experienced by the world today has placed the Church in an awkward situation, a change that cannot be ignored or brushed aside. In no way the Church is devoid of such changes throughout the history, a challenge it has to bear while preaching the Gospel. For this reason, a better and accurate understanding of reality lived in faith is indispensable. A faith which rose spontaneously, in responding to such challenges has edified theology, through a critical reflection, responding to the signs of the Times. Such a theology deeply embedded through a critical reflection in turn fulfils the liberating function for man and for Christian community, emerging not from "intellectual analysis,"[1] but "through the works of charity,"[2] calling for a pastoral commitment and of service.

A theology arising from a concern in responding to the scandal of inhuman situation coupled with great injustice in a given context as Harvey Cox puts it, "becomes a theology of the future."[3] A theology that transforms the sinking roots of the history and illuminates it with the word of God by protesting against the trampled dignity of human beings by liberating them through love. It is in this love where theology takes a paradigm shift between the liberating praxis and the preferential option for the poor. Such a perspective that calls for a "radical liberation,"[4] was first addressed by Gustavo Gutierrez, known as the father of liberation theology in his La pastoral en la Iglesia en America Latina, a theme which called an unremitted attention of the church towards its mission.

This mission for Gustavo was concretely realized in the Latin American "context,"[5] where poverty is embraced as factum brutum of God's gift, which contradicted the very essentials of the Gospel. This enquiry led Gustavo to find an "oppression-liberation axis,"[6] which sponsored a distinctive spirituality, calling the poor to engage themselves in their own personal, socio-economic and political liberation. This was the context in which the Peruvian, Gustavo Gutierrez, chaplain to the National Union of Catholic Students and the professor, at the Catholic University in Lima began to synthesise the central pre-occupation of the Christian community around him with those of the wider school of radical Latin American theologians. His first systematic articulation for the preferential option for the poor, is exemplified in his book A Theology of Liberation, later became a movement in the Catholic Church.

A moment that swept the world, in an anxiety led a serious confrontation within the Church and in turn surpassing the neo-Marxism and the secularized theology of the Western Europe. For Gutierrez all analysis of the underdevelopment should be placed within the framework of, "the world class struggle between rich and poor,"[7] was later dismissed as being impasse and lacks adequate social analysis in the light of Marxism.

However Gustavo in his book further enumerates how the themes of liberation theology are in congruent with the traditional themes of the church, centred on Christ leading towards salvation within the salvific message proclaimed by the church and its role in this process. For Gutierrez, the term Liberation is more than overcoming the economic, social and political dependency. It is to see, "man in his qualitative different society in which he will be free from all servitude, in which he will be an artisan of his own destiny."[8] This broader understanding of human person provides a new perspective as opposed to the passive role played in history. This gradual conquest of true freedom leads one to a new man in desiring social change.

In order for this vision to sustain, to be authentic and complete urges Gustavo, that a theology should be, "undertaken by the oppressed people themselves and so must stem from the values proper to these people."[9] Such a view could be sighted from the biblical times, where God took the sides of the oppressed based on the "liberating and historical experience of the Exodus."[10] This inevitably forms the very mission of the Jesus' preaching and mission in Gal 3:22, 5:1. Thus the kingdom and social justice are incompatible. Dom Antonio rightly asserts that, "the struggle for justice is also the struggle for kingdom."[11] This radical liberation is a gift of Christ who liberates all human beings from "their origins of selfishness."[12] In overcoming ones selfishness in embracing Christ's message, a life of a Christian would be a Passover transitions "from sin to grace, from death to life, from justice to injustice and from sub human to human,"[13] a communion with God, in building his kingdom on earth. In this sense for Gustavo to know God is to do Justice, which sees each man as a living temple of God, a Christ, whose features are disfigured by oppression, despoliation and alienation.

Hence the primary function of the Church today is to step out of its inherited structures and to respond to the "history that confronts it."[14] In order to make Christ's messages relevant for universal salvation, the church needs a new, "ecclesial consciousness,"[15] in a pluralised world. A realized consciousness which ceases in considering the church as the "exclusive place of salvation and [has to] orient itself towards a new and radical service of the people."[16] Such voice could be visibly cited in Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et spes, leading towards a new ecumenical growth.

An invitation by the Vatican Council to recognize the signs of the times has indeed brought theology into a new level of awareness, which had its humble beginnings from Latin American Context. A spark, of new consensus belonging to the Church of the Poor has brought Latin American theologians together reflecting on their situation, by adopting poverty as, "the condition of the needy of the world in order to bear witness to the evil that it represents."[17] This vision was reflected in various conferences such as Latin American Episcopal Council held at Argentina in 1966, Pope Paul encyclical reflected this in The Progress of People, the theme, "education for liberation,"[18] voiced in Medellin and populorum progression document placing itself on the side of the poor, later the theme was taken up by Alfonso Lopez, in his periodical Tierra Nueva, The Puebla conference had a greater impact in making poverty its aim and fighting against the rights of the indigenous people and of the women in Latin American context.

