The Vatican Strikes Back

By Kovel, Joel | Monthly Review, April 1985 | Go to article overview

The Vatican Strikes Back

Kovel, Joel, Monthly Review


The Vatican's recently released Instruction on Certain Aspects of the "Theology of Liberation' (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1984; henceforth referred to as Instruction) is doleful but essential reading for those of us who have begun to rethink the traditional hostility between religion and the left. The work of one of Catholicism's leading ideologians, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Instruction is a key link in Pope John Paul II's counteroffensive against the challenge to orthodoxy represented by liberation theology, and is to be seen in context alongside other recent events, such as the trial of Fr. Leonardo Boff of Brazil and the attempt to set the Peruvian church against Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez.

Instruction is of special interest because it attempts to thwart an association between liberation theology and Marxism. This is all the more remarkable, since as anyone familiar with liberation theology can attest, its actual proponents are anything but systematic Marxists. For example, Gutierrez, the most influential of the group, keeps his remarks concerning Marxism strictly tangential to theological discourse.1 As Arthur McGovern puts it, "direct references to Marxist analysis occur much less frequently than one would be led by critics to expect, and references to Marx tend to be qualified when they are made.'2 The same observation has been made by Phillip Berryman: "none of [liberation theology's] major exponents have devoted systematic attention to Marxism as such, with the exception of Jose Porfirio Miranda. . . .' (of whom, more below).3 Certainly the great majority of Christian base communities, those spontaneously arising collectives of believers who comprise the social base of liberation theology throughout Central and South America, cannot be said to have any kind of consciously Marxist perspective.

And yet Instruction is suffused, one might even say obsessed, with the notion that Marxism is either incipiently or actually taking over the liberation theology movement and turning it to its sinister purposes. Does the Pope know something that no one else does? What is the point of this curious diatribe, its logic honed over centuries of fending off heresy, and turned here toward what at first glance appears to be a largely imaginary threat?

Instruction is not a particularly long document, and its principal argument can be readily summarized: the phenomenal injustice in the world which has given rise to liberation theology (and, of course, to Marxism as well) is recognized, and the causes of this injustice are described, as are the alleged inadequacies of liberation theology-Marxism for dealing with them. Finally, the Catholic church is affirmed as the true champion of liberation. Embedded in the text, then, are distinct critiques of liberation theology and Marxism, a defense of the traditional church, and a theological conception of history that ties the whole argument together. It is perhaps best to begin with the latter, as it provides the underpinning for the rest of Ratzinger's discourse.

The Vatican's position may be represented as follows: the world groans under a burden of horrible crime and inequities against which humanity is justifiably outraged. The church joins fully in the outcry; it insists, however, that a priority of causes be established, and the ultimate cause of injustice be given its proper place. This cause is sin: "liberation is first and foremost liberation from the radical slavery of sin. Its end and goal is the freedom of the children of God, which is the gift of grace.' (p. 3) Or again, "the root of evil . . . lies in free and responsible persons who have to be converted by the grace of Jesus Christ.' (p. 12) Everything else in Instruction flows from this presupposition, for only the true church is qualified to judge those lapses from God that constitute sin, and only through the church can grace be achieved. …

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