Though it has distant historical roots in 16th century Christian humanism, and more immediately in Vatican II, properly speaking liberation theology stems from the 1968 assembly of the Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia. That session endorsed a "preferential option for the poor" on behalf of the Catholic church in Latin America. The movement took its name from Gustavo Gutierrez's 1971 book, A Theology of Liberation.
Today it is common to speak of a variety of "liberation theologies." In his 1995 book Liberation Theologies, Jesuit Fr. Alfred Hennelly distinguishes nine: Latin American, North American feminist, black, Hispanic, African, Asian, First World, ecotheology and even a liberation theology of world religions. The focus in this article is on the Latin American form that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.
Four ideas have been central to the movement:
* The preferential option for the poor. For the liberation theologians, this means that the church must align itself with poor people as they demand justice. Such insistence has led to charges that liberation theology advocates class struggle. The liberationists, however, say that they did not invent the division of society into a wealthy elite and an impoverished majority. The church helped create this social order: Catholic missionaries served as evangelizers for the European conquerors, and church leaders sided with the elites for 400 years. The point, say the liberationists, is not to involve the church in class struggle, which is a given of the Latin American situation. Their goal is to shift the church's loyalties.
* Institutional violence. Liberationists see a hidden violence in social arrangements that create hunger and poverty. Thus when critics accused theologians of advocating revolutionary violence (which most did not), they often responded: "But the church has always tolerated violence." They meant that by endorsing the status quo, church leaders were acquiescing in a system that did violence to millions of people.…