6.2.7 The Vatican’s response to liberation theology

Back to 6.2.6

Unit 6 Contents



There are five major documents published by the Vatican during the two decades after the birth of liberation theology that, in part or in whole, can be seen as responding to its challenge:

*   Pope Paul VI, Octagesimo Adveniens / A Call to Action (1971)

*  Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi / Evangelization in the Modern World (1975)

*  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” (Libertatis Nuntius) (1984)

*  Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (Libertatis Conscientia) (1986)

*  Pope John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Socialis / On Social Concern (1987)

As our main purpose in this module is to study CST, not liberation theology as such, we need not give close attention to all these.  Rather, our aim needs to be to see how, in and through those statements, CST itself developed.

Given this, the most important of them for our purpose is the last, John Paul II’s encyclical marking the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio.  Like PP, it principally addresses international development, our main topic in Units 5 and 6.

We look briefly at the first two of those statements on this screen, and at the third and fourth on the next.  We shall study Solicitudo Rei Socialis in the following part of this unit.

Octagesimo Adveniens

Indeed we can pass over Octagesimo Adveniens (OA) quickly. Marking the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, it was not primarily about or provoked by liberation theology.  Nevertheless, there are two aspects of OA that, if only in part, respond to it.  We have in fact given attention to both these earlier in the module (although without reference to that context).

First, when first looking at Cardijn’s ‘See, Judge, Act’ method, the opening few sections of OA were set as a reading (5.1.3).  Despite the clear critique of revolutionary ideologies at the end of #3, what follows in #4 may be seen as giving support to the insistence by many in the Latin American church, including liberation theologians, that Christians needed to address social challenges in ways appropriate for their own context.

It is up to the Christian communities [1] to analyze with objectivity the situation which is proper to their own country, [2] to shed on it the light of the Gospel’s unalterable words and [3] [to take] action from the social teaching of the Church. (OA, #4, numbering added)

You might wish to re-read the opening few pages of OA, looking especially at ##3-4.


Optional re-reading (3pp)

Pope Paul VI, Octagesimo Adveniens, ##1-4


Second, OA later reiterates CST’s critique of both Marxism and liberalism, saying that the contextual approach does not justify taking stances that contradict CST’s own longstanding positions. The Christian in politics “cannot without contradicting himself adhere to ideological systems which radically or substantially go against his faith” (OA, #26, italics added).

We gave attention to this part of OA when we compared and contrasted CST’s position with liberalism, conservatism and socialism at the end of Unit 3 (3.4).  OA describes both Marxism and liberalism as such ideologies (#26), but, when it addresses this issue at greater length, it gives more space to Marxism (##31-34).  One reason for this, no doubt, was the engagement with Marxism in nascent liberation theology.  Paul VI states straightforwardly that it would be “illusory and dangerous” for Christians to think they could make common cause with Marxism (#34). This is even though, as noted in Unit 3, he seems to recognize a need for contextual discernment in Christians’ engagement with non-Marxist socialism and with liberalism (#31, #35).

Evangelii Nuntiandi

By the mid-1970s, liberation theology had become a matter of great controversy in the Catholic Church.  The second document listed above, Evangelii Nuntiandi was issued in 1975 to mark the tenth anniversary of the end of Vatican II.  Its significance for our topic here is that it brought the concept of ‘liberation’ into CST.1

Some background can assist us to appreciate Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN).  In the context of Latin America at that time, the main practical question at stake was not so much about Marxism as about what stance Christians and the Church should take in relation to authoritarian military governments that appealed to ‘national security’ to defend repressive policies that violated human rights. Especially after a coup that overturned a democratically elected government in Chile in 1973, a large majority of the population of Latin American lived under military dictatorships.  Most people, both in the political elites and among the oppressed and poor, were Catholic Christians, at least nominally.  While many Catholic bishops were close to those with economic and political power, the liberation theologians and their supporters, including among bishops, were calling for a stance of opposition to those regimes.2

In this context, one of the charges that liberation theology’s critics made was that it was ‘politicizing the gospel’ – meaning that it was reducing the Christian faith to a programme of worldly politics.  If there was truth in this, it was a powerful objection.  (We touched on this line of critique in connection with liberation theology’s advocacy of revolution [6.2.5].)



