6.2.4 Liberation theology’s global vision

Back to 6.2.3

Unit 6 Contents



This screen includes some lengthy quotations from Gutiérrez so is longer than usual.

Injustice as ‘structural’

In Unit 3 on the role of government, I noted two ‘further issues’ to which we would come back later in the module.  One was ‘structural injustice’ or (to use a broader term) ‘structures of sin’, and we return to this here.  To begin, look again at the very brief discussion of this in Unit 3


Re-reading (1p)

VPlater, Module B, 3.3.5: scroll down to sec. (b)


Donal Dorr says, “Time and time again the Medellin documents speak of the Latin American situation as being marked by structural injustice”.1  This language of structures of injustice or sin was taken up in liberation theology.  To use such terms was not new in CST.  PP speaks of “oppressive social structures due to abuses of ownership or of power” (PP #21; see 5.3.3).  Gaudium et Spes had used similar terms.2  Earlier Mater et Magistra had said,

[I]f the whole structure and organization of an economic system is such as to compromise human dignity, to lessen a man’s sense of responsibility or rob him of opportunity for exercising personal initiative, then such a system, We maintain, is altogether unjust. (#83)3

What this means is intuitively obvious.  People in desperate poverty are trying to get through each day and week and month, and as individuals they don’t have power to change the world they live in. Imagine a company that pays workers at the lowest possible subsistence rate and sacks anyone who tries to protest, knowing that there is a large pool of unemployed people from which to recruit. The way such a company operates is, for the workers, a system or structure which lone individuals are powerless to change.  It bears on them as an unjust structure that fixes the limits of what they can and can’t do.  Such ‘structural injustice’ identifies that from which liberation is needed.

Medellin went so far as to say that, “in many instances Latin America finds itself faced with a situation of injustice that can be called institutionalized violence”.4  In other words, the political and economic structures that characterised Latin America were in effect a form of violence against the poor.



What is your first reaction to this idea of structural injustice?

Can you relate it to your own circumstances or those of others you know?


The liberation theologians saw Latin America as afflicted by structures of sin both within each country and also internationally.  Within particular countries, especially where there was military dictatorship, it was hardly questionable that the gross inequalities were held in place by unbending regimes.  To explain both this and international injustice, Gutiérrez and others found convincing a then-prominent perspective called ‘dependency theory’.5

According to this, a liberal capitalist view of ‘development’ was dominant.  Capital owners in affluent countries, mainly the United States, use natural resources and labour in poor countries to produce cheap raw materials (‘commodities’).  These are exported to industrialized countries and used to make processed or manufactured goods, which are then sold in poor countries at high prices (so are accessible only to elite groups).  Poor countries such as in Latin America therefore become economically dependent on capital investment from outside.  Moreover, capital owners have to ensure that political regimes in poorer countries are stable, in order to secure supplies of commodities.  So Latin American political elites too become dependent: US and allied interests make sure they are well rewarded and often support their use of authoritarian means to stay in power, so maintaining what has often been called the ‘national security state’.

As dependency theorists saw it, this arrangement as a whole formed a powerful structure in which what they called the ‘centres’, US and other Western capitalist interests, control the ‘peripheries’, the poor countries.  This kept the rich rich and the poor poor.  In order to be freed from such subjection to the ‘centres’, dependency theory advocated state-led industrialization in poor countries that would enable them to substitute their own production for imports from rich countries.  (This policy is known as ‘import-substitution’.)

