A branch of Catholic theology that can be said to incorporate the activism and some of the rhetoric of leftist, even Marxist, movements, but it essentially applies the teachings of Jesus towards helping the poor and oppressed. Pope John Paul II (who gets the heebies and the jeebies at the very hint of anything even slightly Left) has pretty much put the kibosh on the whole thing; LT continues, in muted form.

In memoriam: Dom Helder Camara, 1909-1999

To amplify: where most theologians attempt to frame Christian belief in a philosophical context, liberation theologians frame their beliefs in the context of sociology--specifically Marxist sociology.

John Paul II isn't the primary opponent of liberation theology--rather Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the chief theologian for the Vatican, has led the charge against liberation theology. His attempt to squash the movement entirely in the mid-80's was actually cut off by the Pope after complaints from Brazilian bishops. Ratzinger, like other critics of liberation theology, claims that Marxism is inherently anti-Christian and that liberation theologians unwittingly allow themselves to be duped by Marxist ideology, which supposedly warps Christian beliefs into a merely political system.

Ratzinger is wrong--liberation theologians have done a good job of adopting Marx's social analysis without taking on his commitment to atheism. Their problem is that Marx's analysis of society was substantially wrong. Marx is about as relevant to economics as Freud is to psychology--he's historically very important and he was the first person to grasp some key concepts, but the details of his theory have been largely disproven. Thus, liberation theologians who use Marxism as their framework are destined to make mistakes--not because they've abandoned Christianty, but because they're using outmoded social science as the basis for their system. This produces a new kind of bad theology that is no less damaging that the usual type.

Liberation theology can, almost, be summed up in the phrase "preferential option for the poor," a term that was coined by Latin American bishops meeting in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979. The phrase was the title of a section of a document compiled at that meeting discussing the role of the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Rather than starting with the proofs of God's existence that concern traditional theologists, liberation theologists start with Christ's love of the poor. From that starting point are many roads. While some of those roads may pass through Marx, the intent is not to work Marx into Christianity, but to draw from all who may reflect some of Christ's love of the poor.

Paul VI quoted St. Ambrose when he issued the Populorum Progressio encyclical: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich."

Related nodes:
Rubem Alves
Hugo Assmann
Phillip Berryman
Leonardo and Clodovis Boff
José Míguez Bonino
Dom Hélder Câmara
Edward Cleary
Ignacio Ellacuria
Paulo Freire
Medardo Gomez
Gustavo Gutiérrez
Oscar Romero
Christopher Rowland
Juan Luis Segundo

Liberation Theology is a term that originated in Peru in 1973 with the Catholic Priest Gustavo Gutierrez. He used it to denote a line of theological thought that placed the poor in the centre of Christian thought, highlighting the importance of liberating them from the oppression that they faced in under the regimes common in Latin America. What made it of especial significance to the methods of twentieth century theological thinking was it's origin. In the words of Guiterrez it was 'born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human.' 1 ; it's inspiration was drawn from the experiences of the community it sought to free.

Since Gutierrez's initial work, Liberation Theology has gained more widespread usage as a school, or collection of schools, of theology that seek to liberate the oppressed in various social and economic contexts throughout the world. As such the term 'Liberation Theology' actually covers a wide range of viewpoints many of which may seem to conflict as each seeks to obtain it's specific goals. Despite this the various theologies of liberation each share the original theme of looking to the base, to the context of the oppressed to seek inspiration.

What therefore are the principles of Liberation Theology? There does not seem to be total unity on the exact nature of these principles, the scope of the various concerns that fall under the banner of Liberation Theology seems to be too broad for total consensus. Despite this there are a number of core principles that seem to define the boundaries of this field.

  • The use of praxis: While the precise definition of praxis varies from theologian to theologian it retains it's core meaning of identifying a problem or cause of suffering and taking action informed by reflection. Praxis is therefore at the heart of Liberation Theology and indeed forms much of it's character by enforcing a questioning and proactive nature to the field.

  • The oppressed should be liberated: Liberation Theology was formed in response to the terrible injustice of the oppressed viewing humans who were exploiters misusing humans that were exploited. This is seen as wrong and contrary to the Christian message.

  • Theology should come from the base: Rather than a top-down approach to theology in which ivory tower theologians draw up theologies entirely based on the works of other ivory tower theologians , Liberation Theology should find it's inspiration and goals in the community at it's base. Such a 'base up' approach has led some to view Liberation Theology as merely Marxism with a Christian face, and it is true that many Liberation Theologians quite openly draw inspiration from the works of Marx and of Marxist writers in general. This perceived leftward leaning has caused many in the Capitalist world to reject it as a valid theology or to at least regard it with suspicion. To describe Liberation Theology in such terms would be however to make the crucial mistake of oversimplification. This relationship has been described as a conversation with Marx; asking him '"What can you tell us about the situation of poverty and ways of overcoming it?"' 2 if the answer is not useful it is rejected. While Marxism has often been drawn on, Liberation Theology also draws on many other fields, as and when they become relevant to the community that the theology serves. It is from this that the entire strength and purpose of the theology is formed, if it is not relevant to the community then it is not relevant to the theology.

  • The Bible is a continuing revelation: While the liberation theologians focus their attention on the community, they draw inspiration from the Bible in that context. The continuing revelation of the events described in the Bible allow parallels to be drawn, enabling those in struggles today to, through the process of reading and discussion, make some sense of their faith. This is not always an easy task for those in difficult situations but strength can be gained and lessons learnt from the process.


    1: Gutierrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation (London: SCM Press, 1974), p.ix.

    2: Boff, Clodovis and Boff, Leonardo, Introducing Liberation Theology (Wellwood: Burns and Oates, 1987), p28.

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