The history of Liberation theology begins in the 60s in South America, just before the series of military coups which would establish military dictatorships in power in nearly every state in the continent.
Birth of a doctrine
In the early 60s, a certain number of actors of Latin America civil societies will be indignant about the social situation of their country, marked by poverty, illiteracy and its corollary : marginalization of millions of people.
This nascent front consist of laity and members of the catholic hierarchy, will generate to a doctrine firmly close to social concerns of the left in Latin America.
It is the famous “option for the poor”, real leitmotiv of Liberation theology.
At the same time, the Vatican II Council (1962-1965), began under the pontificate of John XXIII, concludes itself by the meaning of the doctrine of ecumenism as the new creed of action of catholicism in the world. This rather unexpected opening of the Vatican will be accentuated by encyclical Populorum progressio from March 1967.
These texts, real guarantees from Rome for the establishment of an ecumenical clergy and progressist in Latin America, will cause a new missionary impulse in the South American clergy, feeling empowered to develop a new progressive trend in Churches of south America. But Liberation theology is only a project at this level.
At the end of summer 1968, Pope Paul VI inaugurated the second general conference of Latin American bishops. On this occasion, the Peruvian theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez present a report on the “theology of development” motivated by the concern of fighting against “international imperialism of money ” and the need for radical social transformation.
The tone is set. It is the birth certificate of Liberation theology which is nothing less than a radical reading of the gospel by mobilizing some introductory concepts inherited from marxist analysis of the society (people makes their own History, the existence of class struggle, the operating modes of the dominant ideology.).
This militant way of bringing the gospel truth will cause real draft in Latin America, particularly in Brazil. While the dictatorship (1964-1985) settle down, pastorals in favelas and other major places of misery will increase. Evangelization campaign of the damned, swiping, surprising speeches from the priests’ mouths, will put reactionary fringe of the country on alert :
« Perched on a sound system car, he said : “Let’s pray the lord so that there is a better distribution of income in the country ” and the crowd answered: “Lord, hear our prayer “
« then : “For an employment increase opportunities in Pernambouc; for the 15,000 abandoned minors in Pernambouc and who lived poorly in our streets. For Olinda and Recife families[...] so that our leaders take swift action to help the victims of Olinda and Recife whose houses were destroyed by the last flood of Beberibe.” As a result of all these requests, the crowd replied: “Lord, hear our prayer. » Journal do Brasil, “Procissão no Recife reune cerca de 80 000 pessoas lideradas por Dom Helder Camara ” July 17, 1980.
We must understand that contrary to what has been suggested by this example, Liberation theology is not marxist on the common sense of the term. It is a gospel for the poor. Its goal is not the establishment of communist regimes in South America. However, it recognized that the marxist analysis is the most relevant, to light up domination link that structure a society.
But during the Cold War, the proximity of liberation theology actors with the Left Latin America will maintained the myth of the “Marxist infiltration” in it. This contagion so easily outbid by reactionary currents, will inspire a famous replica in the mouth of the Archbishop of Recife, Dom Hélder Câmara, which states :
“When I give food to the poor, they say I am a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist. “
In the eyes of crimes of Inquisition, the position of the Church disorder during the Second World War up to the scandals that has led the Catholic Church in recent years, all this is minor.
But we firmly deny the extent of the “marxist infiltration” and we wish to report the enormity of reactions that the rumor has caused.
Upon the death of Paul VI in 1978, it is a young cardinal of 58 years old, Karol Józef Wojtyła, who will inherit the responsibility as Vicar of Christ under the well known name of John Paul II. His pontificate lasted over 26 years, making it the second longest in the history of Christianity.
Needless to say we will not dwell to make a summary of his pontificate. We are only interested in what binds him to the Liberation Theology, which does not give him credit, we are well aware of it.
John Paul II was the first Polish pope in the history. He was elected to this dignity during the Cold War, at a time when Poland was under the yoke of the Soviets against which the young Karol Wojtyla has courageously managed to resist, until attracting the Vatican’s attention. The worldview of John Paul II is obviously linked to Karol Wojtyla’s personal fight, that of the struggle against communism.
Therefore, when John Paul II arrived in South America, in a Church divided between conservatives and followers of Liberation theology (which were still in minority, even in Brazil), he will not at all take measure of what is happening. In any case, it is our interpretation.
In 1981, John Paul II will come in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (the former Holy Office, no less than the old Inquisition!) A cardinal with whom he has established personal relationships during Vatican Concile II : Joseph Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI.
Joseph Ratzinger is a ultra-conservative theologian. As for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, it has lost none of these excesses formerly, except that she is given the task of hunting a different kind of witch. For example, it is from her that comes the 1949 decree of excommunication which will hit anyone spreading Communist doctrine, in accordance with, which Fidel Castro was excommunicated in 1962.