Gutiérrez summed up this perspective, quoting Medellin:

The poverty, injustice, and exploitation of man by fellow man in Latin America is often called “institutionalized violence.” Theologically, that phenomenon is called a “situation of sin.” The reality so described is more and more obviously the result of a situation of dependence, i.e., the centers where decisions are made are located outside our continent — a fact that keeps our countries in a condition of neo-colonialism. … [L]iberation will only be achieved by a thorough change of structures.6

In PP, Pope Paul VI had used strong language about dependence.  Shortly after quoting QA’s denunciation of the “international imperialism of money” (#26), PP had decried “situations whose injustice cries to heaven [in which] whole populations destitute of necessities live in a state of dependence, barring them from all initiative and responsibility, and all opportunity to advance culturally” (#30). So liberation theology’s embrace of dependency theory could be seen as in line with PP.  Moreover, the Medellin conference had spoken of “external neo-colonialism”, and dependency theory seemed to explain the form this took.7



What do you think of this idea of poor countries being kept poor by a relationship of economic dependence on affluent capitalist countries?

From that very brief outline of dependency theory (regrettably, there is not space to examine it more fully here), are you sympathetic to it as an explanation of global inequalities, or can you think of objections to it that make it unconvincing?

We shall consider it further later in Unit 6.


Liberation, not development

In Gutiérrez’s 1968 article mentioned on the last screen, the first two pages speak about theology as ‘critical reflection on praxis’.  Immediately after this, he argues against use of the term ‘development’ and makes the case for ‘liberation’.  This argument became definitive of liberation theology, and it made a clear challenge to the perspective presented in PP.  Even though PP had criticised a narrowly economic view of development, it had embraced this concept and indeed put it at the centre of Catholic teaching on responding to global poverty.

Below I give a lengthy quotation from Gutiérrez’s article that puts across his argument.  Immediately before this passage, he refers to what he calls the ‘humanistic’ view of development that was advocated by Louis-Joseph Lebret (see 5.3.4) and presented in PP. Gutiérrez both identifies with this and radicalizes it: he describes it as a vision “in which humanity takes charge of its own destiny” and says that it is better called “liberation”.

In recent decades the term ‘development’ has been used to express the aspirations of the poor nations. Of late, however, the term has seemed weak. In fact, today the term conveys a pejorative connotation, especially in Latin America.

There has been much discussion recently of development, of aid to the poor countries; there has even been an effort to weave a mystique around those words. Attempts to produce development in the 1950’s aroused hopes. But because they did not hit the roots of the evil, they failed, and have led to deception, confusion, and frustration.

One of the most important causes of this situation is the fact that development, in its strictly economic, modernizing sense, was advanced by international agencies backed by the groups that control the world economy. The changes proposed avoided sedulously, therefore, attacking the powerful international economic interests and those of their natural allies: the national oligarchies. What is more, in many cases the alleged changes were only new and concealed ways to increase the power of the mighty economic groups.

Here is where conflict enters the picture. Development should attack the causes of our plight, and among the central ones is the economic, social, political, and cultural dependence of some peoples on others. The word ‘liberation,’ therefore, is more accurate and conveys better the human side of the problem.

Once we call the poor countries oppressed and dominated, the word ‘liberation’ is appropriate.8



In light of your study of PP in Unit 5, what do you think of this argument for the use of ‘liberation’ rather than ‘development’?

Some might respond by saying that it is only an issue of words, a merely semantic dispute, and therefore that it doesn’t matter; what matters is that poor people get out of poverty.

Do you think response is right?  Or do the two words represent substantively different stances on what tackling poverty and injustice require?


As liberation theology developed over the following decades, one limitation of the word ‘liberation’ became clearer to its advocates. First and foremost, liberation conveys the idea of a one-off freeing from – such as the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt.  Liberation might not happen overnight, but if it is primarily a matter of the bringing down of an oppressive political regime it can take place quickly, even suddenly.  For example, the fall of the Communist states of central and eastern Europe in 1989-91 was unexpected and remarkably rapid.

Whether liberation happens rapidly or slowly, the fact that this term refers primarily to an event of freeing from oppression has two implications.  First, the word is much more useful before the moment of liberation than afterwards as part of a terminology that denounces injustice and opposes an existing state of affairs.  It names the fundamental change that is needed.

