6.2.8 Two ‘Instructions’ on liberation theology

Back to 6.2.7

Unit 6 Contents



While John Paul II’s speech at Puebla in 1979 was seen as conciliatory towards liberation theology, controversy about the movement within the Catholic Church had intensified by that time.1 The debate reached its sharpest pitch in the first half of the 1980s. For many, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the villain of the piece. Ratzinger, a leading theologian from Germany, was appointed in 1981 as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).  This body exists “to promote and safeguard” the Church’s doctrine on “faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”.2 In the media it is often dubbed the Church’s ‘doctrinal watchdog’. Ratzinger remained in this role until he was elected as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

Ratzinger’s overriding concern about liberation theology was what he saw as its fatal embrace of Marxism.  His response to it included censuring those theologians who had succumbed to it – and Ratzinger’s critics objected to this way of handling the controversy at least as much as to what he wrote. However, in the view of many of liberation theology’s critics, Ratzinger’s contributions were necessary.  You will be able to assess this for yourself.

Pope John Paul II’s own views were less clear-cut than Ratzinger’s.  According to Robert Calderisi, they “had many layers, and they evolved”.  Calderisi continues:

In 1980 in Brazil, and again in 1981 in the Philippines, he urged the poor… to be actively involved in shaping their own destiny, and to be “artisans of their own progress”.  In October 1981, at the urging of sympathetic voices in the Vatican, the Pope read Gutiérrez’s work late into the night and suggested to Cardinal Ratzinger [then newly appointed] that he water down a statement he had drafted for the Peruvian Bishops to sign.3

Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff were among liberation theologians whose writing was subject to Cardinal Ratzinger’s critique.  In 1983 Ratzinger made an assessment of Gutiérrez’s theology that included the charges that it supported a “temporal messianism” – i.e. the view that Jesus’ mission as Messiah was predominantly about political change in this world – and that it was influenced by Marxism to an extent that made it inconsistent with Church teaching.

A year later, the CDF issued the first of two documents specifically about liberation theology.  These two “Instructions” (as they are formally called) are very different from each other.  The first is largely a negative critique of liberation theology’s engagement with and use of Marxism.  The second, published in 1986, is much more positive, presenting a broad theological vision of human freedom and liberation.

Students of CST need to know about these two documents because together they form the Vatican’s most direct and focused response to the most contentious debate related to CST since the Second Vatican Council.  We will give only brief attention to them because, as noted earlier, our main aim is to see how liberation theology contributed to CST’s development, rather than to focus on the intricacies of the debate it provoked.  Only one required reading will be set from them, of a short section in the second which, in a very striking way, identifies what CST says about human work as crucially important for addressing both the challenges raised by liberation theology and international development.

CDF, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” (Libertatis Nuntius)

A shorter document than any of the main CST encyclicals, the first CDF Instruction has a Latin title that means ‘message of freedom’. However, it tends not to be known by its Latin name and I shall refer to it here by its English title, abbreviated to ICATL.

ICATL states plainly at the start that it has a “limited and precise purpose”, which is to draw attention to “the deviations, and risks of deviation, damaging to the faith and to Christian living, that are brought about by certain forms of liberation theology which use, in an insufficiently critical manner, concepts borrowed from various currents of Marxist thought” (introductory paragraph).

After describing the “powerful and almost irresistible aspiration that people have for ‘liberation’” as “one of the principal ‘signs of the times’” (#I.1), it identifies with liberation theology’s driving concern about poverty, the “scandal of the shocking inequality between the rich and poor – whether between rich and poor countries, or between social classes in a single nation” (#I.6; cf. XI.1).

In its early chapters, it surveys the biblical sources of liberation as a theme for Christian theology and then locates its own contribution in relation to modern CST.  It gives attention, specifically, to Evangelii Nuntiandi and to Pope John Paul II’s address at Puebla, when he “affirmed that the complete truth about man is the basis for any real liberation” (#V.4).

There then follow the Instruction’s four central chapters, VI-IX, in which it critiques what it calls “a novel interpretation of both the content of faith and of Christian existence which seriously departs from the faith of the Church” (# VI.9) and which derives from “[c]oncepts uncritically borrowed from Marxist ideology” (#VI.10).

Its assessment may be read as having three main themes.  The first is the charge of ‘politicizing the gospel’ (referred to earlier): “some” liberation theologians reduce the gospel to “the necessary struggle for human justice and freedom in the economic and political sense” (#IV.4).

The second is the way that class conflict is central in Marxism’s way of seeing society and history – an unsurprising theme, given the whole history of CST since Rerum Novarum.

