“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus [Galatians 3.27-28].”
Two millennia ago, when St. Paul wrote those words to the theologically-challenged Christian communities of what is now central Turkey, he was certainly proclaiming a social revolution: in a world characterized by ethnic and religious hatreds, chattel slavery, strict patriarchy, and male primogeniture, Paul taught the radical equality of all baptized believers in Christ. But did that make Jesus of Nazareth, whom Paul believed to have called him to his apostleship, a social revolutionary? No, at least not in the sense proposed by the various theologies of liberation that sprang up in Latin America in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.
There were, in fact, multiple theologies of liberation, with different themes and different stresses; lumping them together as “liberation theology” is, in some sense, a disservice to the originality of the various theologians of liberation.
Still, there were common threads running through the theologies of liberation and two were especially prominent: a commitment to “Marxist analysis” as the best tool for understanding the causes of Third World poverty, and a vision of the Christian community in which the Church’s primary task was political action (including, in some cases, violent political action) as the vanguard of the future egalitarian society.
Now, if that sounds vaguely reminiscent of the European intellectual and political churnings that eventually came to be labeled, simply, “1968,” that’s because the theologies of liberation were not quite the indigenous Third World phenomena their proponents (and the western media) imagined them to be. For the truth of the matter is that the theologies of liberation were largely born in western European faculties of theology and brought back to Latin America by recently-minted academics who, having drunk deeply from the wells of European socialism, now proposed to bring the revolution home, so to speak — if in Spanish and Portuguese, rather than German and French, accents.
The late John Paul II could hardly be accused of favoring a publicly quiescent Catholicism, given his pivotal role in the collapse of European communism. In his epic address to a conference of Latin American bishops meeting in Mexico in January 1979, John Paul made it clear that the picture of the “subversive Man from Nazareth” propounded by some forms of liberation theology did not square with classic and settled Christian convictions.
John Paul wanted a social and politically engaged Church; however, he did not accept the idea of a “partisan Church” (which many liberation theologians advocated), for reasons that go straight back to St. Paul’s arguments with those obstreperous Galatians (whom some biblical scholars believe to have been transplanted Celts, and thus obstreperous by nature). The kind of Christian liberation that John Paul promoted was the kind he had modeled in Poland, where a revolution of conscience had cleared the social space for a nonviolent and democratic political revolution.
In Latin America, the John Paul II model was perhaps best embodied by the heroic archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo, who throughout the 1980s stood firm against the kindergarten Marxism of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, even as he bent every effort to move his country toward democracy and social justice.
There’s an interesting coincidence, which some might even find ironic, in the fact that John Paul’s successor, Benedict XVI, will have to confront the afterburn of liberation theology that can still be detected in Latin American Catholicism during his current visit to Brazil.
As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Benedict was a principal critic of the theologies of liberation. Yet Ratzinger and the liberation theologians shared (and share) a common commitment to the Bible as the book of the people of the Church, not a book that’s the private preserve of highly-trained academics. That Benedict XVI’s understanding of the Jesus of the New Testament differs sharply from that proposed by many liberation theologians is obvious; what is perhaps not-so-obvious is that shared commitment to bringing the Bible out of the literary dissecting room and the university lecture hall so that it can be a living and liberating word, once again, for ordinary men and women, seeking the face of the Lord as they seek their own human dignity.
There is nothing more revolutionary, socially or otherwise, than the core proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth: that the Kingdom of God is among us, for the coming of that Kingdom relativizes (even as it puts in proper order) all of our other loves and loyalties. That re-ordering of priorities doesn’t have much to do with “social revolution” as the world-after-Karl-Marx understands the term. But it has everything to do with a revolution of the human spirit that can ignite positive social change and genuine human liberation.
John Paul demonstrated that in igniting the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe. It would be no bad thing if Benedict XVI could ignite a similar process of authentic liberation leading to genuine and enduring social change in Latin America.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.