College Quarterly
Summer 2007 - Volume 10 Number 3
Reviews The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto
Ivan Petrella
London, UK: SCM, 2006

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

The Christian Church – in all of its many forms and guises – has had a fascinating and often tortuous history with respect to its relationship with secular wealth and power. We can scour its radical roots and find early evidence of martyrdom, oaths of poverty among believers, and lives lived or surrendered in Near East deserts, Greek cities and the catacombs of Rome. We can stand in awe of its successful ideological takeover of (or appropriation by) the vast Constantinian. We can observe the growth of mutually supportive church-state relationships that carried Europe through the allegedly “Dark” and temporally “Middle” Ages. We can read records of great schisms and reformations. We can then witness the territorial expansion of Christianity as it moved hand-in-glove with conquistadors and colonizers by caravan and sailing ship eastward across Asia, westward to the Americas and Oceania, and southward to sub-Saharan Africa. Imperialism and Christianization have been dominant themes in world history since the days of Marco Polo on land and Cristoforo Colombo and Giovanni Caboto on the oceans. European economic, ideological and military power has been felt and rarely completely rejected in almost every earthly domain over various parts of the past two millennia.

This does not mean, of course, that the juggernaut of Western society has not been resisted, nor that the Europeans who invaded, occupied, sometimes enslaved and sometimes assimilated the “Others” whom they encountered were all of one mind. Miners of metals and fishers of men often quarreled about both the ends and the means of European domination. Still, despite internal tensions and external opposition, not one continent – with the possible exception of Antarctica – has escaped the effects of contact with the military cannon and the Christian cross.

In The Future of Liberation Theology, Ivan Petrella, a young (Ph.D., Harvard 1995) and already much honoured scholar at Florida’s University of Miami, explores one of the critical contemporary conflicts that flows from the spread of Christianity; namely, the struggle for the Christian soul as it comes to terms with the political, economic and cultural consequences of its own success.

In the beginning, words attributed to Jesus made it plain that material possessions and secular ambitions were obstacles to salvation. Indeed, the early apostles are said to have sought spiritual transcendence rather than worldly power, and to have shared their wealth in a manner that would have made Karl Marx proud (See Acts 4: 34-35). From Emperor Constantine’s conversion to the collaboration between Queen Isabella and the Inquisition, Cardinal Richelieu’s manipulation of King Louis XIII, and the development of the modern “missionary-mercantile-military complex,” however, the separation of church and state has provoked lively (and lethal) controversies. From English King Henry VIII’s marital problems to the twentieth-century streets of Belfast, the mixture of faith and politics has concocted a strange brew in which millions have been drowned.

In the recently ended century, the cozy combinations of the established church and authoritarians leaders were plain for all to see. Whether considering the expeditious use of the symbols and authority of the church in the maintenance of General Franco’s regime in Spain or the looser kinship between Abbé Lionel Groulx and Premier Maurice Duplessis in Québec, the symbolic and material convergence of religion and political economy was plain for all to see. The voices of Caesar and of God were heard to sing in harmony, while dissenters were punished as criminals in this world and promised perdition as sinners in the next. Moreover, as Christopher Hitchens has so deliciously reported, even the saintly Mother Teresa spent far too much time hob-nobbing with the leaders of the hideous Duvalier dictatorships in Haiti to redeem her reputation for selflessness, at least among the skeptics.

Accusations of cruelty and corruption against governments and religious leaders and of stunning credulity among the led sometimes make it hard to decide who is more culpable – the rapacious priesthood and fascistic tyrants or their pious parishioners and supine citizens. And yet, for all the mischief committed by and in the name of the church, there has also been an undercurrent – now open, now secreted – of rebelliousness among those among the faithful who are nonetheless willing to think unorthodox thoughts, criticize unpalatable doctrines and sometimes take up arms in defence of the meek who figured so prominently in such orations as the “Sermon on the Mount.”

