Chapter 14: The Future of Liberation Theology in Latin America, by Sergio Torres G.

Ethical Issues in the Struggles for Justice
by Daniel Chetti and M.P. Joseph

Chapter 14: The Future of Liberation Theology in Latin America, by Sergio Torres G.

(Sergio Torres, a Chilean priest, teaches systematic theology at the Alfonsin Institute of Pastoral Theology in Santiago, Chile)

1. Introduction

I have been asked to take part in recognizing the theological work of Doctor K.C. Abraham on the occasion of his 60 years of life. It is a just acknowledgement for a man who has been able to relate his deep Christian convictions with a liberating commitment in the context of his cultural roots.

I have had the privilege of knowing and working with K.C., as he is known among his friends in the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT), which recently in 1996 celebrated its 20th anniversary.

K.C. has been a prominent member of the Association and was its Vice President from 1986-1991 and its President from 1991-1996.

We, Latin American Theologians, have participated from the very beginning in the life of the Association, and we have been enriched by the contribution of theologians from other continents and regions. We have valued especially the cultural and religious traditions of Asia and India which have helped us to open ourselves to the dialogue with other cultures and religious.

This dialogue within EATWOT hasn’t been without difficulties and confrontations. Our commitment, however, has prevailed and we have been able to overcome those differences. Doctor K.C. Abraham has played a leading role facilitating the dialogue and the mutual enrichment within EATWOT.

As a Latin American theologian I join with pleasure in this acknowledgement as a sign of joy and gratitude for the contribution of K.C., through his writings and commitment to the development of a theology in the Third World.

In this occasion my contribution will be to write an article on the future of Liberation Theology in Latin American in view of the questioning and criticism of the past years.

2. Liberation Theology at Crossroads

Liberation Theology in Latin America has a short history.1 It was born Out of the participation of Christians in the historical process of liberation in the 60s and the 70s. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, however, it is a genuine theology, a reflection on the Word of God starting from the praxis of liberation.

It is in continuation with the theological traditions of the Church and, at the same time, has made important new contributions to the development of theology. This theology takes seriously the proclamation of Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth when he says that he has been sent to announce Good News to the poor, give sight to the blind and free captives.2

Latin American Liberation Theology makes the saving power of God present in the historical context of oppression and recalls the God of the Old Testament who has seen the slavery of his people and has come down to liberate them.3

Liberation Theology underlines the evangelical privilege of the poor. They are the first to receive the Good News. This is a theology in favor of the poor and against poverty. Christians, struggling for liberation and against poverty, develop the political dimension of Christian faith.

Liberation Theology is a critical reflection on the experience of God in the praxis of liberation. The content of this theology has always been the experience of God, as experience lived, celebrated and announced in the historical process of liberation.

Resistance to this theology

In its short life Liberation Theology grew and developed with great force in the Latin American continent. Many people felt interpreted by this new manner of doing theology. The Catholic Church assumed it as an official teaching in the Episcopal Conference of Medellin in 1968.

In proclaiming the defense of the poor, however, it received great opposition from the powerful of this world. The persons that are favored by the present unjust order considered this theology as a dangerous enemy. This theology is feared, not only because it speaks of justice and equality but also because it proclaims a God who sides with the poor.

Another great difficulty for Liberation Theology was the crisis of socialism in the countries of Eastern Europe. Liberation Theology, assuming some elements of Marxist analysis, appeared too identified with the ideology of Marxism. Many people superficially believed that the fall of socialism also included the fall of Liberation Theology. Other persons, including high officials of the Church, have said that Liberation Theology is dying.

The major difficulty, however, for Liberation theologians has come from within the Catholic Church. In 1984 the congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the document "Libertatis Nuntius" on Liberation Theology which contains strong attacks against this theology and practically condemns the liberation theologians. In 1986 the same Congregation published a second document "Liberatic Conscientise" with a more positive tone.4

We intend new to explain the content of these two documents focusing our attention on the first one.

3. The Document "Libertatis Nuntius

The document is divided into eleven chapters with an introduction and a conclusion. The first part contains a positive approach of liberation. It underlines that Liberation Theology is necessary to respond to the aspirations of liberation and reflects the biblical meaning of liberation which is an essential theme of the Old Testament and the New Testament.5

The document says that this type of theology was developed in recent years in Latin America. This process, however, did not last long and very soon its Christian identity.

According to the document, the fundamental reason of this failure comes from the use of Marxist analysis without any critical assessment. With the pretext of a deeper understanding of reality, Latin American theologians reinterpret the Christian message and they separate themselves from Christian orthodoxy The Instruction says that is impossible to separate Marxist analysis from Marxist ideology. When Marxist analysis is used, the person necessarily assumes all the content of Marxist ideology, including the Marxist concept of truth, ethics, class struggle the use of violence and atheism.

