Olavo de Carvalho explains why Liberation Theology is alive and well in Latin America.
Why are still there people who subscribe to liberation theology? Apparently no reasonable person should do that. From a theological standpoint the doctrine that Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez and Brazilians Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto have spread throughout the world was already demolished by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger[i] in 1984, two years after being condemned by Pope John Paul II[ii]. In 1994 theologian Edward Lynch stated that liberation theology had already been reduced to a mere intellectual curiosity[iii]. In 1996 the Spanish historian Ricardo de la Cierva, whom nobody would deem to be uneducated on these matters, considered it to be dead and buried[iv].
And yet the fact is that, more than a decade and a half after its death, liberation theology is practically official doctrine in twelve countries in Latin America. What happened? That is the question that I propose to examine in this essay.
In order to answer it properly we need to examine the problem from three different angles:
(1) Is liberation theology a Catholic theology influenced by Marxist ideas, or is it only a communist ruse camouflaged with Catholic language?
(2) What is the relation between liberation theology as theoretical discourse and as an activist political organization?
(3) Once those two questions are answered, then we will be able to grasp liberation theology as a precise phenomenon and describe the particular forma mentis of their theoreticians by means of a stylistic analysis of their writings.
The first question is given remarkably uniform answers by both Professor Lynch and Cardinal Ratzinger, as well as by innumerable other Catholic authors (for example, Hubert Lepargneur’s Liberation Theology: An Assessment[v], and Sobral Pinto’s Liberation Theology: Marxist Materialism in Spiritualist Theology[vi]): based on the premise that liberation theology presents itself as a Catholic theology, they proceed to examine it in that light, praising its possible humanitarian and justice-making intentions, but concluding that liberation theology is, in essence, incompatible with the Church’s traditional doctrine and is therefore heretical in the strict sense of the word. They also add to that assessment a denunciation of some of its internal contradictions and a criticism of its social agenda founded upon utterly discredited Marxist economics.
From this they move on to decreeing its death, asserting that (the following words are Professor Lynch’s),
Twenty-five years later, however, liberation theology has been reduced to an intellectual curiosity. While still attractive to many North American and European scholars, it has failed in what the liberationists always said was their main mission, the complete renovation of Latin American Catholicism. [vii]
All ideological revolutionary discourse can be understood according to at least three levels of meaning, all of which first need to be distinguished through analysis and then hierarchically rearranged when one of them reveals itself to be the most decisive factor in concrete political situations, subordinating the others.
The first level is a descriptive one: the ideological revolutionary discourse presents a diagnosis or explanation of reality, or an interpretation of a previous theory. On this level, the revolutionary discourse can be judged by its veracity, correspondence, or faithfulness to facts, to the current state of available knowledge, or to the doctrine it is interpreting. When the discourse presents a defined proposal for action, it can be judged by the viability or convenience of the action to be taken.
The second level is that of ideological self-definition, where the theoretician or doctrinarian expresses the symbols in which the revolutionary group recognizes itself and by which it can distinguish insiders and outsiders, friends and foes. On this level the ideological revolutionary discourse can be judged by its psychological efficacy or correspondence with its audience’s expectations and longings.
The third level is that of strategic disinformation, providing false clues designed to throw its enemies off course and ward off any attempt that can be made to block the revolutionary proposal for action, or neutralize any other effects the discourse aims to produce.
On its first level, the revolutionary discourse ideally addresses an impartial audience, whose support it intends to win over by means of persuasion. On the second level, it addresses its actual or potential supporters, with the aim of reinforcing their loyalty to the group and obtaining from them their maximum possible collaboration. On the third, it addresses its enemy, the target of the operation.
Practically all the criticisms that Catholic intellectuals leveled at liberation theology have been confined to the examination of its first level of meaning. From an intellectual standpoint, they completely discredited it, demonstrated its heretical character, and pointed out those old flaws that make any proposal for a socialist remodeling of society destructive and inviable.