Secondly, it raises the question of what words should be used for what is needed after liberation.  One context in which this issue came up in practice was South Africa after the end of the racist Apartheid regime in the early 1990s.  Liberation theology had been very influential among some South African Christians who campaigned against Apartheid.  A South African theologian, Charles Villa-Vicencio, addressed directly the question of how liberation theology itself needed to adapt and develop in order to speak to the new, liberated South Africa.  He employed the word ‘reconstruction’ to label what was needed, and published a book whose title echoed that of Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation, namely, A Theology of Reconstruction.9

The term ‘reconstruction’ was not new, of course: it refers to such rebuilding as is necessary after war or any other major crisis.  (You might recall that Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno is also called ‘The Reconstruction of the Social Order’ and that John XXIII used the term at the start of Mater et Magistra (5.2.1).)

‘Reconstruction’ also implies a temporary period: it refers to the specific task of recovery from crisis, from destruction.  But this raises the further question: what is needed after reconstruction, once the aftermath of crisis has passed?  For this, a term is required that refers to long-term work that addresses enduring problems and gradually changes a society for the better.  One obvious candidate for this is ‘development’.

Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians emphasised that they were writing in a way specifically relevant to their time and place: Latin America in the years from the 1960s onwards.  There and then, they said, it is liberation that is needed, and to talk of development is inadequate.  But, by attending to differences of historical context, we can see that these three terms, ‘liberation’, ‘reconstruction’ and ‘development’, are not mutually exclusive but can be important in different times and places.

The preferential option for the poor

At Medellin the Latin American bishops said that all Christians have a duty to be in solidarity with the poor, which “means that we make ours their problems and their struggles”.10  This is part of what came to be called the ‘preferential option for the poor’.

In Unit 1, I introduced this as one of the principles of CST.  Its roots certainly go back to the Bible, and something very close to it was expressed in Rerum Novarum:

When there is a question of protecting the rights of individuals, the poor and helpless have a claim to special consideration. The rich population has many ways of protecting themselves, and stands less in need of help. (Rerum Novarum, #37)

However the ‘preferential option for the poor’ was first expressed explicitly in liberation theology.  Before we look at Gutiérrez’s outline of it, quickly read that screen in Unit 1.  This anticipates this unit as both the examples it gives are about international development.


Re-reading (4pp)

VPlater, Module B, Unit 1, 1.3.6 ‘The preferential option for the poor’


Both examples there are to do with public policy.  However, the ‘preferential option for the poor’ as expressed initially in liberation theology was more to do with personal practice.  Gutiérrez wrote in a way that was seminal for this and it will be helpful again to quote at length from his 1968 article.  Our brief study of Catholic teaching about poverty in the introduction to this unit (6.1.3) is useful background here.

For several years we have been hearing a growing call in the Church for an authentic witness of poverty. It is important, however, to grasp very precisely the point of this witness and to avoid sentimentalism (there has been trivial talk of the ‘eminent dignity of the poor in the Church’), as well as the fanciful project of making poverty into an ideal (which would be ironic indeed for those who undergo real misery).

In the Bible poverty, as deprivation of the basic needs for living, is considered an evil, something that degrades man and offends God; the words it uses in referring to the poor show this (cf. Is 10:2; Amos 2:6-7; 5:1-6; 2:1). On the other hand, spiritual poverty is not merely an interior indifference to the goods of this world, but an attitude of openness to God, of spiritual simplicity (Wis 2:3; Is 66:2; Ps 25, 34, 37, 149; Prv 22:4; 15:33; 18:2; Mt 5:3).