Back in Unit 2, we studied the ‘just government strand’ in Scripture.  Recalling in particular what you learned there about the message of Jesus himself, can you think why the charge that a movement in the life of the Christian Church is ‘politicising the gospel’ is a serious one?


It might seem some time since you did Unit 2, so you might wish to re-read some of the screen that focused on Jesus’ mission.


Optional re-reading (2pp)

VPlater, Module B, ‘2.2.5 Just government: (3) Jesus

Read the first half of the page, up to the line, ‘Can this way of understanding Jesus’ message be right?’


What that screen shows is, in summary, this.  Jesus’ message that God’s reign was coming sounded to many like a proclamation that the Jewish people would be freed from Roman and Herodian domination, and David’s kingdom in the Promised Land would be restored. In fact his message and mission were much more radical than that: by his action and teaching, he put across a vision of what it meant for God’s kingship to come that went way beyond anything that a narrowly political project could bring about.  This centred on what it really was to be God’s covenant people, and it repudiated any dependence on the ordinary means of worldly political rule, namely taking power, coercive imposition, and military force.

Jesus announced that he came to liberate – “to proclaim liberty to captives” and “to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18) – but his mission was more far-reaching than political liberation.  His call was to a new way of being God’s people, one that depended, not on those means, but on love of God and neighbour expressed in mutual service and mutual forgiveness. Focusing on Jesus himself enables us to see why the charge that liberation theology was ‘politicizing the gospel’ was serious: its claim was that liberation theology was reductive, making Christian faith far less than it is.

This charge focused on the term ‘liberation’: what liberation theology meant by it was first and foremost political in the narrow sense.  The liberationist movement was vulnerable to this kind of criticism precisely because some of its proponents drew on Marxism: for Marxists the class struggle for liberation through revolutionary politics has an overriding priority.

If we take Gutiérrez’s writing as representative, however, the charge was not justified.  We saw earlier that Gutiérrez clearly repudiated such a narrowly political interpretation of ‘liberation’ (6.2.5).  He said that the term has different meanings that are interdependent, and that liberation is a “complex process” that “finds its deepest meaning and its full realization in the saving work of Christ”.3

We can now look at what Pope Paul VI says in Evangelii Nuntiandi.  After discussing Jesus’ own mission and the evangelizing ministry of the Church, he turns to the meaning of ‘liberation’.  He argues plainly that this should not be reduced to “a simply temporal project” (#32), but must be about the whole human person:

[Liberation] “cannot be contained in the simple and restricted dimension of economics, politics, social or cultural life; it must envisage the whole man, in all his aspects, right up to and including his openness to the absolute, even the divine Absolute” (#33, italics added).

This way of speaking about liberation will seem familiar because it is parallel to how Populorum Progressio conceives of development.  In relation to both, Paul VI insists on an ‘integral’ or ‘complete’ way of understanding these concepts, one that recognises all dimensions of the human person.  In PP he was responding to the materialism of economic liberalism, and in EN he was responding to that of Marxism.  Both ‘development’ and ‘liberation’ could be redeemed by being understood in the context of an integral conception of humanness.

We may say, then, that EN argues for ‘integral human liberation’, even though the text does not use this exact phrase. Another of the documents listed at the start of this screen brings together integral liberation and development in this way:

But the love which impels the Church to communicate to all people a sharing in the grace of divine life also causes her, through the effective action of her members, to pursue people’s true temporal good… and promote an integral liberation from everything that hinders the development of individuals. The Church desires the good of man in all his dimensions… (CDF, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, #63, italics added)

Gutiérrez, among others, spoke of ‘integral human liberation’ later, in the revised edition of A Theology of Liberation (1988).4  In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II wrote of “the positive value of an authentic theology of integral human liberation” (#26) and the phrase is used in the Compendium (#328).

In this way, the term ‘liberation’ became part of CST.  Moreover there was convergence by CST and liberation theologians on the concept of ‘integral human liberation’.

You may wish to read the relevant pages of EN


Optional reading (3pp)

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, ##31-38 

You will need to scroll down to #31.


To conclude this screen, we look at one way in which this passage from EN was employed later.  Just a few months after Pope Paul VI was succeeded by John Paul II, the first full meeting of Latin American bishops since Medellin took place.  This was in Puebla, Mexico, in early 1979.  The debate over liberation theology formed the context for the conference.  John Paul II made the opening speech and, when he addressed the topic of ‘liberation’, he drew from EN.

