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Latin American Liberation Theology and US Theologians

Updated: Jun 20, 2021

Last April, I attended a symposium on Catholic social teaching and the common good promoted by the Duquesne University as part of the Luce Grant Initiative on the project Catholicism and the Common Good. I had an opportunity to be on a great panel on Leadership for the Poor with two colleges, Christina McRorie (Creighton University) and Meghan Clark (St. John’s University), who delivered excellent papers on the see-judge-act method and on the common good.

The focus of my talk was on the preferential option for the poor as a guide and commitment for global health. From the Catholic social tradition and Latin American liberation theology (LALTh), I suggest the preferential option for the poor as an existential and operational principle for global health initiatives with the poor and from their agency and leadership. I believe that a publication will come out in the future with the papers from this great symposium. Hence, I don’t want to present my talk here. Rather, I want to address a question that one of the attendees asked me. She asked if I thought that people in the USA had access to LALth texts and really understood its approach to the preferential option of the poor.

My short answer to this question was that most US theologians have a limited access to texts from LALTh. Most of them read only the text from known theologians who had their books and articles translated into English, such as the writings of Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino. The production of theologians and community leaders outside these big names are mostly unknown in the US. In addition, the most recent development of LALTh, who continues to sustain this tradition today – by addressing new issues such as sexual ethics, bioethics, public health, fundamentalisms, immigration, Church and political polarizations, social media and so forth – are practically unknown in the USA. This production is published in Spanish and Portuguese, with little to almost zero translations into English. Moreover, I feel a resistance from US theologians in attempt to engage with writings in languages other than English. And to be totally honest, I feel that there is a colonizing mentality that anything produced outside of the USA or Western Europe is inferior.

The second aspect of my answer is that the US academia reduces liberation theology to a theological discipline and the preferential option for the poor to a theological concept. As a result, the interest in liberation theology in the US is closer to studying it as historical contextual theology, than seeing it as a hermeneutical approach that impacts any theological discipline. Furthermore, the preferential option for the poor becomes restricted to academic discussion and loses its existential aspect of commitment to the life of the poor, in which the theology incarnates this option through a life of austerity and humility among the poor. This also impacts the way LALTh is received in the US, because it arrives at this country only the theological systematization of this liberating praxis, the tip of the iceberg, while the entire and largest basis of it is unknown: the historical praxis of faith communities for liberation.

A few years ago, while I was studying in a Ph.D. program in the USA, I was distressed with the way I realized some of US Catholic theologians approached to LALTh. At the time, I wrote a personal reflection about it. Private until now, I share this reflection below.

This piece is a reaction to my distress hearing some North American theologians refer to liberation theology as a movement created by two or three people. For many in the U.S., it seems that liberation theology, or to be more specific Latin American liberation theology, is a Gustavo Gutiérrez’s creation out of the blue. Sometimes it is him and Leonardo Boff. Some like to add Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino, and other few Latin American theologians. I often hear some US theologians referring to them as “the fathers” of liberation theology, especially Gutiérrez and Boff who published two famous books in the early 1970s: A Theology of Liberation and Jesus Christ Liberator, respectively. Of course, they are the pioneers of liberation theology, but they are neither liberation theology nor the founders of this movement, but rather those who systematized as an academic theology a practice that was occurring in Catholic communities in Latin America in the 1960s.

First of all, liberation theology is not a movement in sociological terms. We cannot compare, for example, liberation theology with the Social Gospel in the U.S. that was actually a social movement based on Christian Protestant Ethics. Gutiérrez himself clearly affirms that liberation theology is a new way of doing theology as a reflection on a historical praxis. And Leonardo Boff and his brother Clodovis Boff affirm that liberation theology is a theological reflection as a second act following historical praxis. It is not a movement to which people are affiliated. It is a reflection that arose from the praxis of Christian communities which became aware of their situation of oppression and began to struggle for liberation.

