Benedict XVI and “the theologies of liberation” – Swiss Catholic Portal

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Ratzinger has had strained relations with liberation theology. His appreciation of this theology, however, evolved under pressure from Latin American bishops.

Jacques Berset, for

Used for the first time in Latin America in 1968 by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest who had studied in Belgium and France, the term “liberation theology” (ToL) quickly spread and covered diverse realities.

Going beyond the Latin American continent, this current soon spread to Asia and Africa. Third-world Christians then draw strength from their religious convictions to fight against economic, police and military oppression, in the context of the cold war between the communist bloc and the so-called “free” world. In the majority of these countries, hundreds of millions of human beings are kept in “infrahuman” conditions, according to the expression of the Brazilian bishop Dom Helder Camara (1909-1999).

“Communist subversion”

The TdL, which mobilizes the poor and marginalized populations by brandishing the banner of “the preferential option for the poor”, will immediately clash with the local oligarchies, supported by the conservative sectors of the Church. The accusation of subversion attached to “progressive” Christians was quickly relayed by the United States.

“Cardinal Ratzinger criticizes liberation theologies for reducing the Gospel of salvation to an earthly gospel”

The latter produced in 1969 the Rockefeller Reportdeveloped at the request of President Nixon, then in 1981 the Santa Fe Handout intended to guide President Reagan in his Latin American policy. The TdL is designated as the main danger for America. An accusation of “communist subversion” which will be quickly relayed to Rome by the conservative sectors of the Church, allied to the military regimes of the time.

“Ruinous for the faith and the Christian life”

It was in this geopolitical context that an Instruction on some aspects of liberation theology was published in the summer of 1984. It is from the hand of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the CDF. The prelate emphasizes “the deviations and the risks of deviation, ruinous for the faith and the Christian life, that certain forms of liberation theology entail which resort, in an insufficiently critical manner, to concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought”. He criticizes “liberation theologies” for the temptation to reduce the Gospel of salvation to an earthly gospel.

The prefect of the Roman Congregation emphasizes, however, that his warning should “in no way be interpreted as a disavowal of all those who want to respond generously and in an authentic evangelical spirit” to “the preferential option for the poor”.

The cardinal recalls, in this first instruction on the ToL that “atheism and the negation of the human person, of his freedom and his rights, are at the center of the Marxist conception. It therefore contains errors that directly threaten the truths of faith about the eternal destiny of people. Moreover, to want to integrate into theology an ‘analysis’ whose criteria of interpretation depend on this atheistic conception, is to shut oneself up in ruinous contradictions”.

Ideological weapon for military dictatorships

The text denounces in Marxism a “totalizing conception” which imposes its logic and leads the “theologies of liberation” to accept a set of positions incompatible with the Christian vision of man. These remarks – coming from a European reality marked by the Cold War – are well received by circles opposed to the TdL. They are mainly used by the powerful supporters of the status quo, both in the North and in the South, against the agents of change.

“The Roman discourse will provide powerful ideological weapons for Latin American military dictatorships”

In a Latin America imbued with a strong Christian heritage, faced with very strong social inequalities, the Roman discourse without nuances will provide powerful ideological weapons for the military dictatorships of the American subcontinent. Faced with a vast campaign of discredit, the TdL, accused of “Marxist contamination”, then became suspect within the clergy and the seminaries.

Six Jesuits murdered

For the Vatican, it is a question of warning against the deviations due to the reading of social reality with elements of Marxism. The Holy See also criticizes “rationalising” readings of the Bible that tend to reduce the story of Christ to that of a social and political liberator. At the same time, Joseph Ratzinger will impose on the Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff a period of “penitential silence” and deprivation of editorial responsibilities.

“In 1986 John Paul II will say that this theology is ‘not only opportune, but useful and necessary'”

In this context of bitter ideological struggles, these reproaches will cast suspicion on the whole of the TdL. Certain political forces take advantage of this climate of mistrust to sometimes physically attack leaders of grassroots communities, catechists, nuns or monks in Brazil, Argentina or other Latin American countries. Thus six Jesuits from the Central American Catholic University (UCA) of San Salvador were brutally murdered on November 16, 1989. These religious qualified as “subversives” are shot in cold blood by members of Atlacatl, a special battalion of the Salvadoran army trained by the United States.

freedom theology

Cardinal Ratzinger will however publish, in 1986, a new instruction On Christian Liberty and Liberation, which, although not canceling the first, will complete and qualify it. Rome perceives the ToL in a more positive way, by introducing the spiritual dimension of a theology of freedom. The intervention of certain figures of the Brazilian episcopate at the time, supporting the most prominent players in the TdL, had not remained without effect. The same year, John Paul II will say, in a letter addressed to the Brazilian prelates, that this theology is “not only opportune, but useful and necessary”.

If the TdL seemed for a time to have withered away, its evolution is still ongoing. It has been refined in a constantly changing context, highlighting rising generations who are facing new issues: questions of gender, ethnic and cultural minorities, ecological problems, etc. These theologies now enjoy a certain recognition from the Vatican… and from Pope Francis. (

Benedict XVI and “the theologies of liberation” – Swiss Catholic Portal