Readers of this journal received their first look at liberation theology in 1970 when Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez published his "Notes for a Theology of Liberation," a ground-breaking essay that the editor called "theological dynamite."(1) Nearly two decades later in this same journal, Richard McCormick hailed this Latin American theology as one of the significant developments within moral theology over the past half century.(2) He identified three ways in which liberation theology has influenced moral theology. It first demolished the separatist mentality that dichotomizes reality into the profane and the sacred and replaced it with a perspective that sees Christ's action permeating every dimension of human existence. Second, it expanded the Church's mission of charity to include active participation in constructing a just order. Liberation theologians call this active form of charity "praxis."(3) Third, liberation theology reminded Christians, and continues to remind them at every turn, that morality should give primacy to social concerns and not yield to the individualism rampant in Western industrialized democracies.
While certain theologians, like Gregory Baum, Marciano Vidal, and J. Philip Wogaman, would concur that liberation theology has influenced moral thinking in important and perhaps lasting ways, others, like James Gustafson, Michael Novak, and Dennis McCann have raised questions about these ways and about the ethics of liberation theology in general.(4) This note will examine those issues in liberation ethics that have recently appeared in the theological literature, focusing primarily on how the preferential option for the poor relates to God's universal love and to ethical concepts, especially to the common good, justice, and human rights. It will conclude with a discussion of its moral identity: What kind of ethics is liberation ethics? The points raised in these notes arise mainly from a dialogue between theologians from Latin America and theologians of North America, Western Europe, and the Philippines.(5)
Preferential Option for the Poor
The concept "preferential option for the poor" first arose at the Second Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin in 1968 and was formally defined by the bishops in their Third Conference at Puebla in 1979. This option, the bishops said, calls the whole Church to a conversion and to a "commitment to the poor . . . aimed at their integral liberation." Answering this call means acknowledging and supporting the efforts of the poor to organize themselves and to reclaim their rights. Moreover, solidarity with the poor urges the Church to denounce "grave injustices stemming from mechanisms of oppression."(6) Since Puebla, Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, and the bishops of Canada and the United States have all affirmed the preferential option in their respective teachings.(7) This option, the linchpin of liberation theology and its ethics, has become, even with its strong hierarchical support by the pope and bishops, "the most controversial religious term since the Reformers' cry, 'Salvation through faith alone.'"(8) It draws vigorous opposition as well as enthusiastic support.
Its opponents attack it on many fronts: theological, ethical, social-scientific, and epistemological. On the theological front, critics say the preferential option seems to circumscribe God's universal love by implying that God loves the poor more than the nonpoor and that God channels salvation exclusively through the poor. This perspective suggests that the Church should work with the downtrodden and forget the wealthy.(9) On the ethical front, critics charge that liberation ethics, by using preferential option as its foundational principle, seems to turn traditional ethics on its head. Traditional philosophical ethics and moral theology insist that moral thinking be impartial; they reject partiality, therefore, because by definition it gives unfair advantage to one group. …