Friday, September 3, 2010

Father James Martin on Liberation Theology

I've enjoyed his books and webcast, so I was interested to see what the Jesuit who is the priest of The Colbert Report had to say about a topic that Glenn Beck has induced so much agitation over:

Briefly put, liberation theology (there are many definitions, by the way) is a Gospel-based critique of the world through the eyes of the poor. Contrary to what Beck implies, the liberation theologian doesn’t see himself or herself as victim; rather proponents call us to see how the poor are marginalized by society, to work among them, to advocate on their behalf, and to help them advocate for themselves. It has nothing to do with seeing yourself as victim. It is, like all authentic Christian practices, “other-directed.”

It also sees the figure of Jesus Christ as the “liberator,” who frees people from bondage and slavery of all kinds. So, as he does in the Gospels, Christ not only frees people from sin and illness; Christ also desires to free our fellow human beings from the social structures that keep them impoverished. This is this kind of “liberation” that is held out. Liberation theologians meditate on Gospel stories that show Christ upending the social structures of the day, in order to bring more — uh oh — social justice into the world. Christians are also asked to make, as the saying goes, a “preferential option for the poor.”

Even Pope Benedict, who as Cardinal Ratzinger had plenty of criticism for Liberation Theology, acknowledged that many movements and ideas may go by that name.  What he and his predecessor seemed to have against some versions of Liberation Theology was that it seemed to them to focus too much on human efforts in politics and not enough on God.  Another way we could say it is that without an inner change in the heart, outer changes forced by political solutions will at best be less effective and at worst may end up becoming perverted and defeating their intended goals.  Yet this does not obviate efforts at social justice or expressing solidarity with the poor and disenfranchised, nor does it mean being abandoning political efforts to work towards these ends. 

As Fr. Martin summarizes:

It’s hard to ignore the fact that Jesus chose to be born poor; he worked as what many scholars now say was not simply a carpenter, but what could be called a day laborer; he spent his days and nights with the poor; he and his disciples lived with few if any possessions; he advocated tirelessly for the poor in a time when poverty was considered to be a curse; he consistently placed the poor in his parables over and above the rich; and he died an utterly poor man, with only a single seamless garment to his name. Jesus lived and died as a poor man. Why is this so hard for modern-day Christians to see? Liberation theology is not Marxism disguised as religion. It is Christianity presented in all its disturbing fullness.


  1. I'm quiet sure Beck has no idea what Liberation Theology is, but that doesn't make it "The Gospel" any more than the Neocon Version of it is "The Gospel".

    Beck is correct though in his assertion that Liberation Theology has a Marxist past. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of this back in 1984.

    I don't think that Liberation Theology is quiet as gentle and accurate as its being described at, and far that the partisain nature of our society renders those hwo now support it blind o its real roots. All they see is Beck mischarecterising it. They dislike Beck, perhaps even hate him ( at leats Ideologically) so naturlaly want to defend snd support that wich he attacks. But this is unwise. Liberarition Theology was condemned by the Church and wiht good reason. The Churhc supports the premise of Liberation Theology, but not its means and ends.

    While helping the poor and transforming society is the cause of the VChurch, it mustn't be done in accordance to economic theory or marxist principles.

  2. As I said, in the text linked above and in other comments Ratzinger has acknowledged there are many variants of Liberation Theology, and that the main objection he has to particular versions is there over-reliance on external, strictly human-directed efforts and ideologies.

    Yet the Roman Catholic Church and even Pope Benedict does endorse the ideas that Father Martin discusses in his article as part of its call for social justice, whether it is referred to as Liberation Theology or not. Moreover, not everyone in Catholicism would or is required to agree with that thirty year old report, let alone those outside of Roman Catholic Church.

    If Beck wants to respond to critiques like Father Martin he has a radio and television show he can use to broadcast his views. But, considering how many Christian denominations view Mormonism (which is his own religion), he might want to be consider the advice given to those who worship in glass cathedrals.

  3. Interesting tidbit quoted from America Magazine:

    Who said the following to the Brazilian bishops in 1986? "[W]e are convinced, we and you, that liberation theology is not only timely but useful and necessary" It's quoted in Alfred Hennelly's book Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, p. 503.

    Give up?

    Pope John Paul II.


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