The third is similar to the point we noted earlier about a possible Marxist way of reading the ‘pastoral spiral’ (6.2.6).  If the second stage of this, ‘social analysis’, is interpreted in Marxist, class-based terms, it generates an understanding of society that is seen as sufficient, in the sense that it is closed off from challenge by distinctively Christian convictions, yet then drives Christian practice. ICATL says,

[Marxism] is such a global vision of reality that all data received from observation and analysis are brought together in a philosophical and ideological structure, which predetermines the significance and importance to be attached to them. The ideological principles come prior to the study of the social reality and are presupposed in it. Thus no separation of the parts of this epistemologically unique complex is possible. If one tries to take only one part, say, the analysis, one ends up having to accept the entire ideology. (#7.VI)

The next chapter explains further,

According to the logic of Marxist thought, the ‘analysis’ is inseparable from the ‘praxis’, and from the conception of history to which this ‘praxis’ is linked. The analysis is for the Marxist an instrument of criticism [of the class-based social order], and criticism is only one stage in the revolutionary struggle. This struggle is that of the proletarian class, invested with its mission in history. (#VIII.2)



The issue of method in Marxist analysis can be complex, as I noted earlier.  How clear do you find the outline that these quotations give?

Can you see the logic of the critique?


There is a lot to come in Unit 6, so don’t dwell on ICATL unless you have plenty of time available (or liberation theology is a special interest).  If you do, those four central chapters are the part most worth reading.


Optional reading (9pp)

CDF, Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, chapters VI to IX


In the Marxist conception of social analysis outlined above, there is implied a challenge to the Church’s authority, to which ICATL then turns (chapter X).  That conception amounts to a “subversion of the truth”, meaning that,

[f]or the “theologies of liberation” … the social doctrine of the Church is rejected with disdain. It is said that it comes from the illusion of a possible compromise, typical of the middle class which has no historic destiny. (#X.4)

This is strong language.  Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians were as much inspired by the developments in CST in the 1960s, especially at Vatican II, as they were determined to push beyond them in the Latin American context of poverty and political repression.  Most of them were priests who were deeply committed to the Catholic Church.  Partly because of the abrasiveness of some its language, ICATL was not well received by many in the Church.

ICATL is not explicitly about any particular theologian’s work.  While writing by Gutiérrez and others was subject to direct criticism by the Vatican around the same time, the Instruction names none of them. This is fully understandable as it is deliberately making general points. Nevertheless, the document conveys a sense, I suggest, of addressing a worst possible case: a ‘theology’ that had completely given itself over to Marxism.  Another reason why it was not well received was that many saw it as critiquing a position that no-one quite held.

CDF, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (Libertatis Conscientia)

The second Instruction describes itself both as complementary to the first and as having a different aim.  This is to “highlight the main elements of the Christian doctrine on freedom and liberation” (#2), and it presents a broad and uplifting vision.  We may sum it up by saying that it goes a lot further than Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi in incorporating the term ‘liberation’ within Catholic teaching.

Like the first Instruction, it is usually known by its English title, which I shall abbreviate as ICFL.

ICFL often expresses a liberationist impulse strongly and recognizes liberation theologians’ concerns.  Its approach to assessing liberation theology is generally to locate the defining points and emphases of this within a larger context of Christian understanding.  Only occasionally does it overtly criticise aspects of it.

We may see this approach in ICFL’s reaffirmation, at the very start, of the point in Octagesimo Adveniens that it is for “local Churches… to make direct provision” for how CST applies in “different local situations” (#2, referencing OA ##1-4).  It is expressed more fully later in the document in, for example, the following quotations:

[A] vast number of Christians, from the time of the Apostles onwards, have committed their powers and their lives to liberation from every form of oppression and to the promotion of human dignity. The[ir] experience … and … example … are an incentive and a beacon for the liberating undertakings that are needed today. (#57)

It is of course important to make a careful distinction between earthly progress and the growth of the Kingdom… Nonetheless, this distinction is not a separation; for man’s vocation to eternal life does not suppress but confirms his task of using the energies and means which he has received from the Creator for developing his temporal life. Enlightened by the Lord’s Spirit, Christ’s Church can discern in the signs of the times the ones which advance liberation and those that are deceptive and illusory. She calls man and societies to overcome situations of sin and injustice and to establish the conditions for true freedom. (#60)

The first of ICFL’s five chapters gives an impressive overview of the modern West’s 500-year “quest for freedom and aspiration for liberation” (#5).  Chapter II addresses misuse of freedom, and chapter III expounds the theme of liberation in Scripture (doing this much more fully than the similar outline in the first Instruction).

Chapter IV is about “the liberating mission of the Church” and distinguishes this with some clarity from the “political and economic running of society” (#61, italics added).  A concern here is, again, the danger of reducing the former to the latter.  The text picks up on the theme of ‘integral liberation’ introduced by EN; on the last screen I quoted from what ICFL says here.

This is followed by a discussion of the “love of preference for the poor”, which is a rather cryptic phrase for referring to what has generally been called the “preferential option for the poor”.  We shall be giving attention to this when we study Solicitudo Rei Socialis (SRS) in the next part of this unit.

A single paragraph then affirms with clarity but also qualifies one defining aspect of liberation theology’s approach.  Base ecclesial communities “are a source of great hope for the Church”.  Yet they must “really live in unity with the local Church and the universal Church” (#69); in other words, they must recognise the authority of the bishops and Church teaching, and they must not (at worst) become crucibles of Marxist class struggle.

