Latin American liberation theology

Latin American liberation theology (Spanish: Teología de la liberación, Portuguese: Teologia da libertação) is a synthesis of Christian theology and socio-economic analyses, that emphasizes “social concern for the poor and political liberation for oppressed peoples.”[1] Beginning in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council,[2] liberation theology became the political praxis of Latin American theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff, and JesuitsJuan Luis Segundo and Jon Sobrino, who popularized the phrase “preferential option for the poor.” It arose principally as a moral reaction to the poverty and social injustice in the region, which is the most unequal in the world.[3]

Christian doctrine emphasising the liberation of the oppressed
For worldwide expressions, see Liberation theology.

This expression was used first by Jesuit Fr. General Pedro Arrupe in 1968 and soon after this the World Synod of Catholic Bishops in 1971 chose as its theme “Justice in the World”.[4][5] It was popularized in 1971 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, who wrote one of the movement’s defining books, A Theology of Liberation. Other noted exponents include Leonardo Boff of Brazil, and Jesuits Jon Sobrino of El Salvador and Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay.[6][7]

The Latin American context also produced Protestant advocates of liberation theology, such as Rubem Alves,[8][9]José Míguez Bonino, and C. René Padilla, who in the 1970s called for integral mission, emphasizing evangelism and social responsibility.

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A major player in the formation of liberation theology was the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM). Created in 1955 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, CELAM pushed the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) toward a more socially oriented stance.[10]

After the Second Vatican Council, CELAM held two conferences which were important in determining the future of liberation theology: the first was held in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968, and the second in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979.[10] The Medellín conference debated how to apply the teachings of Vatican II to Latin America, and its conclusions were strongly influenced by liberation theology,[11] which grew out of these officially recognized ideas. While the Medellín document is not a liberation theology document, it laid the groundwork for much of it, and after it was published, liberation theology developed rapidly in the Latin American Catholic Church.[12]

Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo was a central figure after the Medellín Conference. As a priest in Bogotá in 1968, he did not attend the conference. But he was elected in 1972 as general secretary of CELAM, and then its president in 1979 (at the Puebla conference). He represented a more conservative position, becoming a favourite of Pope John Paul II and the “principal scourge of liberation theology.”[13] López’s faction became predominant in CELAM after the 1972 Sucre conference, and in the Roman Curia after the 1979 CELAM conference in Puebla.

Despite the conservative bishops’ predominance in CELAM, liberation theology remained popular in South America. Thus at the 1979 Puebla Conference the conservative bishops were met by strong opposition from those in the clergy who supported the concept of a “preferential option for the poor” and basic ecclesial communities, approved at the Medellín conference.

Pope John Paul II gave the opening speech at the Puebla Conference in 1979. The general tone of his remarks was conciliatory. He criticized radical liberation theology, saying, “this idea of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the Church’s catechesis“;[14] however, he did acknowledge that “the growing wealth of a few parallels the growing poverty of the masses,”[14] and he affirmed both the principle of private property and that the Church “must preach, educate individuals and collectivities, form public opinion, and offer orientations to the leaders of the peoples” towards the goal of a “more just and equitable distribution of goods”.[14]

Some liberation theologians, however, including Gustavo Gutiérrez, had been barred from attending the Puebla Conference. Working from a seminary and with aid from sympathetic, liberal bishops, they partially obstructed other clergy’s efforts to ensure that the Puebla Conference documents satisfied conservative concerns. Within four hours of the Pope’s speech, Gutiérrez and the other priests wrote a 20-page refutation, which was circulated at the conference, and has been claimed to have influenced the final outcome of the conference. According to a socio-political study of liberation theology in Latin America, a quarter of the final Puebla documents were written by theologians who were not invited to the conference.[15]

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