When these criteria are applied to theology we have to accept historical. Immanentism, and we identify God with the historical process. The Church also becomes a reality of this world without any relationship with God’s transcendence. The Church is part of the dominant class and losses its sacramental and hierarchical identity.

Practically this is a new hermeneutics, a political rereading of the scriptures. This is the reason of the emphasis of Latin American theologians on some biblical texts like Exodus and the Magnificat.

This is a short synthesis of this critical document. It is a disqualification of Liberation Theology and a misunderstanding of the real intentions of the theologians of Latin America who have always proclaimed their faith in Jesus Christ, have been active members of the church and have supported the poor even with the risk of their lives.

The reactions of the theologians

Latin American theologians knew with anticipation that Rome was preparing a document on Liberation Theology. They were very surprised by this document, for they never expected a condemnation of their theological commitment to the church and to the poor.6

Their first reaction was to disagree with the document because they did not feel identified with the type of theology described in the document. At the same time they were forced to enter into dialogue with the Vatican about the critical assessment of their theology and of their personal Christian commitment.

The focus of the discussion was the use of social sciences in theology, the rereading of the Bible from the perspective of the poor, the Christian communities in the struggle of liberation and the assumption of some elements of critical and Marxist analysis for a better and deeper understanding of the conflictual reality of the continent. The instruction of the Vatican says that theologians using Marxist analyses become ipso facto Marxist atheists. In their response, Latin American theologians have tried to prove that all these issues are very complex, and it is not possible to simplify the relationships among science, philosophy and theology.7

Theology and Social Sciences

Traditionally theology has used the mediation of philosophy to understand the complexity of the human person and to interpret the biblical message of revelation. Latin American theology introduced a new mediation of social science in order to know and to interpret social and historical reality and to propose concrete ways of transforming the unjust society.8

The Roman Instruction is not clear about the relationship between social sciences and theology. On one hand it says that "scientific knowledge of the situation and the possible ways of social transformation are the basic for an efficient action, capable of obtaining the goals that have been determined.9

On the other hand the document does not accept the dialogue between Christian faith and political action and puts into question the autonomy of social science in relation to Christian faith. We have here again the understanding of the Church as a mediaeval Christendom where all structures and levels of knowledge are determined and controlled by theology and tradition. The document says in this respect: "Critical examination of the means of analysis taken from other disciplines has to be done in a special way by theology. The light of faith provides the criteria for analysis through theological reflection.10

The text speaks about the instrumental value of social science, but it does not make clear the goal for which the instrument is used. If the goal is to know and to interpret revelation, social science does not make a contribution. if the goal is to know reality in order to change it, social science does not need the help of theology.


The Roman document speaks at length about Marxism. At the same time it is necessary to recognize that it appears ambiguous and contradictory dealing with this ideology. Latin American Theologians never identified themselves with Marxist though. They have always been very critical about orthodox Marxism, and they denounced through the years the excesses of Stalinism.

The Instruction proposes a definition and a description of Marxism which does not correspond to the reality of many Marxist authors and political tendencies. Several times the document speaks about a nonpolitical concept of Marxism. In other sections of the same text we read a different approach: "From the beginning, but especially in recently years, Marxist thought has diversified itself in various trends which differ one from the other.11

In this way there is a contradiction between an univocus concept of Marxism and a variety of different trends. Latin American theologians have always been attentive to the evolution of the Marxist science and to the concrete applications to political life. They have never accepted the totalitarian role of the State and the lack of freedom and participation of people in political life and in the decisions about their own future. On the scientific and philosophical level they never accepted mechanical determination of the economic infrastructure and have always proclaimed freedom and spiritual dignity of persons building their own destiny with the help of the transcendent God.

For all these reasons it has become impossible to accept the description of Liberation Theology of the Roman document. Theologians affirm themselves as Christians, committed to God and to the poor, and they consider that Christianity and theology have biblical roots and are not determined by any ideology.

Class struggle

The document speaks several times about class struggle. Latin American theologians consider that its analysis is out of date. Marx himself did not invent the existence of classes. He only provided the instrument for understanding the conflicts among different classes. In response to the document, Latin American theologians have synthesized the social teaching of many social scientists. Some of their findings are as follows: class struggle is an objective situation of oppression and conflict starting with the existence of social classes. Christian love demands to eliminate or to diminish the causes which produce this division. The only condition is to do it without hatred.

Class struggle is an effort of social groups oppressed by the class structure of the society in order to overcome this division and obtain their social political liberation. This effort is legitimate in itself and Christians should join their forces in to obtain it.