One element is this tradition of interrogation and occasionally unconcealed insurgency is the Latin American movement widely known as Liberation Theology. Arising out of the Second Vatican Council in 1962-63, the Roman Catholic Church undertook to consider issues such as economic inequity, human rights violations and elementary claims for social justice. Taking such matters to heart and being in a position to rally their followers to take on their own church’s partnerships with power, priests, nuns and parishioners engaged in the critique of racism, sexism and capitalism, and not just on the level of abstract discussion. They physically confronted military and paramilitary thugs. They organized workers and peasants. They suffered the brutality of indigenous dictators and their international supporters in the White House, corporate board rooms and the CIA. And they died – shot down in their parishes, kidnapped and tortured in the cities, and raped and murdered in the hinterland.

Associate professor Stephen Scharper of the University of Toronto put it bluntly: “Springing from the barrios of Latin America during the 1960s, liberation theology asserted that Christians could not be neutral in the face of social and economic injustice … It urged the church, in effect, to lay down its traditional teaspoons of charity and climb aboard the bulldozers of justice.”

There have, of course, always been singular individuals who have been prepared to play Friar Tuck to an occasional revolutionary Robin Hood; but, for a time, liberation theology grew beyond the isolated instances of individual conscience. So inspiring was the movement that Ronald Reagan’s murderous allies in El Salvador trumpeted the slogan: “Be a patriot! Kill a priest!” So inspired was its leadership that El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in the heart while saying mass in the dying days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Romero, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 1979, had begged Carter to cease his support for the regime and its associated death squads. Since Mr. Carter had not yet begun down the path to his own Nobel Peace Prize, he maintained American policy; Romero’s reward for his advocacy on behalf of the poor and dispossessed was assassination.

In recent years, it must be acknowledged, there has been a retreat from the transparent church-state alliance that legitimized military dictatorships throughout Central and South America until recently. Democracy of a sort has grown, with the result that moderately liberal and even democratic socialist governments have come to power in jurisdictions from Chile to Mexico City.

Because of such democratic developments, less press attention has been given to liberation theology. To some, it was a dangerous movement in support of revolutionary and possibly communistic social change. To others, it seemed almost a desperate a cri du coeur against blatantly dictatorial governments. It did, in any case, inspire a measure of fear in the hearts of those who were, or were supporters of, cruel oppressors. It also inspired a measure of hope among those who hungered for food, safety and a better society. Now, however, that evident political, economic and social progress seems to have been made, attention has shifted. Practical problems of governance have become the focal point of discussion. Space is now given to debates about Venezuelan oil policy, growing “free trade” zones and the alleged “war on drugs.” Even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised creative engagement with Latin America, ostensibly on behalf of helpful corporate investment and mutually beneficial trade policies. This is not to say that the rhetoric of competing interests has cooled. The demonization of occasional Southern Hemisphere politicians – most notably Hugo Chavez – has replaced the victimization of populist priests, but the debates are now carried on in newspapers and election campaigns rather than ended in police stations or mass graves. Optimists can call this the normalization of politics under the watchful eye of the World Trade Organization. It is not yet a guarantee of genuine progress, but it is something.

At the same time as national leaders are taking the opportunity to meet in various and generally inconclusive summits on questions of the environment, human rights and international security, however, it should be remembered that corruption has not been eliminated, grotesque income disparity has not generally declined and human rights are not firmly entrenched throughout Latin America. So it is that Oscar Romero was not the last Christian to be martyred.

In 1998, for example, Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi was brutally bludgeoned to death in Guatemala City, just two days after releasing a comprehensive four-volume report implicating the Guatemalan Army in the deaths and disappearances of about 200,000 civilians during over forty years of turmoil since the United Fruit Company and the CIA’s $2.7 million “Operation Sherwood” successfully ousted the democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman on 27 June, 1954. Guatemalan President General Otto Perez Molina has, as an aside, recently been linked to Gerardi’s murder and seems destined for at least a narrow defeat in the elections of November, 2007. So, there is still much to be done.

