6.3.9 CST on international development after liberation theology

Back to 6.3.8

Unit 6 Contents



In the first half of Unit 6, we have studied the way that liberation theology represented a radical challenge for the Catholic Church and its teaching.  Emerging in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, liberation theology called for poverty and injustice to be addressed by revolutionary change to social and economic structures.  It was, to use the shorthand we assessed in beginning the Unit, a challenge from the ‘left’ (6.1.1).

We have looked at five main documents in which the Vatican responded to liberation theology.  SRS is the most significant of them because of the ways in which it re-articulated and incorporated some liberationist themes into CST.  At the start of SRS’s concluding chapter, Pope John Paul II finally refers to liberation theology directly, indicating that much in the preceding chapters has been about issues it had raised.  He goes on to remind readers of what chapters IV and V said about integral development/liberation, structures of sin, and solidarity.  A short reading from the Conclusion brings our study of SRS to an end.


Reading (1p.)

Solicitudo Rei Socialis, chapter VII, #46


Here John Paul summarizes as follows:

The principal obstacle to be overcome on the way to authentic liberation is sin and the structures produced by sin as it multiplies and spreads.

The freedom with which Christ has set us free (cf. Gal. 5:1) encourages us to become the servants of all. Thus the process of development and liberation takes concrete shape in the exercise of solidarity, that is to say in the love and service of neighbour, especially of the poorest. (#46, italics added)

Notice that, in the italicized phrases, this quotation refers to four ways in which liberation theology prompted development in CST, to do with:

–  integral human liberation

–  structures of sin

–  solidarity

–  the option for the poor.

A fifth point not expressed in the quotation is the emphasis that the poor are the primary agents of their own liberation and development.



Are these five all the ways in which liberation theology had influence on CST (at least up to SRS) or can you think of any others?


I said at the start of our study of liberation theology that the basic question that it raised for CST can be put like this:

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?  (6.2.1)

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

When we turned from focusing on liberation theology itself to the Vatican’s responses to it (6.2.6), I suggested that that question has a both/and answer.



In other words, the liberation theology that emerged around 1970 both contradicted CST in some basic ways and included vital points and perspectives that CST needed.

This is, as I see it, a fair way of summarizing the relationship of liberation theology and CST.

In light of all you now know about both, do you agree?  If not, how would you summarize the relationship between them?


To a significant extent SRS enabled a cooling in the controversy about liberation theology in the Catholic Church.  Not long after it came out, Gustavo Gutiérrez published a revised edition of A Theology of Liberation in which he amended or removed some of the passages that had engendered most controversy about Marxist influence.1  (For example, he removed that quoted in 6.2.6 in which he seemed to identify love of enemies with siding with one economic class and “combatting the oppressive class”.)

That revision followed soon after his book The Truth Shall Set You Free, in which he commented very positively on the Vatican Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation.2 Liberation theology had influenced CST, and Vatican statements influenced liberation theologians.

Two sets of historical events also contributed to a reduction in the temperature of debate.  First, there was an end to military dictatorship in several Latin American countries in the course of the 1980s, including in Bolivia and Peru (1980), Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985) and Chile (1988), and, while moves to consolidate democracy were halting and beset with difficulties, that reduced the sense that revolution was the way to bring about change.  Second, the unexpected collapse of European Communist regimes in 1989-91 – in revolutions that were anti-socialist – made state-led socialism look to most people like a failed and terrible experiment.

Against this background, even though the poverty and economic injustice in Latin America that had fuelled liberation theology persisted, liberationist prescriptions carried far less conviction.  To many people, capitalism in its neoliberal form came to seem the only practical possibility.  Whether CST saw it in this way, we shall examine carefully in the second half of Unit 6.

Discussion about liberation theology was regenerated in 2013 when Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina became Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America.  Bergoglio’s own record during Argentina’s dictatorship and the long controversy about liberation theology became subject to intense scrutiny.  From the very start of Francis’s papacy, it was obvious that he both spoke and acted in ways that manifested radical commitment to the option for the poor and that reflected liberation theology’s influence in Latin American church life.

To some, Francis appeared to be a liberation theologian more or less in the revolutionary mould of Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff in the late 1960s.  To others he was an astonishingly welcome breath of fresh air because he gave voice and life to what had become pivotally important aspects of CST.

