6.2.5 Liberation theology and Marxism: revolution and socialism

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Unit 6 Contents





Do you recall when socialism and especially its Marxist version have come up earlier in this module?


Until this point, I have presented liberation theology without reference to Marxism (in line with the approach outlined in 6.2.1).  In fact Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians did draw on Marxism, and the main reason liberation theology proved controversial and came under suspicion in the Vatican was that its analysis of society appeared in some ways to echo Marxist socialism.

It is impossible for us to assess fully the extent of Marxist influence if we are not familiar with Marxism.  For this we would need to study Marxism directly and, ideally, to read Karl Marx.  While this is beyond the scope of this module, we have given some attention to socialism and specifically to Marxism.

Here are the main places at which we have done so.

*  Near the end of our initial study of CST’s main principles in Unit 1, I pointed out that CST is opposed to ‘collectivism’ – that is, to views in which the good of some people can be discounted for the sake of the whole – and that in practice socialism has generally been collectivist. John Paul II critiqued the Marxist Communist regimes of eastern and central Europe on exactly this basis. (1.3.10)

*  Unit 2’s section on the ‘Historical Context of Modern CST’ explained what socialism is and outlined why Rerum Novarum opposed it: this was because the collectivist means of class conflict and imposed social ownership would not assist workers but jeopardize their prospects of getting out of poverty. It also pointed to one main way in which, despite socialism’s advocacy of collectivist means, it and CST are similar: both have a vision of human wellbeing as an irreducibly common good. (

*  At the end of Unit 3, we returned to the question of how CST is similar to and different from socialism (and from liberalism and conservatism). For the first time, we gave attention to the basic difference between two varieties: Marxist socialism and ethical socialism.  We noted that in Quadragesimo Anno (1931) Pius XI included a long, sympathetic discussion of ethical socialism, yet he maintained the position that the Church could not endorse either version. (3.4.2)

* When looking at the background to CST’s concept of solidarity in Unit 5, we noted the influence of Heinrich Pesch. He held that both economic liberalism and Marxism were premised on dividing people from each other – by competition and class respectively.  In contrast, he argued, solidarity across those divides is central in CST’s vision: human wellbeing depends on people being actively committed to a unifying common good.  (5.2.2)

*  Mater et Magistra (1961) reaffirmed CST’s earlier rejections of socialism, even though it also went as far as to say plainly that the common good and justice can require, as a means, “state and public ownership” (5.2.8).

Granted these ways in which CST had assessed socialism, especially Marxism, any movement that appeared to draw on Marxism was bound to provoke reactions.  We now look at three respects in which liberation theology did so appear, two on this screen and one on the next.

Advocacy of revolution

Advocating ‘liberation’ defined liberation theology, and liberation would come through revolutions that overturned oppressive regimes.  Gutiérrez wrote:

To characterise Latin America as a dominated and oppressed continent naturally leads one to speak of liberation… [L]iberation is a term which expresses a new posture of Latin Americans.  The failure of reformist efforts has strengthened this attitude… [T]here can be authentic development for Latin America only if there is liberation from domination exercised by the great capitalist countries…  It is becoming more evident that Latin American peoples will not emerge from their present status except by means of a profound transformation, a social revolution… The oppressed sectors within each country are becoming aware – slowly it is true – of their class interests and of the painful road which must be followed to accomplish the breakup of the status quo…

In Latin America we are in the midst of a full-blown process of revolutionary ferment… [T]he untenable circumstances of poverty, alienation and exploitation in which the greater part of the people of Latin America live urgently demand that we find a path towards economic, social and political liberation.1

This passage comes not long after one in which Gutiérrez discusses the range of meanings of ‘liberation’.  In this context he makes abundantly clear that he does not think in terms only of this-worldly liberation: “In the Bible, Christ is presented as the one who brings us liberation.  Christ the saviour liberates man from sin, which is the ultimate root of… all injustice and oppression.  Christ makes man truly free….”2

The longer quotation above raises two questions, however.

First, how is what Gutiérrez called for different in practice from a Marxist position in which revolution will overturn capitalism and bring in socialism?  One difference was that most liberation theologians did not advocate violent revolution, even though there was intense debate among Catholics about whether resort to arms in opposing Latin America’s dictatorships might be right.  That is a hugely important difference, although it is essentially one of means.  Those Catholics who did think that such use of violence was justified may be seen as exceptions that prove the rule.

The most well-known of these was Camillo Torres Restrepo, a Columbian priest, whose conclusion on this issue in fact preceded the rise of liberation theology.  In the mid-1960s, Torres joined a Marxist guerrilla movement in Columbia and, tragically, was killed in his first experience of combat in 1966.

Second, is Gutiérrez claiming too much for what “economic, social and political liberation” could achieve?  Putting this differently, is the Christian message being to some extent reduced to revolutionary political action to overturn capitalism, as though this defines what the Church must stand for?

This question expresses one of the lines of critique made of liberation theology.  But, as we shall see, the language of liberation does not need to be understood in terms of Marxist ideology.  Part of Pope Paul VI’s response to liberation theology was to articulate a vision of ‘integral human liberation’ that refuses all reductionist interpretation of the concept.


Identifying with socialism

Liberation theology in general, and Gutiérrez in particular, held that liberation should lead to socialism.  Referring to the “progressive radicalization of the debate concerning private property”, he wrote,

The subordination of private property to the social good has been stressed often. But difficulties in reconciling justice and private ownership have led many to the conviction that “The history of the private ownership of the means of production makes evident the necessity of its reduction or suppression for the welfare of society.  We must hence opt for social ownership of the means of production”.3

Later he wrote,

Latin American misery and injustice is too deep to be responsive to mere palliatives.  Hence we speak of social revolution, not reform; … of socialism, not modernization of the prevailing system.4

In the context of Catholic teaching, this identification with socialism presented a problem.  As summarized above, CST had rejected socialism from Rerum Novarum onwards and this had been reaffirmed only a few years before in Mater et Magistra.  To embrace socialism, CST’s stance would have had to change in quite a basic way.



We have looked at two respects in which liberation theology appears influenced by Marxism.  In light of the previous four pages, do these seem to you to be inherent parts of liberation theology, or can this be coherent and cogent without one or both of them?




End of 6.2.5

Go to 6.2.6 Liberation theology and Marxism: class analysis

Module B outline

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  1. Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (1973 edition), pp. 87-88 (italics original). 

  2. Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (1973 edition), p. 37 (italics added). 

  3. Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (1973 edition), pp. 111-112  Gutiérrez is quoting, with at least sympathy, a statement by a radical group of Catholic priests and lay people established in Peru in the late 1960s, the Oficina Nacional de Informacion Social.  It was to this group that Gutiérrez presented his initial paper, ‘Notes for a Theology of Liberation’. 

  4. Gustavo Gutiérrez,The Power of the Poor in History, trans. Robert R. Barr (New York: Orbis), 1983, p. 45