I rarely see here US theologians interested in a liberating approach to give credit to the role of the biblical reflection and popular courses (popular in Portuguese or Spanish means something connects to the poor, e.g., popular Church means Church of the poor) for liberation theology. Before any systemization of this new way of doing theology, many people, especially those with some kind of theological and biblical education, joined the poor to read the Bible challenged by their context as a community. Others joined the poor to offer them some form of education, such as theology and literacy. In small communities, these people began to reflect about their reality of poverty, to see contradictions between God’s teaching in the Bible and their reality of oppression, and to ask why they are poor and marginalized. Consequently, they started to struggle for liberation through a historical praxis inspired by Jesus and his Gospel. These practices are the origin of Basic Ecclesial Communities and the preferential option for the poor. These realities were accepted and encouraged by the Latin American Church in the 1960s and 1970s, being incorporated in the Latin American Bishops’ documents of Medellín (1968) and Puebla (1979), and with a new development in the Document of Aparecida (2007) to respond to contemporary challenges.

Before Gutiérrez’s and Boff’s books, articles by several theologians doing this new theological reflection were published in Latin America (most of them unknow in the US). They were the beginning of the theological systematization of historical pastoral praxis occurring in the ecclesial communities. This led to the publication of Gutiérrez books, A Theology of Liberation in 1971, followed by Boff’s Jesus Christ Liberator (1972). Although the first time in a book’s title, Gutiérrez was not the first one to use the term liberation theology. We don’t know who the first one was, but many theologians before him had already used this expression. And it is important to remember that Ruben Alves, a Brazilian Presbyterian minister, defended a doctoral thesis at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 1960s with the title Toward a Liberation Theology. Unfortunately, publishers didn’t accept this title for publishing Alves’ work was launched, in the U.S. and Brazil, under the title: Theology of Hope. Alves’ congregation in Brazil never accepted his thesis on liberation. Perhaps this was one of the reasons this book didn’t gain great popularity at the time, and he had difficulties in remaining as an ordained minister. He eventually left the ministry. This fact is well known in Latin America among theologians and Alves is also recognized as one of the pioneers of liberation theology. I never heard about this in the US Catholic theological circles, nor in the articles, and books on liberation theology that I have read here.

Liberation theology is a new way of doing theology from a historical praxis. The preferential option for the poor, originated in the Christological faith, is at its heart with its feet grounded on the historical praxis of liberation. Liberation theology is not a theological discipline, but rather a new way of doing theology in all disciplines, such as Christology, Moral Theology, Trinity, Liturgy, Mariology, Ecclesiology, Missiology, Biblical Studies and so forth. Perhaps one can say liberation theology has fathers and mothers, but this would be unfair if we were limited to Gutiérrez, Boff and a couple other people from this generation. In this list, one must include many people from Christian communities who promoted a liberating reading of the Bible; many bishops who came back from Vatican II, went to live with the poor, and promoted Medellín and Puebla; and many martyrs who lost their lives struggling for liberation and defending the poor. In addition to these people, there were professional theologians who led a process of systematizing a theological reflection from this historical praxis, that became known as liberation theology.

With the exception of one person, Carlos Mesters (the forth man in the first picture in the top left), all people are Latin American theologians who use a liberating approach in their theological disciplines. They are part of a new generation with uncountable publications in Spanish and Portuguese almost totally unknown by US theologians.
New Generation

If liberation theology has fathers and mothers, it must have sons, daughters, and also grandchildren. I could mention many of these fathers, mothers, children, and grandchildren of liberation theology, but it would be unfair and limited, especially because of those who were developing a historical praxis and theologically reflecting about them, but never published a book or an article. I can only affirm that all of them have promoted this new way of doing theology. What makes them liberation theologians is not the fact they read books of theologians, such as Gutiérrez, Boff, or Sobrino and quoted them in a text. These academically anonymous liberation theology-agents didn’t care about creating a systemized theological school, so we could academically engage with their papers. What makes them liberation theologians is the commitment to the poor, the experience of faith in Jesus, and a theological reflection about a historical praxis from their perspective of faith and struggles for liberation.

P.S.: I see myself a liberation theologian considering my commitment to the poor and their historical praxis, and who uses this new way of doing theology as a hermeneutical approach to my academic work on ethics, bioethics, and global health. However, in the US, I think that most theologians do not see me as a liberation theologian, but as an ethicist, because I don’t study liberation theology as a historical contextual theology. I am an ethicist, but I do ethics, bioethics and global health in a liberating way.

*Alexandre A. Martins is an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, USA. Author of several articles and books in social ethics and bioethics, such as Covid-19, Política e Fé: Bioética em diálogo com a realidade enlouquecida (Gênio Criador, 2020);The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020)

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