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liberation theology

Liberation theology is a strain of Catholicism that originated, and was historically particularly influential, in Latin America. It was a movement of priests who did not see it as adequate to preach to people to adhere to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church; instead, they saw it as their moral obligation to get involved in struggles for social justice, and to fight on the side of the exploited and oppressed.

They saw pro-capitalist elements of the church as committing the sin of idolatry, worshipping money, the state, the market, the military, etc. rather than worshipping God. They were also critical of charity, exemplified by this quote from Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Câmara which I have long adored:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.

Liberation theology began to emerge over the 1960s in Latin America, in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban Revolution. A particularly galvanising moment was the death of Colombian priest Camilo Torres in 1966; he had joined an armed revolutionary group in 1965, and was killed in a clash with the state one year after. The 1968 Medellín Conference of Latin American Bishops was particularly pivotal in (to quote Jacobin):

declaring that the church had a “preferential option for the poor” and advancing a notion of “structural sin” that transferred its gaze from individual shortcomings to oppressive systems of power.

Radicalised priests began to organise in a few countries, including Argen­tina, Peru, Colombia and Chile; however, the movement became most influential in Brazil.

Brazil suffered under a military dictatorship from 1964 onwards, and in the late 1960s, leftists within the Catholic Church were made victims of that regime, being tortured and “disappeared”. The dictatorship could not eliminate leftism, however – quite the opposite actually – and in 1970, a new bishop, Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns, came to preside over the Church in Brazil. Under his leadership, the church offered shelter and support to human rights activists, labour movements and peasant unions, and publicly criticised the regime for its violence and oppression. Bishops in the northeast and centre-west regions of Brazil went so far as to criticise capitalism itself as “the root of all evil”.

Later, liberation theology also became influential in Nicaragua, forming a key pillar of the Sandinistas’ ideology and therefore an important value in the 1979 revolution. In Nicaragua the church leadership never threw their support behind the revolutionary movement, even as they became increasingly critical of the 1970s regime, instead issuing a blanket condemnation of all violence. However, there was a huge social movement of radicalised left-wing Christians, many of which joined the Sandinistas, and many low-level priests and nuns provided support to the revolutionaries.

It also became influential in El Salvador, despite the open hostility of the church leadership there. A group of Jesuit missionaries, the most famous of which being Father Rutilio Grande, went to the rural countryside to radicalise the peasantry there. They taught that Christianity is not a religion of passivity, but calls on followers to struggle against evil, which means above all else, against capitalist exploitation. The main leadership figure who supported liberation theology (although he had to be convinced of it over time) was Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero, who spread messages about the self-emancipation of the poor through his sermons and through church radio broadcasts. Romero was killed by paramilitary death squads in 1980.

Liberation theology receded in influence after the 1980s, for a number of reasons (the ascendancy of triumphant liberalism after the end of the Cold War; the increasing number of Latin Americans converting to evan­gel­ic­al­ism, which is largely more accepting of social injustice and even supportive of it; and the Sandinista government losing office in 1989.

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