This paper considers how theological reflection by liberation theologians can contribute to the other modes of reflection: historical, anthropological, sociological, economic, literary and educational regarding culture, human rights and peace in Central America.

The 1968 conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin provided the ecclesiastical impetus for a theology of liberation. In that conference the Bishops strongly condemned unjust social structures which institutionalized violence and thereby oppressed the poor. Not only did they denounce violations of human rights, they called also for action to remove oppressive structures and systems. They justified their position theologically by explaining that "liberation" at the economic and political levels has a supernatural dimension and is an integral part of the economy of salvation as an anticipation of complete redemption in Jesus Christ. It was left to Latin American theologians to articulate the new ecclesiastical and theological language and the category of "liberation." This signified a new approach and style of theological reflection, which today is known as "liberation theology" or "theology of liberation."

The first and perhaps the most influential articulation of this new style of theological reflection is found in the now classic work of Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation.1 Gutierrez notes that the old style of theological reflection which was learned and imported from Europe could not solve the socio-political problem in Latin America. One cannot interpret the present reality of the oppressed in Latin America in the light of European theology which was based on "the challenge posed by the nonbeliever. . . . In Latin America, however, the main challenge does not come from the nonbeliever but from the nonhuman--i.e., the human being who is not recognized as such by the prevailing social order."2 Gutierrez is aware that theology always interprets the Word of God in the context of one's history and one's cultural universe so that the Gospel message is reshaped for the benefit of society.3 The mistake was to import into the Latin American situation a theology based on European culture. The effect has been that this theology justified "a situation contrary to the most elemental demands of the Gospel."4

The task of liberation theology then is "a theological reflection born of the experience of shared efforts to abolish the current unjust situation and to build a different society, freer and more human."5 As a first step, the Church must be liberated from false theologies; it must undergo conversion so that it can return to being what it really is.6


Liberation theology must distance itself from European theology in a dialectical manner which involves unmasking the ideological nature of European theology. Enrique Dussel calls European theology the theology of the center, while Latin American theology, in contrast, is a theology of the periphery. As Dussel notes, "it is not the same to think from the center as to think out of oppression or to think about the periphery from the periphery itself."7

Dussel tries to unmask the ideological dimension of European theology by linking it with European colonialism and its philosophic underpinning. The European "I," he notes, first experiences itself as `I conquer' as in the "I conquer" of Cortes or of Piazarro.8 This economic colonialist experience and style of life formed the substructure for the European ideology articulated by Descartes. Thus the power of conquest was expressed philosophically as "Ego cogito" or "I think." But if the European is the center of thinking, where does this leave the "other"? Dussel answers: "The Indian, for example, the African, the Asian is reduced to an idea, but even then not as something exterior but as an idea internal to the system `I' set up."9 From the philosophic "I think" it is but a short step to the theological, "I think what is theological."10 The theological "consisted of doctrines, theoretical articles of faith that were thought of in terms of sentences with subject and predicate."11 The offshoot of this theoretical, rationalistic and dogmatic theology was that the poor "who are the epiphany of God, have been reduced to a cogitatum (`that which is thought')."12

Dussel criticizes not only Tridentine theology or scholasticism, but also Rahner's and Schillebeeckx's brands of existential theology as being solipsist, for although existential theology is an advance over Tridentine theology by basing theological reflection on the existential idea of man-as-being-in-the-world, the world that is affirmed is the European world. For the Latin American who does not belong to the European world but who thinks the Faith in a European way and identifies Christian truth with it, the result is "supreme theological alienation."13 Modern theologies of hope also are deficient in that they lack historico-political mediation.14 Progressivist and evolutionary theologies such as that of Teilhard de Chardin too are rejected as lacking political vision,15 as are Catholic liberalism and developmentalism which aim to achieve social and economic advances without questioning and altering the system or oppressive structures.16


From a philosophical point of view the new methodology is not "I think, therefore, I am" but "I am, therefore, I think." In other words, the primary category is not thought, but life, not theory but practice (praxis). The way you live determines the way you think, and not the other way around: translated theologically, praxis determines theological reflection. As Gutierrez explains it, liberation theology communicates the Gospel "re-read from the standpoint of the other, of the poor and the oppressed."17 The life or concrete situation of the oppressed is the locus theologicus of liberation theology.

Luis Segundo gives this new theological methodology the name of hermeneutic circle.

It is the continuing change in our interpretation of the Bible which is dictated by the continuing changes in our present-day reality, both individual and societal. `Hermeneutic' means `having to do with interpretation.' And the circular nature of this interpretation stems from the fact that each new reality obliges us to interpret the word of God afresh, to change reality accordingly, and then to go back and reinterpret the word of God again, and so on.18

Hugo Assmann also observes that the old methodology of going directly to tradition and the Bible to do our theological reflection will not do.

