After Council, a 'New Context': Liberation Theology Will Endure and Grow, Says Jesuit

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MUNKH, GERMANY * There is a general view in the church today that liberation theology, which shone so brightly for a while after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), is dead. The declaration against it issued by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984, it is thought, killed it off But the reality is different. Certainly this movement as a force around which to organize in favor of the poor is less prominent today. But its inspiration is still very much alive.

Such is the message of this interview given recently in Munich by the rector of the Jesuit community there, Fr. Martin Maier, former editor in chief of the celebrated monthly magazine Stimmen der Zeit.

Maier was in El Salvador in 1989 when six Jesuits and two women were murdered by army assassins at the University of Central America. The murdered men had been a team developing and applying the insights of liberation theology. Maier remained in El Salvador for two years, and ever since has returned regularly. He has a close friendship and intellectual partnership with Fr. Jon Sobrino, the leading Jesuit liberation theologian, and is one of the many influenced by the witness of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who found the face of Jesus in the face of the poor.

NCR: Liberation theology burst onto the scene after Vatican II. How does this theology relate to the council?

Maier: I see liberation theology as one of the council's fruits. One of the great theological steps forward taken at Vatican II was to replace the Neo-Scholastic model of nature and grace as separate from each other. The council came to a new conception of a unity between them. This had many consequences for theology and the church itself: a new unity between the history of salvation and profane history, a new unity in understanding the love of God and love of neighbor, a new unity between faith and society.

Just six weeks before the council began, Pope John XXIII made a radio speech in which he set out his vision of what Vatican II could and should achieve. He said that the Catholic church understood itself to be the church of all, but especially of the poor. So he anticipated the preferential option for the poor, which is a basic thrust of liberation theology. When the Latin American bishops met in Medellin [Colombia] in 1968, they applied the council to their local situation and the option for the poor and liberation theology was the consequence.

The Vatican became very critical, though. What were Pope John Paul II's views?

You have to see him in context as a pope from Poland, a communist dominated country of Eastern Europe. When elected, he did not have a developed understanding of liberation theology. He saw it as leftist and, given his experience of the Soviet system, he was very critical and suspicious that Marxism should play an important role in it.

But as he came to know the universal church more fully, there was an evolution. You can see this working out in the personal story of his relations with Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador. Romero came to see him for the first time in April 1979. The pope urged him to seek a better understanding with the government, and to be careful about the social commitment of the church. But there was another meeting in January 1980 where John Paul had reached a much better understanding of the archbishop's situation. Romero felt consoled.

Two months later, Romero was dead--assassinated in the Divine Providence Hospital chapel in San Salvador while celebrating the Eucharist. John Paul II was convinced that he was a martyr. He gave Romero a special place during the jubilee year 2000, when he led an ecumenical commemoration of the witnesses to faith in the 20th century. As the roll call of honor was read out continent by continent, Romero was mentioned by name. It was an exception, for it happened only with him, and that was at the pope's insistence. …