However the growth of liberation theology was not met with criticism from the Vatican doctrinal watchdog, produced its first instructions on liberation theology Libertatis Nuntis, 1984 and Libertatis Conscientia, 1986, written under the supervision of Ratzinger, head of the doctrine of faith. He accused certain theologians for reducing the salvific element to mere political liberation and Marxist politics to class struggle. This was confronted strongly by Gutierrez in his book Truth Shall Make You Free; by emphasising the totality of human person based on Christo-centric model, in denouncing the western individualism. Ratzinger also rebuked the early theological book of Leonardo Boff, Church: Charisma and power was accompanied by Paolo Arns and Aloisio Lorscheider. Later the document issued by the Doctrine of Faith, in 1986 Instruction on Christian freedom and liberation took a much less sympathetic tone. There have been criticisms from the Feminist theologians on the aspect of gender and language reflects the patriarchal strength even in Latin American countries, expressed in a meeting between women theologians of the North and South held at Costa Rico, in 1994. Women Theologians such as Rosemary Ruether, Virginia Fabella and Tina Beattie made connections between economic, social, ecological and sexual violence and its effects on the lives of women and children in Latin American countries. An article to this effect could be cited in National Catholic Reporter, by Ruether, Rosemary Radford 1996; Rift between Gutierrez and Peru Women: Liberation Theology said to be too narrow, National Catholic Reporter, Oct 18, p. 28.

Thus the contribution of Gutierrez has been magnificent. To cite few articles and books indeed incited the orthodox Catholics a fear that the liberation theology might be turning the Church into an instrument of political project. Some of the outstanding works which touch the issues based on spirituality in the Latin American Context, translated from Spanish to multiple languages besides English includes, We Drink From our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of A People, On Job: God- Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, The Truth Shall Make you Free, The God of Life, Las Casas: In Search of the Poorer of Jesus Christ and The Christian Century. His articles have been published in Theological Studies, La Revista Latinoamericano de Teologia, Paginas, Lumen Vitae and Concilium. To cite a few Liberation Movement in Latin America, Concilium 8/7, 1971, p. 40 -52, The Praxis of Liberation and Christian Faith, Lumen Vitae 24/3, 1974, p. 373 - 400, The Voice of the Poor in the Church, The Catholic Theological Society of America, 33, 1978, p. 30-34, Caminando con el Pueblo, Paginas 25, 1979, p. 1-11. He has been travelling around giving talks and interviews such as; We cannot do theology in a Dead Corner of History, in Liberation Theology Debate, Rosino Gibellini, Orbis Books, Maryknowll, New York, 1988 and Remembering the Poor, Daniel Hartnett, Interviewer, America, Vol 188, No 3, Whole No 4597, February 3, 2003, p. 12-16.

It is interesting to note that however the theology of Liberation has come under strong critics for not coming in grips with feminism, ecology, the growth of evangelical sects and the violence inherent in the political thought. Yet there are other issue that needs clarity of thought in defining the concept of the Poor from cultural, ethnicity and gender perspectives. However its abiding achievements should not be underscored. The contribution of Gutierrez has taken Liberation Theology to resonate on a global effect. The ripples of this effect could be cited through CIIR, has brought various countries in reflecting their situation and working towards social justice taking theology from traditional to contextual.

Thus Liberation theology in its quest for social justice inevitably confronts with a faith within the societal structures. The claim cited by the Peruvian Bishops echoes within the hearts that, "Christians for want of fidelity to the Gospel have contributed to the present unjust situation through our words and attitudes, our silence and inaction."[19] Probably a comparison could be cited during the time of Nazis, when Pius XII remained silent. Is Ernesto Guevara, right in commenting that "We revolutionaries often lack the knowledge and the intellectual audacity to face the task of the development of a new human being by methods different from the conventional ones, and the conventional methods suffer from the influence of the society the created them."[20] Hence the primary challenge that lies ahead as Christians in spreading the Gospel is to go beyond our "naive awareness to critical awareness,"[21] as Paulo Freire envisages in responding to the signs of the Times, a step that the church fears to take.


  • Ian Linden, Liberation Theology Coming of Age?, CIIR, 2000, p.11
  • Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis books, Maryknoll New York, 1973
  1. Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, Orbis books, Maryknoll New York, 1973, p. 8.
  2. Ibid., p. 11.
  3. Ibid., p. 14.
  4. Ibid., p. 30
  5. Ibid., p. 11-15.
  6. Ibid., p. 48.
  7. Ibid., p. 86-87.
  8. Ibid., p. 91.
  9. Ibid., p. 91.
  10. Ibid., p. 153
  11. Ibid., p. 168.
  12. Ibid., p. 176.
  13. Ibid., p. 176.
  14. Ibid., p. 255.
  15. Ibid., p. 255.
  16. Ibid., p. 256.
  17. Ian Linden, Liberation Theology Coming of Age?, CIIR, 2000, p.11.
  18. Ibid., p. 12
  19. Ibid., 16, p. 109.
  20. Ibid., p. 91.
  21. Ibid., p. 91.

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