Religion & Liberty Online

The slow death of liberation theology in Brazil

The Sandinista Revolution (1979 – 1990), which sought to transform Nicaragua into a new Cuba, was well-known for many things, including the way in which it highlighted the new alliance between the Latin American Communist movements and liberation theologians. Among the Sandinista leaders was Father Ernesto Cardenal. He was the perfect prototype of the “guerrilla priest”: a Rosary in his pocket, Marx’s Das Capital in one hand and an AR-15 in the other.

In 1983, Nicaragua was also the scene of one of the very few disastrous trips of Pope John Paul II in 1983. The pope found himself having to deal with popular hostility encouraged by regime officials and liberationist priests. Upon his arrival in Managua, the world witnessed Pope John Paul II giving a lecture to Father Cardinal, telling him to regularize his situation with the Church. Perhaps it was at that moment that the Vatican and millions of Catholic outside Latin America realized the sheer chaos that Liberation Theology was provoking in the Catholic Church across the region.

In a number of subsequent official documents, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, systematically refuted the many theological aspects of liberation theology. It marked the beginnings of a strong intellectual push back against liberation theology, which, it is fair to say, liberationists struggled to provide a coherent response.

Orthodoxy seemed to have prevailed. Many people thought the victory was so clear that the conservative Catholic historian Ricardo de la Cierva proclaimed the death of Liberation Theology in 1996.

More than three decades after the refutation made by Cardinal Ratzinger, however, liberation theology and its offshoots are still alive and active in the Latin American Catholic Church.

Every political movement has two dimensions: the discursive and the political action. The discourse is a theoretical justification of the political movement; it stands, as the intellectual tradition which the movement claims for itself as a way to establish intellectual legitimacy.

The dimension of political action is where the struggle for power occurs once the intellectual foundations have been established. In Marxism, praxis (action) and thesis (theory) function according to a dialectical logic in which one shapes the other.

According to Marxist logic, it is the praxis that really matters. The theory functions as an icebreaker, as an instrument of domination. The theory is shaped to condition the intellectual environment to allow the success of the political action. According to the Austrian conservative philosopher Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihin, a coherent intellectual structure is thus ultimately unnecessary in Marxist-inspired movements, in particular, and leftist movements, in general; what matters to them is the seizure of power. The whole theoretical framework is submitted to the imperatives of political action.

Hence, when Cardinal Ratzinger refuted the discursive dimension of liberation theology, it effectively meant nothing to liberation theologians. They did not really produce comprehensive rebuttals of Ratzinger’s criticism. Why? Because theological issues are not very important to them. Praxis is what counts for the liberationists.

Thus as the theoretical dimension of liberation theology was being discredited, its adherents responded by (1) trying to stifle criticism of their theological beliefs and (2) seeking to take control of all centers of power in the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Brazil is an excellent example of this process. Ratzinger’s critique of liberation theology did not change the behavior of the progressive clergy. As early as 1980, liberation theologians joined groups of unionists and ex-Marxist terrorists to create the Workers’ Party: the political party which two decades later elected Lula da Silva President of Brazil.

One of the fathers of liberation theology, the former priest Leonardo Boff stated in his 1988 book, “The Church Made People,” that it was all a “bold plan,” conceived along the lines of the strategy of the slow and subtle “occupation of spaces” advocated by the Italian Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci. For Boff and others, it was a matter of gradually filling all the decisive posts in the seminaries and universities religious orders, Catholic media, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy, without much fanfare, until the time when the great revolution could appear in public.

But liberation theology’s intellectual sterility and heavy reliance upon specific individuals who were focused on political action are some of the reasons it has lost so much traction in the Catholic Church in Brazil. People like the Brazilian Dominican Alberto Libanio Christo, more widely known as Friar Betto, and Leonardo Boff are still the leaders of the movement and failed to create successors. They are also quite elderly.

The popularity of their ideas also began to decline in the face of the undeniable evidence that it was causing the Catholic Church in Brazil to lose adherents to the Protestant Churches. As the saying goes, “The Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Evangelicals.” Significantly, Clodovis Boff – Leonardo Boff’s brother and also a priest – not only left liberation theology circles but became one of liberation theology’s greatest critics. He noted that the liberationists simply did not respond to major criticisms of liberation theology that Clodovis Boff found convincing (such as the error of transforming people in material poverty into the touchstone of theological truth)

Liberation theology has thus lost strength because of the weakness in theory that, ultimately, they thought were not so important turned to be very important. The internal contradictions associated with Christian Marxism were unsustainable. It also had the problem of being unable to offer any deep spirituality. It is also worth noting that millions of Catholic laity throughout Latin America forthrightly rejected liberation theology. In Brazil, it was not only the obvious problems associated with trying to transfer Christ into a Lenin-like being. It was also the extreme politicization of the clergy advocated by liberation theologians which led many lay Catholics to reject not just liberation theology but also leftism more generally. The association of liberationist clergy the very corrupt Workers’ Party proved to be very damaging for the liberationist cause.

Intellectually speaking, liberation theology has largely disappeared from much of the Church in Brazil. Few if any books are published on this revolutionary ideology. The Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Don Odilo Scherer, explained this way in an interview with a Sao Paulo newspaper in 2012: “It was a moment in the history of theology. It has lost its own motivations because of Marxist background ideology – atheistic materialism, class struggle, use of violence to achieve goals – that are not compatible with Christian theology. ”

That said, liberation theology is still present, though moribund, both in some universities, in certain faculties of theology, and populist preaching. It is still possible to note a Marxist outlook on the part of some older members of the clergy. It will, therefore, take a little more time for the effects of liberation theology to disappear from these spheres.

In the last decade, new Catholic movements such as the Charismatic Renewal and the return of conservative Catholicism among the laity and much of the clergy have helped to push liberation theology to the periphery of Brazilian Catholic life. More generally, significant changes have been taking place in the Brazilian Catholic Church which are leading to a better understanding of the Church’s teachings. Hopefully, we are witnessing a process of rebuilding the Catholic Church in Brazil.

Homepage photo credit:  Українська: Пам’ятник Леніну в момент падіння. Хмельницький, парк культури і відпочинку імені Чекмана. Author Volodymyr D-k. Wiki Commons.

Silvio Simonetti

Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.