As we come to an end of our study of liberation theology, here are two short articles that discuss Pope Francis’s relationship with it. The first was written at the time of his visit to the United States in September 2015 and the second a few months before that.


Reading (7pp)

Kevin F. Burke, ‘Pope Francis’ relationship to a movement that divided Latin America’ (Reuters blogs, 24 Sept. 2015) (3pp)

Stephanie Kirchgaessner and Jonathan Watts, ‘Catholic church warms to liberation theology as founder heads to Vatican’ (The Guardian, 11 May 2015, 4pp)

Optional reading (7pp)

If you would like to read more on this theme, here is a longer article, written at the end of the year in which Francis was elected.

Harvey Cox, ‘Is Pope Francis the New Champion of Liberation Theology?’ (The Nation, 18 Dec. 2013)


The second of these includes a passage that is especially interesting in light of what we have examined in this unit.  It quotes Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of the pope, saying that Bergoglio was always a clear critic of the “Marxist version of liberation theology”, seeing it as not really a movement of the poor themselves but one in which the poor were “used”.  The article goes on to refer to a distinctive Argentinian variant on liberation theology, known as the “theology of the people”, which profoundly influenced Bergoglio.

The Argentinian “theology of the people” emerged in the 1960s, influenced by both Vatican II and Medellin.  It understood “the people” in terms of “the existence of a common culture rooted in a common history and committed to the common good”.3 It found distinctive expression at a conference of Argentinian bishops in 1969.  There is not room to examine this in Unit 6 but we shall come to it in Unit 8, not least as it is important for understanding Francis’s contributions to CST. If you would like to give time to learning about this here, the following optional reading is a good place to start.


Optional reading (7pp)

Rafael Luciani and Félix Palazzi, ‘Pope Francis connects the pastoral and theological in a “new way of being church”’ (America, online edition, 16 Nov. 2015)


Mutual solidarity and structures of justice: both/and

Against the background of the liberation theology debate, what is SRS’s most important contribution to CST on international development?  What does it add to Populorum Progressio?  (For an outline of PP’s position, see the very start of this unit: 6.1.1.)

To end this part of our study, I suggest one answer to this.

PP articulated the concept of integral human development and, in its second half, emphasised the necessity of solidarity for bringing that about.  What solidarity means in practice as described in PP is, however, quite one-sided: it is primarily about the duties that “better off nations” owe to poorer ones (PP, #44; see 5.3.7; cf. 5.4.1).

SRS’s contribution can be summed up by saying that it revises that picture in three ways.

First, it emphasizes interdependence across the whole world and, equally, that, if awareness of interdependence is to contribute to real human development, it needs to be transformed into mutual solidarity – commitment by all, richer and poorer, to act for the common good.

Secondly, it brings out explicitly for the first time in a papal encyclical that what solidarity is needed for is to make social structures just.  It is “only through the exercise of … human and Christian solidarity” that “structures of sin… can be overcome” (SRS, #40).

Thirdly, it goes further than those two points in the profound way that it sees the relationship between solidarity and just structures. An over-emphasis on solidarity as commitment would place excessive store by human effort and stamina.  An over-emphasis on social structures would imply that if we can get them right things will be fine.  In the vision of SRS, the first would fail to recognise the extent to which established social structures make change difficult, whereas the second would rest too much faith in mechanistic solutions.  Both mutual solidarity and reform of structures of sin are always necessary.

This is a new articulation, a re-casting, of the relationship between love and justice.  The exercise of solidarity is “the love and service of neighbour, especially of the poorest” (as quoted at the start of this screen, SRS, #46).  But such love has to go beyond urgent acts of charity that meet a neighbour’s immediate need.  It means also long-term work that establishes structural justice.



End of 6.3.9


Module B outline

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  1. New York: Orbis, 1988 

  2. The Truth Shall Make You Free: Confrontations, New York: Orbis, 1990; Spanish edition 1986 

  3. Argentinian bishops’ Pastoral Commission, 1966, quoted in Rafael Luciani and Félix Palazzi, ‘Pope Francis connects the pastoral and theological in a “new way of being church”’ (America, online edition, 16 Nov. 2015), at https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/rooted-vision (accessed 23 June 2017).