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The Legacy of Liberation Theology

by Sebastian Paul and Kirsten Dietrich
Liberation theology was the theological promise of Latin America and sounded like a more colorful, people-friendly church. The Vatican saw things differently... Ratzinger's successor in the papacy is pursuing a completely different course: Pope Francis is seeking dialogue, but he himself also comes from Latin America.
Deutschlandfunk

The Legacy of Liberation Theology

Coffee in Solidarity with Jesus in Latin America

Admirers of the murdered Archbishop Romero carry a portrait of him through the streets.

Oscar Romero was a relentless critic of social injustice and gang crime in his country and a follower of liberation theology. © picture-alliance / Oscar Rivera
Sebastian Pittl in conversation with Kirsten Dietrich - 01.07.2018
[This conversation posted on 7/1/2018 is translated from the German on the Internet, Das Erbe der Befreiungstheologie - Solidarischer Kaffee mit Jesus in Lateinamerika.]

Liberation theology - that sounds like a people-friendly church, the Vatican saw it differently. The new pope is more open-minded than his predecessors. What impulses can liberation theology give the Church today? Catholic theologian Sebastian Pittl knows. He does research at the Institute for World Church and Mission in Frankfurt am Main.

Podcast: Religions

Kirsten Dietrich: Liberation theology: that was the theological promise of Latin America, which especially in the 70s and 80s had a promising sound for many committed Christians also in Europe. Liberation theology sounded like a more colorful, people-friendly church, like the naively colorful biblical images from the island of Solentiname and bitter but solidarity-based coffee. The Vatican saw things differently. Leading representatives were cited before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and excluded from the Catholic Church. The then chairman of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, accused them of mixing secular and spiritual matters with the wrong emphasis. Ratzinger's successor in the papacy is pursuing a completely different course: Pope Francis is seeking dialogue, but he himself also comes from Latin America. Theology of liberation - what emerged 50 years ago and why theologians are still interested in it today, also in Europe - that's what I wanted to know from Sebastian Pittl. He is a Catholic theologian and conducts research at the Institute for World Church and Mission in Frankfurt am Main on what impulses from liberation theology can also enliven the church today. Theology of liberation - what does that mean exactly, that's what I wanted to know from him first.

Sebastian Pittl: In terms of its claim, the theology of liberation is actually nothing new, but rather attempts to update things that can already be found in the Bible, i.e. the location in the poor, the prophetic commitment to justice, that Christ or God can be found in a special way in the poor, This can already be found in the biblical writings, and it can also be found again and again in the church tradition, even if it is sometimes very much pushed to the margins, but what is then explicitly called liberation theology, that is, what has really been given this name, is very strongly connected with the Latin American context. In terms of church politics, there are two important points: on the one hand, the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 65, which meant a great awakening within the Catholic Church and encouraged many people to work more for the world, for justice, for peace. On the other hand, the second General Assembly of the Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, which is exactly 50 years ago now, and this event is considered by many to be the starting signal for liberation theology. In this assembly, the bishops distanced themselves from the alliance that had existed for a long time in Latin America between the small oligarchic upper class and church representatives and made it very clear that they, as the church, wanted to stand on the side of the impoverished majority of the population and, secondly, that they had understood or had learned more and more that, in order to meet these Latin American challenges, one cannot simply copy the theology of Europe, but must develop a new theology that also meets these challenges.

Dietrich: A theology with the church's primary option for the poor. That is the formulation that has become effective, and this theology stands on the background of a general situation of political oppression, of extreme inequality, of perhaps also a world situation in which many signs point to upheaval, to revolution, to a new beginning, keyword 1968. Can one really say that that was the year that gave something like a starting signal for the theology of liberation?

In El Salvador, the legacy is still alive

Pittl: Yes, that was probably the most decisive impulse. Liberation theology is not really a homogeneous entity, but rather one must speak of different liberation theologies, which also looked very different in different countries, i.e. different in Uruguay than in the Andean highlands of Peru, different in Mexico than in Central America, but this event of 1968 was really an event that had a continental radiance, in that different movements and approaches, which had already existed before, were somehow bundled together and developed a new dynamic. What was new about it was that it was no longer just individual theologians and groups who were committed to this option for the poor and also to the structural commitment to justice, but that this was really supported by a majority of the bishops. That gave these movements a very strong backing and also a very powerful new thrust.

Dietrich: How the theology of liberation then became concrete was quite different. Some founded grassroots communities somewhere in slums with impoverished populations, others joined liberation movements as priests with guns in their hands. The question is, that was 50 years ago, how does it look now? What has remained of this uprising of liberation theology? You yourself have worked and researched primarily in El Salvador, but also in other countries in Central America. What can one still sense of liberation theology there?

