By Paula Boyer (English translation by Rebel Girl)
"Liberation theology is far from dead. Even though the institution has often tried to suppress it, it continues to exist in the minds and hearts of many people. Simply put, it remains a minority, then and now." The Frenchman Xavier de Maupéou, 75, bishop emeritus of Viana (Brazil) is one of the few bishops who still call themselves "true followers of liberation theology."
However, he insists, many bishops are "open" and the bishops' conference, the CNBB (1), published a text in 2008 that takes up, cautiously, several elements dear to liberation theologians, including the option for the poor and the organization into Basic Ecclesial Communities. This text was written in the wake of the one adopted in 2007 by the Latin American bishops.
A text that was a little watered down, however, between the vote on it at Aparecida and its publication after a rereading at the Vatican. "If there was this turn-aound," says Fr. François Glory, "it's that the Church has realized it needs to go out on a mission to really evangelize."
Sign of vitality
Since then, new Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) have been created. "Fewer than expected," as was admitted at the CNBB. A sign of vitality, though. Because, in the mid-1980s, after fresh criticism from the Vatican, liberation theology seemed doomed to disappear.
Not only did the Church oppose it with its classic social doctrine, but it had taken up on its own the option for the poor while making it clear that the proclamation of the gospel should not exclude any social class.
In addition, the new bishops appointed in Latin America, mostly very conservative, were working to marginalize the supporters of this theology. And to clip the wings of the BECs, as was seen in Recife, when Msgr. José Cardoso succeeded Dom Helder Camara. At the risk of leaving the turf to the evangelicals by deserting the struggle alongside the poor and the reading of the Bible.
Anyway, the end of the USSR and the communist bloc on the one hand, the decline of Latin American dictatorships on the other hand, changed the situation. With the return of democracy and the economic boom in many countries, the political involvement of priests and nuns became rarer. Yet poverty remains pervasive, inequalities and injustices as well.
A more diverse image of "the poor"
Could liberation theology have run its course? Opinions are mixed. In any case, these theologians have evolved; some, like Gustavo Gutierrez, have qualified their thinking. Most have updated their message by putting forward a more diverse image of "the poor" -- in addition to the exploited of the Latin American subcontinent "the poor", explains Brazilian theologian Ivone Gebara, have taken on the face of other victims of injustice: the indigenous, black people, women, dalit (untouchables) and most recently...the earth, threatened with destruction by human activities.
Hoping to find a linkage with new social movements, these theologians now usually gather on the sidelines of the World Social Forum, as in Dakar in February 2011. Obviously, having become more pragmatic, they no longer dream of a structural change by political parties or ideologies to which the era no longer lends itself. Moreover, their theories have had an amazing influence. In the United States, in rather conservative intellectual and ideological circles, the importance of thinking in terms of ... community has assumed a new relevance.
(1) CNBB : Conferência Nacional dos Bispos do Brasil (National Brazilian Bishops Conference)
Translator's note: It's too bad Paula Boyer did not pursue her last point further (about the influence of liberation theology on American conservatives). I can't say I understand how she can draw that conclusion and would have hoped for some evidence to back it up.
Photo: Members of a Basic Christian Community in Brazil study the Bible.