Bernardo M. Villegas
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The Truth About Liberation Theology

           I am amused at the way some international journalists are jumping to conclusions about the “revival of Liberation Theology.”  On the occasion of the beatification of the murdered Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero last May 23, there was speculation in the international press about “views of a scorned movement shifting as Pope Francis focuses on the poor.”  I think I know a little more than these Johnny-come-lately commentators about the history of liberation theology because when I came back from my studies in the U.S. in the mid-sixties, I went right into the eye of the storm of the controversy generated by the teachings of Father Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian priest who is known as the founder of Liberation Theology.   As a professor of development economics in both De La Salle University and the University of the Philippines, I had to confront the misguided interpretations of the social doctrine of the Church being given by a few vocal professors, priests, nuns and student activists under the name of liberation theology.

          I can understand why the head of the Jesuits in 1973, Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, thought liberation theology was too political and why when he was named archbishop of Buenos Aires, he decided to focus on those unfortunate souls left behind by Argentina’s economic upheaval.  I am sure he saw what I experienced in my dealings with the proponents of liberation theology.  Some of my students who became very passionate about the poor (a good thing in itself) started to renounce their Catholic faith and got bitten by the materialist dogma of Karl Marx, who did not believe in anything spiritual.  Even some priests and nuns, some of whom fled to the hills to fight with the communist rebels, stopped teaching Catechism to the poor, maintaining that “doctrine cannot be eaten.”  Their entire focus was to liberate the poor from economic deprivation, using the defective Marxist theory about why there are poor people.  In fact, I had to explain to them that even from a scientific point of view, the Marxist theories about the “immerisation” of the workers in the process of industrialization did not have any empirical backing.  Because of the introduction of social security and labor legislation, especially in countries like Germany and the United States, the Marxist prediction about the eventual downfall of an economy based on private ownership did not materialize. The liberation theologists  were so obsessed with applying class struggle to Christian apostolate that they ended up recommending the very unchristian  attitude of “hating the rich” in order to help the poor.

      That is why Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his capacity as the Prefect for the Doctrine of the Faith had to come out with two documents assessing the Theology of Liberation in the light of Catholic Doctrine.  In those documents, he emphasized that there is a liberation theology that is very much in keeping with the teachings of Christ:  the liberation of every human being from sin.  In fact, even if it is true that there are sinful structures (unbridled capitalism, monopoly capitalism, legislation allowing abortion and same-sex marriage, etc.) eliminating those structures will not necessarily lead to a just and humane society if individual citizens do not liberate themselves from personal sins, such as those of greed, injustice, lust, and pride.  The only lasting liberation theology is that which liberates individuals from personal sins through the help of the supernatural means procured for mankind by Jesus Christ through His death and resurrection.  As Pope Francis wrote in the “Gospel of Joy”, “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.  Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interest and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”

          Blessed Oscar Romero exercised the legitimate preferential option for the poor without falling into the excesses of those who misinterpreted liberation theology.  As the future Pope Benedict XVI emphasized in the documents he wrote, preferential option for the poor should neither be exclusive nor excluding.   It should not be exclusive in the sense that the love for the poor should move us to work for their “integral human development.”  In addition to caring for their material needs, we should provide for their spiritual needs and help nurture their Christian faith.  Man does not live by bread alone, a dictum that Karl Marx completely repudiated.  Furthermore, authentic Christian charity should not give a social reformer license to hate the rich in the name of liberation theology.  That is why liberation theology faithful to Christian doctrine should not be excluding, i.e. one cannot exclude the rich from the love we owe to everyone. 

            One final word about Blessed Oscar Romero.  If the writers who make snide remarks about “conservative” Catholic institutions like Opus Dei did a little more investigative journalism, they would have found out that the former Archbishop of San Salvador appreciated very much the apostolic works of this Personal Prelature in his diocese, especially those in favor of the poorest of the poor.  In the Philippines, for example, those who still maintain that Opus Dei is “elitist” and is not concerned about the plight of the poor choose to ignore such social enterprises organized and managed by members of Opus Dei and their friends, such  as Dualtech in Manila; CITE in Cebu;  Punlaan and Anihan in Calamba and San Juan, Metro Manila, respectively,  and many others, which are benefiting thousands of  young men and women from the poorest households by providing them with a variety of technical skills that make them highly employable.  No one should be surprised, however, that in practising the preferential option for the poor, members of Opus Dei do not make the mistake of “hating the rich”, who after all also have souls to be saved.  For comments, my email address is