Often causes trouble - the logo of the Liberation Theology Group Berlin

Often causes trouble - the logo of the Liberation Theology Group Berlin© Deutschlandradio / Christian Röther

Pittl: I have done most of my research in El Salvador, which is the context I know best, and there I would say that this heritage is still very much alive. In El Salvador, of course, it's very much connected to the person Óscar Romero, that is, this famous bishop who was then also murdered by the military.

Dietrich: In 1980, right in front of his altar.

Pittl: And that was a long time ago, of course, and it's true that society has changed dramatically in these last decades in Latin America and also in El Salvador. So it's not civil war now, but the level of violence is similar. Today it's mainly the youth gangs and the drug cartels that are responsible for the violence, but there are still almost as many people dying per day as there were during the civil war back then. The religious landscape has also changed. It's also very much Pentecostal churches that are active in El Salvador today, but this memory of Óscar Romero, it's still very much there. For example, I once met a man in a small town who had a museum there that commemorated the last indigenous uprising, which was put down very brutally in 1932, and this man said that he doesn't really believe in religion and the church, because the powerful have always used religion to oppress and deceive the little people, but he believes in Óscar Romero and in the martyr of El Salvador.

Marxism - "has been an important point of reference for liberation theology"

Dietrich: But the communist utopia, which, so to speak, gave the political background to the theological and ecclesiastical thought of a kingdom of God in which all people would be well off and justice would be done for all people, this communist utopia no longer exists in that form. So what then drives liberation theology today?

Pittl: Well, that communism and Marxism would have been an important point of reference for liberation theology, that has also been very strongly emphasized by the critics, but there one must, I think, differentiate. On the one hand, Marxism in Latin America cannot be compared with European Marxism, and on the other hand, Marxism has not been an important dialogue partner for all liberation theologies. So in Central America it has, but for example in the Argentine liberation theology, the so-called theology of the people, which is the background for the current Pope Francis, Marxism has played a relatively insignificant role. In every context, one has to ask oneself the question anew, and that is what liberation theologians do today - what does poverty look like today, what are the backgrounds of this poverty, how can one analyze them, what are the structural causes, economically, politically, socially, and for this, one must always, at every time, of course, keep up with the current state of science of the respective time?

Dietrich: The fact that liberation theology is still important today can be seen in the fact that you, for example, are interested in this liberation theology, although you were born long after the heyday or after the emergence of this theology and do not come from Latin America, but from Sankt Pölten. What fascinated you about liberation theology?

Pittl: Well, there are several things that fascinated me about liberation theology. First of all, I met people who I have always known as very credible and committed and where I often noticed that many of these people have one thing in common, that they were once interested in liberation theology and somehow draw from this heritage. Of course, this can no longer be continued seamlessly, as it was done in the 60s and 70s. You have to do that in a very creative new way, but it's not just me, there are many younger theologians, people in the church, who are doing that as well. There is a young liberation theology network in the German-speaking world, which is mainly made up of students, and they are involved in different fields, working for refugees, for a just asylum policy, but also working to create new strategies and improvements for new forms of precarization in Europe, but also in other contexts. What is fascinating about liberation theology, or what is perhaps the lasting legacy, are different things, so on the one hand, of course, this decisive commitment to the poor, also this certain passion for justice, on the other hand, also the credible personal testimony. Many of these people who were committed during the time of the military dictatorships, such as Óscar Romero or Ignacio Ellacuría, whom I worked on, paid for this with their own lives. So this high coherence, authenticity, these are the things that continue to inspire.

Dietrich: Are there elements in liberation theology that you would say, yes, that is exactly the theological approach that we can also use for church and theological questions and problems here in Europe today in 2018?

Pittl: Yes, I think there is a lot there. Liberation theology, for example, was a theology, perhaps the first theology, that succeeded in breaking up this certain Eurocentrism of European theology and introducing a global dimension, and I believe that this is more decisive than ever today. If you just look at the current debates about the so-called refugee crisis.

Dietrich: That is - excuse me if I interject here - that is, the global dimension is the view of injustice worldwide and how this injustice is connected.

Politics and spirituality are elements of liberation theology.

Pittl: Exactly. So this view of global interrelationships, that is a decisive factor, and I think that one can also see very well in the current pope how this heritage of liberation theology can also be inspiring and groundbreaking today. The current pope speaks little of liberation theology per se, but many of the motifs he takes up are very clearly owed to this background, i.e. this commitment to the poor, that one tries to do theology starting from the places where new forms of marginalization and exclusion arise today. There was this very symbolic visit to Lampedusa. This global dimension, this emphasis on the structures that are always behind forms of marginalization and poverty. He has also been reproached a lot, this sentence, this economy kills, and of course this may be a bit of a simplistic judgment that one has to differentiate, but he has indicated very strongly that one also has to rethink theologically about these very fundamental questions of economic and political systems, especially in their global effects.

