6.2.6 Liberation theology and Marxism: class analysis

Back to 6.2.5

Unit 6 Contents



Marxism’s central contentions are that human societies are divided at the deepest level into economic classes in conflict and that this conflict is the decisive driver of historical development – until the communist revolution finally brings in a new society in which class division is transcended. In relation to the (present) capitalist period of history, Marx held that society is structured by conflict between the bourgeoisie (the middle class), which rules, and the proletariat (the working class), which is ruled over.1

As this page will show, liberation theologians sometimes appeared to employ Marxist class analysis and this proved to be a more significant issue than either revolution or socialism in the Vatican’s response to the liberationist movement.  Gutiérrez did not usually describe society in the Marxian terms of conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat, but he and others presented as basic in their social analysis a struggle between an oppressive class and an oppressed class.2  In a section headed ‘Christian Brotherhood and Class Struggle’, he wrote (in the original edition of A Theology of Liberation):

Universal love is that which in solidarity with the oppressed seeks also to liberate the oppressors from their own power… One loves the oppressors by liberating them from their inhuman condition as oppressors… from themselves.  But this cannot be achieved except by resolutely opting for the oppressed, that is, by combatting the oppressive class… In the context of class struggle today, to love one’s enemies presupposes recognizing and accepting that one has class enemies and that it is necessary to combat them…  “Love of enemies” does not ease tensions; rather it challenges the whole system and becomes a subversive formula.3

To say the least, it was controversial to affirm that Jesus’ command to love your enemies (Matt. 5:44) could mean that solidarity should be, first and foremost, with the oppressed class and involve combatting the oppressive class. This identifies what Christianity requires in practice with the interests of one economic class.

We saw earlier that liberation theology’s vision went beyond the context of specific countries and embraced ‘dependency theory’ (6.2.4).  While not all dependency theorists were Marxists, those who were found in it a way of extending Marxist class analysis to international relations.  Gutiérrez argued in A Theology of Liberation that Latin America’s dependence on and exploitation by developed countries, especially the United States, had to be understood in terms of “the worldwide class struggle”.4  In a later book, he wrote,

External dependency and internal domination are the marks of the social structures of Latin America.  Hence only class analysis will show what is really at stake in the opposition between oppressed lands and dominant peoples.5

More generally, liberation theology’s emphasis on ‘structural’ injustice, and therefore on the need for structural change, was open to interpretation as assuming Marxist class analysis – because when this refers to ‘structures’ it means economic class difference.  This is even though such language certainly need not be read in that way: we shall see that Pope John Paul took great care, in responding to the challenges presented by liberation theology, to describe ‘structures of sin’ in a way that did not rest on that analysis.6

Re-casting the ‘pastoral spiral’ as Marxist social analysis

It will be helpful to give this issue of class analysis fuller attention and to see how the pastoral spiral (introduced in Unit 5: 5.1.4) could be used within a Marxist perspective.  This will put us in a better position to understand the Vatican’s response to liberation theology.

We saw earlier that Cardijn’s ‘see, judge, act’ approach influenced Freire’s educational method of ‘conscientization’, and that this was in turn an influence on Gutiérrez’s conception of theology as ‘critical reflection on praxis’.  The family resemblance among these three approaches to taking social action is clear enough.  They all point out the importance of people attending to their own experience and its social context.  Doing this can, at the very least, help people to avoid taking up very general principles, such as those of CST, and trying to apply them regardless of differences of context – which is unlikely to work and might well make things worse, while also alienating people who do understand the local context.

Cardijn’s ‘see, judge, act’ approach also was developed into the ‘pastoral cycle’ or ‘pastoral spiral’, as we saw (5.1.4).  In particular, the ‘see’ stage was distinguished into two, often labelled ‘experience’ and ‘social analysis’.  The idea is that people need first to pay attention directly to their own experience of social problems such as poverty: they have extensive knowledge of this that no-one else can have.  At the second stage, ‘social analysis’, people seek to address questions about how to explain their economic and political context, such as:

*  What are the causes of the state of affairs we are in?

* What historical, economic, cultural or political factors are especially significant for explaining this?

*  Why are we facing these specific issues and challenges?

The third and fourth stages of the cycle basically correspond with Cardijn’s ‘judge’ and ‘act’.  (I won’t repeat further here what is said in 5.1.4.)

While the pastoral spiral is a straightforward development of ‘see, judge, act’, it can lend itself to a Marxist reading, as follows:

1.  The first stage is the experience of the struggle of the oppressed class.

2.  The second stage looks specifically to class analysis to understand the causes of that experience. This analysis itself holds that it is sufficient – because, according to Marxism, if we can understand a social context in terms of historical class conflict, this is enough to explain it.

3.  This claim to sufficiency of social explanation, however, blunts the next stage of the cycle, namely ‘theological reflection’ or ‘judgment’. We can look to Scripture, the Christian tradition and the Church’s teaching, and this can inspire us and strengthen our resolve – but in principle it can’t gainsay that social analysis.  In other words, nothing in distinctively Christian convictions can contribute to how we see and understand society itself.

