Liberation Theology and Its Critics: Toward an Assessment
By Arthur F. McGovern
Pages: 281 pages
Review Author: John C. Cort
Before I write one single word of criticism about liberation theology, let me give you some reasons why we should all be grateful it exists.
Ask yourself: Before liberation theology, how much thought did you give to the horror of poverty and oppression in the Third World in general and Latin America in particular? How much did you think about the relation of poverty and oppression to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church? Did you even consider what degree of responsibility the U.S. might have for that poverty and oppression?
Maybe you thought that the liberation theologians were a bunch of crazy pinkos or reds, but the odds are that they made you stop and think.
Or consider this one set of facts: In Brazil in the early 1960s, two-thirds of the university students polled in Rio de Janeiro considered themselves unbelievers and viewed the Church as “on the side of injustice.” Badgered, browbeaten and/or inspired in large part by liberation theologians, the Catholic bishops and clergy of Brazil actively fought for human rights and in defense of the poor during the late 1960s and beyond. A new student poll in 1978 revealed a remarkable change: Three-fourths of the students declared themselves believers and favorable to the Church. This information appears in Jesuit Father Arthur McGovern’s excellent Liberation Theology and Its Critics. McGovern has done a monumental work of scholarship to bring us a sympathetic treatment that is also fair, mostly, to the critics. Even Michael Novak, a relentless foe of liberation theology, contributes a jacket blurb.
Another Jesuit, Fr. Alfred T. Hennelly, has added a valuable anthology of basic documents pro and con in his Liberation Theology: A Documentary History. Every serious student of the subject should have these two books.
The third book, Gustavo Gutierrez: An Introduction to Liberation Theology, by Robert McAfee Brown, a Protestant theologian, would be enjoyed by anyone who wants to know more about Gutierrez and doesn’t want to hear anything that is really critical either of him or liberation theology.
A plus about Brown’s book: In his treatment of Cardinal Ratzinger’s first Instruction on liberation theology in 1984, Brown does confess, despite his distaste for the Cardinal, that his Instruction is marked by “utter realism in facing what is going on in Latin America.” Then he quotes Ratzinger’s list of the ugly features of that reality, namely, “The seizure of the vast majority of the wealth by an oligarchy of owners bereft of social consciousness, the practical absence or the shortcoming of a rule of law, military dictators making a mockery of elementary human rights, the corruption of certain powerful officials, the savage practices of some foreign capital interests….”
Then, whether original or not, we get the best line in Brown’s book, in fact, the best in all three books: “With enemies like this, liberation theologians might have wondered, who needs friends?” The line is even better than Brown intended because his quote reveals that Ratzinger, and even more to the point, John Paul II, who approved the Instruction, are not the deep-dyed enemies that Brown likes to portray.
Which brings me to the more characteristic part of this review, the critical part. McGovern has included me in his group of liberation theology critics, the only socialist critic to whom he has given more than a bare mention. McGovern mentions that Jurgen Moltmann, the German Protestant and democratic socialist, notes that “for all their emphasis on use of social sciences, liberation theologians do not do much social analysis.” A good point, but that’s about it for Moltmann in McGovern’s book.
Hennelly, on the other hand, gives us a sharp critique by Moltmann. I quote because Moltmann puts his finger squarely on one of my complaints about a certain reticence on the part of almost any liberation theologian you can mention: “Whoever has tasted a bit of political freedom no longer believes the theories by which a dictatorship, be it rightist or leftist, tries to justify itself…. Socialism without democracy, economic justice without realization of human rights, are not hopes among our people. Democratic socialism must advance on both fields at once, on the way of the democratization of political institutions and on the way of the socialization of economic conditions…. Working with the trade unions to give everyone the right to participate in decisions, it will divide economic power and distribute it in such a way that the people will have control over it. It will try to change its political organizations from ideological parties into people’s parties, for it is more important to represent the interests of the little people, the mass of the employed and unemployed, than to chase after the phantoms of pure theory…. Our hope can no longer afford to be childish and enthusiastic.”
If only more liberation theologians could write like that, could display that kind of analysis — so much more profound than the “Marxist analysis” they are so fond of — they would never have lacked for admirers in the Vatican.
Of course, you will find few liberation theologians who will confess to any admiration for dictatorship. Not directly, no. You may even see a few critical words about the Soviet Union, Stalin, etc. Precious few about Castro, however; precious few about Mao or China or Vietnam or North Korea. McGovern notes that Enrique Dussel favors “a socialism led by the popular classes…and cites as models of liberation the popular socialisms of China, Vietnam, Cuba….” Exclamation point!