Central and South American conditions and prospects are, on the other hand, certainly better and brighter than they were on the “real” 9/11 (of 1973), when General Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état – with American and Canadian complicity and compliance – led to the death of democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allended, initiated decades of “free-market” terrorism, and resulted in the torture and murder of numberless Chileans. Accordingly, there are those who would be happy to demote liberation theology to the status of an historical footnote. With the development of some stability, increased democracy, the growing recognition of individual rights and freedoms, an invigorated civil society and the possibility of both economic growth and modest income redistribution, liberation theology may seem dated, made irrelevant by its own success. Thus, although the church remains an important institution throughout most of the Americas, but the kind of vitriolic attacks and visceral resistence to “guerrilla priests” appears to have faded, and although protracted armed struggles continue, they do so on a smaller scale. We should not, however, either prematurely dismiss the depth of the problems in secular society, nor underestimate the enduring significance of the contest within the church itself.

Opposition to liberation theology was not restricted to local dictators and their foreign friends. It was not all about corporate profits and state power. The Vatican, too, was unsettled. It was distressed for two separate but related reasons – one political, the other spiritual. With respect to politics, piety and politics may make strange bedfellows, but in bed they have certainly been. If, for example, Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein and senior Vatican reporter Marco Politi (His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time, 1996) are to be believed, the late Pope John Paul II was instrumental in bringing down the former Soviet Union; whether the Pope rose (or sank) to the level of a co-conspirator with the CIA in putting an end to the former Soviet Union is a matter best lest to future historians (though I, for one remain skeptical), it cannot be gainsaid that the Vatican has at least been outspoken on political matters and is not above (or below) using its influence on its followers to support or to oppose various governmental practices and policies. Piety and politics plainly mix.

The trouble arises which decisions must be made about which political philosophies, practices and policies are to be supported and which are to be opposed. Regard for human rights now seems to be among the secular virtues endorsed by the church, but neither unfettered capitalism nor undemocratic Stalinism have recently passed muster. This resulted in some curious contests. While denouncing official communism, even Pope John Paul II criticized hegemonic capitalism. In Redemptor Hominis (1979) and Laborem Exercensthe (1981), he spoke out eloquently in support of the dignity of labour and the moral dangers of profit. Following this apparent lead, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a highly controversial and much discussed document in 1983. Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis went farther than declaring the importance of social justice; it quoted leftist “dependency theorists” such as Andre Gunder Frank and Samir Amin, and it cited Cy Gonick, the editor of the socialist journal, Canadian Dimension in support of their critical analysis of dominant business and industrial strategies. They urged parishioners to promote “worker-controlled industries,” “community ownership and control of industries,” and solidarity with workers and trade unions in the effort to apply “the ‘priority of labour’ principle” in place of the capitalist insistence on “placing greater importance on the accumulation of profits and machines than on the people who work in a given economy.” By defining capitalism itself as akin to the doctrine of the “survival of the fittest” and therefore “morally unacceptable as a ‘rule of life’ for the human community,” the Canadian bishops upset their most lucrative funding base. In Canada, of course, the political economy of late capitalism was not in any danger. No proletarian uprisings, no equivalent to the Paris Commune, much less a Bolshevik coup was contemplated. At most, a little tinkering with social benefits might have ensued (though, in reality, the opposite happened). Farther south, however, no such assurance was available. The insurgents were in the hills. The compañeros were afoot on the land. Similar and even more strident remarks by the church in the Southern hemisphere threatened the very existence of that base. Police, military and paramilitary suppression was demanded.

Liberation theology, however, also posed a problem for the church, exclusive of its ties to secular power. Empathy for the downtrodden could easily present dangers for it was likely to lead to unholy alliances with Marxists, anarchists and secular humanists of all sorts. Moral cornerstones of the faith could be made problematic as socialist, feminist and moral relativist beliefs were brought into play. The church, after all, had long defended the poor, but only as long as they knew their place. Justice was based on an inevitable hierarchy in which humane treatment of, and charity toward, social inferiors was the mark of justice; actual equality was unthinkable. Even this, however, caused conflict with secular power.

