After Andrzej Duda, an avowed conservative and adherent of the Catholic doctrine, became president of Poland, some people cannot help but feel let down by the outcome of the election. Many of them tend to forget that even the Church does not speak in one voice, and there are movements, such as Liberation Theology, which are extremely progressive, even by modern standards.
The Amazon Forest, Brazil. A guerilla band is cutting its way through dense branches and greenery. The band is made up of several people, all dressed in slightly unkempt uniforms, with parts borrowed from defeated death squads. They have machetes in their hands and guns in their holsters. Communist and godless by conviction, their goal is to fight for a better world. A moment ago, one member of the band was lingering a bit behind his comrades for a while. When asked what kept him behind, he replied “I had to fix my cassock.”
The famed Polish poet, Julian Tuwim, once said that a conservative is someone who thinks that nothing has ever been done for the first time. Sometimes there are situations in which even the most rigid minds have to realize that all institutions have to evolve, including those that would rather not, such as the Catholic Church. This, however, is not something that conservatives are willing to recognize. One of these rare times when a change in the Catholic Church took place was in 1962 after Pope John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council.
At that time, the clergy decided to see the Church as “the people of God” and wanted to get involved in the matters of the poor more thoroughly. The attendees rejected alliances with elite groups in favour of those less fortunate. Many church people from across the world took part in the Council. Among them were bishops from South America. It was a valuable lesson for them. They rethought the role of the Church in supporting some of the most fearsome regimes on their continent and followed the teachings of the Council to the letter.
How much of the Council is reality for the Church is another issue. What matters is that it was one of the many factors behind the emergence of Liberation Theology. Liberation Theology is only vaguely institutionalized. It is rather a trend in thinking that emerged as a result of numerous events. For instance, the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), added to the conclusion of the Council that the Church needs to approach the bottom layers of society, and not the other way around, as the traditional ecclesiastical authorities would like to see it. That was some more food for thought for those who professed Liberation Theology.
If one person has to be named as a founding figure of the movement, the best choice would be Gustavo Gutiérrez. A member of the Dominican Order, he laid the foundations for most of what Liberation Theology stands for. He got inspired by the conclusions of CELAM. Gutiérrez called on the Church to make real change and to pave the way for true liberation instead of supporting meager “development” that cements society. Gutiérrez mixed Christian thought with the works of the likes of Marx or Marcuse, and he showed that people of South America need to break the chains of an unjust social order and liberate themselves from institutionalized oppression. Gutiérrez is a very revered figure. He is a visiting professor of many prestigious universities around the globe. He falls into conflict with the Church from time to time, but he is no way an extremist.
Liberation Theologians are especially concerned with the deprived. Here, people are welcome to interpret the Bible from the perspective of the poor. Even more, it is viewed as the right interpretation of the text. As Leonardo and Clodovis Boff said, “(…) we can be followers of Jesus and true Christians only by making common cause with the poor and working out the gospel of liberation.” Leonardo and Clodovis, two brothers and prominent theologians who at one point got involved in Liberation Theology, are currently not in agreement as to the nature of Christian doctrine. The former still follows the path of liberation (and thus was removed from the Church), while the latter is closer to the stance of the Vatican.
Some Liberationists interpret the collegiate nature of the Trinity as a sign for mankind to organise societies in a non-hierarchical, collective manner. The Liberationists see The Church as a platform for those who are denied any rights, even the status of a human being. Numerous Liberationist clergymen, nuns and priests alike, change their cosy bishoprics and solitary orders for clay huts and wooden sheds.
The main tool for reaching the destitute are Base Ecclesial Communities (CEBs). They grew in Brazil in the 50s as a response to the lack of priests. CEBs are neighbourhood churches which meet up at homes and are led by a qualified laity. They function as local communes in which people deal with their problems collectively, gather for prayers and do Bible-reading together. CEBs are linked with the structures of the Catholic Church in Latin America, and many priests support their functioning.