Dietrich: Is this then more of a political legacy that liberation theology has left behind and with which one continues to work today, or is there also a spiritual dimension?

Pittl: The decisive thing for me from liberation theology, I think, is that you have to think together precisely these two elements, politics on the one hand and spirituality on the other. There are also other theologians, Johann Baptist Metz, who once spoke of a mysticism of open eyes, Protestant theologians, Dorothee Sölle, who spoke of mysticism and resistance, that is something that is also very strong in liberation theology. One of the very well-known, still living liberation theologians, Jon Sobrino, defined spirituality as the courage to look unadorned reality in the eye, to be honest with reality, to face the challenges of reality, not to take refuge in illusory worlds that one imagines, whether they are political, social or religious illusory worlds, but to look reality in the eye, and that is a very spiritual thing. So in that sense, I think you can say that it is not about politics or spirituality, but precisely about living and seeing these two dimensions in their inner connection.

Dietrich: In October, Óscar Romero, liberation theologian and Archbishop of San Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, will be canonized by Pope Francis - perhaps a late reconciliation of the Vatican with this kind of committed faith. The legacy of liberation theology - I spoke with Sebastian Pittl, research associate at the Institute for World Church and Mission in Frankfurt am Main.

Statements of our conversation partners reflect their own views. Deutschlandradio Kultur does not adopt the statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

More on the topic

Above the auditorium during the forum discussions at the 82nd German Catholic Day in Essen on the topic "Marriage equals two times one - nothing else?", participants on September 5, 1968, stretched a banner with the inscription "bend and bear witness". Already the first day brought lively discussions and arguments at the 82nd German Catholic Day in Essen on 05.09.1968. With almost 5000 predominantly younger participants, the beginning of the forum discussion "Marriage equals two times one - nothing else?" was marked by the impetuous desire for a plenary discussion.

1968 and the Katholikentag

Liberation through Francis?

Berlin Good Friday procession at the Marx-Engels Forum in Berlin-Mitte. In the background Marx and Engels, in front a green cross and church representatives.

Theologian Franz Segbers

"Marx's criticism of the religion of his time was justified"
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Theology of Liberation

Liberation theology is a theological direction that is primarily committed to helping the poor.


by Herbert Vorgrimler

https://www.herder.de/theologie-pastoral/systematische-theologie/theologie-der-befreiung/

24.3.2020


Liberation theology refers to a new attitude of those involved in theology, namely from faith, that is, from the identification with the biblical liberation potential (especially Exodus event, liberation message of Jesus Lk 4, 18 f., attention to the "least of these" Mt 25, 31-45; freedom of the children of God Gal 4, 4 ff; 5, 1) to place oneself concretely on the side of the unfree, the oppressed, the disadvantaged and the poor, to be active for their liberation and to accompany this process with theological reflection. This reflection is thus preceded by a concrete and decisive commitment to liberation. The experiences of faith gained in this process change the theological questioning as well as the insights ("epistemological break") in relation to the perspectives of the theology of the "Atlantic societies" (cf. also Contextual Theology).


The theological reflection is characterized a) by a situation analysis, which uses different sociological methods, b) by the confrontation of the faith tradition with the situation of the oppressed. Here the meaning of the biblical message of the saving and liberating God and his option for the "little ones" is inquired about, about the liberation potential of Jesus' kingdom message, about the liberation mission of the church with its social ethics, about the connection between individual conversion and social changes, c) by the analysis of the possibilities of concrete action in decided partiality.


Liberation theology emerged in the 1960s in Latin America on both the Catholic and Protestant sides. Similar theological initiatives, though not identical in everything, developed from the late 1960s onward in the United States (against the oppression of racism) and Africa ("Black Theology"), in the Philippines, Sri Lanka and India ("Third World Theology"). Liberation theology's outspoken recognition that Western societies were misusing religion to prop up power and interests and to appease the impoverished masses led to strong reactions from both the political and ecclesiastical sides.


Already at the end of the 1960s, political strategies were developed to fight against liberation theology (murders, pogroms, disappearances, etc.). In church documents, the "option for the poor" and the analytical recognition of "structural sin" were positively received from the end of the 1960s to the present, but administrative efforts were made, especially on the part of the Roman church leadership, to suppress liberation theology. Essential points of the official criticism were the application of "Marxist" categories in the analysis of the situation ("dependency theory"), the replacement of redemption theology by liberation theory, the claim to want to realize the kingdom of God on earth through universal liberation, the option for the use of force in the case of extreme oppression. This criticism was characterized by intentional misunderstandings, lack of understanding of the pathos of liberating language, fear of Marxist infiltration of the church, and fought only a caricature of liberation theology.


Source: Herbert Vorgrimler: Neues Theologisches Wörterbuch, new edition 2008 (6th ed. of the complete works), Verlag Herder.
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