I sometimes wonder if any liberation theologians have read the 1951 Frankfurt Declaration of the Socialist International, which stressed that “as democratic socialists we oppose the claim of Communist countries to be socialist. We are firmly committed to democracy as the only political means to achieve the economic and social power of the people.”
All three books frequently confuse Communism and socialism. This should not be. Surely the Socialist International has a right to define true and false socialism. It is significant, by the way, that in 1984 a meeting in Barcelona with the grandiose title, World Assembly of Christians in Liberation Struggles, and attended by a number of liberation theologians, had little but contempt for the Socialist International — it was not considered sufficiently radical. Except for an outvoted minority, its admiration was reserved for the Soviet Union. Efforts to condemn the invasion of Afghanistan and the suppression of Solidarity in Poland were summarily voted down.
I had a similar experience the year before in Sweden at a congress of the International League of Religious Socialists. Pablo Richard, a prominent liberation theologian, led the opposition to any attempt to criticize the Soviet Union or Communist Poland, as he later did at Barcelona. Incidentally, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua refused to admit representatives of Solidarity into their country when the latter were trying to drum up support in Western countries. When in Managua, I read a ridiculous article in Barricada, the Sandinista newspaper, which dismissed the rebel war in Afghanistan as simply a duplicate of the contra war in Nicaragua. As McGovern notes, I defended the Sandinistas against Reagan’s effort to destroy them. But two wrongs don’t make a right. The Sandinistas, out of gratitude to the Soviets, could perhaps be excused. Liberation theologians are supposed to think more clearly.
Let me zero in on two subjects where McGovern takes issue with previous criticisms of mine, namely, ownership of productive property and class struggle.
I criticized Gutierrez because in three books, A Theology of Liberation, The Power of the Poor in History, and Liberation and Change, he either explicitly or by implication opts for “a society in which private ownership of the means of production is eliminated.” I also cited Juan Luis Segundo, whom Hennelly praises as “the most rigorous, profound and original of the Latin American theologians,” for wanting to take away from “individuals and private groups…the right to possess the means of production,” which would effectively eliminate worker cooperatives as well as every kind of small business or family-owned farm, contrary to the policy of the Socialist International and to the policies, now, of Leninist China and the Soviet Union.
Segundo, by the way, once criticized the bishops of Chile in his book The Liberation of Theology because they wrote that, “in Chile socialism is not a real alternative to the existing system.” But if you turn to the notes you find that what the bishops actually said was this: “There are many forms and degrees of both capitalism and socialism…. The concrete embodiments of Marxist socialism so far cannot be accepted as an authentic alternative to capitalism” (emphasis added).
This is another bit of proof for two of my long-held convictions about liberation theologians and bishops. Segundo, like many of his colleagues, cannot think of socialism without identifying it with Marxism. Secondly, despite the fact that bishops have been wrong from time to time, they are more likely to be right than theologians. It must be the responsibility of their office that makes them think more carefully. Or the Holy Spirit.
For example, even when the bishops of Peru, back in 1971, were at their most radical and so under the influence of Gutierrez that they wrote the Synod of Bishops in Rome that “it is necessary that the exclusive and private ownership of the means of production be eliminated,” they were still sensible enough to reject Marxist socialism, “because of their bureaucracy, their totalitarianism, or their militant atheism.” John Paul II, however, became so alarmed about the Peruvian hierarchy that he named seven Opus Dei bishops and reduced it to a progressive/conservative stand-off. Even bishops must learn to think more clearly if we are to keep the Vatican from sticking us with bishops who are not only conservative theologically, which is good, but reactionary politically and economically, which is bad.
Other bishops who have been radical but sensible include Archbishop Helder Camara, who said, “You don’t arrive at socialism with dictatorship,” and Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo of Mexico, who opted firmly for “democratic socialism,” and the 17 bishops of the Third World who in 1967 wrote, “Let us learn to embrace socialism with joy,” but made it clear that they wanted no part of Leninist countries marked by “totalitarian collectivism.”
McGovern is one of the few champions of liberation theology who has actually dug into economics and such occult matters as foreign trade, finance, and “dependency theory.” He concludes that liberation theologians have in the past tended too much to scapegoat the richer nations of the North, the U.S. mostly, for all the problems of Latin America. They are beginning to recognize that whatever the North’s sins, the South also must look to its own resources and its own sinners. That much is progress.