Perhaps the most controversial point that the movement makes relates to bringing about social change. The example of Jesus is used to show that the poor and the Church should act to establish a fairer society. Some of the more radical Liberationists joined forces with trade unions and left-wing movements, sometimes even communist. There are examples of the Liberationist clergymen engaging in political actions and taking power in countries, even though the Church forbade them from doing so. This is exactly what happened in Nicaragua after the victory of the Sandinist Front of National Liberation. Liberationist priests actively support various Latin American movements, and they are seen working for and fighting alongside such groups as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico. Other clergymen are more reserved, and they are mainly involved in grass-root work and “consciousness-raising” evangelism.
A good picture of “bringing about social change” here is a poster from the 70s that circulated around South America. Jesus Christ nailed to the Cross is staring at you. And everything would be perfectly fine with this picture but for two ammo belts strapped across Christ’s chest. Some people mock the movement by saying that it can be defined by the phrase “If Jesus Christ were on Earth today, he would be a Marxist revolutionary”. But it would be unfair to dismiss (or embrace) this movement solely as a bunch of wannabe spiritual Che Guevaras who want to overthrow fascist governments.
One of the most outspoken figures of the movement was Óscar Romero, a former Archbishop of El Salvador. Initially a social conservative, he changed his views after witnessing enormous repression on the side of the conservative government. He grew up in a poverty-stricken family himself. In his pastoral life he actively supported and catered to the needs of the poor. Romero tried to reconcile all social classes of El Salvador, to no avail. In the end, he accepted revolutionary means of ending authoritarianism, but warned of taking unethical actions. “Capitalism is in fact what is most unjust and unchristian about the society in which we live”, were his words.
The revolution of 1979 did not change much, and the new junta was just as oppressive as the previous one. Romero was brutally assassinated on 24 March 1980, while giving mass in a cancer hospice. A million people went to his funeral, where the military exploded two bombs and shot at people, leaving 26 casualties. Today, Romero is considered a saint by many, and in spite of the discrepancies between the teachings of the Church and Liberation Theology, he has been beatified by Pope Francis.
There was also Camilo Torres, one of the pioneers, who had been a flaming red priest long time before the Liberation Theology movement. He was a co-founder of the Sociology Faculty at The National University of Colombia. He professed a merger of revolutionary Marxism with Catholicism and was also involved in political and social movements. He earned a great following and just as many enemies. At one point he joined the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian guerilla organisation.
Even though he worked with communists, Torres did not consider himself one. He claimed, “I am not nor will I ever be a communist”, but he also said “I am willing to fight with them [the communists] for common goals: against the oligarchy, against the domination of the US and for the seizure of power by the working class.” Torres was killed in his first armed encounter in 1966. He set a precedent for the ELN which, as a result, started admitting more clergy into its ranks and became more of a Christian-Marxist guerilla force. Naturally, Torres was excommunicated by the Vatican. He is quoted as saying, “I took off my cassock to be more truly a priest.”
The Church is harshly critical of many elements of Liberation Theology. Pope John Paul II was especially involved in inhibiting it, particularly in the 80s. The 80s were the peak of the Marxism-laden version of the Liberationist movement. The Pope wanted to stop this politicized version of the movement. The result was that he was criticized for his firmness in closing institutions that taught Liberation Theology, scolding many priests, as well as for removing numerous activists from the Church. For the Pope, the main objection to the movement at that time was that it was wrong to define the goals of the Church in terms of achieving social justice and thus making the institution more secular. People need faith in Jesus and his ability to change people’s hearts. Jesus as a revolutionary is not compatible with what the Bible and the Church teach us. The goal of the Church is to bring people closer the Kingdom of God, not to create a Marxist utopia.
Currently, the Liberationists still function in South America. Most of them are not as radical as in the 60s or 80s. The response to the movement in Latin American societies was not always positive, and many people had neither time nor will to listen to the message. However, many a time CEBs and other institutions founded by Liberation Theologians proved to be the only alternative to stand both against state and capital violence. As for the rest of the world, the lesson is that Catholicism may take various forms, and not all of them are plainly conservative in nature, as in the instance of Andrzej Duda and his world view.