As the Pope Heads to Brazil, Is Liberation Theology a Spent Force? ; the Big Question
Peter Popham Rome Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
Why are we talking about this now?
Pope Benedict XVI today begins a five-day pontifical voyage to Brazil, his first trip to Latin America since becoming pope two years ago. Home to 124 million Roman Catholics, Brazil was also a crucible of "liberation theology", the bid by thousands of Catholic priests and nuns especially in South America to align themselves with the poor, and to combine worship with political action aimed at transforming radically unjust societies.
What is Pope Benedict's attitude towards liberation theology?
As the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - once known as the Inquisition - under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as he then was, singlehandedly eviscerated the liberation theology movement, silencing its most articulate voices. The late Pope, with his long experience battling against official oppression in Poland, was instinctively disposed in its favour, describing the movement as "useful and necessary".
But Ratzinger, on whom the Pope depended for theological advice throughout his papacy, persuaded him that yoking the church to political liberation movements was a deadly danger. He invoked "totalitarian and atheistic regimes" - Nazi and communist - "which came to power by violent and revolutionary means, precisely in the name of the liberation of the people. This shame of our time cannot be ignored."
These regimes, he went on, promised freedom but delivered slavery. "Those who ... make themselves accomplices of similar enslavements betray the very poor they mean to help," he insisted. He ruthlessly silenced its exponents, including the most prominent, a Brazilian priest called Leonardo Boff, who later left the church.
Where did liberation theology originate?
The movement had its origins in the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and its exhortation to the church to show solidarity with humanity "and especially the poor". The message had a particular resonance for Latin America, home to half the world's Catholics and a continent brimming with poverty and tyranny. In 1968 an assembly of bishops at Medellin in Colombia voted in favour of what they called "a preferential option for the poor", guided by Gustavo Gutierrez, theological adviser to the assembly and coiner of the phrase "liberation theology". At the heart of the movement was a desire to harness the energy of the church to the goals of social revolution.
"As Aquinas baptised Aristotle," says Tina Beattie, the Catholic writer, "so liberation theologians sought to baptise Marx." But while the poorest regions of the world - it was also influential in Africa - were the places where one would expect liberation theology to resonate and gain followers, Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that "it is not a home-grown (ie Latin American) product but a European export" - the pernicious invention of European Marxists.
Why was Cardinal Ratzinger so intolerant of it?
The Bavarian theologian began his career as a liberal, but was profoundly affected by the student movements of the late 1960s, when the University of Tobingen, where he was teaching, became a centre of militancy. According to another member of the theological faculty, Hans Kung, the students "came in and occupied the pulpits. Even for a strong personality like me this was unpleasant. For someone timid like Ratzinger it was horrific."
Ratzinger's views then underwent a 180-degree shift and he became profoundly conservative. One of his …
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Publication information: Article title: As the Pope Heads to Brazil, Is Liberation Theology a Spent Force? ; the Big Question. Contributors: Peter Popham Rome Correspondent - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: May 9, 2007. Page number: Not available. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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