4.  At the fourth stage, this generates action that is participation in class conflict.

Indeed Marxism saw religion as tending to divert people away from true, class-based social understanding.  Not only was religion unnecessary for this, but, as Karl Marx famously argued, it tends to mystify people by giving false religious reasons for enduring suffering: religion is “the sigh of the oppressed creature… the opium of the people”.7

It is ironic, to say the least, that Cardijn’s ‘judge’ element might be blunted in that way:  Cardijn had himself developed ‘see, judge, act’ partly as a critical response to Marxist social analysis (which he had re-read when imprisoned in the First World War during Germany’s occupation of Belgium). The key difference was precisely this: the ideology that informs the judgment in Marxism is economic class analysis, whereas the vision that does so in Cardijn’s approach is scriptural, reflecting the examples of the prophets and, especially, of Jesus.  Hence Catholic worker groups engaged in what Cardijn called “Gospel enquiries” to help form their understanding and assess what to do.  This kind of approach was undoubtedly used in early Base Ecclesial Communities that formed alongside and helped to influence liberation theology.

Yet liberation theologians sometimes advocated a Marxist method of analysis.  Alluding especially to the social analysis of the second stage of the pastoral spiral, Boff and Boff write in Introducing Liberation Theology:

Placing themselves firmly on the side of the poor, liberation theologians ask Marx: “What can you tell us about the situation of poverty and ways of overcoming it?” … Therefore, liberation theology uses Marxism purely as an instrument… To put it in more specific terms, liberation theology freely borrows from Marxism certain “methodological pointers” that have proved fruitful in understanding the world of the oppressed, such as:

*  the importance of economic factors

*  attention to the class struggle

* the mystifying power of ideologies, including religious ones.8

Boff and Boff defend this by saying it uses Marxism as an instrument.  But, as I note above, such use rules out in advance that Christian theology itself can give understanding of society – because this is what Marxism denied is possible.  One sympathetic critic of liberation theology puts vividly the objection to which I am pointing here: “We have snatched knowledge of the world that is fait accompli, stolen from God by getting in first”.9

From the point of view of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, it was probably this point about Marxist method that presented the most basic problem. It seemed to rule out the possibility that Christian theology, and more specifically Church teaching, could actually inform social analysis on the basis of which action for liberation was taken.  Here was a reduction of the gospel to a programme of material liberation (to echo the last screen) and a challenge to the Church’s own authority.



On this and the last screen I have outlined three respects in which, to some extent, Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians drew on Marxism.

*  Advocacy of revolution

*  Identification with socialism

*  Appeal to class analysis

The first two are fairly easy to grasp but the third may be harder to understand.  Discussions of method in Marxist analysis can easily become fiendishly complex; I hope I have avoided this.

How readily could you now explain those three to someone else?



After first describing liberation theology in a way that made no mention of Marxism (6.2.1-6.2.4), I have now added to that by pointing to these ways in which it drew on elements of Marxism.

Of course, in liberation theology’s self-presentation it did not neatly distinguish in the way I have.  But the question this raises for students of CST is the same two-fold one I posed on the first page on this topic (6.2.1):

Can liberation theology’s vision, and its main points and emphases, be articulated cogently in a way that is not dependent on Marxism and that can contribute to CST’s own development?

Or do the ways in which it drew on Marxism form an inherent part of liberation theology and mean that it must be seen as contradicting Catholic teaching?

In short, can liberation theology benefit CST, or is it contrary to it in a basic way?



In light of your study of liberation theology in this unit so far, what is your reaction to these two ways of reading it?


As we shall see on the coming screens, the Vatican’s responses to liberation theology during the papacies of Paul VI and John Paul II can be read as giving a both/and answer to that question.




End of 6.2.6

Go to 6.2.7 The Vatican’s response to liberation theology

Module B outline

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  1. The Marxist theory of history is a version of ‘historical materialism’ because it sees material conditions as the fundamental cause of historical change.  The Marxist view came to be called ‘dialectical materialism’ because it holds that history moves forward by the ‘dialectical’ relationship between two opposing classes, each defined by their place in the economic mode of production.  The word ‘dialectical’ is related to ‘dialogue’ – conversation between two people (or groups of people) who disagree and attempt to use reason to address and overcome their disagreement. 

  2. Occasionally Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians did employ the Marxian distinction of bourgeois and proletarian classes.  He does so in the following, if implicitly as he refers only to the latter: “The poor, the oppressed, are members of one social class that is being… exploited by another class.  This exploited class, especially its most clear-sighted segment, the proletariat, is an active one.  Hence, an option for the poor is an option for one social class over another.” Power of the Poor (ref. in 6.2.5), p. 45. 

  3. Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (1973 edition) (ref. in 6.2.3), p. 276 

  4. Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation (1973 edition), p. 87 

  5. Gutiérrez, Power of the Poor, p. 45 

  6. Although this is to look forward, we can note that Gutiérrez later modified his own use of the language of class: in the revised edition of A Theology of Liberation published in 1988, he replaced the section that includes the quotation above. 

  7. Here are the sentences in which those words come: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.  The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”  They are from Karl Marx, ‘Towards a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction’, reprinted in David McLellan, Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 64. 

  8. Boff and Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology (ref. in 6.2.1) p. 28 (italics original). 

  9. Oliver O’Donovan, ‘Political theology, tradition and modernity’, in Christopher Rowland (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), p. 242