The basic reference points of traditional theology, the Bible and tradition (however the latter may be understood) do not suffice for doing theology because they are not directly accessible. Our approach to these touchstones of the Christian faith is affected and conditioned by blocks set up in the past. We must take note of these blocks in our present context and try to remove them in our analysis and praxis.19

A more detailed explanation of this new methodology is given by Leonardo Boff,20 who speaks of three levels of mediation. By mediation is meant means by which liberation theology realizes what it proposes to itself as its task and end. These three mediations are the socio-analytical, the hermeneutic, and pastoral practice.21

1. At the level of socio-analytic mediation we need a critical knowledge of the causes or mechanisms that produce oppression and misery. This knowledge is the result of multi-disciplinary analysis. But mere empirical analysis will not do. This mode merely draws up a list of `clamoring facts', but fails to go beyond the factual dimension to analyze deeper causes. Nor will functional analysis do. This method sees the facts, but tries to solve the problem of poverty and oppression by advocating development, progress, modernization, maximization of wealth, etc.: it fails to question the system or the structure. Why, despite modernization and industrial progress, "do the poor grow poorer and the rich ever richer"?22

The proper method is dialectical structuralism which "moves from 1) structure to 2) a radical critical awareness to 3) liberation."23 The result of this mode of analysis points to the need for

a new form of organization for the whole society, an organization on other bases--no longer from a point of departure of the capital held in the hands of a few, but an organization of society based on everyone's labor, with everyone sharing, in the means and the goods of production as well as in the means of power. And this is called liberation.24

2. The second step in the new methodology is hermeneutic mediation. This means reading the socio-analytical "text" of reality in the light of the Gospel. "What is God trying to tell us in these social problems, now adequately grasped by scientific reason? This is the challenge. Reason is not enough here. Enter . . . faith."25

There are three levels of interpretation. The first is the interpretation of the socio-political situation in terms of salvation history. By using the categories of faith, such as sin, justice, injustice, charity, grace, perdition, the kingdom of God, etc., we evaluate whether society is oriented toward God's design or not.26 The second level is a reading of the faith-tradition itself. The question is, does an interpretation of the categories of faith abet, or legitimize, existing oppressive structures?27

We find that God-language has become the property of the privileged classes. In the past theological language was clerical, full of technicalities and scholastic distinctions. Then it became apologetic, used to defend the Church against infidels. Next it became bourgeois, to defend the rich. Now liberation theology tries to return "the use of speech and God's word to the people of God."28

A new reading of the Gospel results in a new view of God as the God of the oppressed. Christ is no longer seen ontologically as composed of two natures (hypostatic union), but functionally as liberator.29 The Church is seen no longer statistically as an institution of grace, but as a sign of salvation, a servant of the world and as God's instrument for the historical liberation of humanity. Sin and grace are seen no longer in the context of individual salvation and hence as individual realities, but as social and hence as structural sin and structural grace.

The third level of interpretation is a reading of the whole of human activity, both Christian and non-Christian, in the light of the Gospel.

3. Finally, the third and last step in the new method of theological reflection is reflection upon pastoral practice. The question is how the Church is to translate into concrete action what has been retrieved from re-reading the Scriptures from the standpoint of the oppressed: how can the Church perform liberating activity?30

First, the Church plays a liberating role as a sign of salvation. "It must attempt to articulate its word, its catechesis, its liturgy, its community action, and its interventions with established authority, in the direction of liberation."31

Secondly, the Church needs to cooperate and interact with other agencies and forces that equally are involved in the transformation of society.32

Lastly, Christians and basic Christian communities and organizations must go beyond the symbolic to a direct role in changing the economic and political structures which oppress the poor.33



Liberation theology is not the only theology followed in Latin America. As Juan Carlos Scannone observes, there are four basic theological orientations in Latin America:34

1. a conservative, preconcilliar theology;

2. a postconciliar theology based upon European or progressivist North American models;

3. a liberation theology predominantly influenced by Marxist categories and methodology in its concern to analyze and transform reality; and

4. a liberation theology predominantly concerned with being a theology of popular pastoral activity.

If the Church is to present a united front against oppression it might be necessary to arrive at a common formulation and articulation of the Christian Faith. Marxist oriented liberation theologians have the special problem of showing how it is possible for a Christian to be a Marxist, how it is possible to use Marxism purely instrumentally without accepting also its metaphysics of atheistic materialism. Thus, the papal letter, Octogesima Adveniens (n. 33) warned that "it would be illusory and dangerous . . . to accept the elements of Marxist analysis without realizing their relationship with ideology, and to enter into the practice of class struggle and its Marxist interpretations, while failing to note the kind of totalitarian and violent society to which this process leads."

