Consequently, the relationship of the Catholic Church and the ruling governments in Latin America has been traditionally very close. In 1834-35 the Catholic president of Mexico, for example, suppressed a liberal attempt to reduce the influence of rich Catholic aristocrats and churchmen. If you ever watched Davy Crockett on TV or the movies, you may remember the name of this Mexican Catholic general and statesman as the commander of Mexican forces at the Alamo in 1836, the notorious Santa Anna. At the Alamo Santa Anna was suppressing a Texas uprising seeking independence from, among other things, state coercion to practice Catholicism.
With some exceptions, most political unrest in Latin America pitted Catholic against Catholic, and more specifically, the conservative Catholic aristocracy versus populist uprisings, usually over economic imbalances. In 1945, however, Pope Pius XII, marking the end of World War II, condemned totalitarian governments and endorsed democracy as the best way of protecting human rights. In the postwar years, nearly all recovering Western European nations formed some form of Christian Democrat structure. Two exceptions were, not surprisingly, Spain and Portugal.
The pope’s message—a full turnabout from previous papal teaching--did not go unnoticed in Latin America; a new generation of bishops and social reformers felt greater freedom to bring populist concerns to Church pastoral practice. Hence the formation of CELAM in 1955 and its most famous meeting, the 1968 synod at Medellin, Columbia. Medellin is remembered for the CELAM bishops’ coining the phrase “preferential option for the poor” as its working definition of the pastoral Catholic Church. I was able to find a good translation of the bishops’ Medellin statement on the active website of Gerald W. Schlabach, a theologian at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis.
I have a direct link to Professor Schlabach’s text here. Even the most cursory of examinations reveals the significant analysis of Latin America’s social structures by the bishops and the determination to bring a more just and equitable way of life. This pastoral letter was intended for all segments of society and it outlined specific concerns to specific populations: governments, businesses, international interests, clergy, and particularly uneducated and disenfranchised segments of the work force. Medellin, in its emphasis upon education, called for the development of “base communities” or clusters of families to gather for both religious and general education. The religious text would be the Sacred Scripture. The general curriculum would involve among the 3 R’s a process called conscientization, an awareness of the circumstances of the world which in turn would enable a student to become actively involved in the reform or changes necessary in his circumstances.
Clearly the CELAM bishops were not speaking from a vacuum. Their thinking, at times utopian and in some ways very innocent, reflects the influence of the educator/philosopher Paulo Freire whom I spoke of last week, and elements of the document were no doubt influenced by socialist reformer. But there is a theological base to the bishops’ message, and it is best summarized in section four: “In the economy of salvation the divine work is an action of integral human development and liberation, which has love for its sole motive. Human beings are “created in Christ Jesus,” fashioned in him as a “new creature.” This is a distinctive school of theological thought: the understanding of God’s work as a “liberation,” and the reworking of Tradition around the Exodus event of Moses and the portrayal of Jesus as God’s perfect outreach to the marginalized and the powerless. The theological school of such a religious view came to be known as Liberation Theology, and one of its founding fathers is Gustavo Gutierrez, famous for his Theology of Liberation in 1971.
In terms of moral theology, this is one of the few times in history where a moral virtue, in this case justice, became the defining post of an entire system of Catholic theology and practice. In fact, Liberation Theology equates orthodoxy (belief in truth) with orthopraxis (belief in practice), in this case the practice being the reestablishment of the human being in his full dignity in the Kingdom of God. In terms of a hierarchy of moral values, the profound concerns of classical Catholicism over an individual’s morality and the gravity of specific acts, such as contraception, seemed to take a secondary role to a collective conscious raising and active participation in redeeming the lot of the hungry, the unemployed, indigenous minorities, etc.
In future posts, I will look at the official Church reaction to Liberation Theology, particularly under the pontificate of John Paul II; his criticisms published in the 1980’s in many ways make the details of this kind of theology more understandable. However, John Paul did use the term “preferential option for the poor” in his own official writings, and Pope Francis has done so on many occasions. In the immediate decades after Medellin, however, the writings of Gutierrez and others, and the conditions of struggle on the ground in parts of Central and South America, attracted idealistic North Americans including the three religious sisters and their lay colleague who were raped and murdered by a contingent of El Salvador’s national guard the same year that Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed while saying Mass for his advocacy for the poor. Romero was beatified by Pope Francis in 2015.
Moral theologians today do not think of Liberation Theology as a “moral school” such as classical scholasticism or revisionism, but all Catholic thinkers worthy of the name integrate justice and the “preferential option” into all moral debate and definition. An active web page for those seeking information and inspiration from the Liberation Theology tradition is updated frequently.