The following quotation gives a good sense of the way in which Paul VI and the new pope affirmed liberation while also being clear-cut in their critique of reductive understandings of it.  (Note that this is only a short extract from John Paul II’s speech.)

III.6. Pastoral commitment in this field must be encouraged through a correct Christian idea of liberation. The Church feels the duty to proclaim the liberation of millions of human beings, the duty  to help this liberation become firmly established (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 30); but she also feels the corresponding duty to proclaim liberation in its integral and profound meaning, as Jesus proclaimed and realized it (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 31). “Liberation from everything that oppresses man but which is, above all, liberation from sin and the Evil One, in the joy of knowing God and being known by him” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 9). Liberation made up of reconciliation and forgiveness. Liberation springing from the reality of being children of God, whom we are able to call Abba, Father (Rom. 8:15); a reality which makes us recognize in every man a brother of ours, capable of being transformed in his heart through God’s mercy. Liberation that, with the energy of love, urges us towards fellowship, the summit and fullness of which we find in the Lord. Liberation as the overcoming of the various forms of slavery and man-made idols, and as the growth of the new man. Liberation that in the framework of the Church’s proper mission is not reduced to the simple and narrow economic, political, social or cultural dimension, and is not sacrificed to the demands of any strategy, practice or short-term solution (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 33).

To safeguard the originality of Christian liberation and the energies that it is capable of releasing, one must at all costs avoid any form of curtailment or ambiguity, as Pope Paul VI asked: “The Church would lose her fundamental meaning. Her message of liberation would no longer have any originality and would easily be open to monopolization and manipulation by ideological systems and political parties” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 32). There are many signs that help to distinguish when the liberation in question is Christian and when on the other hand it is based rather on ideologies that rob it of consistency with an evangelical view of man, of things and of events (cf. Evangelii Nuntiandi, 35). They are signs drawn from the content of what the evangelizers proclaim or from the concrete attitudes that they adopt. At the level of content, one must see what is their fidelity to the word of God, to the Church’s living Tradition and to her Magisterium. As for attitudes, one must consider what sense of communion they have with the Bishops, in the first place, and with the other sectors of the People of God; what contribution they make to the real building up of the community; in what form they lovingly show care for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed, the neglected and the oppressed, and in what way they find in them the image of the poor and suffering Jesus, and strive to relieve their need and serve Christ in them (cf. Lumen Gentium, 8). Let us not deceive ourselves: the humble and simple faithful, as though by an evangelical instinct, spontaneously sense when the Gospel is served in the Church and when it is emptied of its content and is stifled with other interests.

As you see, the series of observations made by Evangelii Nuntiandi on the theme of liberation retains all its validity.5



It was the rise of liberation theology that provoked the term ‘liberation’ to be incorporated into the body of CST.

In light of all your study so far (especially in units 5 and 6), do you think that the concept of ‘integral human liberation’ develops CST in a substantive way, or does it only enable CST to be expressed in a different way?




End of 6.2.7

Go to 6.2.8 Two ‘Instructions’ on liberation theology

Module B outline

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  1. Evangelii Nuntiandi is not generally seen as one of the documents that specifically make up Catholic Social Teaching.  It is not mentioned, for example, in a section of the Compendium that gives a historical outline, ‘From Rerum Novarum to Our Own Day’ (##89-103).  However, the part of EN that addresses the meanings of liberation certainly contributed to development of this teaching (as we are about to see).  The Compendium references it elsewhere several times. 

  2. These included, for example, in Brazil: Hélder Câmara, Archbishop of Olinda and Recife from 1964 to 1985, exactly the same period as there was military rule in Brazil; Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, Archbishop of São Paulo in from 1970 to 1998; Pedro Casaldáliga, Bishop of São Félix do Araguaia from 1971 to 2005. 

  3. Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (1973 edition), p. 37 

  4. Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (1988 edition), p. 120 

  5. Third General Conference of the Latin American Episcopate, ‘Address Of His Holiness John Paul II’, Puebla, Mexico, 28 January 1979, section III.6, accessible (1 June 2016) at https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1979/january/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19790128_messico-puebla-episc-latam.html