The Papal Bull Sublimus Deus (1537), issued by Pope Paul III is a remarkable case in point. Spanish conquistadors had been cheerfully slaughtering American aboriginals in their quest for gold and silver with, of course, the blessings of the Spanish crown. A question arose, however, about whether these people were, indeed, human and possessed souls. After much debate, the Vatican made it clear that these Amerindians did, indeed, possess souls. The consequences of this seemingly arcane theological kerfuffle were enormous. To have souls meant, among other things that they had fundamental human rights including personal and usufructuary rights in their land. They could not, with impunity be massacre, enslaved or have their lands expropriated without compensation. Anyone interested in contemporary land claims by aboriginal peoples in Canada, the United States or elsewhere could do worse that to begin their quest for legal understanding with this document. Cynics might add that this decision also legitimized the conversion of the native peoples to Christianity and their subjection to demands for tithes. What is important for my purposes is to highlight the fact that the church has long had a distinct approach to the treatment of the poor, which blended divine love with demands for humility and obedience. What the church opposed was the wrecking of the social hierarchy in a demonic quest for equality, libertine license and (who knows?) maybe even birth control.

Eager to urge the rich and powerful to adopt a kindlier approach to peasants and workers, the church stopped well short of sanctioning radical social change. Revolution in word or deed was anathema to the Pope and his close associates. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, was the point man in terms of silencing or censuring the leading theorists and activists.

Liberation theology was especially discomfiting because it was not just an alignment of misguided priests with dispossessed citizens in opposition to greed and torture. Such an opposition could even be supported by the Vatican, provided that it did not embrace unseemly tactics and remained reasonable. What was especially bothersome was the use of the word “theology.” This implied that the movement had the capacity and the intention to develop a new approach to matters of far greater importance than whether this child died in poverty or that local leader was tortured to death. It implied the possibility of a counter-doctrine to that of the formal church. Everything might be up for grabs. The legitimacy of centuries-old dogmas might be called into question. Women might become eligible for the priesthood. People might put a new interpretation on the words attributed to Jesus in John 10:10 – “I am come that they might have life, and live it more abundantly.” That would never do.

According to Petrella, liberation theology remains important, not because some political reforms have taken place here or there, nor because some regimes have promoted democracy and the redistribution of wealth, nor even because at least one mildly narcissistic leader with a fat wallet has likened George W. Bush to Satan and publicly embraced a fellow oil exporter named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The deeper reason that liberation theology remains contentious is that it “wrests knowledge away from the wealthy and powerful. In doing so,” he continues, “it demands a shift in thinking about the world so radical that it is nothing less than a conversion.”

I would not go so far. This is not because I demean the possible importance of liberation theology, but because I imagine it to be potentially even more powerful. Petrella cites a United Nations report that says an annual investment of $6 billion would eradicate illiteracy everywhere, while noting himself that Americans spend $8 billion on cosmetics, and mentions that $9 billion would provide clean drinking water for all the people in the world – thousands of whom die daily from drinking polluted water – but that Europeans spend $11 billion a year on ice cream. Such data, that could be made even more provocative by supplying details of the international arms trade or the purchase of pet food, may or may not be precisely accurate. Nonetheless, Petrella’s conclusion is worth emphasizing: “What does this data have to do with Christianity? Until liberation theology came along, nothing. And that’s the point.”

A good case could be made that liberation theology did not invent the notion that there are fundamental contradictions in the Christian doctrine and fundamental inconsistencies in Christian practices. Like any other body of belief, the church has swung to and fro between extremes, internalized paradoxes and constantly reinvented itself in response to external demands and internal incongruities. It has responded to altered demographics, scientific innovations and the private ambitions of its most powerful members.

If liberation theology invites an Earthly epiphany or implies a profound metaphysical shake-up, it would not be for the first time.

The potential for religious change that is, to me, truly notable is the possibility for a revitalized ecumenism of the sort started by Pope John XXIII and supplanted by the reign of Pope John Paul II and his chief ideologue, Ratzinger. If I read it right, the real future of liberation theology will come only when its concerns reach out from Latin America to other regions, and only when it extends itself from Christianity to other communities. And that, barring an unlikely conversion of his own, will only happen with force when Pope Benedict XVI becomes an historical figure himself. Meanwhile, Ivan Petrella is doing good work in keeping the movement in the minds of those concerned with such matters. If he is fortunate, he may live long enough to see at least a part of that potential fulfilled.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology