Day One: The Love/Hate Relationship between Benedict and Liberation Theology

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
São Paulo, Brazil

When Benedict headed for Turkey last November, it was in the wake of the backlash across the Muslim world stirred by his citation at the University of Regensburg of a 14th century Byzantine emperor’s views on Islam. Turkey gave the pope an opportunity to put his own “spin” on Regensburg, stressing dialogue and brotherhood, and even pausing for a moment of silent prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque.

Measured against a different arc of time, Benedict’s May 9-13 trip to Brazil once again offers the pope a chance to provide his own gloss on an area of controversy where he carries some political baggage. The issue this time is not Islam, but liberation theology, and the reaction dates back not a couple of months, but a couple of decades.

Right out of the gate, Benedict argued that his crackdown on liberation theology in the 1980s was not about undermining the church’s engagement on behalf of the poor.

“The meaning of the intervention of the magisterium was not to destroy the commitment to justice,” Benedict XVI said in response to a question from NCR during an airborne news conference, “but to guide it down the right paths, including the proper distinction between political responsibility and ecclesial responsibility.”

The response was merely the latest chapter in a love/hate relationship between Joseph Ratzinger and liberation theology which has deep biographical roots.

As early as his study of Bonaventure and Joachim of Fiore in graduate school during the 1950s, Ratzinger had become wary of messianic movements or promises of a “new age” – all of which, he felt, made the mistake of trying to locate salvation inside history. Moreover, when one imparts eschatological significance to some particular political program or dream, Ratzinger felt, then all manner of excesses and barbarisms can be justified in its name.

In terms of church politics, Ratzinger’s involvement with debates over liberation theology began even before he arrived in the Vatican. While still the Archbishop of Munich-Freising, Pope John Paul I dispatched him as a papal legate to a Marian congress in Ecuador in September 1978, where Ratzinger cautioned against Marxist ideologies and the theology of liberation. Upon arriving at the Vatican, his struggles with the liberationists quickly became the stuff of ecclesiastical legend.

Ratzinger always insisted that the problem was not with the motive of liberation theologians, but with efforts to reshape or even bowdlerize the church’s traditional doctrine to make it more “relevant” for desired social outcomes. When one does that, Ratzinger argued, not only is the faith distorted, but the desired social outcomes are never reached.

Here is the most widely quoted paragraph from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1984 Instruction on Liberation Theology:

The overthrow by means of revolutionary violence of structures which generate violence is not ipso facto the beginning of a just regime. A major fact of our times ought to evoke the reflection of all those who would sincerely work for the true liberation of their brothers: Millions of our own contemporaries legitimately yearn to recover those basic freedoms of which they were deprived by totalitarian and atheistic regimes which came to power by violent and revolutionary means, precisely in the name of the liberation of the people. This shame of our time cannot be ignored: While claiming to bring them freedom, these regimes keep whole nations in conditions of servitude which are unworthy of mankind. Those who, perhaps inadvertantly, make themselves accomplices of similar enslavements betray the very poor they mean to help.

At the heart of Ratzinger’s critique of liberation were two key theological motifs, which recur time and again in his writing on other subjects.

(1) Truth: Because the liberationists argued that theological understanding should follow political commitment, Ratzinger believed they were saying that praxis is the standard for judging the rightness of doctrine. In other words, one decides which Christian teachings are “true” on the basis of how well they support political efforts for social justice. As early as 1968 in his Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger was resisting the “tyranny of the factum,” the tendency to reduce truth to what one does instead of what reality is. This mistake leads some to present Christianity as a tool for changing the world, and to “transpose belief itself to this place.” Thus all doctrine is suspect unless it is useful for social change.

Ratzinger was not simply projecting this understanding onto the liberationists; some did hold this position. Juan Luis Segundo's famous line from Theology for Artisans of a New Humanity was: “The only truth is the truth that is efficacious for liberation.” Similarly, the Brazilian Hugo Assmann wrote in 1976: “The Bible! It doesn’t exist. The only Bible is the sociological Bible of what I see happening here and now.”

(2) Eschatology: Ratzinger's fundamental complaint about liberation theology is that it embodies a mistaken notion of eschatology. The liberationists, Ratzinger believes, are looking for the Kingdom of God on this earth and in this order of history. This sort of utopianism is not merely wrong, Ratzinger says, it's dangerous. Whenever a social or political movement makes absolutist claims about what it can deliver, fascism is not far down the road. It is the lesson of Nazi Germany, Ratzinger argues, and it is the lesson of Soviet Russia.

Thus the goal of Christian must be to strip politics out of eschatology. As he put in his 1987 book Church, Ecumenism and Politics: “Where there is no dualism, there is totalitarianism.”

In Ratzinger's judgment, the consequences of liberation theology's warped eschatology show up in at least four ways.

1. Defections from Catholicism: By promising the poor a reign of justice that never comes, Ratzinger believes, liberation theology actually estranged them from Catholicism and led many of them to seek a transcendental faith somewhere else.
2. Terror. If you allow yourself to believe that a perfect society can be the work of human hands, Ratzinger believes, those hands will end up stained with blood.
3. Dissent: Ratzinger has long believed that, inspired by liberation theology, Catholics will perceive a form of “class struggle” between those who hold ecclesial power and those excluded from it, and will thus demand “liberation” from oppressive church structures.
4. Collapse into the culture: Ultimately, what is at stake for Ratzinger is his Augustinian understanding of the distinction between church and culture. To the extent that liberation theology vests its hopes in secular political progress rather than the liberation only Christ can bring, Ratzinger felt, it lost sight of the cross.

None of this means, however, that Ratzinger has an unremittingly bleak view of liberation theology.

In a more positive 1986 document, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Ratzinger declared, “Those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a love of preference on the part of the church, which since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members has not ceased to work for their relief, defense and liberation.”

So far, Benedict XVI seems determined to use the Brazil trip to demonstrate the sincerity of his social concern. On the papal plane, the pope even signaled his support for the beatification of the ultimate icon of the liberation theology movement – the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass.

“That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt,” he said, while adding that he’s waiting for the decision of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
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