Chapter V includes material on a number of important issues that will also come up in SRS: struggle for justice that is not class struggle, what it means to speak about ‘structures’ of justice, and the need for solidarity.  I shall refer back to what is here as we study that.

Last but not least, ICFL chapter V has a remarkable section that links CST about human work with both international development and the concerns of liberation theology.

This picks up a striking idea from John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens, that we may speak about a “Gospel of work” – the good news about human work that the life of Jesus himself proclaims.   If Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, “devoted the greater part of his earthly life to manual labour”, so work must have “dignity… nobility and fruitfulness” (ICFL, #82) and be essential to human living.  This gives us “the living basis and principle of the radical cultural transformation which is essential for solving the grave problems which must be faced by the age in which we live” (#82).

Thus the solution of most of the serious problems related to poverty is to be found in the promotion of a true civilization of work. In a sense, work is the key to the whole social question.

It is therefore in the domain of work that priority must be given to the action of liberation in freedom. Just work relationships will be a necessary precondition for a system of political community capable of favouring the integral development of every individual. (#83)

The point that work is the key to the whole social question also refers back to Laborem Exercens, which, when ICFL was written, was the most recent social encyclical.

At the start of Unit 6, I referred to two trajectories of CST documents.  The first ran from Rerum Novarum in 1891 to Centesimus Annus a century later and included Laborem Exercens.  The second began with Populorum Progressio in 1967 and the next statement in this trajectory was SRS of 1987.  But what these pages in ICFL do is make the case that the vision of human work developed in the first set of statements is hugely important for what needs to be said to address the subject of the second, international development.4

In short, for people in poverty to have the possibility of true human development, they need work that both ends their poverty and in itself contributes to them realizing their God-given potential – just as Jesus himself did.

This short section is the only extract from the two Instructions that you are asked to read.


Reading (4pp)

CDF, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, ##81-88 (chapter V, section II)

The link takes you to the start of the document.  In the light of the outline above of its contents, you might wish to skim read it up to #81.




The vision of human work here generates the principle of the ‘priority of labour over capital’ (#87).  This was introduced back in Unit 1 (1.3.8) and presents a major challenge to ‘capitalism’ because this tends to make labour a means for maximizing return to capital.  In challenging capitalism, ICFL is like liberation theology.

Surprisingly, the main writings of liberation theology say relatively little directly about the topic of work.  In light of your study of liberation theology so far, to what extent does the above reading present a challenge to liberation theology also?


We shall return to this section of ICFL later in Unit 6.

The publication of ICFL in 1986 heralded a moderation in the controversy and conflict about liberation theology.  Gutiérrez “greeted [it] with relief and hailed it as the beginning of a new positive period” in relations between liberation theologians and the Vatican.5  He quoted it many times in a book written soon afterwards, The Truth Shall Make You Free, while continuing to emphasize the need for a “radical change of the socio-economic order”.6

As for Pope John Paul II, Calderisi relates that, shortly after the second Instruction,

Réal Corriveau, a French Canadian bishop working in Honduras, asked him: “Setting aside what the official documents of the Church say, what do you think personally about liberation theology?”  Replied the Pope: “It was necessary”.7



From what you have learned about John Paul II in the module, does this anecdote seem believable?

Assuming John Paul II did say that, what do you think he meant by it?  Our study in this unit gives us some basis for suggesting possible answers to this.


Perhaps the answer to this lies in some of the things that John Paul II went on to say in Solicitudo Rei Socialis – the last of the five major documents published by the Vatican that respond to liberation theology.  We now turn to that.




End of 6.2


Module B outline

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  1. One factor in that intensification during the 1970s was that, whereas at Medellin the bishops as a body were broadly supportive of the nascent movement, this was much less the case by the time of Puebla.  Anecdotal points can serve to illustrate what the controversy meant in practice.  An outspoken critic of liberation theology, Archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo from Colombia, had become the general secretary of CELAM in 1972 and he worked throughout his tenure to minimize its influence.  At Puebla in 1979, Trujillo prevented not only liberation theologians but also many bishops sympathetic to them from participating in the conference – and his choice of the event’s location was a huge seminary in large grounds surrounded by a 10-foot wall that would make communication with non-participants difficult. Despite this, some bishops supportive of liberation theology did participate and arranged for a copy of John Paul’s opening speech to be given immediately to liberation theologians meeting nearby (including Gutiérrez).  These wrote a lengthy analysis of the speech that was circulating at the conference within four hours.  See Christian Smith, The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory (University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 209-217.  The section of Smith’s book which includes these details is entitled ‘The battle for Puebla’. 

  2. This quotation is from a brief description of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_14071997_en.html, accessed 6th Feb. 2014. 

  3. Robert Calderisi, Earthly Mission: The Catholic Church and World Development (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 86 

  4. The topic of human work had been mentioned only briefly in Populorum Progressio: see 5.3.5

  5. Sigmund, ‘Gustavo Gutiérrez: Commentary’ (ref. in 6.2.3), p. 297 

  6. Gustavo Gutiérrez, The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations, trans. Matthew McConnell (New York: Orbis), 1990, p. 113. 

  7. Calderisi, Earthly Mission, p. 86