If the masterminds behind liberation theology were Catholics sincerely devoted to “renewing Latin American Catholicism,” even if through the use of means contaminated with Marxist ideology, those devastating criticisms would have been enough to completely deactivate their theology. Once those critical analyses left the field of intellectual debate to become the Church’s official teaching, with the 1984 study by Cardinal Ratzinger, liberation theology could be regarded, from a theoretical point of view, as extinct and intellectually overcome.
Now read this testimony given by General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking KGB official who has ever defected to the West, and you will begin to understand why the intellectual and theological discredit of the liberation theology was not enough to put an end to it. In 1959, as the head of the Romanian intelligence station in West Germany, General Pacepa heard from Nikita Khrushchev himself the following words, “We’ll use Cuba as springboard to launch a KGB-devised religion into Latin America.”[viii]
And his testimony goes on like this,
Khrushchev called the new KGB-invented religion Liberation Theology. His penchant for “liberation” was inherited by the KGB, which later created the Palestine Liberation Organization, the National Liberation Army of Columbia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army of Bolivia. Romania was a Latin country, and Khrushchev wanted our “Latin view” about his new religious “liberation” war. He also wanted us to send a few priests who were cooptees or deep cover officers to Latin America, to see how “we” could make his new Liberation Theology palatable to that part of the world. Khrushchev got our best effort.
Launching a new religion was a historic event, and the KGB had thoroughly prepared for it. At that very moment, the KGB was building a new international religious organization in Prague called the Christian Peace Conference (CPC), whose task would be to spread Liberation Theology within Latin America. . . .
In 1968, the KGB-created CPC was able to maneuver a group of leftist South American bishops into holding a Conference of Latin American Bishops at Medellin, Colombia. The Conference’s official task was to ameliorate poverty. Its undeclared goal was to recognize a new religious movement encouraging the poor to rebel against the “institutionalized violence of poverty,” and to recommend it to the World Council of Churches for official approval. The Medellin Conference did both. It also swallowed the KGB-born name “Liberation Theology.”
That is, in its essentials, the idea of liberation theology came ready-made from Moscow three years before Peruvian Jesuit Gustavo Gutierrez, with his book Teología de la Liberación[ix], presented himself as its original creator, something which probably happened with the approval by its true creators, who were not interested at all in a public acknowledgment of paternity. The legal guardians of the child, Leonardo Boff and Frei Betto (Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo) would come onto the scene even later, not before 1977. Until today popular information sources, as for example Wikipedia, repeat like trained parrots that Fr. Gutierrez was indeed the father of liberation theology and that Mr Boff and Mr Betto were his most outstanding continuators.
Read Part II here.
Translated from the Portuguese by Alessandro Cota.
[i] Cardinal Ratzinger, Joseph. Liberation Theology. Christendom-awake.org, http://www.christendomawake.org/ pages/ratzinger/liberationtheol.htm, (accessed February 2, 2015).
[ii] Quentin L. Quade, ed., The Pope and Revolution: John Paul II Confronts Liberation Theology (Washington, D.C.: Ethics and Public Policy Center, 1982).
[iv] Cierva, Ricardo de la. La Hoz y la Cruz. Auge y Caída del Marxismo y la Teología de la Liberación (Toledo: Fénix, 1996).
[v] Lepargneur, Hubert. Teologia da Libertação. Uma Avaliação (São Paulo: Convívio, 1979). The Brazilian translation of the work was used.
[vi] Pinto, Sobral. Teologia da Libertação. O Materialismo Marxista na Teologia Espiritualista (Rio: Lidador, 1984). The Portuguese original was used.
[vii] Lynch, loc. cit.
[viii] Pacepa, Ion Mihai,“Kremlin’s religious Crusade,” Frontpage Magazine, June 30, 2009, http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=35388 (accessed February 2, 2015).
[ix] Gutierrez, Gustavo. Teología de la Liberación(Lima: Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1971).