Klaiber 1989_Liberation Theology 1968-1988

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Liberation Theology 1968-1988

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  • Prophets and Populists: Liberation Theology, 1968-1988Author(s): Jeffrey L. KlaiberSource: The Americas, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jul., 1989), pp. 1-15Published by: Academy of American Franciscan HistoryStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1007391Accessed: 11/10/2010 05:19

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  • PROPHETS AND POPULISTS: LIBERATION THEOLOGY, 1968-1988

    Although liberation theology may still be considered a "current event," nevertheless, given its very evident and widespread impact on Latin American Christianity and elsewhere, it seems fairly safe

    to state that it is the most important theological movement which has emerged in Latin America in the four centuries since evangelization. Many authors would further contend that liberation theology symbolizes the coming of age of the Latin American church: from a peripheral, somewhat dormant and intellectually dependent church to one which actively con- tributes to Catholic and Protestant thought throughout the world.' For this reason alone, without mentioning the many political ramifications of libera- tion theology, it merits attention as one of the key themes in Latin American church history. The aim of this article is threefold: to briefly outline the origins and development of liberation theology; to examine the different ecclesial, social and political factors which influenced its development, and finally, to indicate what direction liberation theology seems to be taking currently.

    Before going to the origins, however, it is well to make an important distinction: between liberation theology as an intellectual current and the dynamic grassroots church movement which has sprung up throughout Latin America in the wake of Vatican II and the bishop's conference at Medellin. Liberation theology as a school of thought consists of a relatively small group of well-known theologians and a more larger group of lesser- known academicians and intellectuals who disseminate the basic ideas of the former in universities, seminaries and church circles. Although there is no "official" list, most surveys of mainstream liberation theologians will include the Peruvian diocesan priest, Gustavo Guti~rrez; the Jesuits, Juan Luis Segundo and Juan Carlos Scannone, from the Southern Cone; Segundo

    SFor general accounts of liberation theology and the progressive church, see Edward L. Cleary, Crisis and Change: The Church in Latin America Today (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1985); and, Philip Berryman, Liberation Theology (New York: Pantheon Books, Random House, 1987).

    I

  • 2 LIBERATION THEOLOGY

    Galilea, a Chilean diocesan priest; the Brazilians, Hugo Assmann and Leonardo Boff; in El Salvador, the Jesuit, Jon Sobrino; in Costa Rica, the Chilean-born Pablo Richard; among the Protestants, Rubem Alvez, a Bra- zilian, and Jos6 Miguez Bonino, an Argentinian. The Belgian priest, Jos6 Comblin, was one of the original thinkers along liberation lines and the Argentinian layman, Enrique Dussel, has written much in the area of the history of liberation in Latin America.

    Beyond this small group of intellectuals, who make up an elite within the church, there are thousands of more ordinary church-going Latin Amer- icans, principally from the middle and lower classes, who participate ac- tively in different church groups and organizations. For these Christians, who constitute what may be termed the "church movement," liberation theology is not perceived so much as a cluster of well-defined ideas to be fought for and defended, but rather as a symbolic banner which expresses in a general way their basic aspirations and expectations. Under this banner are to be found persons of the most diverse cultural and intellectual back- grounds: middle class university students, professors and politicians, who have a relatively sophisticated grasp of the main lines of liberation the- ology; lower class urben catechists in Sio Paulo or Lima who may have only the vaguest notion of what lay behind the polemic between Cardinal Ratzinger and Leonardo Boff; and highland peasants in Ecuador or Peru who enjoy listening to Gustavo Guti6rrez, but whose concept of liberation theology is more like to be an original mixture of biblical liberation themes and traditional popular religiosity. These widely diverse groups all share a common sympathy for liberation theology, but they do not necessarily sub- scribe to all of the ideas of the theologians, and more to the point, many may not even understand the implications of some of the basic theses of liberation theology, much less the nuances between the lines.

    In this sense, it would be quite erroneous to presume that the stream of articles and books produced by the theologians represents the worldview of thousands of Christians in Latin America, who otherwise consider them- selves very much a part of the progressive church. There is, therefore, no direct equivalency between liberation theology and the progressive church: the latter is a much wider and more complex reality which includes the former. There exists, for example, a moderate sector among the progres- sives which rejects the political right but which also maintains a critical distance from liberation theology. Finally, there are many brands of libera- tion theology within Latin America, which vary from author to author and from region to region.

    For their part, the liberation theologians are conscious of this distance between themselves and the ordinary people. Indeed, most of them believe

  • JEFFREY L. KLAIBER 3

    that the principal aim of their whole intellectual enterprise is to enter the minds and hearts of the poor of Latin America and to speak in their name. In the early sixties the theologians began their mission as lonely "prophets": thinkers with new and exciting ideas, but with few people to hear them. As the church movement grew, fanned by the changes set into motion by Vatican II and most of all by the spirit of Medellin, the theolo- gians set out in quest of the people, and in the process they have nuanced many of their ideas, rejected others and adopted a more pronounced pas- toral stance. By the late eighties most liberation theologians have become "populists": thinkers more attuned to the needs and expectations of the grassroots than to their own original abstract and utopian visions. Liberation theology in its current state can be conceived, therefore, as a meeting of the minds of two radically different cultural worlds within the same Latin American continent: the avant-garde intellectuals, on the one hand, and on the other, the newly politicized and socially awakened lower and lower middle classes who make up what the intellectuals call the "people."

    As a group, the liberation theologians were influcenced by the same forces and currents that combined to produce Vatican II. In this sense, the Latin Americans were not significantly different, at least in their initial for- mation, from their European counterparts. Most are from the urban middle classes and some participated in Catholic Action. Almost all of them at one time or another studied in one of the centers of the Catholic intellectual renovation following World War II: the University of Louvain, Belgium, the Institute Catolique of Paris, the Jesuit Faculty of Theology at Lyons, or the universities of Innsbruck or Munich. Father Gustavo Guti6rrez is fairly representative of the group as a whole. Born into a lower middle class family in Lima, he studied medicine at San Marcos National University. At the same time he participated in Catholic Action and became president of the Catholic Center of Barranco, Lima. From his Catholic Action days he was significantly influenced by two men who were both precursors of the socially progressive church in Peru: Jos6 Dammert, later bishop of Caja- marca, and C6sar Arr6spide, longtime lay leader of Catholic Action.

    In 1950 Guti6rrez decided to become a priest, and after a year at the seminary of Santiago, Chile, he studied philosophy at the University of Louvain. Between 1955 and 1959 he pursued his studies in theology at the Faculty of Theology in Lyons, France. During those years he lived and breathed the stimulating intellectual atmosphere of a European Catholicism in full renovation and in search of a deeper dialogue with the modern social sciences, and even with certain currents, philosophies and ideologies still condemned or viewed with suspicion by the church: Marxism, freudianism, the different theories of evolution, etc. At the University of Louvain, Father

  • 4 LIBERATION THEOLOGY

    Guti6rrez did his licentiate in philosophy on Freud. T