McGovern’s sophistication in these matters contrasts with his defense of such indefensible statements as those quoted from Gutierrez and Segundo (and the Peruvian bishops) about the elimination of private ownership of the means of production. He writes that Gutierrez is only concerned about “concentrated private control over property” and is not for placing all property “in the hands of the state,” and one proof of this is that he insists that “the masses (not the state) appropriate the means of production.” McGovern makes this distinction between the masses and the state, not Gutierrez.
What is not private is public. There is no third alternative, whether we cloak it with some euphemism like “the masses” or not. “Public” means that the ownership belongs to some unit of “the state.” When Gutierrez and Segundo wrote those words above and let them stand without a clear qualifier that they meant concentrated forms of ownership, they were inviting their readers to conclude that they had bought into Marxist and Leninist doctrine about total elimination of private ownership of the means of production.
Having done that, they also bought into further Marxist notions that all private employers must be eliminated — or class struggle in spades. Gutierrez said to me personally that he regarded the employer-employee wage relationship as bad “of necessity,” and he has also written in We Drink from Our own Wells that he wants to see “a society that exercises no kind of coercion from whatever source.” Enrique Dussel has described the employer-employee relationship as “the domination of one over another; such domination is sin.”
In the first edition of A Theology of Liberation Gutierrez quoted with approval a miserable statement by Louis Althusser that correct interpretation of class struggle means that Christians must sacrifice “the peculiarly religious myth of ‘the community of the faithful’ and the (catholic) universality of the Church.” This is classical Marxist-Leninst nonsense. In the 15th anniversary edition Gutierrez rewrote six pages that were under heading, “Christian Brotherhood and Class Struggle,” which then became “Faith and Social Conflict.” This meant the elimination of some dubiously Marxist reference notes. The Althusser quote and his notion of class struggle are now absent, and Gutierrez is now emphatic that Christian love is not exclusive, but all-inclusive. The first edition was by no means so clear.
But what was even less clear was whether Gutierrez, or his fellow theologians, had done any careful thinking about what they meant by “class.” Did they mean the rich? Did they mean “oppressors”? Did they mean simply employers, whether rich or poor, as much of their writing would lead one to believe?
Contrary to what Robert McAfee Brown maintains in his treatment of Gutierrez, I think it is obvious that Gutierrez in the new edition abandons much of the Marxist baggage that compromised the otherwise eloquent appeals for justice for the oppressed. But Brown is right in that he did not abandon his notions about ownership of the means of production. Now, however, McGovern tells us that he has done so in a new book La Verdad los hara libres (The Truth Shall Make Them Free), just published in English by Orbis. In this book, in McGovern’s words, Gutierrez favors “a healthy equilibrium between private property, social property, and state property [that] would best serve to protect against the two dangers” of profit-motive individualism and totalitarian disrespect for “the liberty of each person.” This also is good news. (But note the alternative to state and private property, namely, social property. No can do. If you mean socialized private property, like that owned by cooperatives, say so.)
McGovern has set a good example in studying the nitty-gritty of 20th-century economics. Liberation theologians should follow that example. They should also study contemporary politics, especially as played out in Tiananmen Square and the USSR and its former satellites. They might well conclude that Leninism is for all practical purposes dead and that Marxism, responsible for most of the sins of Leninism, will probably not long survive.
Millions of peasants died in the Soviet Union and Red China. They died over the Marxist theory that all instruments of production must be centralized in the hands of the state. Unsound theories can have murderous consequences. Brown reminds us that more than 200,000 have died at the hands of oppressive capitalist regimes in Latin America. Before hundreds of thousands turn into millions, let us be sure that Christians at least are not proposing that anyone should die for a theory that even Marxists are now forsaking.
Gutierrez is a learned and holy man. Perhaps economics and politics are not his thing. But I have a suggestion for his next book, one that should be right down his alley. It would be a study of the Christian and Catholic notions of property, poverty, and social justice as contained in the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, notably Ss. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas. Most of these sages he does not even mention in his major work, and from what he writes of Thomas and Augustine it is clear that he is ignorant of, or indifferent to, what they have written on those subjects. But what they have written is far more useful than anything written by Karl Marx in persuading Christians to adopt a critical attitude toward capitalism.
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