When Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, recently presented the Pope with a now infamous “Communist Crucifix”—sculpted in the form of a Soviet-style hammer and sickle—it marked a low point in Bolivian diplomacy. To offer such a “gift” to the Pope was not only exploitive, but a profound insult to the millions of Christians murdered by Communists. It was also a reminder of how Marxism has infected, and often poisoned, Latin American Christianity through aberrant forms of liberation theology.
Morales and others tried to justify the “gift” by noting that it was designed by a courageous human rights activist and Jesuit priest, Fr. Luis Espinal, who was brutally murdered by paramilitary forces in Bolivia in 1980. But that is precisely the tragedy of liberation theology: that it captivated good men like Fr. Espinal and deceived them into believing Christians could fruitfully collaborate with Marxists in building a more humane society. But the history of Latin American history in the twentieth century—particularly in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela—suggests otherwise. Committed Marxists do not believe in authentic dialogue, only tactical and ideological subversion. Karl Marx himself wrote: “Communists preach no morality at all.”
Liberation theology arose in the 1960s and 70s as a response to the widespread poverty and injustice in Latin America. It began with the Gospel premise that Christians have a special obligation to help the poor. But like so many theological movements which depart from sound Catholic principles, it began importing alien ideologies, and quickly went astray.
The first offense of liberation theology was one of presumption. Liberationists wrote as though God had granted them a new revelation—it was now time for a radical revision of Catholic teaching that incorporated the “insights” of Karl Marx. Liberationists ridiculed “non-transformative” modes of traditional charity, and maintained that in order to truly liberate the poor, it was necessary to radically change society’s fundamental structures—with violence, if necessary.
The second error of liberation theology has been its repeated calumnies. Although liberation theologians often complained—and still complain—of being unfairly treated, they have been in the forefront of launching reckless, ad hominen attacks against their critics. In his book, The Pope and the Jesuits, James Hitchcock tells the story of how Fr. Roger Vekemans, an outstanding Belgian Jesuit who spent decades supporting the poor in Latin America, was demonized by left-wing clergy because he refused to incorporate Marxism into his social justice teachings, and remained faithful to the Church. Similarly, when the Vatican issued two corrective documents on liberation theology at the instruction of St. John Paul II, Juan Segundo, a leading liberation theologian, wrote a blistering response, ominously entitled, Theology and the Church: A Response to Cardinal Ratzinger and a Warning to the Whole Church. And the list goes on.
As Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, the current head of the CDF (appointed by Benedict, and re-confirmed by Francis) said at a press conference with Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez—one of the founding fathers of liberation theology who has, to his credit, welcomed counsel from the Holy See: Liberation theology needs to repudiate Marxism, and reorient itself towards transcendence, if it is to have any future. The Church cannot deal “only with earthly things,” said Cardinal Mueller, continuing:
Man lives in this world, in a world created by God, but he also has a divine and eternal universal vocation. The Church’s task today is coexisting in modern society, but at the same time underscoring that man’s ultimate aim is the Triune God, the God made man, the God of love. If we forget the ultimate aim, we cannot argue anything in favor of human dignity, because we can speak of equality before men only if we speak of God.
Cardinal Mueller also said something that most liberation theologians have been loathe to admit: “The ideology of Soviet Communism put great pressure on liberation theology.” Indeed, the two often became a de-facto alliance—the third error of liberation theology.
As the Church moves forward under Francis, who fought dissident liberation theologians long before he became pope, it is important to remember their sins and errors, lest a new generation of Christians be led astray.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.