Class struggle, in a technical sense, is the application of strategies and tactics to overcome a class society. Some of these tactics are not allowed to Christians because they are promoted out of violence.

Latin American theologians have never accepted to promote violence and class struggle. They have followed the orientation of the episcopal conference of Medellin which introduced a very useful distinction between the violence of the system and the oppressors and the legitimate efforts of the oppressed to overcome the first form of violence. The Latin American Bishops called the violence of the social system "institutionalized violence."

4. New challenges to Liberation Theology

The present moment of Liberation Theology is a critical one. The crisis of the socialist world and the attacks against this theology have given to the theologians the opportunity to make an evaluation, to asses their own principles and criteria and to open themselves to the new challenges coming from the changing situation. We will present a few of these new challenges.

Theology from women’s perspectives

Theology has always been a masculine enterprise. Liberation Theology in Latin America has not been an exception. The focus was the liberation of the poor without the distinction of men and women. The concept of the poor included everybody, Indians, blacks, men, women, peasants, urban workers, etc. The specific identity of women’s oppression was not present in the sociological and theological analysis of the first writings of Liberation Theologians.

Changes started to take place in the eighties. Little by little the women’s perspective entered into theological reflection. This happened not because the men changed their mind but because women themselves started studying and writing theology.

Option for the poor women

In Latin America it is accepted that women are oppressed at different levels, as poor, as Indian, as black and as women. It is said that women are doubly oppressed.

Women theologians in Latin America are dealing with the issue of women’s oppression from the traditional point of view of Liberation Theology, i.e., from the perspective of the poor. This effort incorporates the best insights of feminist theology from the United States and Europe, reinterpreted from a third world perspective. Women theologians favor the option of the women for themselves, for their legitimization, for their dignity in a world of "machines" oppression. This personal recognition does not mean in any way a sign of selfishness. Affirming their identity women are prepared to enter into dialogue with "the other". Women are prepared to enter in this way to struggle in solidarity with other women and with the men for their liberation.

A new biblical hermeneutics

Latin American women have realized that the Church and the Bible itself legitimized the oppression of women. At the same time they are experiencing great difficulty reading the Bible from their perspective To do it properly they have used the hermeneutics of suspicion, which has been elaborated by women theologians from the First World. Latin American women have read it critically and adapted it to the Latin American reality. The suspicion starts recognizing that the text has been produced by a patriarchal and anti-feminist culture.

Latin American women are forced to deny the obligation of the readings of the Bible which consider that the inferiority of women comes from God’s will. The reading of the Bible cannot content itself with the text but has to go to the deep liberating meaning of the biblical plan of God in human history.

Liberation theology from an indigenous and a black perspective

Liberation Theology from the very beginning underlined the concept of poor. This concept included indigenous and black people. Today things are changing. These strong minorities do not accept any more to be considered only as poor. They claim that their oppression has its own identity and it is necessary a specific strategy for their liberation.

The indigenous perspective

We are at the beginning of a new theological development. This theology is recognizing and assuming the rich indigenous cultures present in the continent before the arrival of the conquerors. There are already some indigenous theologians who are developing this new perspective. They are thinking from inside their traditional cultures and religions. They do not accept any more the presence of outsiders, especially white people, who pretend to speak on behalf of traditional persons.

These theologians are claiming that the option for the poor has to be translated in the option for indigenous people.

The black perspective

Black people have been able to keep their cultural and religious traditions. They have realized a powerful synthesis between their African traditions and the Christian message preached to them by the Church. They practice some form of syncretism, which expresses itself in rites and other forms of cult and devotions.

Liberation Theology is facing the challenge of integrating the black perspectives in its theological reflection. Black men and women theologians have to realize that the Churches have contributed to the oppression of black people and that it is necessary to repent before reconciliation is possible. The option for the poor has to include the option for the black people.

5. Conclusion

I wish to end my observations as I began, I join my words of thanksgiving to God with many other friends throughout the world who want to congratulate Doctor K.C. Abraham on his anniversary.



1. The first book of Gustavo Gutierrez, Theology of Liberation was published in Lima, Peru in 1971.

2. Luke 4:18-21.

3. Exodus 3:7-8.

4. Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Liberatis Nuntius, 1984 & Libertatis Concientae, 1986. Vatican city, Rome

5. Libertatis Nuntius, p.3-15.

6. The majority of L.A. theologians wrote responses in different magazines of the continent.

7. Libertatis Nuntius, p.17-21.

8. See Juan Luis Segundo, Teologia de la Liberacion. A response to Cardinal Ratzinger. ed. Christiandad, Madrid. 1985.

9. Liberatatic Nuntis, VIII. 3, p.17.

10. Ibid., VII.10, p.19.

11. Ibid., VII. 8, p.19.