The Vatican’s charge will begin in Nicaragua from the summer of 1982. At this time, all of Central America is in turmoil. In 1979, the Sandinista rebels overthrew the dictatorship of Samoza. The new government that emerges is composed of five progressists priests, close to Liberation Theology. However, in June 1982, the Vatican will disavow the Popular Church in Nicaragua.
The following year, John Paul II made a visit to a mourning Nicaragua : the offensive counter-revolutionary is at its peak and has left in its trail macabre lifeless bodies of students, teachers, volunteer and even personals in the health sector. The week after the massacre, the weeping mothers gather themselves on Managua’s square, waiting for a gesture from the pope. But John Paul II refused to pray for the Sandinista children killed in the fight.
Years later, John Paul II will go to the extent of giving communion to the couple Pinochet, during a visit to Chile.
But it is Ratzinger who will befall the mission to eradicate the theoretical foundations of Liberation theology and decapitate its instigators. This mission, he will do it with such determination that he has inherited a rather unflattering nickname, that of “Panzerkardinal “.
He will first summon the theologian Peruvian, Gustavo Gutiérrez, author of the report on the “theology of development” which is the conceptual basis of this doctrine. Other days, at the end of a lawsuit, Ratzinger will force Gutiérrez to “revise” his work.
The following year, in March 1985, the same year that ends the Brazilian military dictatorship, it is Leonardo Boff who bears the brunt of Ratzinger’s harshness. For writing a work entitled “Church, Charisma and Power” he got a sentence of 18 months of penitential silence, a prohibition of teaching and a sidelining of his editory house.
The same year, the charismatic dom Helder Camara (Archbishop of Olinda-Recife and figurehead of Liberation theology) is suddenly replaced by the very conservative dom José Cardoso Sobrinho (which does not happen smoothly!).
At the end of his pontificate, John Paul II had replaced half of the bishops in office, in Brazil by clearly conservative prelates. This business continued under the pontificate of Benoît XVI. Today, half of the cardinals of the Catholic Church was elected by John Paul II, the other half by Benedict XVI. This proportion is respected in Brazil.
But what was the impact of the liquidation of Liberation theology on Catholic religion in Brazil, in the last two pontificates?
John Paul II and Benedict XVI : the sworn opponent assailed
The major sworn opponent of Liberation theology will be a Polish and a German: Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. One knew the Soviet invasion of his homeland, the other one Hitler youth. Thus, the results of their two pontificates is at variable geometry and remains dependent on the violence of their century.
In South America, particularly in Brazil, this assessment is negative. Because how else should we qualify an assessment that has seen a quarter of the Brazilian population turn away from catholicism between the beginning of John Paul II pontificate and Benedict XVI resignation?
In fact, 93 % of the population in 1960 declared himself Catholic, 89 % in 1980, 83 % in 1991 and not even 65% during the last census in 2010. Today, few weeks before World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, it is estimated that the pentecostal evangelists enrol each year one million Brazilian Catholics in their movements.
In front of that rout in a country which is considered the largest catholic nation in the world, Benoît XVI, in the last months of his pontificate, had no other choice than to regain accreditation strategy initiated by the Charismatic Renewal Catholic of Father Marcelo Rossi, real Pop Star in Brazil.
However, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal uses rigorously, exactly the same mercantile ideas as pentecostal-evangelists : proselytism, series of “miracles” during huge church service, private TV channel which transmit continuously, aggressive marketing…
But from the lack of real innovation against existing religious offering, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is much more a wither than a cure to the loss of the believers.
Therefore, this validation of Catholic Charismatic Renewal by the intellectual Benedict XVI sounds like a failure admission of the Vatican policy conducted in South America during the last three decades.
So, what is the point of silencing Father Leonardo Boff, Brazilian great theoretician of Liberation theology, to finally bowing 30 years later in front of the business strategy of Father Marcelo Rossi, Man of God who trades catholic faith in the form of CDS and other consumable goods?
Benedict XVI has seen fit to resign just before participating in this disaster. His own disaster.
Maybe during his meditation retirement Benedict XVI will also consider whether the Church was actually by the side of Christ in South America when she consistently supported military dictatorships in power.
From there may be, he will be able to estimate almost his share of responsibility on the doubling of poverty on this continent from the early 80s (120 million of poor people) and late 90s (225 million of poor people).
To go further :
- Part 1 : Brazilian Religion today
- > Part 2 : Liberation Theology, a mixture of Catholicism and Marxism destroyed by John Paul II and Benoit XVI
- Part 3 : Religion in Brazil, from colonial time to Church and State separation (1891), an edifying story!
- Part 4 : Birth of Candomble in Brazil (1)
- Part 5 : Birth of candomble in Brazil (2)