Here a number of concerns are operative. One is that liberation theology might reduce salvation in Christ to the socio-political order, thus destroying the transcendence and otherness of faith. This fear is certainly valid and has been expressed by the present Pope. But in their writings liberation theologians are at pains to explain the distinction between salvation and liberation. Leonard and Clodovis Boff in their book, Salvation and Liberation use many analogies to explain the relation between salvation and liberation, but, as with all analogies, precision is inherently lacking.

What is needed is a philosophic frame of reference such as those Augustine and Aquinas drew from Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies. For liberation theologians, however, these philosophies will not do for they cannot give sufficient justification for the Church's involvement at the socio-political and historical levels. Rather, they search for an immanentist frame of reference. The Marxist dialectics of history is an example, and the liberation theologians have "baptized" it so to speak, just as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas did the pagan philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Only time will tell whether this new theological experiment will be accepted by the Church.

Another concern is that the use of a Marxist mode of analysis could ideologize theology. But one might ask whether the traditional theologies of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were not ideologized by their use of Platonic and Aristotelian categories. This raises the question whether it is ever possible to have a non-ideological theology and directs one to the hermeneutic problem of understanding tradition which is the subject of Chapter I by G. McLean above.

Despite the theological philosophic and hermeneutic problems associated with liberation theology, they should not cause a suspension of judgment or a paralysis of action with respect to the problem of poverty and injustice in Central and Latin America. One does not have to use Marxist modes of analysis to discover that there is conflict among the classes in Latin America and that any theology worthy of the name must guide the Church in responding the conflict. As noted, various theological orientations should carry on a dialogue toward arriving at a unified course of action. The older theologies should welcome into their midst the new theology of liberation without fear, remembering that in their infancy Platonic and Aristotelian theologies were eyed with suspicion and fear by many theologians and churchmen in their time.

Besides carrying on an intramural dialogue among various theological orientations, liberation theology should also carry on an interdisciplinary dialogue especially at the socio-political level of analysis of the present Latin American situation of oppression. Besides the Marxist interpretation there are alternative and perhaps complementary ways of understanding the causes of oppression. As Leonard Biallas notes, "one dimension often sidetracked in various theologies of liberation is the nature and alleviation of violence."35 Gutierrez mentions the contributions of Freud and Marcuse in the area of psychological liberation;36 the ideas of B.F. Skinner (behavioral psychology), Carl Gustav Jung and Rollo May (collective unconscious and archetypes), Konrad Lorenz and E.O. Wilson (sociobiology) on the subject of oppression and violence also should be considered.

Finally, dialogue should be carried on with the indigenous cultures and religions in Latin America. Meaningful participation by Indians in the struggle for liberation could be attained if the categories and symbols used to analyze their oppressed condition were derived from their religion, history and culture. The work of J.C. Scannone and his associates, found in Stromata, has greatly advanced this work. For the Christianized Indians Paulo Freire's "consciousness-raising" pedagogical method should be rethought in order to take account of such questions regarding its philosophical presuppositions noted by Peter Berger in his book Pyramids of Sacrifice (ch. 4).

All these problems aside, this new theology holds real promise for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed in the third world.

University of the District of Columbia

Washington, D.C.


1. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1973).

2. See his article, "Liberation, Theology and Proclamation," in Concilium (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), p. 69.

3. Ibid., p. 68.

4. Ibid., pp. 73-74.

5. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, p. ix.

6. Joseph Comblin, "What Sort of Service Might Theology Render"? in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America, ed. Rosino Gibellini (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979), p. 63.

7. Enrique Dussel, Ethics and the Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1978), p. 159.

8. Ibid., p. 152.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p. 154.

11. Ibid..

12. Ibid., p. 156.

13. Ibid., p. 159.

14. Ibid.

15. Guttierrez, A Theology of Liberation, p. 173.

16. Ibid., Ch. 2. See also his "Liberation and Development," in Cross Currents 21 (1971), pp. 243-56.

17. See his "Liberation, Theology and Proclamation," p. 73.

18. See his Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1976), p. 8.

19. See his "The Power of Christ in History," in The Frontiers of Theology in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979), pp. 134-45.

20. See Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984).

21. Ibid., p. 5.

22. Ibid., p. 6.

23. Ibid., p. 9.

24. Ibid., p. 8.

25. Ibid., p. 9.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., pp. 9-10.

28. Comblin, op. cit., p. 63.

29. See Leonard Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator (Maryknoll: N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1978)

30. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation, p. 11.

31. Ibid., p. 11.

32. Ibid., p. 12.

33. Ibid.

34. See his "Theology, Popular Culture, and Discernment," in Frontiers of Theology in Latin America (Orbis Books, 1979), p. 221.

35. See his "The Psychological Origins of Violence and Revolution," in Liberation, Revolution and Freedom, ed. T. McFadden (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), p. 157.

36. Theology of Liberation, pp. 30-32.