Christian poverty makes no sense, then, except as a promise to be one with those suffering misery, in order to point out the evil that it represents. No one should ‘idealize’ poverty, but rather hold it aloft as an evil, cry out against it, and strive to eliminate it. Through such a spirit of solidarity we can alert the poor to the injustice of their situation. When Christ assumed the condition of poverty, He did so not to idealize it, but to show love and solidarity with men and to redeem them from sin. Christian poverty, an expression of love, makes us one with those who are poor and protests against their poverty…

Making oneself one with the poor today can entail personal risk, even of one’s life. That is what many Christians—and non-Christians—who are dedicated to the revolutionary cause are finding out. Thus new forms of living poverty, different from the usual ‘giving up the goods of this world,’ are being found.

Only by repudiating poverty and making itself poor in protest against it can the Church preach ‘spiritual poverty,’ i.e., an openness of man and the history he lives in to the future promised by God… For the Church of today, this is the test of the authenticity of its mission.11

In this passage, Gutiérrez is working with a threefold distinction of meanings of ‘poverty’ that was also made by the bishops at Medellin; the first two senses draw on longstanding Church teaching.

*  Material poverty as an evil, caused mainly by injustice

*  Spiritual poverty as “the attitude of opening up to God”12

*  Poverty as a voluntary commitment in which, following Christ’s example, people who are not already poor assume “the condition of the needy of this world in order to bear witness to the evil which it represents and to spiritual liberty”.13

While Gutiérrez refers to all three of these in the passage above, he gives most attention to the third.  This is how he first expressed the ‘preferential option for the poor’.  As both the Medellin documents and Gutiérrez explain this, notice how radical it is.  It calls on Christians who are not poor to be willing to become materially poor in solidarity with those who are.  At the same time, this is not at all to do with becoming resigned to material poverty; rather it is to take sides with the poor in their struggle to overcome it.

Summary of liberation theology

On pages 6.2.1-6.2.4, I have outlined five main elements of liberation theology:

* Base ecclesial communities as where liberation theology is ‘done’

*  Theology as ‘critical reflection on praxis’

*  Recognition that injustice is ‘structural’

*  The goal of liberation, not development

*  The preferential option for the poor



Of these five elements of liberation theology, which, if any, seem to you to be in tension with CST?


How do these elements fit together?

Here is a two-sentence summary.  At the time when liberation theology emerged in Latin America, the reality of oppression and structural injustice there meant that what was needed was liberation.  In engaging in critical reflection on praxis within base church communities, solidarity among and with the poor was necessary in order for the poor to take their destiny into their own hands, oppose and overthrow oppression, and reach liberation.



In light of the last four pages, do you think this summarises liberation theology accurately?


To conclude this screen, you may wish to read the article by Gutiérrez from which I have quoted a number of times, the founding manifesto of liberation theology.


Optional reading (19pp)

Gustavo Gutiérrez, ‘Notes for a theology of liberation

Published in Theological Studies 31(2) (1970), pp. 243-261





End of 6.2.4

Go to 6.2.5 Liberation theology and Marxism: revolution and socialism

Module B outline

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  1. Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 206 

  2. See Gaudium et Spes, ##25 and 75. 

  3. On economic or political structures being inhuman or unjust, see also Mater et Magistra, ##11-13. 

  4. Quoted in Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 206. 

  5. For an outline, see Vincent Ferraro, “Dependency Theory: An Introduction,” in The Development Economics Reader, ed. Giorgio Secondi (London: Routledge, 2008), pp. 58-64, accessible (9 Mar. 2017) at https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/depend.htm

  6. Gutiérrez, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’, pp. 251-252 

  7. Quoted in Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 207 

  8. Gutiérrez, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’, pp. 246-247 

  9. Charles Villa-Vicencio, A Theology of Reconstruction: Nation-building and Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 

  10. Quoted in Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 207 

  11. Gutiérrez, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’, pp. 260-261 

  12. Quoted in Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 207, as quoted in in 6.1.2. You might recall that, in similar terms, PP included the following half way along the spectrum of living conditions quoted above: “a taste for the spirit of poverty”, #21; see 5.3.3. 

  13. Quoted in Dorr, Option for the Poor, p. 207